Fergus O’Farrell, RIP

*I was so sad to hear of the passing of Fergus O’Farrell of Interference on Tuesday. I didn’t know him well (I interviewed him at his home in West Cork in 2011 and we kept in touch afterwards by email) but I was so struck by his decision to keep making art, music and visual, in the face of such serious illness. He couldn’t walk, he could barely use one of his arms, but he kept going. His music was magnificent — everyone who knows Interference knows that, and I feel so lucky to have seen them perform live — but Ferg’s entire life was an inspiration. If anyone wants to find out a little more about him, here’s the interview I did with him in 2011: may you rest in peace, Ferg. x

Redemption songs, The Sunday Business Post

Muscular dystrophy robbed Fergus O’Farrell’s muscles of their strength, but it has failed to sap his songs of their power

Just before Christmas, Fergus O’Farrell nearly died.

He developed serious pneumonia – it was the sixth time he’d had pneumonia – and a kidney stone.

He was on a ventilator in hospital for 20 days. But O’Farrell doesn’t have much interest in talking about his near-death experience. He faces down those threats most days of his life.

O’Farrell suffers from muscular dystrophy, a disease that causes his muscles to slowly waste away. Doctors told his parents that he would be in a wheelchair by 14 and dead by 20. At 43,O’Farrell has no interest in talking about death.

Instead he talks about his pneumonia only in the context of what’s really important to him: his music. ‘‘It delayed getting the album finished,” he says. ‘‘I won’t release it if I’m not happy with it. But I definitely want to have it ready soon.”

Small shouldered, clad in a hoody top and sporting a well-trimmed beard, O’Farrell, the frontman of renowned cult Irish band Interference, has blue eyes that have seen pain, but which also radiate a sturdy form of optimism against the odds.

The room he’s sitting in couldn’t help but inspire positivity in a person. Bordered on three sides by windows, it faces directly onto Schull harbour in West Cork, with the east end of Long Island and its Copper Point light beacon just visible.

When I arrive, sunlight is filling the spacious room holding a piano, a large wooden table covered with art created in watercolours, acrylic paint and ink pens, and a leafy potted plant in one corner. It’s beautiful and you feel glad that it’s so.

This room is where O’Farrell spends most of his time. In a wheelchair, O’Farrell’s hands are no longer strong enough to play guitar anymore, so, in the past few years he has learned to express himself through visual art. ‘‘When you’re playing a musical instrument you become one with it,” he says.

‘‘And a song emerges. I use the same process with painting. I start improvising with the colours.”

Right now, he’s sighing over one of his mixed media works. A few nights ago, O’Farrell poured some white paint on it ‘‘and ruined it’’.

He’s cross with himself, thinking of the time he had to spend scraping the white paint off, the work that has been potentially wasted and must be started again.

O’Farrell is a perfectionist – it’s one reason why his band Interference are so revered – and not just by DJs such as RTE’s Dave Fanning and Dan Hegarty, but by musicians, young and old, all around the country.

‘‘I’ll give 150 per cent,” says O’Farrell. ‘‘I always wanted to be so good that it’d never be this [pity thing].” It never has been.

In his salad days, O’Farrell, born in Cork, spent ten years living in Dublin, where, as Glen Hansard, one of his biggest fans, explains in an e-mail, ‘‘they were looked up to by all the biggest bands in town, and yet they were a secret kept from the common music fan’’.

Decades later, owing to O’Farrell’s condition, Interference are rarely in the public eye, but music fans are still in thrall to them. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was on my way to see O’Farrell in West Cork, musicians, including Choice Music Prize winner Jape, got in touch to ask me to pass on their best regards.

There’s a love there for the band that is rooted in a genuine admiration for their artistry. Live, Interference are something to behold.

Their music washes over you, all held together by O’Farrell’s voice, which is a remarkable instrument. His phrasing has an incredible elegance to it and his tone is warm, world-weary and beguiling. Cumulatively the band make you think of two of the most hyped young acts of today, Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear.

When Interference performed last year at the Cork X Southwest festival, they were better than both. Next Friday, they will perform at the Temple House festival in Sligo – a rare gig for them that represents quite a coup for the festival.

Every gig O’Farrell travels to costs him far more physically than most musicians – and in a week when Prime Time Investigates exposed the gaping holes in the health care system, it’s easy to imagine how difficult his life – even in such beautiful surroundings – must often be.

O’Farrell rattles off the background details of his diagnosis in a matter-of-fact fashion. ‘‘I was diagnosed with muscular dystrophyat the age of eight,’’ he says. ‘‘Your muscles get worn away. They don’t get replaced. I was cycling until I was 15, on a motorbike until I was 16. I was walking until my early twenties. Then I was in a wheelchair. By the end of the first album I was in an electric wheelchair. ‘‘With some conditions you inherit them in your genes. In my case, it’s not present in the genes of my mother or father.

But sometimes in the early DNA shuffles, there can be an error, the same error that causes variation in species, the same error that [explains]why giraffes get longer necks. If it’s a good variation it can become a trait. If it’s not. . .’’O’Farrell trails off. ‘‘In my case, that’s what it was.”

O’Farrell isn’t interested in dwelling on this. ‘‘You could be run over by a bus,” he says. ‘‘You could get a heart attack. Songs like Gold, I wouldn’t have written Gold if I’d had the power of my hands.”

O’Farrell’s track Gold became a key song in the Oscar-winning film Once starring Hansard and Marketa Irglova. ‘‘You only need three fingers to play Gold,” says O’Farrell. ‘‘I wouldn’t have found that song without the condition.”

Then there’s his voice. ‘‘The great thing with singing is that it’s all about expression,” O’Farrell says. ‘‘My lung capacity is very small. I’ve lost more than 60 per cent use of one lung and I’ve got 55 per cent capacity in the other lung.

But it’s not about the air. It’s about what you can do with it. If anything, I can say that in an odd way, it’s made me a better singer.”

O’Farrell doesn’t let his condition stop him from living a little dangerously. As we speak he’s chain-smoking roll-ups – ‘‘nobody should smoke, but it hasn’t provided a problem for the singing,” he argues.

One person who might say different isn’t in the house at the moment – O’Farrell’s wife Li, an acupuncturist and former nurse, whom he met when he was hospitalised in Cyprus with pneumonia.

‘‘My wife’s name means ‘beautiful’,” says O’Farrell. ‘‘Actually depending on the way it is inflected it can also mean ‘Jasmine’ or ‘strong’, all three being appropriate descriptions Of my better half.

‘‘We figured that even if we got ten years together it’d be worth it. We’ve had 17 years now. If you fall in love, you fall in love. You can’t worry about it.”

Family is important to O’Farrell. Born in Cork city, he was raised in Kinsale. ‘‘My Dad had a boat, so we’d come down here in the summer,” he says, gesturing to the harbour.

‘‘The weather was so terrible, Mum got him to purchase the land and build the two houses.” The second house O’Farrell is referring to is his parents’ home, which sits just metres away from his own.

Growing up, O’Farrell knew from a young age that he ‘‘wanted to write songs and sing them’’.

Along with James O’Leary And Malcolm MacClancy, who he was in school with, he formed Interference and went to Dublin in 1986.

The aim was to play gigs, make music and see what happened. ‘‘For the first seven years I gigged, I threw up before every gig,” O’Farrell says. ‘‘I love being on stage. I hate going on stage. The nerves – well, pre-stage energy is a better term for it.

But once I start singing it’s great. You’ve a job to do and the audience are there.

That’s exhilarating.” But even when other bands were getting signed, Interference – despite the acclaim – did not sign with a major label. ‘‘I had nodules,” O’Farrell says. ‘‘That’s hard to manage.

And the record company wasn’t going to be interested, in such an image-based business, with someone in a wheelchair.” But he continued regardless.

The band recorded their first and only studio album, simply titled Interference, before releasing a few EPs, alongside a live album which was culled from the Other Voices television series.

Now O’Farrell is continuing that work. A new album, The Sweet Spot, is almost ready to emerge. The plan is to have eight songs, most co-written with Malcolm MacClancy, with what O’Farrell calls ‘musical sorbets’ running between them.

‘‘I’m happy with six of the tracks,” O’Farrell says. ‘‘There are two tracks that I’ve tried recording several different ways with different people, but I’m still not happy with them. I’m a terrible procrastinator. I’ve got no end of demos and ideas. It’s just getting stuff finished and getting the sound I want.

‘‘I never write intellectually. I write from the gut.

You keep following that instinct and you know when you’re wavering off. It’s like a metal detector.”

After our interview, O’Farrell sends me several songs – including two live tracks, the compelling Dark Days and Something Right, a delicate, classically beautiful piano song, which will appear on the album.

Another recorded track, TiTi, is the standout, however, a gorgeously complicated melody that is as unexpected in its progressions as it is lovely.

Mind you, O’Farrell’s not happy yet. ‘‘It still need strings, backing vox, some electric guitars and possibly a saw,” he writes in an e-mail.

These days, O’Farrell also acts as an occasional teacher for transition students from the local school. ‘‘You want to encourage them,” he says. ‘‘But it’s an awful business and it’s very hard to make money out of it.

The lads say ‘I want to be like U2 or the Rolling Stones’, but they don’t hear about the thousands of bands that don’t make it.

You need to have more strings to your bow and have different skills so that you can go into different areas associated with art if it doesn’t work out for you.”

O’Farrell understands the impulse, however – it’s how he’s lived his life.

Music all the way, straight and true – and it’s given him more joy than almost anything else.

‘‘It’d be great if I was able to wave a magic wand, and – bang! – I could walk,” he says.

‘But, to be completely honest, if I had the choice between being able to walk again and losing my musicality or artistic nature, I’d keep up the art. I really would.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s