[H]e is the folk singer from a family of folk singers, who grew up in idyllic rural Ireland. She is the archetypal English beauty who has been making waves on both sides of the Atlantic since she titillated television audiences with the UK’s first primetime lesbian kiss, on Brookside in 1994. Fionn Regan and Anna Friel are an unlikely pairing, yet both are self-styled bohemians with a shared love of the poet Robert Graves. Their chance encounter by a swimming pool in Valencia resulted not only in a lasting friendship, but also in Fionn’s magical third album, 100 Acres of Sycamore, which he wrote at Anna’s home in Majorca.
Anna quizzed Fionn for The Hunger, and regaled us with the story of how the unlikely pair first encountered each other.
Anna Friel: I think we should start by talking about how we met. I’d left my home in Majorca to go to Benicassim festival. Numerous things had been going on in my private life, and so I found myself sitting and contemplating backstage at the festival, all alone by a big swimming pool. Next to me sat this guy, and I thought, “He looks like a Beatle,” with all these girls saying, “Oh, Fionn, we love you, we think you’re so wonderful. We love your music, we think it’s so poetic, you’re so wonderful.”
Fionn Regan: I paid them to come over and say that.
We talked about The White Goddess by Robert Graves.
It’s my favourite book. Sometimes I’ll throw it on the floor, and the pages tear out, and every sentence is underlined. Its slow destruction serves as evidence to what a big part of my life it has been.
I told you that I had a house in Deia, the town where Robert Graves wrote The White Goddess, and invited you and your goddess of a girlfriend to come and see it for yourself.
When I got to Deia, I started to write. It’s one of those locations that rests on ley lines; the energy of the place is palpable. You can feel it rising and falling there and, for me, my mood definitely lifted as soon as I set foot on the ground.
You just fell in love with it completely, didn’t you?
Absolutely, I completely fell in love. Deia behaves a bit like a lightning rod for creative energy.
I’d never actually heard your music, and worried that if I didn’t like it, it might be a bit awkward. Luckily, as soon as I looked you up, I thought, “God, this is brilliant.” What was the first song you wrote in Deia?
It was ‘100 Acres of Sycamore’.
Everyone needs to listen to this song. Compared to the direction that music has been going – becoming so focused on production and money – it’s like going back to its purest form, just a good writer/musician. And you recorded the whole album live.
Yeah, I did it in seven days. It has to happen this way sometimes; you can’t sit on the fence and think about the whole thing too much. With this record, it felt like I was an explorer. I felt like I’d discovered an island, a place that existed before I got to it, which sounds a bit mad. Miraculously, I don’t think that the record feels contrived in any way, though I worked quite hard at it.
Are you aware how powerful your blue eyes are? I remember watching you on stage in Dublin.
They are contact lenses.
That is just an absolute lie. I remember it was not a particularly well-lit gig but there was something about your eyes – they just shined blue. It’s a good night when you have your eyes open.I’ve gone off my lines so I’m going to move on to the next question.
Why do you call me Jessica Smallhead?
It’s because you’ve got a small head.
What’s your favourite song on 100 Acres of Sycamore?
I quite like ‘Vodka Sorrow’ because of the lines, “Crooked teeth on the bottom row takes a lower lip to know”. I think that’s quite a good line. There’s a type of sorrow that rum can induce, and there’s definitely white wine sorrow. But vodka has a certain special sorrow to it. Then there’s red wine, which I call ‘The Baudelaire’, because it brings out the poet in you, but it’s not a very social drink. If you sit around a table, you can tell who’s been on the red and who’s on the white. They’ve got that Victorian black mouth for a start.
The joker smile.
They’re generally the people that are going to start smashing the crockery, or try and get out the dog door, or something like that.
“I think there’s a certain madness about Irish people”
Who’s your inspiration?
There’s a chap called Lord Buckley from Chicago; he’s a big inspiration. He’s a monologist and I like to walk to one of his tunes in particular, called ‘Got My Own Railroad’. He’s a mad, wild character who did his own thing, regardless of what was happening in the mainstream, or to the left or the right of it; he got on with what he felt he needed to do. Anyone who ploughs ahead with what they feel, to get to the place that they need to be – regardless of what the fashion of the time is – is an inspiration to me.
Why did we become friends?
Because we like each other – why else? I think you get an instinct when you meet someone. Certain people can change the energy in a room – at least you can. It’s like a ship docking in a harbour, and the harbour opens.
What about those fingernails? If you were my boyfriend and your right hand had fingernails like that, I’d have cause for worry. How does Laura deal with that?
Well, I use the left.
I’m intrigued by the little notebook that you carry all the time. I was with a man for ten years who wrote constantly, so I made the pledge, “I will never, ever, look at what you write”. But I am extremely curious.
When you write little things in notepads, you don’t really think they mean anything at the time. But you look back and realise that they do mean something.
You’ve got seven days to live, what would you do? Would you want to write the best song you’d ever written in your life, or would you feel that that was too much pressure?
Interestingly, when I wrote ‘The End of History’, it was because that’s what I felt it might be for me; I wasn’t sure I was going to make another record again. I put every single thing into that. Every time that I’ve gone to do a record since, it feels like it is the last seven days.
“People want to know what you had for breakfast a little bit more than they used to.”
There are musicians who have large amounts of money thrown at them and huge campaigns to promote them, but you don’t compromise.
Let me put it to you this way. If I wanted to be successful, I’d have to make something that was right for the times. My aim is to make something that’s timeless. Bob Dylan said that if he was around now, he’d be an architect, which is something that speaks volumes to me as a musician.
Did he really say that?
That’s not the official quote but yes, he did. Mystery was such a huge currency at a certain point in music. It was ducking out, not committing to any sort of line and you were able to get on with it. I think that’s changed. People want to know what you had for breakfast a little bit more than they used to. People err on the side of caution, insead of saying what they actually really think; they find it hard to commit to what they believe because they know how it could be misconstrued. There are veneers. There are a lot successful things that are actually a veneer of the real McCoy, but they’re not really the real McCoy, you know what I mean?
What memory have you had come back to you recently?
I was quite young, and I was going to the hospital to visit my grandmother. I was instructed, despite my age, to take some whisky to the hospital with me. I had to stand outside the off licence and ask older people, “Will you go in for me, mate?” I remember getting on the train and the bottle being heavy on my belt. When I got into the hospital, we hugged and I put the bottle under the pillow. I started to write a song about it, sneaking whisky to the underside of a pillow of an ailing grandmother in hospital. Even though that memory seems quite Pinter-esque, I found something illuminating about it.
We’re going to end on a short quick-fire round. How much does being Irish affect your music?
I think there’s a certain madness about Irish people.
Big boobs or little boobs?
Is being a solo artist liberating or lonely?
What’s the longest you’ve ever been awake for?
At least seven days.
Probably two days.
Do you believe in God?
I believe in something.
Anna is starring in What To Do When Someone Dies, starting on ITV1 in late November 2011, and Neverland on Sky Movies in December 2011. Fionn’s latest album 100 Acres of Sycamore is available now. He is embarking on a tour of UK churches in late November 2011, and in early 2012 will be doing a full tour of Europe and the USA.