John Spillane: ‘The best way of learning how to write a song is to write a song’

By Nadine O’Regan

Jan 28, 2018 ‘

I invented the problem, and then I invented the solution.” Down the phone from his home in Cork, John Spillane chuckles. The singer-songwriter is explaining exactly how it has come to pass that a rare and unusual honour has been bestowed upon him: he has wound up as the face of the Leap card in Cork, and the voice of its accompanying advertising campaign.

“I wrote a song called Johnny Don’t Go to Ballincollig,” Spillane says. “At the time, people said: ‘You’ll never get anywhere doing stuff like that.’ But then Christy Moore covered it on his album and he’s been singing it for years. I live in Passage West, which is seven miles outside Cork city, and our bus fares are coming down because we’re paying city fares now rather than county fares. So my song is being used for the Leap radio advert.” In the newly recorded 40-second version, Spillane is advising customers that, far from avoiding Ballincollig, they should give not just Ballincollig a try, but Glanmire and Blarney as well – and all with the Leap card by their side, their trusty public service transportation sidekick. While some might baulk at the wholesale reinterpretation of a track in such a way, the better to service the advertising industry, Spillane is cheerfully pragmatic about it. “I’m a self-employed freelance musician, so I think it’s only good,” he says. It doesn’t hurt that the Cork Leap card campaign is unique. There is no equivalent for a Dublin music celebrity or a Galway one; the only person fronting the card is Spillane.

Spillane has always been a law unto himself: an artist who has followed his muse his whole life, no matter what twisting byroads it sent him down. Raised in Cork city, he began writing songs in his teens, but he was only, as he puts it fondly, “discovered” at the age of 40, when he got signed by EMI. At 57, he has never regretted leaving his bank job at the age of 20, where he had a permanent and pensionable position, and setting out on a musical path. “It’s a crazy way to make a living, but I have been in fabulous places,” he says. “I’ve been to Africa, China – and I’m off to Australia next month.”

Spillane played with bands including Nomos and The Stargazers early in his career before settling on a solo direction, which has seen him interweave album releases with touring and occasional forays into hosting television programmes, such as Spillane an Fanai (Spillane the Wanderer), broadcast on TG4. In 2016, he also published a memoir, the enjoyably idiosyncratic Will We Be Brilliant Or What?, a collection of colourful stories about his songs. Lately, Spillane – no stranger to a challenge – has been busy writing an opera, which he has just completed, he tells me with an air of relief. “I’ve finished it after three and a half years of writing,” he says. “It’s about the Lough in Cork. It’s set in ancient Ireland, with opera singers singing in Irish. It’s ambitious. All the parts have been composed, but I’m sure there’ll be a lot of rewriting to be done.”

Spillane is collaborating with Cork theatre company Corcadorca on the project, with the aim of bringing it to the Cork Midsummer festival in 2019. In the meantime, fans of his technique can sign up to classes with the busy singer-songwriter: having just helmed a sold-out workshop at the Irish Writers Centre, he has more courses in the offing as part of the Listowel Writers’ Week this coming May. “It’s a brilliant festival,” Spillane says, noting that he encourages his students to write a song as part of the workshop. “I’m cracking the whip. The best way of learning how to write a song is to write a song. You learn by doing. You create a positive space where you dash off a song in a short period of time. Amazing things happen through beginner’s luck.”

If every writer fears the blank page, there’s something about the songwriting workshop ethos that fosters a sense of positivity and ambition. Certainly, talking to Spillane, you can easily see how he can deliver an uplifting sense of possibility to his fans. “Rock and roll as a dream is alive,” he says. “Write songs. Record them. Send them to everyone. It’s about being positive. The dream is there for the taking.

” John Spillane will be holding a three-day workshop as part of Listowel Writers’ Week, taking place between May 30 and June 3. For more details, see •

Published on 29th January 2018

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