You get the very distinct impression with Fiachna Ó Braonáin that he’s living a very happy life indeed.
Then again, how could he not…?
There’s the simple fact that he’s got a happy young family situated in a grand old house in Killincarrig, alongside his musical family, The Hothouse Flowers, still recording and touring after 32 years, plus, busman’s holidays with the likes of Belinda Carlisle, Michelle Shocked and, for his Greystones debut, Lisa Lambe, and a latenight radio show where Fiachna gets to pull together his perfect playlists.
For anyone out there who’s ever had a dream of making it in music, well, read it and weep.
That Greystones debut happened on September 23rd, 2018 at The Whale, and it saw Fiachna teaming up with fellow Hothouse Flower, Peter O’Toole, to work as a trio with the rather talented Lisa Lambe. The latter enjoyed a recent spell as Artist In Residence at Kilruddery House, and the fruits of that highly creative cocoon will be available for all to hear in an album due later this year.
Which meant that Greystonians were lucky enough to get an early hearing of that new material, up close and personal. A busy man, Fiachna is also touring with The Hothouse Flowers – having hit Greystones back in January 2018 – presenting his RTE Radio 1 show, Late Date, whilst preparing for an October return to The Whale.
So, GG was pretty darned chuffed to catch 15 minutes with The Hardest Working Rocker In Killincarrig to talk collaborations, curations and rockin’ the nation…
Playing with different musicians in different line-ups, from Flowers to PreNup to Lambe – flexing different musical muscles, or do you see all the various collaborations as one great big Irish stew…? Collaborating with different musicians has always been part of my musical life – even going right back to schooldays, where you would be paired up with different musical partners, or be in different bands – but, I think collaboration really came into its own for me when the Flowers took a hiatus in the mid ’90s and I went off on tour with Michelle Shocked, and was involved in several songwriting and album recording projects with her for about 10 years, on and off. PreNup was the first time I ever took centre stage – although Michelle had planted that seed by having me sing some of my own songs during her shows – and I gained confidence taking on lead vocals with her encouragement throughout our time working together. All the collaborations inform the others in a way… it’s like speaking different dialects of the same language.
Lisa Lambe is something special – when did you first find that out…? I could tell Lisa Lambe had something special when I first met her and listened to her first album. I could hear an artist shedding old skin and moving on in her creative evolution, moving from the world of Celtic Woman into the world of the singer-songwriter with a voice that is spellbinding. But I really understood how special she was when we started writing together. There was a bravery and an honesty and a trust there that made the process really spark. We would go set up a microphone, I would start playing some guitar shapes and she would sing over it… press record… and boom… magic!
I get the impression that working with Lisa happened organically rather than a Col Tom Parker putting you guys together… Working with Lisa really evolved through our friendship. We met on the set of the Bloody Irish musical drama written by our mutual friend, Barry Devlin, and this was around the time Lisa was about to release her debut album, and I was making my debut in a field with which she has huge experience, the dramatic stage. And she was making her album in an area with which I had some experience. So, I think we encouraged each other throughout that process. She certainly encouraged me as I made my faltering steps in a musical drama! I really enjoyed that process, and we became great friends during that time, during which we talked about getting together to write, and soon did. Within a day, with a guitar, some lyrics and a tape recorder, we had the guts of three or four songs. And on it went from there…. We then spent a year working in short bursts in Killruderry House where Lisa was Artist in Residence, the results of which we are hoping to release soon. It’s without question one of the most beautiful bodies of work I have ever been involved with.
You’ll be onstage with the beautiful Peter O’Toole, another Hothouse Flower and Michelle Shocked sidekick, on the night. I’m guessing there’s a degree of musical telepathy involved after 32 years, right…? There is a huge degree of musical telepathy with the Flowers… Peter, Liam and I have been playing together for over three decades! And what we do onstage is full of intuition and telepathy! Peter and I have that when we play together too, and, indeed, over the past two years Lisa has fit right in to that dynamic.
In just about every artist’s memoir, they talk about the early, hand-to-mouth years as being their happiest. Is it like that for you when you think of The Incomparable Benzini Brothers, or are you happier in the here and now…? My natural leaning is to try to be happy in the here and now! Dwelling on the past can be a waste of time sometimes – however, there is a bright glow in the memories too of those early days. Those invincible days full of utterly blind confidence! It’s a wonderful thing to think of… and to tap into… in the here and now! The Incomparable Benzini Brothers were cocksure, brave and knew how to grab attention to gather a crowd. Our success depended on that, and the life we were leading at the time was freewheeling. There is something in the essence of all that that remains with you even though life evolves and all of us now have families and responsibilities that we didn’t have back then. If anything, we can now watch as our kids grow up with that sense of owning their world, and grabbing opportunities to be creative and to work. That is an inspiration also big time!
There was a point when The Hothouse Flowers were being groomed for international pop stardom, but it would appear that the band themselves were never entirely comfortable with that MTV red carpet world. Or did you truly want to be bona fide stars? There was a lot of talk about being the next big thing in the early days of the Flowers for sure, but, funnily enough, I was always pretty comfortable with all the craic that went with that. I enjoyed the bright lights and still do! The only thing that became weird was if you got surrounded in the street and couldn’t move on. Getting from A to B on foot sometimes took a while longer! But then again that was fun too. Still, the notion of stardom never really meant anything. We did what we did and essentially we still do. We are just in control of it now, whereas, in the early days, we were not our own bosses in terms of how we spent our time. We worked hard as a band, and got to a real level of success without which we probably wouldn’t still be able to tour and play all over the world now 32 years later!
Given The Rolling Stone accolade of Best Unsigned Band In Europe, the Bono endorsement, that first album, People, going to no.1 in Ireland, and no.2 in the UK, the Euro viewer millions – was it all a case of too much, too soon…? I never thought of out as too much too soon. It all felt right to me at the time. It was very exciting to have this sense of opportunity surrounding us. There was a confidence there – we knew we were good! And the subsequent albums, Home, and Songs From the Rain, were very rewarding albums to make too, and to tour behind. Our careers grew, and the size of the venues grew, but we never wanted to be defined as being a band that only played arenas. In fact, we took ourselves off to do secret tours sometimes to stay in touch with the energy of the smaller rooms. Then we took a break when the touring seems too endless, and we had young families and life situations to attend to. Then we got back together and made Born and Into Your Heart, and, more recently, recorded a new album, Let’s Do This Thing, which is available on our website, and being prepared for a full release soon. And now we are comfortable playing in any context, be it the main stage in Glastonbury or a folk club in rural Ireland. Completely different but equally rewarding in different ways.
It’s rare that a band will change an album sleeve – what was the thinking behind that? I know Paul Brady re-released Hard Station with a new mix, beyond The Beatles with dead babies on their laps, I can’t remember an album sleeve being changed… Our fist album, People, had a different sleeve in Ireland when it was first released. It was literally a collage of photos of “people”… but when we were gong for the international release the label felt we should put ourselves on the cover.. so we happily went for that too using Amelia Stein’s evocative photos of us doing our thing.
You’re a singer too, of course, dueting with Belinda Carlisle on the old Gainsbourg and Bardot hit Bonnie and Clyde (that’s you in the talking part?). Can Greystones expect a duet or two with Lisa? Yes, that’s me in the talking part on Bonnie and Clyde with Belinda Carlisle! I was involved in the making of her album of French chansons with my friend the producer John Reynolds. I helped with the song choices, having grown up spending a lot of time in France and having a feel for the language and the songs. I helped Belinda with her pronunciation which she really wanted to work on. She lives in France and felt she wanted to give it her absolute best shot in terms of the sound of the language, and she was amazing to work with. I ended up doing a guide vocal for the spoken word part on Bonnie and Clyde. I think initially there were looking for a guest duet.. but they ended up going with my version much to my delight! We haven’t performed any of our songs with Lisa as duets.. I have sung a song or two at previous gigs alright, but that all happens very much in the moment quite organically. I recently sang my one and only composition in French, Quel Désatre, at our show in the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris last July! And Lisa helped me along with that too!
Your dance card is pretty damn full right now – this trio heading to New York, the Flowers in Dun Laoghaire in November, The John O’Connor celebration on November 4th… Yes, we have a full dance card of shows in the coming months, from the Clifden Arts Festival on the 21st September, The Whale in Greystones on the 23rd September, then we go to New York for two shows at the Irish Arts Centre on the 29th and 30th September, and few other shows in neighbouring upstate New York. Then it’s back to some Flowers gigs in October and November, and Lisa will be joining us as special guest in the Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire on November 24th and in St Luke’s in Cork on December 28th. And Lisa and I will be joining Barry Devlin and Jim Lockhart at the The John O’Connor Writing School and Literary Arts Festival in Armagh on November 4th.
From Poetic Champions to Late Date, radio is another musical outlet for you. The conspiratorial curator is a dying breed on radio, with very few Wolfman Jacks or John Peels out there today… Radio is certainly another musical outlet for me – I call it my music sanctuary! I get to listen to new music and create playlist of old and new, Irish and International, classic and unknown in a way that I truly enjoy. It’s a little like putting a setlist together for a gig; that feeling of bringing an audience on a journey. I’m glad its viewed as curation, because thats the idea… I guess I present music that I love… and my love for it comes across, I hope!
Finally, tell us why you chose to raise your family in sunny Killincarrig? The people? The scenery? The close proximity to Aldi…? My wife, Síona, is originally from Greystones and when we started to raise out family it seemed like the perfect place for us. We love it… It is a vibrant and wonderful community, which is growing. I hope it doesn’t grow too much! We lived on the main street in Greystones for a few years, then moved to Newcastle for a few more years then moved back to Killincarrig to be a bit closer to the village. The kids education is all happening locally and having the beach and the beautiful surroundings nearby is a real blessing. I am delighted the Whale Theatre has opened now. I have been in the building a number of times and it is a wonderful space, so, I can’t wait to take to the stage there again. It’s going to be wonderful!
You can grab your Friday, October 4th Hothouse Flowers ticket here, check out Radio 1’s Late Date here, The Hothouse Flowers website here, the January Greystones gig here, and our boy’s Facebook page here.
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