Dublin singer-songwriter Rhob Cunningham has produced an epic, an 11-minute story that, over more than 1000 words, takes in magic, madness, loss, death and life. ‘The Head Collector’ is a revelation, Cunningham channelling his inner Conor Oberst and roping in Conor ‘Villagers’ O’Brien to produce (and do pretty much everything else, he says) and Cathy Davey to play the part of the goddess of the lake. The background to the song is important as it saw Cunningham rise to a challenge: “When I played a new song for my friend Bryan Quinn, he inadvertently challenged me to make it better. It was nice, he confided. it set a scene, we decided. But I was left with a feeling – if it had a point, it wasn’t getting across. A walk with old friends soon followed up and down in Glendalough, whereupon I found a skeleton. Lifting it by the horns, I made its toothy jaw cackle, repulsing a few of my comrades in the process. There was a stillness to the lake, a reflection so placid that to wade in would be to fall skyward. When I got home, I knew what needed to be emphasised before I could play the song for Bryan again. When writing, lines become equations, the trick being to build a balance… ‘both sides of the equal sign’. The song became a monster. It took weeks to discover what made it tick. Halfway through, the clock got left behind.
“I visited Conor O’Brien out in Malahide, played him the song and even sang it into his microphone. What happened next was humbling. Conor is demoing and recording new songs and ideas, some might use the term ‘in the zone’. Essentially, I’d gotten a pre-tournament Pele to play in my 5-a-side. If you could have heard Cathy Davey, whirling her vocals through the stable we recorded in, I swear to you… it was frightening hearing how much power came out of her. We finished recording the night before I flew to Berlin. I’m singing songs here for the next while. Flying to fair Ireland in September for a wedding, a birthday and a walk in Glendalough.”
There’s nothing resembling a chorus over the 11 minutes of ‘The Head Collector’, the titular character introducing itself the closest we get. “I’ve been traipsing about 10 days now and for nine I haven’t seen a soul so I haven’t had to try to take control,” Cunningham says by way of easing us into our journey. He “stole away with a couple of things that I wanted to bury and a couple of answers I wanted to find. I didn’t care at the start of my journey how much I was leaving behind.” Really I could quote the whole song (I transcribed it because I was mesmerised – it took about 45 minutes) and still feel that I haven’t done it justice. It features a “brittle monster” who was “baying for my blood”, leading to our hero swimming away, eventually being given a task and a shell by the goddess of the lake. “I couldn’t forget who I promised to save,” he says, encountering “running horses stood like statues, mid-flight birds in a V-shaped pose, rooms of gold and untold riches”, but he doesn’t stop for any of these. He brings the story full circle when he tells of coming across dogs who don’t blink, cutting their chains because the “necks looked tortured”. He says he felt better and things sound like they’ll all work out. And then the twist…
As Rhob Cunningham says in the Bandcamp description of ‘The Head Collector’: “Do be careful. Here is the song.”