Glen Hansard leads a series of concerts in memory of the late Interference vocalist, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
Interference frontman Fergus O’Farrell died aged 48 on February 2 last year.
Hailed as a “musician’s musician”, the Cork man had a career marked by collaboration with some of the best-known figures in Irish music, and yet fell short of making an impact on the general public in his own lifetime, due in no small part to the challenges he faced as a sufferer of muscular dystrophy.
“We heard about this band who lived in a loft, that nobody really seemed to know anything about, but they were sort of known amongst musicians; all the other bands in town loved their gigs but the public didn’t seem to know who they were,” Glen Hansard said when introducing Interference at Other Voices in Dingle in 2003.
Thirteen years later, in his home in Schull, West Cork, O’Farrell would succumb to the degenerative disease he battled throughout his lifetime.
It was a life of remarkable creative output against all odds, and while O’Farrell may no longer be with us, his creative legacy most certainly is.
His closest brush with broader fame came when Hansard included an Interference track, ‘Gold’, on the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning musical love story Once, and Hansard, always his advocate, got Interference to perform with him in New York at Radio City Music Hall.
To commemorate the anniversary of his death, Interference will play two gigs, in the Opera House in his native Cork and in Vicar Street in Dublin, where he spent his formative years as a musician.
The gigs, under the musical directorship of Interference guitarist James O’Leary, will feature some of O’Farrell’s champions and collaborators: Glen Hansard, Liam Ó Maonlaoi, Jerry Fish, Mundy, and Joe O’Leary, among others, will join an ensemble line-up of Interference members old and new.
The gigs will also mark the launch of O’Farrell’s posthumous second album, The Sweet Spot, and an IndieGoGo crowd-funding campaign for the completion of Breaking Out, a documentary on O’Farrell’s life and work.
Tributes in the press following O’Farrell’s death pondered the mystery of why his music was never discovered by a wider audience.
But to O’Farrell and his cohort, there was no mystery surrounding the reason why Interference remained unsigned by record labels at a time when Irish acts such as the Hothouse Flowers and The Frames were enjoying international chart success: It was the direct result of O’Farrell’s unmarketable and output-imperilling disease.
“He was told categorically that he was ‘unsellable’ by the powers that be,” says Marc McDonald, O’Farrell’s friend of more than 30 years.
“Fergus never accepted that and that’s why he did the first album on his own, borrowing money from his parents and the credit union.”
McDonald became friends with O’Farrell when he auditioned unsuccessfully for the role of Interference drummer.
Following O’Farrell’s death, McDonald has continued in his assisting capacity, helping to organise tributes and legacy projects.
“He was very precise about what he expected us to do if he died,” he says.
“We were not to all collapse and wail and scream: We were to have a party. Everyone was to come down and play.”
O’Farrell’s funeral sparked a musical commemoration in Schull as musicians poured in to pay tribute to their fallen friend.
“Yes, it was incredibly sad, but incredibly joyous at the same time,” McDonald says.
“I’ve never been to anything like it. We lifted the roof off the Harbour Hotel in Schull: The Stunning, The Frames, the Hothouse Flowers, and Interference all played.
"That kind of set the mood for the upcoming gigs. We wanted to do that again, but properly and bigger. We want Ferg to get the recognition he deserved in life. This is his legacy.”
A legacy remains in the large body of unfinished projects O’Farrell left in his wake.
Director Michael McCormick spent 10 years shooting footage for his documentary, Breaking Out, on O’Farrell, and hopes to raise €50,000 to finish off a film that is a true labour of love for him.
McCormick’s footage ends just 10 days before O’Farrell’s death.
“The Frames went down to record with him because his condition was clearly worsening,” says McCormick.
His presence over such a long period has resulted in him capturing many key moments in O’Farrell’s story first-hand.
“They forget you’re there and you capture all these very genuine and intimate moments,” part of which, he says, is the love story of O’Farrell’s relationship with his wife Li, a Chinese doctor he met while hospitalised for pneumonia in Cyprus.
“Singing is the thing that helps grieving the most,” says singer Camilla Griehsel, and she has horribly ample experience: Three weeks in early 2016 robbed her of two bandmates — O’Farrell and Colin Vearncombe, aka Black, who was also her ex-husband and father of her three children, who died following a car crash.
News of O’Farrell’s death arrived even as Griehsel was in the local church preparing for Vearncombe’s funeral.
For classically trained Griehsel, who sang with O’Farrell on tour in central Europe and at Radio City Music Hall and in side project Dog Tail Soup alongside O’Farrell, Vearncombe, and film score composer Maurice Seezer, O’Farrell’s determination to express himself creatively even as his condition worsened was typified by how he surmounted the technical challenges of his disease.
As he gradually lost the ability to play instruments, the lung capacity that had powered his distinctive and sweet voice also reduced, and he taught himself a new method of singing: In later years, a tight belt around his wheelchair was positioned over his diaphragm and he sang by leaning forward against the belt to force the air from his lungs.
“It was totally inspiring,” says Griehsel.
“That was the kind of mindset that he had; he had to have that energy underneath it, to be able to produce those sounds, but he’d never make a meal out of any of those things. He was philosophical about his disease and he had a massive perspective on the whole thing.”
Griehsel will perform with Interference in the upcoming commemorative gigs, and O’Farrell and Vearncombe will be equally in her mind.
“I miss them both,” she says.
“Somehow in that crazy time surrounding the funerals, it felt like they’d gone together, and that kind of made it easier in a weird way.”
“I’m very glad that we’re doing this and commemorating them in this way and that we can resort back to music. We that are left: the musicians and the families, all of us have been really unified in an amazing way.”
Interference with Glen Hansard and guests are at Cork Opera House tomorrow, and Vicar Street in Dublin on Tuesday. Proceeds go to Brú Columbanus and Schull Community Hospital
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