Interview Project #1: Mumblin’ Deaf Ro

Photo by Mark whitenoisevisuals.com

Photo by Mark whitenoisevisuals.com

Mumblin’ Deaf Ro is the musical project of a man named Ronan Hession. He has released two albums to date. Señor My Friend came out in 2003 to such praise as “cult classic” (Irish Times) and “one of the lost classics of Irish indie pop” (Mongrel). “Classic” seems to have been the consensus. He followed it up with The Herring and the Brine in 2007, which improved on Señor My Friend and managed to become one of my personal favourite Irish albums ever. Ro’s songs are about, for example, the economic difficulties facing a new leader in a fragile democracy, the stress under which novice priests labour, and the strain of being unable to rescue someone drowning before your eyes. I shouldn’t need to type the words “truly original”. But I did, and I stand by it.

Mumblin’ Deaf Ro – Brother Peter

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Q 0.5 How are you?

Good thanks. Life is good.

Q1 Nowadays, when everybody has a decent computer and gear is more available, it’s much easier for anyone to make music and have it heard quickly – does the bedroom music explosion devalue music at all by making it so easy to do?

I’ve read a few times that it’s easy to make and release music nowadays, but I’m not sure many musicians would agree. Even after you’ve written an album, in my experience recording, mixing and releasing it can mean taking on a solid workload for about 12 to 18 months. Like childbirth, just because everyone does it, doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Q2 Is downloading a good thing? Does the fact that it’s possible to get so much music so easily and for free make it more disposable at all?

It’s like anything, if you make a pig of yourself and download lots of music desultorily without discernment, it will be less meaningful for you. Personally, it has always been my approach to choose less music and listen to it in greater depth – it’s repeated listening that really tests the quality of a piece of music and enriches the experience.

For the music enthusiast, downloading makes the business of sifting through a large amount of mediocre albums in order to find someone with talent a lot easier and cheaper.

Q3 Is there anything that makes your music quintessentially Irish? Is it intentional?

I wouldn’t have thought my music is particularly Irish and I have made a conscious effort to write songs that are somewhat divorced from time and place. That said, I read a few Claire Keegan and William Trevor stories lately and felt some sense of kinship with their approach, which makes me wonder whether there is a latent Irish sensibility in my lyric writing.

Q4 Have you played much outside Dublin? How do people take to you elsewhere compared to here?

I have played around the country a few times and generally the reaction has been quite good. The main thing is to choose the gig carefully and play with a band that is compatible. It can be hard to drum up support in a town where nobody has heard of you unless you do it as home and away legs, where a band supports you in Dublin and you support them in their home town.

Q5 Is there a Dublin scene, or even smaller genre-based scenes? Are you a part of one?

There’s quite a good community of independent bands, musicians, shop and venues around Dublin, and indeed Ireland. It’s the nature of independent music that is needs a degree of mutual support, so that people can help each other out with advice, opportunities and so on. It’s not a scene in the conventional sense, in that the bands are musically independent and eschew any common sound.

Q6 Name a non-musical influence on your music.

Thomas Hardy. Without doubt my favourite writer and someone I return to again and again as an example of how to write beautifully and unpretentiously, with a gift for felicity and observation.

Q7 Take one of your songs and explain the process of writing it from the beginning to the finished article.

I have been writing songs for about 15 years and have a pretty set routine. I will usually write the music for songs quite quickly, maybe even churning out three or four songs in a space of a few weeks. After that I will let the melodies wash around in my head for a long time – maybe six months – during which time various ideas suggest themselves: some workable, some stillborn. The slowest part is working out what to write about and from which angle to approach it.

For example, with ‘Brother Peter’ I just blurted out the chord progression because I was messing around on a Spanish guitar, but it was a year before I finished the song. I knew I wanted to write something about the idea of being over-burdened in life, and only landed on the idea of writing about a novice priest after chewing it over for a while. Even then I made the mistake of writing Brother Peter (the interlocutor) into the song, only to realise that it would work better if only one side of the conversation was reported. Once I realised that, the song progressed quite quickly.

Q8 Has music criticism ever influenced your music, or at least made you think about it differently? I mean proper reviews, but also blogs or even just hearing someone you don’t know talk about you.

If anyone answers that question by saying that they ignore reviews, they are lying.

In general I have been lucky with reviews and the albums have gone down well. Some writers mentioned that my first album could have been better recorded and that my singing voice could do with some improvement – I agree with both of those comments and got in an engineer to work on the second album and took some lessons for my voice. Fundamentally though, I am a proponent of unpasteurised music and avoid using lots of compression, reverb, auto-tuning and other tricks to cover my bad points.

Q9 Have you ever felt guilty for trying to get other people to take an interest in your music, if you aren’t making the effort with new music yourself?

There is always this guilt trip you get when you bump into someone on the street and you haven’t bought their album. In general though, I buy a fair bit of Irish music both to support it and because I’m genuinely interested in hearing it. I find it harder to get to gigs, largely because we have a young baby and midweek late nights just aren’t a runner

Q10 Would you call yourself a traditionalist with regard to music, either as a listener or in how you go about writing/recording/performing?

Because I play acoustic guitar most people would probably have me pegged for a traditionalist. However, as someone who likes blues music I am aware of the crippling effect that tradition can have on creativity; blues is stuck in the past because the musicians have too much respect for its traditions, and too little enthusiasm for writing about modern situations.

Pop music, for all its ‘newness’, is terribly stale lyrically, with endless safe sentiments about relationships and young male angst. It’s as if there is a lexicon of acceptable topics, metaphors and beefs that you’re allowed write about. I have tried to break from that and write about a broader range of experiences.

Q10.5 What’s something you’re listening to right now?

A guy I know who works in Tower recommended the Bach cello suites to me about two months ago and I have listened to that pretty much every day since. I am also a huge fan of the Strings Tradition album by Ustad Shujaat Husain Khan (and other musicians) which is very deep musically, but gentle all the same.

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22 responses to “Interview Project #1: Mumblin’ Deaf Ro

  1. Good stuff and you couldn’t have a picked a more articulate, thoughtful Irish artist to kickstart this series either. I’ll second his enjoyment of the Bach cello suites too – wonderful works.

  2. Claire Guider

    Ro has been in my top ten favourite musicians since I discovered his folk stylings in 2004…I’ve particularly enjoyed his poetic melodies while abroad and feeling a hankering for home. I can’t say whether that’s because he sounds particularly Irish (although he does sing in his accent which, as a vocalist myself, I view as an important element in building an authentic sound) or if it’s just because the memory of his gigs and listening to his albums are already wonderfully nostalgic for me. There is a sincerity at work in all of his songs that simultaneously rejects sentimentalism and yet raises a big well of emotion in me!

    If you haven’t yet discovered Ronan’s music, do yourself a favour and get along to a gig or order the ridiculously cheap albums from http://www.roadrecs.com.

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  5. lovely interview! MDR is a wonderfully articulate interviewee.

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