‘These major events are happening in everyone’s lives and it’s kind of funny that it’s not in songs‘ – Dave Donnelly talks life, loss and scrabble with Mumblin’ Deaf Ro.
In the five years that elapsed since Mumblin’ Deaf Ro’s second album, The Herring and the Brine, the Dublin songwriter has been through the proverbial ringer. While his sister was fortunate enough to beat a serious illness, he suffered the loss of his mother to cancer and he and his partner lost a child to a miscarriage. Under the circumstances, few could have blamed Ro – full name Ronan Hession – for retreating into a shell of negativity and introspection.
To the contrary, Dictionary Crimes is as positive and uplifting a record as you’re likely to hear that deals with such heavy and life-changing subject matter. Ro’s albums have always been, at the very least, unconventional but Dictionary Crimes takes it a step further by actively seeking to deal with topics that not only pop music but society in general tends to shirk. As he explains: “A miscarriage happens in one out of five pregnancies. These major events are happening in everyone’s lives and it’s kind of funny that it’s not in songs. That’s the one thing that did strike me when I started writing this album.”
Dictionary Crimes is brave in terms of the delicate and emotionally-fraught issues it seeks to address, but equally Ro has gone out on a bit of a limb in terms of how the songs were composed and recorded. Past records have been full-band affairs with keyboards, drums and guitars, but for much of Dictionary Crimes Ro is left alone with his acoustic guitar and the most minimal of accompaniment. With such sparse arrangements, the simple lyrics and soulful melodies come to the fore, in effect forcing the listener to engage with the songs to an extent his previous records possibly didn’t.
How do you feel the album’s been received so far?
I’m very happy with how it’s gone down. Because the subject matter is quite heavy, when I was getting close to releasing it and it was too late to change anything, I started having second thoughts about how it’s going to go over. I’ve been very happy with the reaction of people who know my music and the new people who got into it. The write-ups on it have gone reasonably OK, so overall I’m very pleased with it. This is my third album now, and I keep forgetting what it’s like to try and get something out and the act you go through where you believe in it, then you doubt yourself then you sort of come at peace with it. I’m not quite at peace with it yet – I’m still getting used to the idea of seeing other people’s views on it.
Do you feel like it’s a bigger release?
I do actually. It’s a mix of things. I accumulated an audience over the years – I built it up over the course of the three albums – and I think people are generally more receptive to Irish music than they were a few years ago. Mixed with that, the range of venues that have become available for musicians to play has changed. One of the unusual things that has happened in the last couple of years is that gigs were almost always in pubs up until now, but now you have places like the Unitarian Church and the National Concert Hall that are being open to non-classical musicians. A lot of the gallery spaces and theatre spaces too. Part of it is to do with communities intermingling, but it’s also to do with the recession – people are looking to make more use of their space. That plays into the interests of people who are looking to put on interesting gigs. There are so many gigs going on at the moment that every time I go to book a date it’s impossible to avoid clashing with another interesting show.
You decided to build up to the release with a blog – what was the reasoning for that?
The original idea was because I didn’t know how to build a website and blogging was easier to do because you have a basic template. I wanted to write something about each of the songs. I had originally intended to do ten little pieces, one about each of the songs, but then when I started I digressed into broader thinkpieces about what I thought about various aspects of music and my own approach to music. It’s sort of taken off a little bit. It helps people as an introduction to the album and perhaps helps people with a little bit of a backstory to the songs. I’m actually enjoying writing it. I haven’t done something like this before – I’ve never written a blog or a journal, so I’m enjoying the discipline of it and the editorial challenge of trying to find something interesting to write each week. It acts as a companion piece to the album. What I find is that when people buy the album or listen to it, they tend to go through and read it in one go and it helps them get it.
Do you worry it might spoil the mystery a bit?
I’ve never really tried to write mysterious lyrics. There is a certain approach to songwriting where people keep things vague and keep interpretations open, but I’ve never really taken that approach and certainly not on this album. I’ve always to write plain English insofar as I can, albeit somewhat dense lyrics. There tend to be a lot of lines in my songs, and a lot of ideas in the lines and a lot of syllables. I’ve never tried to leave ambiguity – I’ve always tried to get across something that is reasonably clear and what I hope is vivid for the listener. What happens with the songs is that people take them over themselves, and even when I feel like I’m painting a particular picture, people spot things that I haven’t. For example, there is a song on the album called ‘Cheer Up Charlie Brown,’ which people immediately latched on to as ‘Cheer Up Charlie,’ the song from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but that isn’t at all the reference. People find things in songs no matter how deliberate you are in your writing. I hope I haven’t spoiled the mystery for people, but people have their own relationship with the album anyway.
So do you think it helps people understand the album knowing the backstory and then putting their own meaning on top of that?
I think what happens – and I think I said this in the blog –when you write a song, you’re really hoping the person makes it their own, that they don’t simply admire the song that I’ve written. When they’re listening to it, they’re not thinking about what I went through, they start thinking about their own lives. That’s one of the powerful things that happens in the live show, in a room of people, mostly strangers, and you get an atmosphere that people are digesting things and applying it to their own lives. It’s not even so much meaning, it’s more in terms of resonance – they understand what the song means in a literal sense, and what it means to them with a capital M is down to their imagination and their ability to make the song vivid according to their own reference points.
You deal a lot with loss on the record, but the overall feeling I get from the record is hopeful and almost uplifting – was that something that was always there?
I’m really glad you got that from it. One of the things I wanted to do on the album is take the approach that these things are very bad and very heavy, but they happen in life. One of the frustrating things when you go through a very dark experience in your life is that you feel you’re alone with it, and to write things down and deal with them humanises them a little bit. In doing the album I was careful not to put deliberate happy endings or deliberate positive notes, but throughout it I tried to stud the songs with elements of hope and tenderness. Where there are very dark songs about cancer, I hope there’s also a lot of love and intimacy that comes across in the relationship. The album concludes with the song ‘My New Broken Leg’ – what that song about is the beginning of the healing process, emerging from the fog of grief and waking up to all the lovely things you have in your life, the people you have in your life. If there was a recurring theme to the album, it would be about how you apply the meaning to your life through your relationships. A lot of events happen in your life and lots of changes happen in your relationships, but that’s really where the depth in your life comes from. It’s not an intellectual depth or a philosophical depth, it’s about being aware of the people you love in your life and what you go through with them.
A few of the tracks walk the line between darkness and whimsy – do you aim for that balance?
I think where the balance is is between portraying the events as realistically as you can – there’s an element of stoicism in there, as in this is what goes on in your life, that you can’t find it. Two things occur to me when you go through things like this – you realise how much you love somebody when you go through something awful with them, and when you’ve gone through something awful you realise how much kindness is in the world. A lot of what makes people cynical about the world is that when you observe people at a distance, or you observe how people behave in groups in society, but when you go through something difficult – and it needn’t be something very heavy – you suddenly find the softness and the kindness of people who will do you favours and little things that you wouldn’t notice unless you were in trouble. Those things give you a very deep sense of gratitude for the friendships and the family relationships you have in life. So you’re always trying to portray these things and get the balance right. You don’t want to scare people and dramatise these kinds of experience, but you’ve got to make them aware that these are the cutting edge of your life, these are some of the major memorable events that are also very commonplace in life. A miscarriage is extremely commonplace. A miscarriage happens in one out of five pregnancies. These major events are happening in everyone’s lives and it’s kind of funny that it’s not in songs. That’s the one thing that did strike me when I started writing this album.
The title itself is derived from scrabble and there are a few other references on the album – is there any significance to that?
When mother was very ill we played a lot of scrabble. I’ve often played scrabble with my family over the years, and myself when I was going through all this to distract myself I’d play an awful lot of online scrabble, so in my own mind scrabble is synonymous with that period. There is a reference on ‘Sister Ill, Better Now,’ which is the second song on the album, to playing scrabble with my sister and fondly remembering our parents. That’s where Dictionary Crimes comes from – a ‘dictionary crime’ is cheating at scrabble. There’s also a song called ‘Cade Calf Call’ on the album – the word ‘cade’ is a calf that’s been abandoned by its mother and has to be reared by the farmer – I came across that word because in online scrabble you can cheat a bit and try lots of combinations of letters because it will only accept correct words. I came across this word and I didn’t know what it meant, and I kind of felt it was a sad image and it stuck with me when I came to write the song. There are other little references there. I’ve always titled the album by picking a line from in amongst the lyrics, something I felt had some general relevance. I picked the title early on – sometimes it’s helpful if you have the title of the album early on as it can help give it a little bit of personality and pull it all together. You can often hit a wall in an album half way through and if you have a title and a sense of what the cover is, it’s amazing how it can put together a scene for it.
In the first entry on the blog, you wrote ‘the album has taken me 5 years to write, which roughly works out at 40 seconds music per month’ – was it really that gradual or was it on and off?
I didn’t do anything for about 18 months. Actually, I wrote ‘Cade Calf Call’ in January after I released the last album, but I would often go periods where I wouldn’t write anything for a long time. I might have three or four songs on the go at the same time, and I might not get any of them finished, and that’s always been the way. I don’t rush songs – they come gradually. What usually happens is you have a melody, you might have a few lines and a chorus and a guitar part, and you might go around humming that to yourself from six months and nothing comes out. You always feel like you’re out of ideas, and then something comes very quickly and you’ve got a foothold in it. I always work on that basis of faith. I only wrote ten songs – I didn’t have a long list of songs that I cut it down to – so I really just wrote them one at a time. It adds up. You can find you have a year where you’ve only finished one song. I’ve found that when you play live and you sit down in a room of people, you’re glad you took the time to get it right. A bum lyric really sounds awful when you hear it.
Assuming if you did this full-time you might have had another record in the meantime, do you think there is a benefit to having that four or five years between releases?
I had that gap between the first and second albums and what I’ve noticed is that if you take a break you give yourself a little time to move on and you change as a person, you mature as a person, your listening tastes move on a little bit and you maybe get a little bit at guitar, and the next time you make an album it has a more distinct personality. If I were to do an album every year, I think they would probably sound a lot more similar and there would be more weaker material on it and stuff that’s rushed. I think it’s definitely helpful. It sounds like a long time but you’d be surprised. I’ve done three albums in ten years but if I kept going at this rate I’d have 12 or 13 albums by the time I’m 65. There are very few artists I have three albums by apart from the Beatles and whoever. If one person buys three of your albums, that’s a lot of interest in your music. I don’t want to outstay my welcome either. I’m kind of haunted by the idea that a lot of the greatest musicians who I would call the period table of primary influences in music, a lot of them their talent faded quite quickly and they have a lot of mixed material, and I feel their brand is a little bit compromised from a lot of weak albums later in their career. If you get impatient waiting for my album there is plenty of other stuff you can buy.
One of the biggest difference on this album is the absence of drums and other loud instruments – was that a conscious thing?
What I’ve always found when you go to rehearse and you go to play, drums are like the bully in the room. They’re the loudest thing, they’re the longest to soundcheck, everybody’s volume has to crank up and you lose a lot of the subtlety. So I wanted something reasonably quiet, something that wasn’t so cluttered and built around blending guitars. It’s interesting that because we didn’t go for very central drum parts, it really changed how the bass had to play – the bass couldn’t play as a straight rhythm instrument. Because the guitars are quite intricate in place, the bass player Conor Rapple had to put a lot of thought into where he put the bass parts. Joss Moorkens, the guy who did the drums and percussion on the album, had the idea for this kind of project – he’s known for being a real songwriter’s drummer, somebody who’s a careful listener and will season a song rather than try to dominate it. One thing I was really happy with in the overall musical balance of the album was that even though the drums aren’t there, you don’t miss them that much by the end of the album. There is a bit of drums on it but overall they’re pitched about right.
How did you get involved with Popical Island?
I’ve known some of the main people in Popical Island for a long time – Mike Stevens, Pádraig O’Reilly, Padraig Cooney, people who’ve been involved for a very long time. I knew the people involved and would meet some of the people regularly socially. I’d been talking about the album for a long time – I think I spoke to Mike Stevens about Popical Island about two years before it first came out when Popical first got going. He said to me when the timing is right we’ll look at if it will work. One of the things that was very encouraging when I started getting involved with them was that first of all they are very enthusiastic – I think that comes across in everything they do – and a lot of collectives I’ve dealt with before agonised over what their philosophy was or what their sound was or whether this band is consistent with their ethos. Popical Island don’t work like that – they really just love music. I would have thought my album was a lot more downbeat that a lot of the stuff coming out of Popical but that didn’t bother them at all. They work very hard to try and get it out there and to try and make the launch a success and that a lot of people get to hear about it. I was very encouraged by their interest in the album first of all, and secondly I was really grateful for them for giving it a push and welcoming it into the world. The last thing you want when you release an album is for it to be stillborn – you have a launch night and then everyone forgets that it existed. I think a lot of their work has helped keep up the interest on it.