‘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
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.”
is released on Friday