Quick Q and A with Conor Ryan Hennessy

Imagine my surprise when I got notice of this year’s New Folk at the Kerrville Folk Festival (a legendary fest that has a distinct position among all festivals in that it’s an 18-day event and many folks stay for the duration.  A lot of stellar songwriters set up camp on the festival site and collaborate with others throughout the fest. This year one of the designated New Folk members of the class of 2023 is Conor Ryan Hennessy. His name popped out at me because he lives in the city I was born in and lived for many years and it’s also a neighboring city to my town of Marblehead. I contacted Conor immediately upon we got together for a very long conversation over coffee.

I binged Conor’s music before I met him and discovered that his sound is reminiscent of John Prine and Woody Guthrie.  See what you think by listening to him yourself. His lyrics are literate and thoughtful, and he’s got that rootsy flavor that smacks of Appalachian undertones.

Check out Conor’s website here.

Please take a listen to his song “East Palestine, Ohio” and see what you think.

I’ll get the basics out of the way first.  When did you first realize that music was something that you wanted to pursue?

I think like a lot of folks, I was sort of aware of music as a child, and somewhere along the way that awareness became a bit of an obsession. My parents always had music on at the home. Stuff like the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, etc.  If there is anything somewhat unique regarding what I was exposed to musically as a child, it would be the occasional rotation of acts like The Dubliners, The Pogues or The Clancy Brothers. A lot of the tunes they recorded could both be humorous and serious at the same time – something I really admire and try to integrate into my own songwriting. I was writing songs in my teens but was never confident enough to do anything with them. I didn’t start writing songs with a real intention to perform them until I was around 19. I guess around then is when I really decided music was something I wanted to pursue.

Did your journey start with learning how to play guitar? Perhaps playing favorite songs or folk standards to then experimenting with your own music? Or did you run past “go” and started writing your own songs?

I was fortunate to have an uncle that gave me a guitar he didn’t need when I was around 13. My mother signed me up for guitar lessons with a local guy and I learned a lot of the typical classic rock, indie rock stuff. I was really into Nirvana and Modest Mouse at that age. It took a couple years for me to really try to learn the thing. If the guitar wasn’t around in my room, I’m not sure I would have embraced songwriting. I’m lucky. I’d be much worse off without this creative outlet.

What artists do you admire … and why?

I remember having the thought in my early 20’s that if I could play guitar like John Hurt, sing like Ronnie Drew and write songs like Woody Guthrie I’d be proud of myself as a performer. It’s a pretty outrageous goal, but I just admire those guys so much. John Hurt has that mesmerizing finger picking style and gentle voice. Ronnie Drew had that crazy gravel voice that had its own presence, and Woody Guthrie could write a song about anything. Recently I’ve been revisiting Blaze Foley and Townes Van Zandt. I love both of those guys because they have these songs that are both funny and really sad. It’s a hard thing to do. Van Zandt’s Two Girls has one of my favorite opening lines “The clouds didn’t look like cotton, they didn’t even look like clouds”. The line doesn’t mean anything and yet it kinda does. Always makes me smile. Dan Reeder is quickly becoming one of my favorites. His songs are able to live in this place that’s serious and utterly absurd.

Your music style reminds me of traditional Appalachian style folk music, yet your lyrics are contemporary and written with equal amounts of wit and wisdom about daily life.  Do you think of yourself as an Americana artist or a folk musician?  That may be a loaded question!  And, if you change your answer tomorrow, that’s okay! 🙂

I’m not sure I’ve ever really put enough thought into what category of music I fit into. The umbrella term “folk” can mean almost anything now. I’ve been on a lot of “folk” bills that were basically pop bands doing an acoustic set. If the term Americana means things associated with the culture and history of America, I think some of my songs could meet that definition. I’ve just resorted to telling people I’m a songwriter.

You have a keen eye for observation. Do you keep any kind of journal to jot down your song ideas?  Do you have designated songwriting time per week or do you just write when the idea comes?

Thanks, that means a lot to me! I don’t jot anything down in a journal per se – although that’s probably a good idea. For whatever reason, my mind wanders a lot. I’m not sure if it’s an attention deficit thing, or I’m just a little more impulsive than a lot of people, but I have melodies running through my head a lot. It’s not a helpful thing in a professional setting, but it can be helpful for writing songs. When I get an idea, I usually write a portion of it down in my phone. It’s a problem if I’m driving. If I can’t pull over, I have to convince myself it’s a bad idea. The best job I ever had was being a technical writer. I could spend large portions of the day writing songs, and it looked like I was working.

I’d love to know about your experiences with recording.  I discovered some songs on your YouTube channel that look to be two collections of music: Hangdogs and Nightcaps and All this Together. There’s also a Live at the Gulu collection on bandcamp!

I’ve recorded at home, and in little recording studios friends have recommended to me. There are pros and cons to both. Studio stuff tends to sound better, but you feel constrained for time, and home recordings are a little raw, but you have all the time in the world. Right now, I have been recording at two different home studios with friends who are much better at recording and mixing than I am. I’m really excited to release the tracks. Hopefully I can start releasing stuff this summer. Right now I’ve got 5 albums, or collections of songs, that can be found on Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music or really anywhere else that streams music. I’ve also got the Live at the Gulu Gulu Cafe album that was recorded here in Salem, MA. The Gulu Gulu Cafe was one of the first venues to offer me a consistent gig here in Salem, and the folks there are really kind. My friend Henry Kuck recorded it. The way he mic’d it you can hear the whole bar, it’s pretty neat.

Finally, I want to know your thoughts about “East Palestine, Ohio” from your perspective as a mechanical engineer.  I’m sure that you were horrified when first hearing about the accident but my guess is that you were already familiar with the history of trains carrying toxic materials. Tell us about that powerful song and what went into creating it?

It may be apocryphal, but Dostoevsky is supposed to have claimed when asked of his career as an engineer for the Ministry of War that it was “as boring as potatoes”. My professional experience in engineering has been very much the same, so please don’t take my technical opinion too seriously. From what I understand, trains have always been prone to derailment. And even though our understanding of rail transportation has improved over the years, there will always be the possibility for a derailment. There’s a lot that goes into deciding what a train car can carry, for how long, and to what place, and the conditions and variables associated with that process are always changing. What is frustrating about the East Palestine train derailment isn’t that a train derailed and that train happened to have toxic materials (although that in and of itself is a tragedy – it is always a possibility). What is frustrating and tragic is that the extent of the damage seems to have been basically preventable. In 2014 our government proposed safety regulations for trains carrying hazardous material. These were lobbied away and largely dropped. Part of the proposed regulations was that Electronically Controlled Pneumatic brakes would be mandatory on any load that carried toxic materials. ECP brakes allow for a uniform, and instantaneous application of a train’s brakes, while traditional pneumatic brakes can sometimes take up to two minutes to fully engage (depending on the length of the train). It is now widely thought the damage in East Palestine could have been greatly mitigated had the train had these ECP brakes. For some context, the brakes used in East Palestine were of the same design as the 1868 braking system George Westinghouse invented. Then there’s the new and underwhelming trend in the rail industry of cutting jobs, lengthening trains, and shortening inspections while giving executives significant bonuses. God forbid a nickel rolls out the door. I think at a minimum, a conversation between regulators and industry regarding the use of ECP brakes for hazardous material needs to be resumed. It is confusing and disappointing that it hasn’t. It was a total coincidence that I happened to be revisiting Don DeLillo’s White Noise when the derailment happened. I think part of the reason I was able to write the song so quickly was that book and the themes it touches.