MUSIC has always been a part of John Hennessy’s life, and the soundtrack to his childhood was an eclectic one. No surprise, because the Drumcliffe native’s dad is the legendary Michael, a music teacher and an inspiration to generations of budding performers.
Now based between Berlin, Cork and Ennis, John is fast making his own name in music. Credited by none other than Mojo magazine with developing a “neo rock ’n’ roll” style, John’s on stage persona is Black Pope.
Blending darkly beautiful lyrics with impeccably smooth guitar riffs and a flavour of fizzling glam rock, Black Pope’s sound defies easy comparisons. A multi-instrumentalist and song writer, John is modest about the waves he has been making since bursting onto the music scene. Ahead of a hometown gig at Glór later this month, he is reflective about his musical influences.
“The piano was a constant when we were growing up,” he tells The Champion. “I played violin for a while, but wasn’t so good at that, so I started playing piano. At around ten years of age, I got around to the drums and started taking those really seriously. Danny Burke was a fantastic drum teacher.
“Rosemary Walsh was my main teacher for piano and when it came to taking up the guitar, I mostly taught myself. Growing up, my sister and brother played too and dad was mainly into classical music.”
In a county where trad is ever present, John has even played in a couple of céilí bands. “I was a bit of a tourist in the trad scene, to be honest,” he said.
“I was into pop and folk and all sorts of music, but when I was 12 I discovered rock.” Early influences include Queens of the Stone Age whose sharp focus on percussion has attracted world-class drummers including Dave Ghrol.
“They always had great drummers and that always inspired me,” John said. “A few years after I started drums myself, I got interested in song-writing.” American singer-songwriter Elliot Smith is among John’s inspirations as well as the British electronic duo Goldfrapp.
“Goldfrapp might sound like an unlikely choice, but I really fell in love with their music, it’s very cinematic,” John said. “They were a big early influence.” Later, John looked to the likes of Iggy Pop, Randy Newmann and Nick Cave, and their unique and diverse styles continue to inspire.
Even at this stage, John finds it difficult to give Black Pope’s sound a generic label, and the issue of genre has already sparked a ferocious debate. “A friend posted one of our songs on Reddit and it was the first time we had had that kind of anonymous attention,” he outlined.
“There were people arguing non-stop about what kind of genre our music was. I am very inspired by ‘50s rock and ‘70s punk, but have always wanted to keep the sound modern. I’m not trying to revive a particular type of music or to make the case that rock ’n’ roll is still cool.”
Like several young musicians of his generation, John has formally studied music and the music industry.
“I went to Coláiste Stiofáin Naomha in Cork for three years and I can only say good things about it,” he said. “We covered everything from song-writing, composition and sound to the business side of things. After that, I spent a year in London in a small college, which was great too.”
Black Pope originated in Cork, as a college project, and launched into the world almost a decade ago. Back then, at the age of 18, John’s writing reflected big life changes and a sense of coming of age.
“I was interested in themes around growing up and exploring all of those strong emotions you have when you’re learning how to be self sufficient,” he said.
“I have also always been attracted to darker themes. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s the fact that Ennis is so nice, maybe I was somehow a bit bored with that when I was growing up.
“The thing is there is always something dark going on if you look under the cracks. I want to explore that in my songs, but in a positive way. I think we can have a dance and a joke around darker themes, depending on how they’re presented.”
Black Pope’s latest singles were recorded in Monique Studios, Cork with recent Grammy-winning producer Cian Riordan and his debut EP “Music For Girls Vol. I” is set for a summer release.
Current projects keeping John busy include mixing, teaching, video production and film scoring. “Doing music full-time and professionally can be difficult,” he said.
“I absolutely love working on films and it would be great to do more of that. I’m a big film nerd and I care about the story I’m working on so those kinds of projects are great to work on. I really enjoy creating textures with film scores The main aim, other than that, is to be able to do as much studio work as possible.”
Having moved to Berlin but maintaining his Cork and Ennis connections, John is looking forward to a hometown gig at Glór on June 23.
“This gig is supported by Clare Arts Office and the Department of the Arts, and I really, really appreciate that,” said John.
“It’s so good to see people back out enjoying themselves after the pandemic. I’m really excited to be in Glór because the theatre space has a really good sound. It’s really nice to be playing again after Covid.”
Black Pope has what John describes as “a revolving line-up”. His is the consistent presence as front-man. For the Glór gig, he will be joined by Colm Michael on bass, Neill O’Carroll on guitar and Chris O’Sullivan on drums. John himself will be on vocals, guitar and piano.
Also taking to the Glór stage on the night will be Misvanity from Ennis, described by John as “amazing musicians with a hard rock wound”. Cork’s God Alone will complete the bill. “They will be incredible with a seven-piece line-up on the night,” he said.
The Glór gig, which gets underway at 8.30pm on Thursday, June 23, is free-of-charge, but tickets must be booked in advance. It is supported by The Clare Local Live Performance Scheme 2022 from Clare Arts Office and The Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Media and Sport.
Black Pope has dates planned for Dublin, Galway and Cork in July, as well as the launch of a new self-animated video for ‘Demon Stomp’.
More details on the Ennis gig available at Glor.ie.
Fiona McGarry joined The Clare Champion as a reporter after a four-year stint as producer of Morning Focus on Clare FM. Prior to that she worked for various radio, print and online titles, including Newstalk, Maximum Media and The Tuam Herald.
Fiona’s media career began in her native Mayo when she joined Midwest Radio. She is the maker of a number of radio documentaries, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI). She has also availed of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund to report on development issues supported by Irish Aid in Haiti.
She won a Justice Media Award for a short radio series on the work of Bedford Row Project, which supports prisoners and families in the Mid-West. Fiona also teaches on the Journalism programmes at The University of Galway.
If you have a story and would like to get in touch with Fiona you can email her at email@example.com or telephone 065 6864146.