Interview // Mumblin’ Deaf Ro
Read the full 3,000-word interview here.
Dublin singer-songwriter Mumblin Deaf Ro has endured a lot in the five years since his last release, and his newly-released third album Dictionary Crimes bears all the hallmarks of a man who’s experienced the depths of despair and come out a stronger man.
The loss or near-loss of a loved one is a recurring theme on Dictionary Crimes but the overall message is hopeful and uplifting, underscoring the idea that sometimes the darkest times in our lives serve only to illuminate and strengthen the good.
Ro – christened Ronan Hession – tells Something for the Weekend: “One of the things I wanted to do on the album is take the approach that these things are very bad, 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 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 relationships.
“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.”
Hession and his partner also lost a child in the period between albums, and Hession notes that while losing loved ones is a universal experience, it is rarely represented in popular song: “Some of the major memorable events that are also very commonplace in life. 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.”
Shortly after the release of 2007’s The Herring and the Brine, Hession’s mother succumbed to cancer, while his sister survived another serious illness. His rumination on the latter experience, ‘Sister Ill, Better Now,’ provided the album with its title, a cryptic reference to cheating at scrabble.
He says: “’Sister Ill, Better Now’ is a reference 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.
“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.
“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.”
Dictionary Crimes certainly has a personality distinct from both his previous releases, not least because Hession decided to take a risk and drop drums almost completely from the mix and rely on a blend of guitars to give the songs character.
He says: “I’ve always found when you go to rehearse that 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. I wanted something reasonably quiet, something that wasn’t so cluttered, so I built it 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.”
Ro could hardly be accused of being prolific – Dictionary Crimes is just his third release in a decade – but he feels that the time spent between albums helps the songs to gestate and his material is undoubtedly stronger as a result.
He says: “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 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 weak material and stuff that’s rushed. It sounds like a long time but I’ve done three albums in ten years and if I kept going at this rate I’d have 12 or 13 albums by the time I’m 65.
“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.”
He’s also keenly aware that so many of his most treasured musicians have tarnished their own legacy by releasing too many albums or weaker material later in life.
“I’m haunted by the idea that a lot of the greatest musicians – who I would call the periodic table of primary influences in music – a lot of them their talent faded quite quickly. I feel their brand is a little bit compromised from a lot of weak albums later in their careers.”
“There are very few artists I have three albums by, apart from the Beatles and whoever. If one person busy three of your albums, that’s a lot of interest in your music. I don’t want to outstay my welcome either. If you get impatient waiting for my album there is plenty of other stuff you can buy.”
Originally published in the Irish Sun on Friday, October 26.