- 11 May 21
One of the country’s greatest songwriters – and he’s no slouch in the guitar department either - Declan O’Rourke has delivered his finest record yet with Arrivals. “You want people to feel what you felt,” he explains to Pat Carty.
Last year I was fortunate enough to interview Paul Weller. Unusually, for any interviewee, he wanted to talk about someone else, asking me if I’d heard Declan O’Rourke’s then forthcoming album. I hadn’t, so he insisted I endeavour to do so, describing it, succinctly, as “fucking great”. He wasn’t wrong either. Arrivals, finally with us now after the few inevitable delays, is a beauty, replete with the best songs O’Rourke has penned thus far, and that’s saying something when you remember this is the man who gifted us ‘Galileo’, which Weller has famously described as “possibly the greatest song written in the last thirty years”.
Weller, as he proudly told Hot Press that day, produced and played on Arrivals. O’Rourke is probably blue in the face talking about it, but I ask him how the friendship came about anyway.
“We were both on the V2 label back in 2005. Somebody in A&R gave him my record, and I totally thought they were blowing smoke into my pocket but he called me not long afterwards,” the handsome and pleasant O’Rourke tells me from his home in scenic Kinvara. He will later insist on turning the camera around to show me his view of The Atlantic, the bastard. Anyway, he goes on.
“He was just really kind and said those lovely things over the years, kept name checking the song 'Galileo'. We'd be in touch once a year, just a text or something. I was coming up to making this record and I'd never really worked with a producer before, I always kind of knew what I wanted and I didn't even know what a producer was when I made my first record.”
It can be a vague term.
“It's a strange thing,” he agrees. “I knew the way these songs were coming that it was going to be a stripped down affair, and I instinctively thought that could be a lonely process, you'd kind of want people to bounce off for a second opinion, and vibes and what have you. It was a looming thought, a nebulous thing, and one morning I stuck [Weller’s] True Meanings on in the background, I was getting my little fella ready for crèche, and you could really hear the decades of experience in the studio, just the warmth and that old school analogue vibe. I thought, ‘Jesus, you could really learn a lot in in the studio with somebody like that’. And it just clicked; maybe he's the guy. We have this friendship already. He gets my music. He's somebody who would challenge me. I knew with someone like that you couldn't half do it, you'd have to hand it over.”
Was that the case?
“It was kind of the case. Within a couple of hours, I texted him, before I had a chance to chicken out. He just said, ‘I'm honoured by you asking, I'd love to, if I can, send me some songs’. Within a couple of weeks, we had started to plan dates. It was really as simple as that, very, very organic.”
O’Rourke had these stripped back songs, so what was Weller’s contribution? Let’s put a bit of piano here, some strings there?
“Exactly,” says Declan. “He was in agreement that it should be very stripped back, an acoustic record, but within a day or so of landing in the studio, he started to say, ‘I think it'd be nice to add subtle textures, a few bars of Hammond here, a solo cello there’, and I thought ‘How the fuck could you do that? How could you introduce something halfway through a song when it's just been a guy and a guitar? That'd be like a fucking sore thumb sticking out’. I was blown away by how well it worked, how unobtrusive it was. It was a huge lesson for me, because every instance of what he suggested just worked.”
So, unfortunately for the sake of this article, there was no fighting at all?
“No fighting at all!” he laughs. “A couple of times he said to me, ‘do you really need that little bit there?’ And I said, ‘Well, if anybody else said that to me, I’d tell them to fuck off, but for you I'll cut it out if you want’. There was very little that he suggested like that but again, they all worked.”
With that striped back approach, were you thinking about some of your favourite records? I know Weller's a big fan, and I can hear a bit of Nick Drake in there.
“I was never a big Nick Drake fan,” O’Rourke claims, surprisingly. “I was never really exposed to him. The first times I ever played a couple of songwriters’ nights, a few people compared me to Nick Drake, and I'd never heard of the guy. I've since learned that's a great compliment and I take it as such. Weller might have mentioned his name one time along the way, but it certainly didn't feature heavily. I was thinking more of Joni Mitchell. Ladies Of The Canyon, I can't overstate how big that record was for me. In terms of even learning to sing, learning to use my voice again after it broke, because it just landed in my boots when I was teenager. I could sing when I was a kid, I came from a family where everybody sang.”
Like a choirboy?
“Probably! But I could sing. I remember being in the back of the car, driving somewhere and my dad had something on and I’d be playing this little game in my head, I could predict where the singer was going with the notes. I wanted to be a musician of some kind. I think I wanted to be a drummer. I still feel like I'm a drummer trapped in a guitarist buddy. I'm into rhythm and syncopation a lot. My right hand does a lot of the work. But I just abandoned any idea of being a singer when my voice broke. I couldn't sing anything that I liked anymore.”
The song writing came in to take the place of that lost and doubtless angelic voice.
“I took up writing accidentally. This fellow joined a band I was in, we auditioned him and we're jamming - Led Zeppelin, Guns N’ Roses. And at the end of the day, he said, ‘Why don't we try one of my songs?’ What was he talking about, his songs?!? I was about 15 and that was an absolutely mind blowing experience. I went home that evening and started trying to write and never stopped since, but for years, I just thought somebody else would sing them when I found a singer. I just accidentally ended up singing them myself.”
We'll come back to Joni, but are there other records you had in mind?
“Andy Irvine/Paul Brady, a lot of Paul Brady's early stuff. Two records in particular, that one, and his first solo record, Welcome Here Kind Stranger, which is an amazing record. Both are stripped down with incredibly intricate playing, really melodic and very, very advanced stuff. All those records I mentioned are still my all time favourite things to go back to. Stuff I discovered later on, Neil Young, some of his acoustic stuff. Nic Jones, did you ever hear Penguin Eggs?
I have, I told him, and if you haven’t, gentle reader, then I recommend you remedy that.
“Seventy or eighty percent of my gigs, throughout my career, have been just me on stage. I'm very comfortable there, don't have to worry about anyone else, watching timing or showing people where to go, you can just float and it's free. And, for some reason, I'd never done that on record, I fell into the temptation of adding layers and doing things that you couldn't do on your own. I was longing to do it, and a lot people who follow me over the years at gigs also said it to me along the way. And this bunch of songs just said, now's the time.”
Fellow Hot Press man and visual and musical artist David Rooney gushed to me that “if Declan never sang a note, he’d still be one of the greatest acoustic guitar players in the country”. Does that come from people like Paul Brady, and his oddball tunings?
“Absolutely,” he replies, still in thrall to the man from Strabane. “When I stopped trying to sing, I just wanted to be the best guitar player in the world, and for three or four years or even more, that was all I focused on. I ate and slept it, I used to mitch off school, and go home when my parents were gone to work and play guitar. I progressed very fast in the first year or two; it was explosive. I went from learning a chord to being able to play full solos off records that I knew.”
I mentioned something else that Rooney said here, but Rooney says a lot. Declan wisely ignored it, and carried on.
“I also got into classical guitar, flamenco and things like that. I was soaking up everything I could, lots of blues, all kinds of styles. But Brady was the pinnacle of folk guitar playing and still is, nobody has surpassed that for me, the stuff he did on those records was just fuckin’ beyond the edges. I was self taught so I had no concept of alternate tunings, and I remember trying to work out 'Arthur McBride' after a couple of years playing and it was like, ‘What the fuck is he doing?’ I was trying to find the shapes with my hands. And I was like, ‘You can't do that!’ He's a savage guitar player. I'm definitely not the best in the country, but that's a lovely compliment.”
There's a story about Joni Mitchell doing songs with The Band and they'd a hard time working out what the hell she was playing. Is that the same thing for you, you're playing in these alternate tunings so it's perhaps more difficult to tell other musicians to play D when it's not really D .
“No disrespect to the lads in The Band but they were probably used to more standard stuff.” I dunno, they were pretty handy, but keep going. “Joni was a very creative, inventive player and a lot of the stuff that I'd be into, you'd be completely unaware of it as a writer or a self thought person, but you'd have compound time signatures, changing from the odd bar of two and three, or whatever. Writers don't think about that kind of stuff generally, where as musicians might sometimes have trouble with that, 'what the hell are you doing there?'”
Bands used to have trouble with John Lee Hooker too because he'd be throwing out thirteen bars of that and then six of this.
“There's a lot of it and blues,” he agrees. “It’s the freestyle way that self taught people play, they're not thinking about the theory or the technicalities of it. There's talk out there, and it's this extremely valid, that 4/4 timing and the tunings that we use in modern day, 440 [A440, standard musical pitch] absolutely butchered the world in terms of cultural diversity, like the way the English language swept away all of these other languages. In Eastern music, you have these quarter notes and weird little things going on, and in Indian music you wouldn't have a clue in terms of timing.”
Richard Thompson told me the same thing, that's what he was trying to do, in the early days of Fairport Convention, incorporate the unresolved melodies and time signatures of folk music.
“He's another brilliant folk player. 4/4 becomes the common denominator, and it's just boring for people who love music, who explore music in depth and the fringes of stuff.”
Reflections On Water
Now that you’ve completed The O’Rourke And Carty Musical Appreciation Course, we’ll get down to the songs themselves. Rooney also told me that O’Rourke does a bit of painting, so is the album’s opener, ‘In Painter’s Light’, about painting or is it a song about song writing?
“No, it's literally about art, as in fine art, painting, and drawing. I don't actually really paint; I’ve painted a couple of things. I consider myself a good drawer.”
You painted the wall, proper painting?
“I could paint a whole apartment in one afternoon, two coats!” he laughs, and then he’s off. “Since I was a kid, long before I discovered music, I had designs on being an artist, my granddad was an artist. He died when I was about four, and I was, I suppose, considered the artistic kid in the family because I enjoyed drawing. I was very swept up in the fact that he was an artist, that really inspired me, I was given some of his paints and but I hadn't a clue what to do with them.”
“Drawing was a different thing I could really express myself, and I got better and better at that up to my teens. I was always gonna be an artist or musician in my head. At one point, the road forked and I just followed music. I knew other kids who were doing that and it was more of a social thing. I still love drawing and I always said to myself that I want to approach it properly one day and learn how to paint. I'd love to paint watercolours, I love reflections on water. That song was a kind of an affirmation to not lose sight of it and to do it sometime. If I say it out loud then I'll have to do it!”
There's a line about falling in love with the magic of what a hand could do, is that art in general, magically pulling something out of nowhere?
“Yeah. Again, going back to just after my granddad died, there was some magazine came out, issue one was Van Gogh, issue two was Constable. I didn't get Van Gogh at all at the time, it seemed ugly painting to me. I absolutely love it now of course. Constable was a different story. I was fascinated. Look at what this guy can do, that he could put that detail from his eyes onto a page.”
There's a line about what life does to plans, is that what you're talking about?
"’You know yourself, my friend, what life can do with plans?’ It's as simple as that, we all have great plans and you get diverted. We were reaching the end of the record, and Weller said, ‘we've got three minutes left for the vinyl. Write me another song’. So I went away, and a week later I sent him two songs and one of them was 'In Painter's Light'. I had a sketch of it - that's not a pun.”
It's a good one though.
“I had it half sketched out, and that helped me to finish it. At the same time, we were here in Kinvara, putting together an exhibition of my granddad's paintings. He'd never had an exhibition himself so we gathered all these paintings from Sweden, and Australia and England.”
Would he have been well known?
“No, he wasn't well known. He was a sign writer by trade, but he had kind of a dark backstory, he left at 19 or 20 and never came back to Kinvara, but painted it his whole life. The lovely thing was, I was playing the record to my cousin, and she said straightaway, ‘Is that about granddad?’ Every time I listen to it now, it sounds more about him.”
In ‘The Harbour’, O’Rourke longs to be like a fisherman, staying close to home and taking only what’s needed. Instead, he’s out sailing on his suitcase, trying to get his own thing airborne. The O’Rourkes started a family a few years ago, so this lyric must speak to a longing for a simpler life at home.
“That song was written before my son was born, but I know now it was me designing what I wanted, it helped me to figure out what I wanted,” O’Rourke firmly states. “Songs do that sometimes, they help you figure out what you're thinking and what your heart is telling you. If it doesn't sound too clichéd, life mimics art or whatever, and it manifested in my life then. Paul even described the record as kind of a self-portrait. But that point that you just touched on, for me is the kernel of the whole thing. I was trying to figure out how to balance these two lives.”
This is a notion that we can all identify with, and O’Rourke speaks eloquently about it.
“What I do is all consuming, trying to get the music out there, to have a career in art or in public. But my wife and I had made the decision to start a family, I was wholeheartedly embracing that as the most important thing, and I didn't want it to suffer because of what I was doing. I made four records, four years in a row before this. I felt like I was starting to see a career and success. It wants, everything, it wants me to give everything at the risk of losing everything. I just said, ‘No, fuck it. I'm not doing that.’ I had been fiercely independent for years, so I sat down and I had this talk with the universe and myself. ‘This is gonna go one way, or it's not gonna work at all.’ I was actually prepared to let it go, I think, which sounds crazy because I'd been 20 years relentlessly driving, as a very ambitious person.”
I suppose it does, a bit, but if you’re not happy, you’re not happy.
“I just thought, if I have to give it everything, I’d let it go, because it just takes up so much time and so many resources. Everything you make, you put back in to making records. I was putting in the same amount of care and production values whether it was for ten people, or ten million people, but I wasn't getting it back. It was unsustainable. I would imagine that is the same for most artists in the current era, because of all the problems with revenue streams. It's very difficult to maintain it at an independent level and to keep the standard high. And I foresaw that down the track, you're in this circle of ever diminishing returns. And when does what you do start to suffer?”
Delegation was the way forward.
“I came to a decision, maybe I can't do it independently anymore. I need resources. I need bodies to get behind it. And I took out every business card I'd ever stuffed in a drawer and sorted them into piles - managers, record labels, and agents and what have you, and I decided I'm going to get proper manager, I've been managing myself for those four albums for nearly four years. I decided to get a major label deal, which I hadn't done since 2005. I've been fiercely against anything like that. And I got an international touring agent as well, all within the space of a year. I didn't think it would be as easy as that, of course.”
Getting them on board?
“Yeah. I am surprised more than anybody that when I reached the point of saying, ‘I'm prepared to let it all go’, that it started to drive itself.
You’re talking about letting the records go out into the world and stand on their own and do the work for you?
“Oh, Jesus, no,” he corrects me. “I was talking about letting it go. I was saying, I might not even put out this record. I might just get another job, looking after trees or something. Do I really want it that bad? Not if it's this painful. I was just ready to maybe say, okay, I've given it my best. Maybe I'll just do it as a hobby.”
The Capitalist Model
I move on to ‘Andy Sells Coke’, which points the finger at those amongst us who still insist on togging out as the oldest swinger in town. Again, O’Rourke seems to be saying to himself ‘why am I here, at this messing, when I could be at home?’
“What's life all about if you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing, spending time with your family, and actually living?” He asks, reasonably enough. “You can't sing about these great things if you're just living in fucking hotel rooms and pretending to be an artist or a superstar or some shit. You've got to be living. And that's what's important for me. I was lucky was, I kind of saved myself at the brink, at least for now. Who knows what's down the track?”
Not a one of us.
“A friend of my family said a great thing to me. I was traveling around New Zealand doing a few gigs a couple years ago, and I was having these conversations with him about where I wanted to go in life, and he said, with his bit of business acumen, ‘What you need to do is increase your yield. You need to figure out a way of getting more for doing less.’ The way to do that was to hand it over to other people, let go the control, take it to another level, do it fuckin’ seriously.”
Why was the reticence there to do that in the years before? You initially had that V2 deal anyway.
“I was partly idealist, a little bit of hippie thinking, the cottage industry away from the corporate beast, and more so because I had been there. I think it was hurt and trauma at what had happened. Even though I wouldn't admit that to myself, that's probably what was behind it. I never taught that the people who worked within the music industry were evil or anything and I still don't believe that.”
Good to hear.
“We just live in a world that's, unfortunately, a capitalist model, and the music industry can only operate within that. My first record did really well here, we were on a small label, and it went twice platinum. We wanted to take it further but the label didn't have the resources so we went shopping for a major label. This was in a year of it coming out and we signed up with V2 in London, they bought the record at that point, that's just a risk you have to take. The gamble is these guys can take it globally, they can take it to the rest of the world but within a very short time there were problems. The A&R people were at odds with each other about what to do. Some of them wanted to re-record some of it with a producer. My manager encouraged me to go with that, arguing that if they feel involved and they have a partner, they'll get behind it. I thought it was grand the way it was, that's the way I let go of it, it was finished.”
The bit is between his teeth. I stay out of the way.
“We let this guy come in and re-record a couple of the songs and it was not a nice experience. They also decided that instead of giving it a big release in the UK, why not go for a soft release, go around and build yourself up from the start at songwriters’ nights? What's the fucking point in a major label if you want me to be a nobody who lives in another country? Then the label collapsed and was bought over by Universal and my record went with it. It was on a shelf somewhere, nobody knew about it, no control over what happened to it or who could hear it. I came back to the same label I was with to make another record and then I had problems with them. We fell out just as my second record was coming out, so it was ‘fuck you labels, I'll do it myself.’ That's where that independent streak came from.”
The View From Dunguaire Castle
‘The Stars Over Kinvara’ is a beautiful song about, as Declan has said above, the place where his grandfather was from, although he himself grew up in Ballyfermot, just up the road. There’s a lovely line about driving his wife and baby home from the hospital, stopping to look at the stars, and feeling a connection to the previous generations, and to place.
“My mother's family - there was, I think, twelve or fourteen kids - all of them had paintings of Kinvara by my Granddad. We grew up looking at these images of this place; our house in Ballyfermot was even called ‘Kinvara’. I get emotional thinking about it, but there a spiritual connection with this place. I've very vague memories of being here when he died, but then I didn't see it again until I was twenty-four, although it says twenty-five in the song which was better for rhyming.”
Proper order. I’d tell him to go on, but there’s no need.
“I was down in Galway with a couple of friends from Australia,” he remembers aloud. “And I convinced them to take a drive to see this place where my granddad was from. They didn't know my background story, but I gave them a little about how I grew up with these paintings as we're driving along. We come into Kinvara, following a map. I drove over this hill, and saw the castle that was in all the paintings and the town. When I saw it just come to life out of this part of my imagination, and all these paintings, I went into floods of tears, just fuckin’ streaming down my face while I was driving.”
Were the Aussies looking askance at you?
“They were all going, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’ I couldn't speak. I was blown away; it literally felt like I was coming home. I remember standing looking at the castle, looking over the wall, still crying and just saying...”
All joking aside here, Declan is genuinely moved by this memory, to the point of tears. It’s a lovely thing he has, that deep feeling for this place, and I’m more than a little jealous because I have no such thing. Like the song itself, it’s a thought that gives you pause.
“I remember saying, I'm gonna see my kids here one day, I don't know why, but that was it. I kind of had a dream, a notion that I'd like to spend some time here. Eventually, I was doing okay at music, and on the back of my first record, I had enough to get a deposit on a house. I was looking at the people around me who were buying places in Dublin, these apartments where you could hear people through the fucking wall.”
I shook my head sadly at this juncture, for I know only too well what he means.
“For four hundred grand of something, and I thought, ‘I could go down there, and I could be by the sea. All those bits of songs that I have half written, I could go down there and I could finish them’. The first year, it took a lot more getting used to than I expected. It was a big shock, just the silence and the quiet, living here on your own. But I grew into that. And it's a gorgeous place.”
He’s convinced me, I’m putting a sign out the front when we finish talking. I’m fascinated by this idea of seeing his future children in a place, so I ask him for more.
“That trip to New Zealand, I was in Australia first and this woman asked me about Kinvara after I played that song. She said ‘there is no word in the English language for that connection. I have it with the place I live, the farm I grew up on, where my parents were from.’ Then in New Zealand a couple of weeks later, I learned that the Maori have a word for it. It's a word that means the place where your legs spring forth from the earth, and where you feel most connected to. I thought that was amazing.”
Hours of research in Carty Linguistics Library failed to uncover the exact phrase O’Rourke was referring to here, but he’s right, it’s a lovely notion. He manages in that song, as all the best art does, to make the listener feel sad for something they’ve never had, creating a longing for a place they’ve never been. Is that what song writing is for him, trying to capture an emotion and hopefully make the listener feel a bit of the same thing?
“Absolutely, it's as simple as that.”
There’s nothing simple about it. If there was, we’d all be at it.
“You take a feeling that you had, and you try and translate it to someone else through music. You feel that urge first; I've got to put that in a song. And if you can get to the other end of the song, hopefully you've managed to stay focused on that thing. Somebody described it to me like this; a song is like a wheel, you've got your cog in the middle, That's whatever that thing is that you're trying to get across. All the spokes are the lines of the song, they all have to point into the middle, they all function to keep you at the core of it. If you go off on a little dog leg or a tangent, you can do it creatively as long as it helps the song, but if you go off and talk about something else, you end up in a different place, and you’ve failed. You want them to feel what you felt. Paint a picture for them, music is the emotional landscape.”
Well, that seems straightforward enough. Hold on, something’s coming through, “Oh, the moon, in June, looks like a big balloon…” Yeah, needs a bit of work, I’ll come back to it, or perhaps I should just leave it to the masters, like O'Rourke.
I wonder, when Declan’s on stage, singing something like ‘Galileo’, a song he’s preformed hundreds if not thousands of times before, if it’s difficult to connect back to that emotional source.
“I have cried on stage quite a few times,” he admits.
Did you charge extra?
“Big time!” he assures me. “It's usually something you can't help but it would be with new songs, generally, something that’s still very raw for you, but a lot of the time, when you're on stage, the experience that you're having is very different to that of the audience. If I'm singing ‘Galileo’, and I love playing it, I’m enjoying it on a different level. I might not be thinking about every nuance of the narrative of the story, and where it arcs, I’m actually delivering a performance, trying to play it right, trying to sing well. I’m also thinking about the song that comes next.”
The magic circle will be on to him for giving the game away.
“You’re conducting the whole experience that's happening in the room. There’ll be this thought going on in the background, because you're designing and you're planning, but sometimes you take off and you kind of float. It's like the most calming, relaxing, meditative experience ever. You get to the end of the song or the end of the gig and you say, ‘Jesus, where was I?’ It's like you're listening like everybody else. You're just a passenger; you're not trying to control it anymore. You're just letting it flow. That's what you hope to achieve, and that's where it can go to.”
I’m not an artist like Declan, so forgive the clumsy link, but as he’s talking about designs and plans, I’ll move onto the song ‘Arrivals’. Though this record was long finished before the world fell apart, the title track, and its accompanying video, filmed in empty airports and train stations, reminded me of these hard times, split apart from family and friends. Its poignancy could have been designed for the place we find ourselves. There are heartbreaking lines about standing, watching arrivals, and realising ‘just what you’ve had all this time.’
“It does seem even more poignant. When we came to do the video, we got Dearbhla Walsh [Penny Dreadful, Fargo], a director and a brilliant, creative person, as executive producer, she pointed to that same line and said, ‘I get the feeling that the emptiness of these public spaces at the moment would really make that line more poignant’. I can't really say it's fortuitous, because I wouldn't say I'm glad this happened to the world, and part of me was a bit afraid that doing that to this song would change people's perspective and they'd relate it only to COVID, but people can still hear the song on its own and the song and video hopefully compliment each other.”
What about the piano? Heard from another room, that could have been lifted from Joni Mitchell's ‘The Last Time I Saw Richard’ or ‘River’?
“I'm not a great piano player by any stretch.”
You can tell.
“Seriously,” O’Rourke chortles. “I can only play literally a handful of songs, I only know a few of my own songs but I play them so infrequently that I couldn't sit down and play them for you now, forget it. I could play the guitar standing on my head. I could swap hands nearly and play the guitar for you.”
That's just showing off.
“No, I'm just trying to be comparative,” with more guffawing. “The piano is very different beast that I'd be nearly shitting myself sitting down to play. It's a thing I learned late, looking at pictures, trying to remember where my hands go and there's a lot of concentration going on. I'm not relaxed doing it. But anyway, getting back to the Joni, they say it takes a village to raise a child. It's the same with music. You need all these influences. But she's one of my biggest, I think she's nearly one of my musical parents. I'm very comfortable inhabiting the places that she has shown me. I learned to use the upper range of my voice singing along with her and a lot of piano playing, I'm just comfortable in that space.”
Fair enough, Joni Mitchell is a genius, no arguments here. We’re back to ‘Andy Sells Coke’ again, which find O’Rourke laughing at people in their forties who think they’re still in their twenties.
“Yeah, pretty much,” he confirms. “The mistakes we make of going out on the rip once in a while, having not been out for ages, and thinking you still have your sea legs and ending up in these horrible situations.”
I’m tempted to point out that you can’t expect to be fit for the big match if you don’t go to training, but I’ll let it pass. As Declan says in the song, there's a wife and kid at home, so what am I doing?
“Somebody said along the way that reaching your forties is like hitting the plateau, you don't give a fuck what anyone else thinks anymore, you know what you want, you're happy with a more peaceful pace of life. That's all really true, I’ve found, I really enjoy that and I'm not sad to say goodbye to the younger me and the craic.”
Did you go bananas when you were younger?
“I didn't go mad, I spent an awful lot of time in pubs in my twenties, almost nightly when I was playing music and I did a lot of drinking. I drank for Ireland for years, probably worried myself a couple of times but I was never wild in terms of drugs. I might have tried a few things here and there, but I never went crazy, thanks to a bad LSD/acid trip when I was nineteen or twenty that turned me off anything like that.”
That’ll do it to you, right enough. Mind you, you could take me to the pub now and I wouldn’t be giving out.
“I actually don't miss it, I haven't had a drink for two and a half years now,” Declan says, as I stare blankly at him. “It wasn't like I needed to give up drinking, it was part of where I was, having a young kid around. I'd a couple of bad hangovers, there was the folk awards and a couple other things happened the same week and I just wasn't able for them anymore.”
Hangovers are why God invented rashers, but no matter.
Songs From The Southern Seas
Some of the other songs on the record are less personal, titles like ‘The Olympian’, ‘Have You Not Heard The War Is Over’. Would ‘Convict Ways’ be a holdover from the last album? [2017’s Chronicles Of The Great Irish Famine, which did exactly what it promised on the tin. Wait, wait, come back.]
“Definitely for me it was,” confirms O’Rourke, blissfully unaware of any square bracketed jibes. “I never had this conversation with them, but there was a festival in Fremantle Australia, commemorating the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the last ever convict ship landing in Australia, which landed in Fremantle. And I guess they said, ‘This is the history guy, he's singing songs about history’ so they invited me out. They kind of hinted that maybe I'd like to write a song. When I read the story about this ship, I was blown away by what was there, so I wrote that song, but it gave me an opportunity to talk about all the stuff going on with displaced peoples in the world, which I'm very passionate about.”
“Australia have been in really hot water about their treatment of asylum seekers. I lived in Australia, I have an Australian passport and everything, so I'm not just talking as a person in the wings who doesn't know anything. I felt that I had the right to say something, I always felt they have big problems with racism, their whole history since white settlement is pickled and checkered was really bad immigration policies.”
You'd think it would be the opposite for a country with their history.
“You would absolutely think so, and it should be,” Declan agrees. “Nothing against the people who run the festival who are brilliant, but it gave me the opportunity to say, if you as a culture are going to celebrate the end of an era like that, you have to look at what's going on in your own backyard. And that give me a chance to say it about what's happening everywhere, our fucking direct provision system, and all of this horrible apathy towards people on the move everywhere. Right wing movements, wars, it is terrible.”
Is it, at least in part, the story of James Boyle O'Reilly, the Irish poet who was transported to Australia because of his Fenian ways, and then escaped to America?
“Partly, he was on board that ship, and he escaped about two years later.”
The line “no man is free if free alone” reminded me of a song by Barry Mann, which both Ray Charles and Solomon Burke recorded, called 'None Of Us Are Free' which expressed a similar sentiment, "none of us are free if one of us is chained".
“Brilliant,” he says, obviously enthused. “I was looking for the story in this song, looking at all the angles and trying to find my entry point, and I came across a JFK quoting James Boyle O'Reilly. When had escaped Australia, he got to America, and planned a rescue mission.”
For the men left behind him?
“For the men behind, in 1872 or something! It's absolutely incredible, you couldn't write that, no phones or Internet or whatever, just plan an international breakout!”
That is pretty incredible.
“Anyway, Kennedy quoted John Boyle O'Reilly saying, "No man is free when free alone". And bang, that was the way in. Maybe it influenced that other song you're talking about as well, but I thought it was a brilliant line. And that was what gave me the opportunity to talk about now.”
The notion that all flags are the same when covered in blood in 'Have You Not Heard The War Is Over' is a powerful one.
“It was a personal epiphany to me, and when I say a personal one, I mean I'm not claiming that this thought is anything new, lots of great people have figured it out. But it kind of occurred to me a couple years ago that it's actually what people see as different about other people, that is the problem in the world. When one race or when one person is able to say that those people are different, that gives them the license, or the belief that they have license, to do whatever they want, and to plunder and to take things from those people. Nations do it and neighbours do it, just by saying what's different but if people concentrate on what they have in common, you'd have far less problems. So any of these things, flags, and, and...”
“Anthems and things that pump up your own identity and nationalism and celebrate it. It might have been Kennedy again who said that patriotism is a brilliant thing, when it's used to show the love for your country but not when it's used to say you hate other cultures.”
There would be a small smidgen of that running through Irish folk music though.
“There would be. Well, I suppose we have great firsthand experience of being the downtrodden.”
Having said all that – and we’re not finished yet - I hear 'Zeus and Apollo' as a personal song, a song about fathers and sons. It may even have reminded me of my relationship with my own father, and not just because we were both beautiful looking, godlike men. Fathers sometimes, for whatever reason, don’t have or make the time to be fathers.
“You could say it's an imagined conversation between a father and son who are not in the nuclear family. There's a lot of single parents out there in those situations.”
The closing 'This Thing That We Share' would seem to be about the delicacy of life, it's fleetingness. "Like smoke in to air", it's a wisp and it's gone.
“That's amazing that you just said that,” Declan smiles, finally acknowledging my great insight. “I recorded a live show at The Abbey last week, and one of my last lines on that was describing this song. I've never used it before, but I said, ‘this is an ode to the fragility of life’. We must be on the same page."
Or perhaps, to borrow a line from his pal Weller, we’re both just at “that dangerous age.”
I ask Declan to tell me a bit about the show, which will have been broadcast by the time you read this. He’d advertised it with the promise of special guests.
“Weller’s on it”
Did he come to Dublin to do it?
“No, he didn't. The plan was to do it together in a venue in London but it just wasn't possible. It wasn't safe. There was endless restrictions and we moved our plans numerous times, so we got him involved by technology because he was really keen, he kept saying ‘I just want to play a fucking gig, man!’ I'm proud to say he loves the songs and he played on six or seven of them."
That's his piano on that last one. You weren't able for it?
“I wouldn't have been able. Jaysus, not a hope, to do what he did?” O’Rourke exclaims in unnecessarily self-flagellating manner. “I didn't know he played piano either, my ignorance must be excused. A lot of the songs were road tested, they had these very intricate guitar parts and arrangements, but that one I had literally only sang it out loud twice in the weeks before I went into the studio, and not with music either, I just sang it on its own. That's the way I write a lot of songs, I write the whole thing in my head before I touch an instrument and that's the last thing I do, but that one in the studio was still very up in the air.”
He’s pulling back the curtain again.
“I could hear the colours of the music but I was still figuring out the chords. The engineer's son was on the school holidays and I paid him a few quid to record a few bits around the studio. Unbeknownst to me, he had set my phone up recording a video and I ended up with this hour-long thing of me and Paul and Ben the drummer sitting at our instruments discussing what's going to happen in this song. It was a lovely thing to watch it coming together, everybody is gazing into space a lot of the time, thinking about what they're going to do, and you can see it kind of coming together. Paul at one stage says about that bit in the lyrics ‘like smoke into air’ that there could be a musical gap there where we throw the music up in the air and it just fizzles. A fucking brilliant idea. All this stuff happened and for that reason, it's possibly my secret favourite on the record, at least in terms of how the recordings turned out because it was so unexpected for me, I was just as much an observer of that one coming together as anyone.”
That saxophone hits out of nowhere.
“Paul suggested he was going to try a bit of sax on this song, this was after I was gone. It was probably that and a bit of Wurlitzer on 'Andy Sells Coke', those two things happened without me being there. He said he was going to get a guy to try a bit of sax on that song, he sent it to me and I sat down and stuck it on. I closed my eyes, but halfway through the song I was thinking 'it must be coming in now'. I thought I had the wrong song, and it just came in at the very end, and I thought, ‘Jesus, hardly worth it there!’ But that was because I knew it was coming. I was expecting it. What if I was just somebody listening to the record, with no preconceived notions. I listened to it like that, switched off that part of my brain, and when I heard it like that, I loved it. It’s just the perfect amount.”
Talking Into The Camera
Before he floats off into another reverie, I ask if it felt weird doing that show in the Abbey, because there was nobody sitting in front of him.
“I thought it would be,” he reckons “But no, and you could arguably say it's because I did a couple of things like the UK Americana Festival, a good excuse to do a dry run where you're just playing to the cameras. I was discussing this with Paul after we did the gig and he agreed with me. I mentioned earlier that a lot of the time, even though there's an audience there, you're not really aware of them, there is a connection but you're inhabiting your own head a lot of the time during the inner workings of the gig. I did miss it a little bit, but it's an easy adjustment. And I felt you could do things on the live stream thing that you couldn't do on a normal gig, like talking into the camera and leading it around the stage. It's hopefully, at least, a unique opportunity and we won't be in this zone for too long.”
Could it go out on tour for you? Is it something people will be able to look back at?
“At the moment, no, it’s a one off thing. The platform we chose to go with is called Moment House, and the whole idea of a moment is like when you go to gig, if you miss it, it's over. It makes it more precious and sacred, but it might show up somewhere along the line. To be honest with you, everybody that had anything to do with it is delighted with it, so I think it's too good to not have out there somewhere at some stage.”
Fortuitous is again the wrong word, but O’Rourke had decided to take most of 2020 off from touring anyway, so the lockdown couldn't have happened at a better time for him.
“I definitely turned it to my advantage,” he allows. “People out there are suffering, because of their circumstances and everything, and my own family all had COVID over Christmas. I think, that aside, there were definite advantages to this for many people. I think you're foolish if you didn't try to find the good parts in it and use the time proactively for whatever reason. There was absolutely a certain amount of luck involved for me, a few of my friends laughed out loud saying you chose one hell of a year to not gig for a while. I was very lucky, I had lots of friends who are scrambling to reschedule tours and everything and I didn't have to do that.”
Has he made any plans for what's next, touring, etc?
“We have touring plans but they are still in flux, we may have to play kick the can down the road again.”
The big question is would you be bothered if they were moved farther away? Would you be sat in Kinvara, looking at the ocean, thinking, that's not the end of the world...
“I am secretly like that,” O’Rourke admits. “There's no point in me struggling against what I can't change. I'm just trying to use the time creatively and to enjoy the family time. When ever, after 20 years of a career and however long of a career I have left if it keeps going, would I have such a long gap again when I get to just enjoy this? When it starts up again, I'll be back at it, so I'm not gonna worry about it too much. The other thing I can say, just to leave it with a bit of a tease...”
Go on, give me a good ending.
“I have done something else. I spent last year working on something during lockdown. I missed one day in over six months, working seven days a week on something that's coming next. I can't say what it is yet but I'm very excited about it.”
That’s not telling us a whole lot. I’ll ask another last question. He’s obviously very happy with Arrivals, and rightly so, but what, in terms of this record, would constitute a success for him?
“There's all different kinds of success,” he reasons, in conclusion. “There's the success of whether it turns over enough that the label are happy but that's beyond my control. I can't spend too much time worrying about that, I do everything I can to facilitate getting it out there to people because that's the name of the game in the capitalist model world that we live in, unfortunately. It's a numbers game and the more ways you can find of getting your art exposed to people, the more chance it has, so we have a combined effort of trying to get that across the line.”
“I've been lucky to have a little thing ever since my first record come out. The first week it went into charts at number five. My manager rang me and said ‘It's number five!’ He was blown away but I was secretly a little bit disappointed that it didn't get higher, that it wasn't a number one album. Ever after that I think I learned a lesson and I never have expectations, I don't spend too much time worrying about it, you make something, you do the best you can with it and before people are listening to it and loving it or hating it, you're already on to the next thing. You don't have time to worry about what people think of something, it's not your business, you make it the best you can and move on.”
Arrivals is out now, and is reviewed here by Lucy O'Toole.