Declan O’Rourke told David Hennessy about his forthcoming UK tour and how he used lockdown to write his first book set in times of famine.
Award-winning Dublin singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke will tour the UK this November, in his biggest UK tour yet.
Since he released his debut album Since Kyabram in 2004, Declan O’Rourke has established himself as one of Ireland’s best loved singer-songwriters.
His writing is much admired and covered by fellow artists, most notably his classic 2004 song “Galileo” which has been recorded by Eddi Reader and Josh Groban amongst others.
He has also been called the ‘Irish John Prine’.
His latest album Arrivals, which was produced by Paul Weller, was released earlier this year to both critical and commercial success.
It debuted at #2 in the Official Irish National Album Chart, #2 in the Official UK Folk Albums Chart and #4 in the Official UK Americana Chart.
Meanwhile, music magazine UNCUT said: “….if he’s been a best-kept secret up to now, Arrivals should finally blow his cover”.
The Who’s Pete Townshend said: “It is a gem. Fabulous guitar and singing. Just love this Arrivals album.”
Declan told The Irish World: “It’s been some time. 2019 was the last time I gigged really.
“It’s exciting, but I’ll believe it when it happens at the same time.
“I am looking forward to being on stage and I’m looking forward to some of the nicer things that go with being on tour, hanging out with friends.
“After lockdown, it’s going to be a relief.
“I wouldn’t say it feels daunting but I’m unsure to some extent what it’s gonna be like this time because it’s been so long.
“Everybody’s feeling that.”
Now that he has a young family, Declan was looking at reducing the time he spent away from home touring before Covid came away and took the option away.
“In a way, I haven’t been chomping at the bit to get back onstage.
“I was moving to a different system, I was re-examining.
“Ever since we had a child three years ago, I have been changing the way I do things, re-evaluating my touring schedule.
“I was moving to a plan of touring only and not doing little individual gigs here and there.
“Because at one point I used to be somewhere every week, all year round, year after year.
“I didn’t want to be doing it that way with this new lifestyle and young family.”
While he has played one or two television appearances, Declan has been mostly saving himself for this tour.
“I’ve been turning down the singular offers that have come in, even though there have been offers of limited capacity gigs and things like that, and said, ‘Let’s save it and build it up for this tour. Make sure we have full houses and that kind of thing’.
The album was recorded over two years ago at Black Barn studios in Surrey but Declan could not have imagined just how much the world would have changed before the music was released.
However, he feels its reflective and stripped back style was apt for the time.
“We felt that it suited the time somehow because it was a very reflective record, very intimate, very personal.
“People were in a space that made them more conducive to that.
“Maybe that was part of the reason it was received as well as it was.
“I was very happy that I was able to release something that maybe helped people to have something to focus or to pass the time in this strange era.
“I guess when I wrote them, I didn’t know I would be playing them in this mad world. Who could have?
“But in a way they are just part of that mad world now.
“They came out in lockdown and I think the people that took to the record associate it with this time now and it will always be tied to it.”
Declan remained busy in lockdown not just with his music but also writing his first book.
The Pawnbroker’s Reward is out next month.
“Obviously people are suffering out there and nobody wants that but there have been huge advantages to this time as well.
“I have to admit that it gave me a great opportunity to not have to move or not have to be constantly coming and going. And just focus on being at home with family.
“You couldn’t buy that because I had been attempting to do that for two years before Covid happened.
“Lockdown gave me the perfect opportunity to actually nail myself to the desk.
“I locked myself in a room every single day for nearly the whole time but at one point it was over six months when I didn’t miss a single day, seven days a week.”
It should come as no surprise to fans of his that Declan’s first book is a piece of historical fiction.
For the album Chronicles Of The Great Irish Famine, he documented rare first-hand accounts from a devastating period of Irish history and garnered numerous awards.
The book has grown from that.
“There were certain stories that have kind of lived with me for a long, long time through that period of writing songs for that record, and some of them were so poignant that they just stuck with me.
“But I was approached on the back of the record coming out by a publisher who’d heard me talking about it on the radio.
“And they said, ‘Would you come in and have a chat with us? We think that maybe there’s a book in there. We love the passion that you have for this subject and how much knowledge you have built up, would you like to explore it in book form?’
“I thought, ‘I could do this’.
“And they kind of gave me a blank canvas.
“Once we agreed to do it, they said, ‘Do whatever you like’.
“I experimented with various things and short stories that were related to the songs and the subject of the songs but ultimately, I followed one path and then I was just relentless.
“I didn’t want it to end. It was so enjoyable. I’ve never felt as deeply immersed in anything so consistently, you know?
“It’s actually going to be officially released the day that I play London on the tour, 5 November.
“I will have copies with me.”
“It was inspired by the lives of the people who inhabit the song Poor Boy’s Shoes on the Chronicles record, which was a family from Macroom in Cork.
“I had read personal accounts of somebody who recorded this vivid story.
“I had come across it in a few lines in a book years and years ago.
“It said, ‘The man carried his wife home from the workhouse mile after weary mile to their old home and was found the next morning dead with his wife held to his chest as if he had been trying to warm them’.
“That story was so powerful to me, that image.
“When I explored a bit further, I found they were quite a young family.
“The young couple had two young children under the age of five that they had lost in the workhouse.
“I went and explored their lives much deeper leading up to that point.
“I discovered a whole world of people in that area, in the heart of the town that they lived near.”
The book tells the story of Pádraig and Cáit ua Buachalla as well as local pawnbroker Cornelius Creed.
“There was a pawnbroker Cornelius creed. He was just the most fascinating character.
“So basically I weaved his and the stories of ua Buachalla family together.
“In a way, it was viewing the famine as it happened to a single town and how they would have experienced it unfolding.”
With a young family himself, was this harrowing for Declan to write about? “Absolutely. Having a young family gave me great insight into understanding what it must have been like for them. Even though you can’t imagine it.
“If you were to look at what you have and say, ‘What would it be like to lose that?’ Or to watch it disintegrating before you despite everything that you’re trying, trying every single thing you can do to survive and keep your family alive.
“I just decided to bring it to life. I realized something over a period of time trying to unravel why that story moved me as much as it did, based on that image.
“I realized that to experience empathy what we do is we put ourselves and our own family in that situation.
“When you imagine, ‘If that was my children, my mother and father…’, that’s when the power of it hits you.
“That made me understand what empathy is and why it is so important to keep alive and share stories that are like that, that are so powerful because that’s what they teach us, they teach us empathy.
“And they equip us to try and deal with things like that in the world and to try and combat them.”
One song from the album that has seemed to resonate is the single Andy Sells Coke that deals with the prevalence of drugs like cocaine in Irish life.
“It’s a horrible drug.
“And let’s not forget, it’s not just Ireland by any stretch. It’s everywhere.
“I don’t know if I was trying to make a particular statement.
“I wasn’t saying, ‘Okay, I want to write a song about this problem or this issue’.
“But the stories that you hear about young people and what they’re doing to themselves and to each other and their families- It’s horrific. It’s a pandemic in itself.
“It has been around for a while. It’s been creeping up and becoming more ever present.
“As a writer, you’re just writing about things that pass under your gaze all the time, things that you’ve witnessed or experienced.”
Some have said the album is Declan’s best yet but he is reticent to make such a statement himself.
“I would be wary of saying it’s my best one because it’s very hard to judge that.
“I think whatever is your latest thing and that you have been most focused on always feel most poignant, you’re deeper into that than anything else. It’s really hard.
“I don’t know. It’s for other people to calls shots like that.
“I am very, very proud of the record and I feel we have made something that will hopefully stand up.
“I felt it reflected my life really well at the time and I was proud of the musicianship on it too.
“I don’t think you can do any better than being happy with those two things.
“And then you move onto the next one.
“I don’t stop to think too much about whether it’s my best one. I try to tell myself the best is yet to come.”
While he played support on several tours of the UK in his early days, Declan admits he then neglected it for the time before returning in the last decade.
“I have never really done that much (in the UK).
“In the early days, I had a bash at it. In 2006 I think I did seven support tours for various people: A lot of gigs. I ate at a lot of motorway service stations and a lot of travelodges.
“I just wasn’t getting my own tours lined up either. So I kind of left it for a while.
“I think it was around 2013 that I really got my toe back into the water.
“And it’s been kind of a slow build from then to now.
“On this tour I’m going into places like Cambridge and Canterbury where I’ve only ever opened for somebody a long time ago.
“It’ll be a tough sell to get people out because there are a lot of gigs competing for each other.
“We’re just hoping that people come out and that the reaction to the tour reflects the lovely reaction we have had to the music.
“I’m looking forward to playing to some really nice people and music lovers and continuing to build that relationship.”
Declan O’Rourke tours the UK this November.
He plays The Glee Club in Birmingham on Thursday 4 November, Kings Place in London on 5 November, The Stoller Hall in Manchester on 6 November, Abbeydale Picture House on 8 November, Websters Theatre on 9 November and Gosforth Civic Centre on 10 November, Canterbury Cathedral Lodge on 12 November, Storey’s Field Centre on 13 November and The Brunswick in Brighton on 14 November.
The Pawnbroker’s Reward is out on 5 November.
For more details, click here.