At some point in the first half of this year we took a bit of a gamble. Among the electronic and dance-focused titles that dominated the Rush Hour distribution pre-sales, one stood out clearly: Songs For A One-String Guitar. What the hell's that doing there? On All City Records no less, a primarily electronic label based out of Dublin. How odd. Let's get a couple of copies then, eh?
And then it arrived, and blew us away. Birdsong gently awakens the album and we're off on the most blissful guitar journey this year has to offer.
We reached out to Jonny and asked him a few questions, turns out he's just as passionate, interesting and funny as his songs (and titles) would suggest. Have a listen here while you read.
Right off the bat I’ve gotta call you out on some horrendous false advertising. Definitely more than one string at play here! Where did the title come from?
Hmm… good question, I’m not quite sure where it came from, but I think it appeared as a result of listening to those kind of artsy compositions one sees now and again with titles titles like Two Unlistenable Works for Abandoned Lute or Important Chamber Music for Pots Without Pans or whatever – you know the sort? Anyway, Songs For A One String Guitar probably came from this sort of thing, but I’m not really sure. It’s a silly title, but jumped out at me immediately, and nothing else would fit after that. I probably found it humorous, though can’t quite recall – I might well be making all this up.
You have a distinct interest in Irish folklore, where did this come from and how does it manifest in your music?
Yeah, that I do. I work as an archivist at Ireland’s National Folklore Collection, which is a very special place indeed. It’s hard to pin these impulses down, but I’ve always been drawn to and inspired by the past – there are strong symbolic currents and ideological trajectories which flow towards us from days gone by. Everything that surrounds us reverberates with echoes of the past, and in the present is the root of all that will come to be. Since I was little I was obsessed with ancient civilisations – the Celts, the Greeks, the Egyptians, old gods etc; I’ve always had a strong intellectual curiosity in that regard. Still, that could have steered me towards the ‘merely historical’ or whatever. My interest in folklore came about, I think, largely through my family. My parents, and my mother’s family were always very big on the Irish language and so I was sent to primary and secondary schools where the entirety of the curriculum and all terminology and so on was taught through Irish – you’d get in trouble if caught speaking English! Now I can make the proud boast of being able to say that Mathematics is entirely beyond me in two languages. Anyway, my mother’s side of the family were all teachers and into Irish literature, the Irish language, folklore, archaeology, music, stuff like that. On my father’s side they were all writers, poets, journalists – communications and military sorts – I think I’ve been drawn to stories, music and so on for the longest time because of these two strands. These things reverberate in the blood!
Anyway, the Irish language was in my life since I was very little, but I didn’t really care too much about any of that stuff until I grew a little older. As a bewildered youth nearing completion of a Philosophy degree around 2006, I became interested not just in traditional balladry, but in the collecting process that seemed to form a strange part of it. I became intrigued by these eccentric 19th century scholars who went off wandering about in remote places collecting rare versions of songs, customs and folk tales and so on. Around the same same time my interest in the Irish language deepened, and I devoted myself more fully to the study of same. Later, when I learnt that there existed this huge archive of material (the National Folklore Collection) containing this trove of material on the customs, beliefs, rituals, songs, stories, crafts and calendar observances of the Irish people I became entirely obsessed. I knew that I had found my place, as it were. So, figuring myself not quite redundant enough having studied Philosophy, I opted for further studies in Folkloristics. Twelve years later and I’m thoroughly ensconced as the archivist here – huzzah. A life of incoherent mumbling in tweed and leafing through esoteric manuscripts until the end of time awaits!
I hope you’ll excuse my rambling here, but it’s tough to cover this stuff in brief. To answer the second portion of your question – I don’t really know how my interest in folk tradition relates to or manifests in my music at all. I’m not sure that it does in an obvious manner, though in a sense I think these interests and currents reveal themselves as differing branches of the one tree, in a way. I have always been hugely interested in meaning; in symbols, in religion, in tradition, in images, in dreams, in magic, in creativity and in art. Music is a way to fulfil that interest, as is the study of folk custom and belief. Perhaps these things, which express and manifest themselves in the world in an impossible multitude of forms, might fruitfully be understood consisting of ‘multiple views of the one mountain’. Or maybe that sort of perennialism is misguided, I don’t really know. Regardless of where or how these impulses manifest or potentially overlap, I think art is fundamental to collective being, and that the creative process is something holy – a generative act – a reconciliation of complimentary opposites through which the world is born anew! Culture begins with art – it’s not some add-on to which one can resort when material conditions have resolved themselves, as we lay stuffed on the couch watching telly or what have you. Take for example, the ancient Lascaux cave paintings in France – the people who were inspired to create those works around 15,000 years ago or whatever – they weren’t exactly sitting comfortably in their lives, arrogantly chortling and making pithy tweets while arguing about politics and swirling glasses of wine around in art galleries and so on. Their lives were most likely of an altogether more heroically violent and brutish sort in many ways, and yet they were driven to immortalise; to extend and reflect themselves through the creation of art. Art comes first!
About halfway through the otherwise instrumental album we hear a voice, an old recording of a man singing ‘Light A Penny Candle’. It comes directly after a piece called ‘Requiem For Joe Dillon’: is that Joe singing? Could you tell us a little about him, and about the song?
That’s the voice of my uncle Joe – my father’s brother. I composed the piece to honour him after his death. The main melodic line opening the piece I stole from the singing of the ‘Highland Widow’s Lament’ which appears in the opening scene of the Wickerman. That particular recording always makes me tear up – the plaintive and noble sorrow in those women’s beautiful voices! Bless them! What is it with songs that uplift while also expressing profound sorrow? This is the strange paradox of art – that artifice can be ‘more true’ than that which it describes. I don’t understand it, but it’s a most powerful paradox (if that’s even the correct term) to which I am endlessly drawn. Anyway, Joe was a poet; an intelligent, erudite, sensitive and gifted man who was not without his own share of trials and struggles. The last time I saw him was in the hall of the old family home in Greystones, county Wicklow in Ireland. I was leaving to go out to see my friends and Joe called me back and put his hand on my shoulders before making the Sign of the Cross on my forehead, to protect me before sending me off. It’s a memory I treasure. My father’s first book of poetry contains a poem for his brother Joe, which will say more than I ever could. Here, from ‘Going Home’ is ‘The Man Made of Wool’:
In the knitting of him
A stitch or two was dropped
And no one noticed
Least of all himself until
He was snagged and ultimately
Unravelled- not by compulsion
Addiction or fear
it was just
That he was never complete
In the first place
For the stitches that were dropped
Were those that help to keep
The heart to itself, love in check,
Hope in abeyance and generosity
In a thimble
He never understood why each
Day a new thicket of thorns
Grew along the track he travelled
And each day those thorns
Unravelled a little
Of the man made of wool.
So, at Joe’s death, I wrote his requiem, and quite swiftly too. It all appeared at once, that song. I wanted to include his voice on the LP after the pieces, and so his wonderful song ‘Light a Penny Candle’ appears there too. We sang that at his graveside. So, that’s that.
I love some of your song titles, in particular ‘Turning Invisible In An Imaginary Rose Garden One Evening’ and ‘Jonny Tries To Catch A Pomegranate’. Are there stories behind these? Any successful pomegranate catches yet?
Elaborate and overblown titles are a favourite hobby of mine, and one of the few chances through which an individual can ventilate their Arts Degree with impunity. For ‘Turning Invisible…’ I was trying to convey in words a sense of what is contained in the music. That piece is a reflective, window staring, floaty, middle-distance meditative sort of a thing. A most ‘undifferentiated’ of spaces – do you know those rare moments where you forget your own individuation and disappear? They are rare enough in day to day life, manifesting in moments of extremity (or ultimate calm). It’s my feeble attempt at enunciating a feeling of pure being, like being perched on the edge of sleep, or being otherwise purely focused (a sort of death, in a way perhaps). As regards the catching of pomegranates – that was written some years ago in a state of despondent misery! I was like one of those old ladies in a horror movie who stares out from behind a net curtain in some dilapidated American house made of planks. Heheh. Why is it that some moments of sadness become hilarious later? Perhaps everything becomes increasingly hilarious with the passage of time. Once I was at a play of Seán Ó Casey’s in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. An intense scene was unfolding on the stage, and a couple were having a row. I was wrapped up in the drama – totally immersed – and I forgot that I was at the theatre. I remember the whole scene kind of ‘snapping’ quite suddenly when I heard elderly ladies throughout the theatre laughing at the scene. I found this jarring and odd, as I found the scene dramatic, and full of distress. It made me reflect for a moment; perhaps they could see the folly of the whole dynamic while I, as a younger person, was prone to get wrapped up in it. I look forward to laughing at everything forever by the time I get old.
Tell us about your podcast series!
Ah yes! My podcast is called Blúiríní Béaloidis, it’s the podcast of the National Folklore Collection, at University College Dublin. It came about from the fact that lots of the online material dealing with Irish folk tradition and mythology is rubbish. On YouTube you’ll find clangers like like ‘Five exciting facts about Leprechauns’ and stuff like that (don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are Leprechauns, I just wouldn’t want my son to turn out like one). So, instead of complaining I thought, ‘well, bloody do something then’. The archive in which I work has about 12,000 hours of audio, and over 3,500 manuscripts detailing all aspects of Irish folk custom and inheritance. So each episode covers a topic using manuscripts, early literature, books, and archival sound recordings made by fieldworkers who were sent out around the country to gather all this stuff. The different episodes cover topics like Sacred Trees, The Soul in Tradition, Traditional Architecture, The Fairies and the Otherworld and so on. I made the first twenty episodes with my friend Claire, but she is gone to work somewhere else now so I’m trying to work out a new format involving interviews and guests and stuff. It takes a bit of getting used too, because when it’s you and your friend sitting down to talk, you can kind of hurl good-natured abuse at one another with ease. You can’t quite do that with a guest really (or maybe you can?) I’ll work it out. Anyway, I want to share as much as I possibly can with people the artistry, wit, wisdom and vision that is to be found in our folk traditions. There’s a lot of healing in there. Today I think we are lost to ourselves in many ways, lacking the reference points by which our forebears oriented themselves. To pay heed to the voice of Tradition is to have respect for our past, our ancestors, and ultimately for ourselves as a people. However (as Hildegard von Bingen said) there’s no bloody turning back, and we must move boldly forward into the future. Knowledge of and respect for our past should help to steer us in the future, and a better knowledge of folk tradition and the mechanisms and structures of tradition can serve to soothe and uplift us (I think anyway). Joy, courage, wit, wisdom, profundity, humour and imagination abound – these things abound therein!
You also make electronic music under the name Automatic Tasty - could you tell us if and how your interest in Irish traditional music might have influenced Automatic Tasty, and vice versa; do you think your electronic explorations have fed into this new record at all?
Yeah I make simple electronic trax on old synths and machines as Automatic Tasty. I’m not really sure how, or if these two musical projects or aspects influence one another – if or where they overlap. They are ultimately, extensions of the same force, and are borne of a need I have to create and express. In all of my endeavours I am trying to give expression to or understand something, though I don’t quite know what that is. I started playing guitar nearly twenty years ago, and didn’t start tinkering with synthesisers and sequencers until around ten years ago. Now I’m 35, and am kind of tinkering with both again. I don’t see either actively influencing each other though. I used to do a lot of stuff with electric guitar and a delay pedal and so on. Kind of John Martyn ‘I’d Rather Be The Devil‘ sort of stuff. I think I might start doing that again, with the acoustic. In both instances I’m trying to rove across an emotional landscape I suppose. The acoustic material is a little harder to perform I find, as it’s very bare indeed. When you have an 808 and a 707 banging away and a load of acid blaring out to a mashed or otherwise exuberant crowd, you don’t feel as vulnerable or exposed as you do when talking about pomegranates, guitar tunings, rose gardens and requiems. The guitar stuff is more personal in its presentation, I suppose.
What’s your relationship with All City Records?
Our relationship is fraught with professional difficulties of all sorts – our respective legal teams endlessly send each other passive aggressive and thinly veiled threats composed on headed paper of the finest sort, all of which is laminated free-gratis by a team of exhausted interns whom we constantly berate for their failings. That’s just a hilarious joke of course – our relationship is basically all cigars, pie-charts, montages and helicopters made of red-velvet rope. Following a Record Store Day set (if I recall correctly?) I did for Olan a couple years ago (NTS were in town), I began to call in to the shop and generally rant at him about the state of the world. I think that’s where our buzz started? Everyone in Dublin is pretty much friends with everyone else anyway, so we all kind of knew each other. They’re all extremely bloody sound there anyway. So yeah, laminated threats from one legal department to another. Faxes with things like ‘you’ll never work in this town again!’ written in all capitals on them. Just normal stuff.
What are you working on for the future?
There’s some more Automatic Tasty stuff coming to clear dance-floors near you in 2020. A Couple of guitar gigs lurking on horizon too perhaps. Also an electronic record where I crooned kind of slightly maudlin lyrics over the synths, that should be out 2020 with Wrong Island out of London. So, a few bits. Loads of other non-music stuff, but mostly flailing about and trying stay on my toes – new experiences, new challenges, keep running up the hill as the sun sets behind me. Death is reaching for us all – no time for fear or lethargy. Here is as pithy quote from Hermes Trismegistus on the matter, use this to impress your friends later!
“Leap clear of all that is corporeal, and make yourself grown to a like expanse with that greatness which is beyond all measure; rise above all time and become eternal; then you will apprehend God. Think that for you too nothing is impossible; deem that you too are immortal, and that you are able to grasp all things in your thought, to know every craft and science; find your home in the haunts of every living creature; make yourself higher than all heights and lower than all depths; bring together in yourself all opposites of quality, heat and cold, dryness and fluidity; think that you are everywhere at once, on land, at sea, in heaven; think that you are not yet begotten, that you are in the womb, that you are young, that you are old, that you have died, that you are in the world beyond the grave; grasp in your thought all of this at once, all times and places, all substances and qualities and magnitudes together; then you can apprehend God. But if you shut up your soul in your body, and abase yourself, and say “I know nothing, I can do nothing; I am afraid of earth and sea, I cannot mount to heaven; I know not what I was, nor what I shall be,” then what have you to do with God?”
Onward, onwards! Cheerio!
Songs For A One-String Guitar is available here.