‘Be­ing Ir­ish has al­ways been im­por­tant to me’

Ahead of the re­lease of his 19th al­bum, song­writer Gil­bert O’Sul­li­van tells JOHN MEAGHER about tack­ling mor­tal­ity in his work, be­ing a loner and the two court cases that marked very dark pe­ri­ods in his life

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - & -

When a mu­si­cian opts to call an al­bum af­ter them­selves well into their ca­reer, it’s an at­tempt to show that they feel a par­tic­u­lar kin­ship with the new mu­sic. It’s rare, though, that an artist will self-ti­tle an al­bum 47 years af­ter their first, but that’s ex­actly what Gil­bert O’Sul­li­van has done.

Gil­bert O’Sul­li­van is his 19th al­bum and, he says, it’s of par­tic­u­lar im­por­tance to him.

“This is very much a per­sonal al­bum,” the Co Water­ford-born singer says, “and I’m really proud of these songs. I feel as though I’ve writ­ten some of my best re­cently.”

It is easy to for­get it to­day, but when he first emerged in the early 1970s, O’Sul­li­van was a sales sen­sa­tion. He be­came El­ton John­big very quickly and songs like ‘Mat­ri­mony’ and ‘Alone Again (Nat­u­rally)’ made him a house­hold name. But un­like El­ton and con­tem­po­raries like Marc Bolan, O’Sul­li­van’s stock took a dra­matic tum­ble as the decade wore on and he and his mu­sic be­came some­thing of a laugh­ing stock. It didn’t help that he liked to sport odd, un­fash­ion­able clothes that seemed to be in­spired by the orig­i­nal ‘Bisto Kids’ characters.

“It’s ridicu­lous that peo­ple would judge my songs based on what I wore,” he says, “but that’s how it is… su­per­fi­cial. I don’t really care, though — I am con­fi­dent in the qual­ity of my own work.”

His lat­est al­bum boasts plenty of his trade­mark whimsy but there’s a som­bre qual­ity to his writ­ing, too. “Mor­tal­ity is there with age [he’s 71] and as a lyri­cist, it’s good to go there,” he says. “I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in re­la­tion­ships and the break-up of re­la­tion­ships. I like con­flict in songs.

“I never lost that fas­ci­na­tion with writ­ing songs and I love never know­ing where you’re go­ing to go [the­mat­i­cally] when you first start to write a melody. I still feel I’m a 21 year old, hus­tling.”

O’Sul­li­van says his method of writ­ing songs is the same now as it al­ways was. “I sit at that key­board and put in the time. I call it the Brill Build­ing men­tal­ity — the clock­ing in at nine in the morn­ing and work­ing through the day just like Neil Di­a­mond, Neil Sedaka and Carole King did.

“I see no dif­fer­ence be­tween writ­ing a song like ‘Noth­ing Rhymed’ way back then and ‘At the End of the Day’ now be­cause the process is ex­actly the same. I sit at the pi­ano un­til the melody comes. I don’t use the drum ma­chine and the tech­nol­ogy.

“But,” he adds, rue­fully “find­ing a good melody gets harder when you’re older.”

O’Sul­li­van has lived on Jersey in the Chan­nel Is­lands for years and enjoys be­ing well away from the bright lights.

“I’ve al­ways been a bit of a loner,” he says. “I don’t need to have lots of dis­trac­tions — that’s never in­ter­ested me. And liv­ing on Jersey al­lows me to ded­i­cate time to my song­writ­ing. And that’s some­thing I take as se­ri­ously now as I al­ways did.”

Even in the days when O’Sul­li­van was pil­lo­ried for his ec­cen­tric­i­ties, few could ar­gue with the qual­ity of his songcraft. There are Ivor Novello song­writ­ing awards on his mantle­piece to prove that and now there’s a new gen­er­a­tion of mu­si­cian who are not just happy to sing his praises, but to work with him, too.

The ac­claimed mu­si­cian and pro­ducer Ethan Johns has pro­duced his new al­bum and O’Sul­li­van says they had a won­der­fully fruit­ful part­ner­ship. “Ethan is some­one I ad­mire,” he says, “and when the record com­pany sug­gested him as pro­ducer, it really ap­pealed to me. And

I’ve al­ways been a bit of a loner. I don’t need to have lots of dis­trac­tions — that’s never in­ter­ested me

to Ethan, too, when he was asked if he wanted to work with me. Turned out he’d been a fan.”

Johns recorded the al­bum in O’Sul­li­van’s stu­dio at his Jersey home and en­cour­aged the mu­si­cian to make an al­bum that was redo­lent of his very first one, 1971’s Him­self.

“I was a bit re­luc­tant at first be­cause I wanted to try some­thing dif­fer­ent, to do songs that were a bit rocker, but Ethan wanted me to write melodies that sounded like Gil­bert O’Sul­li­van melodies. I had some of those any­way and I went away and worked on them.”

Born Ray­mond O’Sul­li­van in Water­ford city in 1948, the fam­ily em­i­grated to Bri­tain when he was eight years old and he has lived in south­ern Eng­land and Jersey ever since. It’s re­mark­able, though, to con­sider just how Ir­ish O’Sul­li­van sounds. “I’m happy to hear you say that,” he says. “Be­ing Ir­ish has al­ways been im­por­tant to me and peo­ple used to al­ways say that both my­self and my mother kept our ac­cents de­spite liv­ing away from Ire­land for years.”

De­spite that pride, he says Ire­land has played lit­tle part in his mu­sic. “I think my songs are very much of the English tra­di­tion,” he says, point­ing out that it was hear­ing Ra­dio Lux­em­bourg in the 50s and early 60s that really had an im­pact on him rather than any tra­di­tional Ir­ish songs he may have heard as a child. He re­turns to this coun­try reg­u­larly and says he was es­pe­cially heart­ened by the shows he played last year in Dublin’s Bord Gáis En­ergy Theatre with sup­port from the RTÉ Con­cert Or­ches­tra. “I like get­ting back and there are re­la­tions on my mum’s side that I visit, but the truth is I don’t have much mem­ory of be­ing a boy liv­ing there.”

O’Sul­li­van has had his fair share of in­dus­try woes. There was a lengthy court ac­tion when he sued his for­mer man­ager and pro­ducer, Gor­don Mills, in a dis­pute over pub­lish­ing rights. The two had been ex­tremely close and O’Sul­li­van’s chart-top­ping song ‘Clair’ was in­spired by Mills’ young daugh­ter. Al­though he won the case, he be­lieves the at­ten­dant public­ity — “I was seen as the bad guy” — dam­aged his ca­reer.

Later, in the mid-1980s, he took a case against US rap­per, Biz Markie, who had used a sam­ple of ‘Alone Again (Nat­u­rally)’ with­out his per­mis­sion.

“I had to be the one to go to New York to spend hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars to sue him [Biz Markie] and I was the one to be ques­tioned in court — he didn’t even turn up.

“I didn’t see it in terms of fi­nance. It was about per­mis­sion. He’d asked could he use it. I said no, but he went ahead, any­way. I mean, the ar­ro­gance of these peo­ple. That set a prece­dent and that helped fu­ture peo­ple whose mu­sic would be sam­pled.”

He says those pe­ri­ods were dark ones in his life. “What helps you through those is the abil­ity to write songs. Dur­ing all that, I’d come to the mu­sic room and sit there and try to write songs — that’s my pro­fes­sion. You could ar­gue that the songs I was writ­ing may not have been the best, but it was ther­a­peu­tic and I was hang­ing on to the one thing that would al­ways see me through the bad times.”

He says he is as happy now as he ever has been and cites his close fam­ily bond as piv­otal. “My wife and daugh­ters have been there for me. That sup­port has helped me through the lows and that fa­mil­ial sup­port is im­por­tant — no mat­ter who you are.”

Gil­bert O’Sul­li­van

is re­leased on Fri­day

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