Interview With Francis Dunnery (1996)

Music writers love labels. I had some pre-moistened for adhesion onto Francis Dunnery when I interviewed him last Friday before the first of his three residency shows at the Metro: one read “confessional singer/song-writer”, another “former guitarist for Robert Plant”. Before I could apply them, however, Dunnery told me “We spend too much time thinking about what we are, instead of thinking about what we aren’t. The only reason I can even see you now is because you’re not the table–you have a defined shape separate from your backdrop. I believe it’s important to find such a defined shape within ourselves. I am absolutely aware of my inner shape 24 hours a day. I live in it and I’ve found nothing else to be as interesting. I believe the Universe is incredibly abundant–so if I’m part of the Universe, than I must be incredibly abundant too.”

I sheepishly glued my labels to the underside of our table and let Dunnery sketch his own portrait: he’s a peasant from England’s far north (“hillbilly country, where the men are men and most of the women are men too”) who began playing guitar professionally at age eleven. He spent most of the next two decades living through the requisite insanities associated with becoming a man while on the stage, armed only with a guitar and an unfortunate biochemical inability to process certain distilled hydroxyl compounds. He’s four years sober now (after bottoming out in Los Angeles and having to sell his equipment for an economy seat back to England) with a unique view on his alcoholism: “I see it as my best friend really, because it keeps biting my ass and pushing me forward spiritually–so that I’m actively involved not just in a program, but in life.”

Fearless (his first solo album after three with English band It Bites) was written during the initial adjustment to life outside the bottle. “I was still cynical, still yearning” he noted, “I’m not shouting as loudly now. You have to learn to lean back in order for things to fall on top you. When you lean into things, they go away from you like dominos. Yearning is leaning into things–your energy pushes them away. So metaphysically speaking, I’ve learned to lean back a bit.

“For a while I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off,” Dunnery continued, “until I realized it was just my ego making me do loads of things to make me feel important. Now I’m trying to learn to be like a heron–that just stands in the water and doesn’t move, absolutely aware, patient. When the Universe delivers something, the heron grabs it, takes it without disturbing itself or anything around it, and then goes right back to where it was.”

Dunnery also sees internal focus as a key to shaping the world around him; he sang “I believe I can change my world” on his second album Tall Blonde Helicopter without a trace of rhetorical distance. He elaborated while describing his first sober trip back to Los Angeles: “I arrived in a private jet and there were limousines on the tarmac and I was thinking ‘Wow, look how I’ve come back!’ but that outside reality was just a direct reflection of the inside, of the spirit. Since my life was so abundant on the outside it just meant that I was doing good on the inside. When there had been chaos on the outside it just meant there had been chaos on the inside–it was just a complete reflection. I’ve learned that I’m not at the mercy of outside events, that I create my own reality. Nothing happens in my life without a thought–and I take full responsibility for my life.” Dunnery covered Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” on Tall Blonde Helicopter. I asked if he had received any media flack over performing the work of a songwriter generally deemed an artistic pariah for endorsing Iran’s death sentence on Salman Rushdie. Dunnery waved his hands, “Nah, I don’t care about that. That’s tick-tock world stuff, and if you live in everyday tick-tock world then there’s a crisis all the time. I just can’t live there, because I think the world’s perfect–there’s nothing wrong with the world. I meet nothing but really nice people. Where’s the crisis? Where’s it at? If Cat or anybody else wants to live in tick-tock world, that’s fine for them–but not for me. I think it’s incredibly important to focus on the unseen realities, because you will get what you concentrate on.”

So when all’s said and done, just what does Francis Dunnery concentrate on? What makes the man tick if not the everyday tick-tock world? “Freedom,” he answered, “that’s all there is. To find one’s friend on the inside is a wonderful thing. You can know everything. But we want to run to everything and everyone else to save us. You should put nobody’s words–be they priests or ministers or doctors or therapists, psychologists, physicians, friends–above the feelings of your own Being because you already know everything.”

Dunnery was finger-picking his guitar when I left–leaning back comfortably and murmuring through an only-partially-lyricked work in progress. He sang one line more distinctly than the others: “That’s the sound… that’s the sound of freedom…”

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