Cian Finn: “Making It Work Was Always a Hustle”

Having travelled the world and worked with legends in his field, Cian Finn has slowly been brewing his own reverential brand of reggae. This weekend, he returns to Cork after living here for six years, and talks to Mike McGrath-Bryan about two very different shows.

A well-rounded veteran of his craft, Galwegian singer, musician and songwriter Cian Finn’s body of work is inseparable from the love of his life: reggae music and culture. Not a big shock in any case regarding musicians, especially where an established and easily-executed set of social and cultural tropes exist, but the degree to which his passions inform his work is readily evident, in everything to how his music is presented, in gig posters and album artwork, to the journey he’s taken around the world in pursuit of it. “I started listening to reggae around twelve years of age. A friend of my folks would have been on holidays in Jamaica, and brought back an Island Records compilation of reggae on CD, then left it at our house after a party. There was a lot of Motown & soul music played in our house at that time, so this new music sounded familiar, like tropical soul. Songs like ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ by Jimmy Cliff & ‘Soul Shakedown Party’ by Bob Marley were anthems to me then. In my later teens, I started going to jungle and drum & bass nights in Galway, hearing for the first time remixes of more modern Jamaican music. At sixteen, I got a summer job in Dara Records in New York for three months & started collecting hip-hop records. KRS-One was my favourite, and a lot of the hip-hop records had a reggae influence to them. The next summer, my cousin got married near Nice, in the south of France, so I stayed on and got a job gardening in the area. There, I went to see Burning Spear live, which was an incredible experience, and the friends I made introduced me to modern Jamaican music, which was more high-energy & had a hip-hop influence to it. So at that stage, I was hooked, and started learning Peter Tosh & Bob Marley songs I’d recorded onto a tape at a house I was staying at, and started busking them in Nice, then onto Amsterdam and Barcelona.”

A nomadic early adulthood brought Finn back to Ireland, where chance encounters led to the formation of Finn’s first notable musical endeavour. Reggae is a strange one in Ireland: while it’s never quite obtained mainstream status beyond the usual tropes, casual listeners are more than amiable to some of the genre’s more relaxed aspects, while the genre has a solid core of crate-divers, sound-system operators and musicians that’s sustained it all along. Getting something going against that background took time and effort. “I moved to Cork at nineteen, and formed a band, Intinn, with two childhood friends from Galway and a great guitar/bass player we met in Cork. We played covers of rare reggae and dancehall songs we loved to listen to, and then as time moved on, we began writing original music. Making it work was always a hustle. Haggling fees from venues, getting favours from friends with vans to drive us into the unknown, selling extra tickets from festivals to cover costs… madness, but a brilliant experience.”

Intinn’s debut album saw Finn confront the nitty-gritty of creativity, production and post-production for the first time, and the experience was almost marred by a brush with the musical establishment in Jamaica. “Intinn’s debut album was self-produced by the band, with a lot of help from our good friend Seán Salmon in 2011. The process was mental. Recorded in bedrooms and kitchens of rented houses, with blankets duct-taped to the walls for sound reasons. We were inexperienced, but full of passion & ideas. The album was later sent to a highly-regarded Jamaican producer for proper mixing, to raise the quality of the record, but he took the money and ran. We were broke!”

Debut solo album ‘This Applies’ followed three years later, and saw Finn take matters into his own hands, and in the process, cross paths with modern reggae royalty as subsequent touring criss-crossed the European festival circuit. “The band split around 2013, I think, and a year later, I was on tour with a producer I’d started making tunes with in Cork, called Radikal Guru. Prince Fatty was performing after us at Ostroda Festival in Poland, and I was blown away by the sound of the tunes. He’s captured the sound of the seventies reggae that had originally magnetised me to it. So after the show, we talked, and he invited me to visit his studio in Brighton. A few weeks later I headed over, and we started to produce the “This Applies” album.”

Finn’s most recent Irish festival engagement came at Macroom’s Townlands Carnival festival, happening two weeks ago. While reviews have been positive, Finn holds the festival in particular esteem for its work with electronic and bass music over the last five years. “Yes, Townlands is great. I really like the style of the festival, and their taste in music. It reminds me of Boomtown festival in the UK. A piratish, jungle-steppin’ circus of bass music, with a dash of reggae.” The following week, Finn performed at the Poor Relation in the city centre, as part of the Cork Heritage Pubs’ Ska and Reggae Festival season, now in its second year. For Finn, it’s symbolic of the genre’s modern development in the city. “The scene in Cork has meant a lot to me over the years. I lived there for six years & was a regular attendee of Revelation Sound System parties, (Kinsale dub band) Wiggle gigs & West Cork raves. It’s great to see Cork having an annual reggae and ska fest in the city.”

This Saturday, Finn returns to Connolly’s of Leap, taking another trip under the venue’s famous hammers with a full sound-system. The following day, he heads to the city, and showcases a body of work he’s been working on for a while now. “The acoustic gig in the Yoga Loft on Sunday this week is very different from my regular shows, like the one this Saturday at Connolly’s of Leap, which are generally high-energy, bass-heavy, big-speaker affairs. This gig will be unamplified and unplugged, voice and guitar, with explanatory introductions to where the songs came from. I’ve written around thirty acoustic songs over the years, so this gig will be a showcase of those tunes. An acoustic album is also in the pipeline.” That forward-looking perspective informs Finn’s schedule going forward, as he seeks to expand his touring footprint into the New Year. “Next is to finish the new album, inbetween gigs, before the winter months. Gigs in Waterford, Dublin, and a few more festivals, including Electric Picnic and a trip to the UK. Heading on tour in Kenya around New Year’s, and then off to India for early 2019. I also have recently started to release my own productions on Emerald Isle Records, with a new tune available for download now.”

Cian Finn’s new single ‘Refugee-La’ is available for streaming now on Bandcamp.

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