The beloved singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan talks to Bernard Purcell about longevity, staying current, and keeping his Irish accent
Gilbert O’Sullivan has a new record out. It’s bright and fresh and – to many – sounds, in some respects, like the last 48 years or so might not even have passed.
It’s also the first record to just bear his name as the title, Gilbert O’Sullivan. As if to reinforce that point it’s not just being released on CD, streaming and vinyl but – in deference to the singer-songwriter’s own sense of being analogue in a digital world – also on cassette.
For his fans, and there are still a very great many of them, his voice still sounds pretty good. Having heard him live recently, and spoken to him at length, it is clear that it is his actual voice and it is does not at any time betray the fact that he will be 72 later this year.
After a few years of being ignored, it’s also getting radio airplay. It is dedicated to his mother who died, aged 96, last October.
He spoke to the Irish World, with a great deal of warmth and humour, about songwriting, his Irishness and being a quintessentially English pop song writer.
What’s so special about this record?
“I love the art of songwriting so each album I make is written by me, there’s nobody else involved and the outcome of that is very special. I work hard coming up with a melody, I’m very disciplined, I have that Brill Building mentality – the place in the late ‘50s where Carol King, Neil Sedaka, and Neil Diamond would all go in a room at 9.00 am and sit there until 5 o’clock and come up with songs.
“I would sit there for five days a week, four weeks a month, however long it takes or took to come up with a melody.
“If I come up with a good melody I do the Irving Berlin thing of putting in a trunk because good melodies will survive any length of time and they’re always the hardest thing to get. I never do a lyric until I know I’m going to be recording an album so in this instance, on this album, Ethan Johns, the producer, came to my home in Jersey, to hear the music to be able to make sure that he wanted to get involved in this.
“It’s one thing to meet you and like you but he needed to like the music, so I played him the twelve melodies that he was happy with and then he went away, and I spent the next two months writing the lyrics.
“The writer’s the same on every album, the difference is the approach a producer takes, the input he has on it, the musicians you’re working with.
“For example, I have a really good band but let’s say that on each album I used that band, that would be a mistake because the sameness factor would come into play.
“So, while I’m the same writer I like to think my work is varied enough to be that little bit different each time and likewise the input the musicians bring to it. For instance, the last album Latin A La G (2015) was recorded in Spain with Spanish musicians, fantastic.
“I was really happy with that, so this time Ethan Johns is on board, very organic, very analogue, everything was recorded on tape, you end up on digital, but it retains a kind of warmth.
“A very Ethan thing is that he doesn’t like perfection, whereas we always strive to have perfect takes as musicians. When we would record a song, the band would come around the keyboard and I would play a tune to them and they would go back their chairs, rehearse to a couple of times and then Ethan would say ‘Right, let’s start taping’.
Take one a few mistakes, take two sound much better we’re getting it, and say let’s do another because we averaged around three or four takes maximum, and we’d say it was the third or the fourth and he would say the best take is take two, the one with all the mistakes in it, it’s got the feel factor, you can’t put a price on it, perfection, the perfect take doesn’t make it the best, so that was interesting.
“The interesting thing is I came up with a list of titles for the record company (team GOS at BMG), I like titles, but the people at the record company felt there was a link between this album and my very first album, Himself, so because of that they said ‘You’re first album is called Himself so we want to call this one Gilbert O’Sullivan. I said ‘Ok, whatever’.”
They have a point, listening to it, in some ways, it’s like there hasn’t really been 48 years or so since your debut:
“Well I take that as a compliment, it’s an interesting point and a valid point. I mean, I like that, it’s nice to hear things like that, of course.
“I’m very disciplined. I’m 71 years of age and, touch wood, reasonably healthy, 71 years as a person but as a songwriter I’m still that 20-year old, hustling.
“An interviewer on the radio, Danny Baker, said what he found interesting is my voice sounds just the way as it always was and I explained if I was touring eleven months of the year like Elton – Elton goes and performs far too many more concerts than he should do and I think his voice has suffered because of it, doing too many concerts is a risk so I’m very aware that at 71 years of age the key is not to be performing too much, limit the amount of performing you do and that, with discipline and exercise and whatever you do to keep the voice in trim, that will help you to retain it.”
Do you still get the same joy and happiness?
“Yeah, no question. I get joy and happiness completing it, seeing the record having it there, it’s worth all the effort that’s everybody put into it.
“Radio 2 have really supported us because what’s happening at Radio 2 that’s significant is that up to, say, a couple of years ago, three or four years ago, it was ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000, ‘00s – they’re dropping the ‘70s now and now it’s just the ‘80s, ‘90s and so on.
“So, the ‘70s are going out the window the way the ‘60s went out the window ten years ago and I’m a ‘70s artist and we have to fight our way, but they like me, and I’ve had good support.
“The exposure I get from them playing the records, that’s the important thing, if I earned nothing from it, it wouldn’t bother me.
“The radio is the most important thing for me, it was the most important thing for me in the early days, to be able to translate what I was hearing, the power it sent through me, the influence was so strong.
“The old-fashioned pop song on 45 rpm, that’s how I see myself.
“I don’t like a lot of the snobbery around music and on stations like 6Music, Mojo for the first time have given me a good review, they never reviewed my albums in the past and when I go back to the days when I was reviewed, say, the eighties, it was about what I wore never about the songs. In the last five years I’ve got over that, but it did frustrate me.
“For the first time Mojo has given me a really good review, Uncut has given me a good review, they talk about the songs and I feel that’s a positive thing because that will help me get through to people who are into songwriting because if you think about it if I’m not being picked up in these magazines and people who buy these magazines who are interested in music, if you’re not there then you don’t exist.”
This album also comes out on cassette – cassettes are coming back. I do all my writing on cassettes, as well. Three or four years ago I brought the latest digital device and they’re brilliant but every time you need to change or do something I have to put my glasses on, no way.
“With the cassettes I have the ‘70s ghetto blaster with the inbuilt microphones. The ghetto blasters you get today have the speakers but not the mic so I get the ghetto blaster stick it on top of the piano and I’m away.
What would your advice be to, say, a teenager or twenty-something today who wants to be a pop songwriter?
“If I had to say to somebody who wanted to learn the craft of songwriting I would say listen to The Songs Lennon & McCartney Gave Away which is an album, and listen to any Bacharach and David, that is how you learn your craft, great writers.
“Obviously the great song-writers of Britain are Lennon and McCartney, Ray Davies, Jagger and Richards.
“If you lose interest in what’s going on, on the radio, you’re harming your ability to have credibility in the current market. I listen to everything that I can learn something from it, always searching because that’s how we did it in the beginning so if you don’t do that anymore you’re going to lose it.
“You can’t be working in the current market and not liking what’s going on so when I listen to Jay Z I may not get a lot out of the songwriting, but I will get something out of his sound and ask myself how they do it. Sound is very important in pop music today.
“I’ve said this to young writers who write to me for advice, who send me songs, if they’re looking to make money I say go join a bank, you’ve got it wrong.
“The other advice I give is that nobody’s impressed by how many songs you’re sending. It’s a big mistake to think that by sending a dozen or twenty songs they’re going to be impressed. You’re only going to need one, out of the twenty that they’re sending, to generate the interest.
“If you want to be sending demos just pick three at the most and make sure that among that three you’ve got one that has the potential, a good melodic input and a good lyrical input and if it’s that good, and it has a commercial appeal, record companies will be after you but don’t think by sending them all these songs they’ll be impressed, because they’re not.”
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