The shock of writing a self-portrait and the joy of recording an Ink Spots tribute with John Prine.
Who says you can’t teach a dog new tricks? Declan O’Rourke had built a respected career as a songwriter with heavy hitters like Paul Weller and John Prine recognising his talents, by personally taking full control of all aspects of his career. The onset of middle age and family life forced him to rethink his approach and as he looked to others to take on aspects of his career it has lead unexpectedly to one of his best albums, ‘Arrivals’, thanks to the involvement of Paul Weller. Following his appearance on Americana Music Association UK Fest in January, Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Declan O’Rourke to discuss how Paul Weller came on board as producer of the record, his friendship with John Prine and their shared love of The Ink Spots and the impact Brexit will have on his touring of the UK. He also shares his first-hand experience of the Transatlantic Sessions and sharing the Merlefest stage with James Taylor.
How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
I have found it a brilliant time to be creative and to spend time with family, my young family here, and I just knew we didn’t know when we would get time like this again. At Christmas, the family got together and somebody decided to give everybody COVID for Christmas. We all got it and we were very democratic and equal with it, but looking at my parents, they are still very strong and they are only 66/67 and I guess we had the milder dose of it so we were very lucky. A couple of people had something like a very heavy flu with fever and headaches and it knocked the stuffing out of a couple of us. I personally was really lucky because you wouldn’t have really known anything was wrong with me apart from the tests saying I was positive. It is not something you want to trifle with, that is for sure. It affects people in different ways and I am saying I am a survivor, you know. Overall I have just tried to make the most of it but I think it affects people wildly differently, not just the virus, but your circumstances. People with teenagers at school have struggled with schooling, older people who are lonely and isolated have had a horrific time. I have had some family members go through illnesses and stuff, I lost an uncle over in London late last year and it is such desperate effects on families at a time like that. If you can, you just have to make the best of it and keep your head up.
Speaking to other musicians, some have found the time enjoyable because they have been freed from the road and they had the time to review, and in some cases, rethink their career path, others had been pulling their hair out very quickly and thinking they are struggling to cope.
Where you were in your annual cycle also had a very big impact on how COVID affected your career. I happened to have a record made and in the bag and I didn’t have gigs to scramble and try and reorganise things because I was already on a little break, I was just so lucky.
When did you finish recording ‘Arrivals’, was it 2019 or early 2020?
We actually finished recording, believe it or not, coming into early autumn. It is almost two years to the day since we went into the studio to start it.
Have you changed in the two years, it is your current album as it is just being released, but are you a different person now?
I think the album charted a kind of change and that was my whole approach to my career and family and finding a balance between the two. The album charted that journey and decision, and actually was kind of a manifestation of the fact I didn’t want to keep doing the things I was doing. In the years before I had made four albums in a row, I had toured relentlessly and I had produced those records myself. I was fiercely independent, and I have been since some early battles with record companies in 2007 and 2008. I came to the point where we were starting our family and I knew I couldn’t keep throwing myself that way, I wasn’t bothered about doing that anymore and I was happy to let it go or approach it differently. I sat down and had a little talk with myself, I made a little wish list and said I am going to make a great record, that was the plan I am not saying I did, I am going to get a really good manager, I am going to get a record label which is something I have resisted for years, I’m going to get an international touring agent. They have all happened and I am as shocked as anybody at making that decision. I changed my life and kind of handed over the reins a little bit, I was reluctant to do it for a long time. For twenty years I have been relentlessly driving forward and as soon as I put the brakes on and step back and said I don’t need to do this anymore, the train started moving, it is very strange, you know, and maybe there is a lesson in there somewhere.
You are well into your career, you have some well-known supporters, you have had good press but you didn’t get the commercial rewards particularly.
Exactly, and the bigger thing for me was that I felt I was putting the same amount of effort and resources in to make a record for 100 people or 10 million, it didn’t matter, I was still trying to make that quality as high as possible. I wasn’t getting the return though that would make the model sustainable, I couldn’t keep doing it. I was throwing everything into it with more passion than common sense, if that makes sense, another business model would say you are mad, you are investing everything into this, which is what we do as artists because we don’t really think about the money. There are huge swathes of the industry that are prepared to take advantage of that and that is how we see ourselves in the situation where people have such a little revenue stream or had because even that has been cut off. It has got to change but in the meantime, I just felt that I had to embrace the way it works, be a grown-up about it, haha.
Is ’Arrivals’ a follow-up from your last album on the famine, is there a continuum?
There is one song on the record that I would have thought was a kind of a carryover and it is more in the vein of historical subject matter. It was on the back of ‘Chronicles Of The Great Irish Famine’ that I was asked to play a festival in Freemantle, Western Australia, in January 2018 and it was celebrating the 150th anniversary of the last ever convict ship to land there in Australia and it landed in Freemantle. I was, yeah January in Australia, no problem, haha, but they kind of hinted would you maybe write us a song and I suspect that was on the back of that work. I wrote this song and I was really proud of it but I wasn’t really sure it fitted in with this group of songs, but Paul really loved it and he really wanted it to stay, and I am glad he made me do it and pushed the point because I really feel it is a good part of the record.
You have said in the past you have been stubborn and done it all yourself, and then to get Paul Weller to come in and produce you is a complete change – how did that come about?
That is what you call absolutely handing over the reins. It was amazing that just making that decision was so liberating, so freeing because I knew there were no half measures with that once I asked him on board and invited him there was no going back if he said yes and I was going to have to give over whatever he creatively wanted to do. I knew we would have some kind of chemistry and there would be a meeting of the minds and that he would listen to me, but ultimately I had to be sure that whatever he wanted to do that I was going to go OK. I was rewarded just a hundredfold with that decision to hand it over, it was just so gratifying. Going back to how it happened, Paul and I have had a friendship at a distance for some time, ever since we were both on the V2 label back in 2005, and somebody back then in the A&R team had given him my record and he was one of a whole heap of label mates and he said he really loved it, and I thought they were blowing smoke but he called me not long afterwards, it was a beautiful phone call very friendly and encouraging, and we just had this nice friendship from there. He invited me to open a show for him at the 100 Club, not long afterwards as he was receiving some award, a Brit Award, and he decided to rehearse the band leading up to that. It was a tiny club in Oxford Street and I went and opened that show for him and met him there. It was then just through the years, a kind of infrequent but friendly contact and I always sent him my new record and he has continued to be very encouraging. I was listening to one of his records recently, ‘True Meanings’, that was not long out and I put it on the turntable here one morning while getting my son ready for the creche, and I had been thinking about a stripped-down record with this bunch of songs and I thought that could be a lonely experience. You really want a second pair of ears there that you trust, I didn’t know who that was going to be, but listening to this record it just kind of clicked with me, you can really hear decades of studio experience and just being so comfortable in the studio and I just went wow, maybe I could learn a lot from him. I texted him a couple of hours later and said “Paul, have you ever produced anyone?” before I chickened out and thought about it too much. It went from there, he said send me a few songs and if I feel I can add something to it I would love to be involved.
You obviously thought you were missing something in the past so what did he bring that made you so happy?
The first thing he did was to steer me towards certain songs. I sent him 13 or 15 and there were a couple that you always think, OK they are the songs I have new and you have to throw something that is going to get on the radio maybe because that is the way we are led to think. I kind of had that little discussion with him and he said “Fucking nobody knows what gets on the radio anymore, nobody knows”, just try and make a great record that will stand up to the test of time. That was music to my ears, but then he threw it in further he really went for the more intimate and personal songs just because they were real and honest. Anything outside of that was just may be removed from me from an external point of view and they kind of got marginalised, it turned out to be a kind of self-portrait. We both even had that exact thought when we were trying to choose our running order. We kind of lined up the first three songs and we picked our end of side 1 and start of side 2 and what was the closer all in terms of vinyl. I listened to the first three lined up and went God, that is my life right there. He said it to me a day later on the phone, he was so down in the trenches with me, just so in the groove, and I was very proud of that, and he just said that is your life, that is a self-portrait. That was the first thing he did, to steer me in towards those songs and it made it a braver choice of material.
The next thing was the biggest surprise to me, I have already mentioned it was going to be a stripped-down record, and I had almost gotten comfortable with the idea that it would just be me and the guitar and he would then challenge me on what would be good takes or that needs a little bit of cutting down or this and that, but from very early one he said what I think will be really cool will be to add little textures, maybe a solo cello here a little drums there, and in my brain, I was like whoa, how can you introduce something in the middle of a song when it is just my guitar it will be like a sore thumb sticking out, but I didn’t question it because of absolute deference, let’s try it, and in every instance, it worked, it added to the song and it did not jar me in any way and I just loved it. It enhanced every song and they were just little nuances, a couple of them we had a quartet arrangement, but some of them were just literary a few bars of something and he played quite a few of them, but I thought it was such a great choice and it contemporised it and made it more in the present moment somehow.
You talked about 14 or 15 songs, did you write them with a purpose or were they just songs you had written and were ready to record?
It is just these songs coming off the convey belt, you know. The famine record was the only time that I said I want to write a series of songs that go together but the songs on this were just what were coming out of my life at the minute. I think I said earlier they manifested when I was thinking about my own life. They were also influenced by conversations I was having with friends about the world as it is at the moment, our age group and just our generation. I’ve heard people along the way say that hitting your 40s is like reaching a plateau.
It gets worse Declan, don’t worry, haha.
Haha, I heard this in a nice way, haha. You don’t care what anybody thinks anymore and things. I feel it is definitely true, my 30s were much more difficult as you were just wild and did whatever you wanted before then and you had to get more serious, it was a bit like hitting the speed bumps, you know. I just threw a bunch of songs at Paul and you kind of put them into piles but you don’t usually think too hard about it. I would like to think we have a kind of similarity in terms of our styles of material throughout our careers. I’m not saying that my songs sound like Paul or anything like that, but he has moved through different styles, regardless of what people expect of him or any criticism he may get, I have been like that too. In the lead up to my very first record, people warned me and said that is going to cause you trouble, you have songs in different genres on the same record and people want to put you in a box and say he is this, he is folk or he is that. It is like giving an artist a full palette of colours and saying you can only use red and white, you are crazy you should splash paint everywhere and try everything. I still think I am only an apprentice at what I do, the great masters took a lifetime to become a master in the old days and we are now expected to just come out of the traps as a definitive artist. The great painters developed their styles over decades, you have to experiment and try it all.
What are you doing under COVID to get your new album out to as many people as possible?
It is not the best time to release an album. Certainly, it is the strangest time to do anything because nobody knows what is happening and everything is a moveable feast and we are all playing kick the can with dates. You just have to hope and if they don’t work you move them again. Going back to that decision I made and the little plan I made and the talk I had with myself I sat down here and pulled out every business card I had ever been given, just stuffed in draws and that in little piles, I never thought I would use them again. Out they came and my manager was in that pile and all these other things just came from there. I had a relationship with Warner Brothers in Ireland over a number of years when it was just a licensing type of deal and it was for Ireland only. The Irish office were a great bunch of people but they are not really a label in the traditional sense, they are like a branch of Warner Brothers for releases coming in, they don’t have capital to sign people and invest in their music. That was helpful for me here but I wanted to get abroad of course and it wasn’t very useful to me in that way. To be totally honest about it we spent a good deal of last year banging on doors and trying to get a label to pick this up because I knew I wanted a label, it needed infrastructure and bodies, resources basically. I had come to admit that and it was very difficult to get an answer, we got a few little bites but it wasn’t really happening. I think early last summer, just as I was kind of getting disillusioned thinking this is never going to happen, the guy who runs the Warner Brothers label in Ireland sent it onto his boss in the UK and the guy loved it and said this is perfect timing for this record and we signed this deal and it was as simple as that.
It may have been simple in the end but it sounds like it was a lot of hard work to get to that point.
Haha, yeah we went all around the world to come back to what was under our nose. My dad used to say that to me, you go all around the world and the girl you finally marry is the girl next door, and that is kind of what it was like. That is the simple version and then it was we have to modernise the model now. I didn’t even know I had a Spotify account and you are talking about a guy who has six records out, and four from 2015 to 2018. My manager’s thing was we need to pull you into the modern realm and introduce you to people who can interact with you through streaming. In one way it is the radio of today and it is necessary because we all know the figures are extremely poor but at least you are getting your music out there, that is why artists accept it I suppose. We have done a lot of work with that and the biggest part of it was probably videos. In the past, I may have had the resource to make a video for a record with my own money and we understood in part how Spotify worked in that if you wanted to get on a playlist technically you need to give it to them before the record is out to be in with a chance. So we said well OK, let’s release five singles and then we have five videos and it was a miracle we got the label to agree to that. We had to be really creative with how we spent the money because you could easily make one video for the money it cost to make five. That was just some of the stuff going on behind the scenes, you have your swan in the water looking graceful but underneath the legs are going crazy, haha.
A few years back you were on the Transatlantic Sessions, weren’t you?
Good band, what a great bunch of people. I did it twice actually which I think is a rare treat, I did it in 2011 in Scotland where they normally do it and it was fantastic with a UK tour on the back of that. It was just brilliant to work with those people, I made some fantastic lifelong friends with those people. Then in 2018, I think we had Transatlantic Sessions USA which was the first time they got it across the pond, we played a series of concerts and also Merlefest, which was the highlight for me. I have never been a big fan of festivals because though I like playing them, the conditions when you are on stage and there is another stage with the sound washing over your sound, you are pushed on and pushed off, but Merlefest was just fantastic, just so exciting with 70,000 people and the deckchairs in front of the main stage all watching, all interested you know. Jerry Douglas put me on, I don’t know how many guests in, and I played a couple of my songs and I finished my second song and next up was James Taylor. James came out and sat on the stool and he said it into the microphone but addressing me “Wow, what a song” and that was fantastic, I nearly wet myself, haha. That is the kind of thing that can happen on the Transatlantic Sessions.
Have you any ambitions to work in America?
Oh yeah, absolutely. I have been going out there annually for the last 10 or 11 years, bar this recent time obviously, and one year I think I was there five times. It would usually be one decent tour with bits on the side like guesting. I used to do my own tour in the Autumn but it is such a big market and I haven’t broken it of course, but we are making good inroads and I have had some lovely things happen. I had a residency a few years ago in New York with a string quartet at the Irish Arts Centre and we got a fantastic review by Jon Pareles, chief music critic of the New York Times, and that was hugely beneficial to us. We played at some great things like the Oscar Wilde Awards at J J Abrams studio, Spielberg was there and things like that. I’m getting into some nice places and the music is getting out there but it is just so big we need some help and we have got some people working with us.
If you have Warner Brothers in the UK then that must help.
Exactly. America is still a territory of its own, Warner Brothers kind of run it for the rest of the world and we are still hunting for a label partner over there. As you know I just recently played the Americana Music Association UK Fest and that went really well for us, and I also played the Folk Alliance and got some fantastic reactions through that and we felt we made some really good connections. We got on a couple of big Americana Spotify playlists actually on the back of that and the streaming numbers seem to have taken off a bit. So we have a little fire we just have to nurture it a bit to get it raging.
What was it like appearing at the virtual AMAUK Fest?
It is hard to get a full sense of what you would at a normal festival, as a punter certainly. It was very enjoyable to see people commenting as your thing is being broadcast and you can answer and respond to them. That was one of the interesting nuances of the pandemic, for the first time in your life you get to see your own gig and it was lovely to be part of that.
There are clearly some limitations with a virtual showcase but it probably had the biggest worldwide audience it ever had. Previously you had to be physically in Hackney but this year anybody in the world could sign up if they wanted to.
That is right, it is your chance and a unique opportunity to consolidate your fan base and listeners. Previously you had to travel the world to play to all your people and now you can invite them in and play one venue and get them to come to you from the comfort of their armchairs. It is difficult because you have to access those people and tell them that it is on, and some of them have to grapple with technology to be able to attend it and if people are not tech-friendly it can get in the way but it is becoming a necessity and people are becoming very good at it. With every challenge comes opportunity. Before COVID I strongly resisted having people record a gig and stream it online for me, I was just no, no, no, it is sacred when people come into a room and if they can just switch it off and on at home they can’t have a good sound quality and they are not getting the sense of being in the room and you don’t want people getting used to that, that was my theory on it. It is very different now and it is all we have and if you want to get music out to people you have to embrace it. I have an album launch gig streaming on the 14th April from Ireland’s National Abbey Theatre and it is my first live gig since 2019 as a full concert in a live venue and I am very much looking forward to it.
Are you able to do any warm-up performances before it?
I’m not doing a warm-up but we already have it filmed now, not sure I should say that you know what I mean, haha. We rehearsed for a day and then filmed it the next day. You know, AMAUK, Celtic Connections and the Folk Alliance gigs were my warm-ups in a way. We knew this was coming and we have been trying to build this gig since September or October and we had to push it down the road, at least twice, and so this is our third shot at it because the restrictions kept changing, but those earlier gigs were extremely beneficial and I think if I hadn’t had done those little sets it may have been a whole lot more nerve-racking, can I still sing, haha, are the muscles still OK. They were a great test of doing it on every level, cameras, broadcasting, sound and everything, they were great dress rehearsals for this.
As you said earlier, in this last year you seem to really have changed your whole approach to your career and music.
It comes back to that decision I made, I had to do it another way or maybe not do it at all anymore and that has ended up embracing all this other stuff as well. I guess for anybody creative at the moment, if you want to, you can continue what you are doing and continue to make an impact that is meaningful to you. You could say it is a necessary evil, but we have already said it is also an opportunity and it is hard sometimes just to come to that decision where you go OK, I am going to grapple with this. A decision is the hardest part of anything, once you make it you just go.
You have said your own music is hard to categorise with you doing what you want. Who are your own go-to influences?
My favourite records to go back to those that give me comfort and influenced what I am doing are Joni Mitchell for starters, I can’t overestimate the influence she has had on me both in my learning to sing, I could always sing since school but when my voice broke I abandoned it because this thing was down in my boots and I couldn’t sing anything I liked anymore, I was just going to become the greatest guitar player in the world for a few years. I started writing songs and then I found I was singing along to Joni’s records a lot, ‘Ladies Of The Canyon’ was the big one, and I re-learnt to use my voice and to sound like me. She was such a huge influence as well as Paul Brady, Andy Irvine, Planxty and there are some go-to records as well, ‘Andy Irvine Paul Brady’ from 1978, there are just lifelong records I can always go back to The Beatles, anything by the Beatles really, and you then have people like John Prine and James Taylor. There are a million people I could name, I just love good songs and I think that is what makes me a person who doesn’t stick to one thing, I don’t follow a particular sound and when a song is great it doesn’t matter where it came from. I really follow songs rather than people but those are the people I would follow a lot.
Did I read somewhere that you actually recorded with John Prine?
I did, I did, haha. He became a great, great friend of mine and I met him through a mutual friend Maura O’Connell in the States, another Transatlantican, and she lived in Nashville near John and she became a supporter of my music from my first record. I believe she bought a box of my records from Ireland and sent them to all her friends, some good heavy hitters over there, you know. She gave John my first record and she told me that he sat down next to the speaker and he kept playing the first song over and over. It was a few years before we met and it turned out he had a holiday house in Kinvara, and I move to Kinvara a couple of years after my first album in around 2007. I heard rumours that he spent time around here and we met here eventually, we used to have these little secret music sessions where we would just go to the pub, a few of us, and just play songs for each other. They always became invaded by the entire community, it was bedlam, he just secretly let the word out, haha.
He was just the most beautiful man and such a sweetheart, very charming and funny, witty and kind, encouraging and a real gift to know, and it is such a shock still that he has gone, just coming up a year almost. He and I discovered very early on we had a shared love for The Ink Spots, and they had the recitation in the middle of the song, I had never heard the word recitation actually and I sang one of them the first night John and I were at one of these sessions, he was giggling and said he had never heard anyone do that before with a high voice and a low voice, and he started introducing me to his favourite recitations and there was this one ‘This Old Gang Of Mine’ and he used to keep doing this little recitation. I then kind of had this idea of writing an Ink Spots song, a tribute to them, and I will invite John to do the recitation on ‘Let’s Make Big Love’. He said so you like my singing so much you want me to talk on your record, haha. He came around and we did it right here, right here, we had microphones set up in my studio and we sang on the same mic and we did it in one take. It was fantastic, we had Philip Donnelly who has been on John’s records and he has done a lot of work at Sun Studios when he worked for Sam Phillips and he recorded with The Everly Brothers. He toured for years with John and he was an Irish guitar player who spent the bulk of his career in Nashville. So Philip was here, and he played on different songs on the same record actually, and we were getting set up and sitting on the couch and I had handed John the lyrics on a piece of paper and he had heard the song before, and he said will we have a little run through which was cool so I started singing and John was scatting away and toying with his recitation, his part, and Philip kind of interrupted us and said “Hey, you are missing it man, this is it, you should be recording it.” So I said OK. It was an amazing experience, so we got on the mic, and my friend Paul was engineering for me, so we kind of hit it and did it in one take, boom. We finished that version and it went great and my natural reaction was just to say let’s do another one, just because that is the way I’m used to recording. I don’t think I even said it, I thought it and I was ready to do the next one, and Philip got up and he went to leave the room and he said I’m going downstairs, and I thought he was going to get a drink of water or something, and I said will we wait for you before we go again and he stopped on the stairs and said “What do you mean go again, that was it.” And John said “Do you want to do another one?” and I said well maybe not. We did do one more just to be safe, but we didn’t need it because when I listened back to it, it was just there, perfect. It was such an eyeopener, I feel in a way we have passed the torch in just a little way, and it was a lifelong memory and experience, a gift.
Is there anything you want to say to our readers?
Listen to my record, haha. Come and see me when you can, tell your friends.
Will Brexit have an impact on your visits to the UK?
I guess it will but in ways I don’t understand fully yet. I know it will be difficult coming into the UK to do a gig and I will now be a European from the outside world, and vice versa. It is going to be different and I heard the other day from someone in Ireland who has done a course in Customs and what have you, that if you have an artist coming into Ireland, and I presume it works both ways, you have to declare your merch that you are bringing in but you have to pay your customs up front, whether you sell any or not. That is legal, you could bring in 300 CDs and you could sell 50 or something and what happens when you are going back can you reclaim the rest or do you have to pay again. God forbid that is the case and that is just one instance, it is going to be different and difficult. I would like to think we could see this challenge as an opportunity but I don’t know whether it is going to be. At the same time, we will just have to tackle it and we will find a way around it because this is what we do, and I look forward to going to play some shows.
Declan O’Rourke’s ‘Arrivals is out now on Eastwest Records
Details of Declan O’Rourke’s global streaming showcase concert for the launch of ‘Arrivals’ from Ireland’s National Abbey Theatre on 14th April are available here.