Originally from Dublin, Declan O’Rourke began playing music at the age of 13 and released his debut album Since Kyabram (named after the Australian town where he was given his first guitar by a local priest) in 2004.
In the years since, he’s won critical acclaim – particularly for his third album, 2011’s Mag Pai Zai – and his songs have been covered by artists including Josh Groban and Christy Moore. He’s also been recognised by musical legends such as Ronnie Wood, Chris Rea and Paul Weller, who produced his upcoming seventh LP, Arrivals, which is due for release in February 2021.
I recently caught up with Declan to talk about the album, his experience of working with Weller, how he approaches his songwriting, live stream performances and more.
Your new record Arrivals is coming out in February – can you tell us more about that?
I think it feels like a bit of a self-portrait of my life at the moment, I guess. I’m in my forties, it seems like a bit of a plateau if that makes sense. I think twenties and thirties have their own kind of vibes going on. But forties, a lot of the songs were born out of conversations with friends of a similar age and, y’know, talking about where we are in life but also the world, the way it is for our generation. But the common feeling was kind of that you know what you want a bit more at this time in your life. You’re kind of a bit more at peace and it’s a nice feeling, y’know?
I guess it’s also me reflecting on how my life’s been and with what I do for a living. I think when you’re a creative person it’s very hard to separate it – it’s something intensely personal, but the business side of it and the work end of it, it is tricky. The more success you get the harder it is to find balance. Even without success, if you’re driven and ambitious and you spend so much time, and it can be all-consuming in ways that are both enjoyable and some that are not. So part of the record was me figuring that out and finding out how to balance it more. It’s quite nice but also it’s mad in some ways, what I was singing about, y’know?
You’ve worked with Paul Weller as a producer on the album. How did that come about and what was he like to work with?
It came about through… it was kind of quite an organic thing really. But we’ve had kind of a friendship at a distance over a long period of time now, going back to 2005 or 2006 when we were labelmates on V2 Records and somebody gave him my record. I was told that he really liked it and I didn’t believe the person that was telling me. I thought they were just trying to [laughs] blow smoke or what have you. And y’know, turned out they were telling the truth and he really did like it and he said some very nice things that were really encouraging to me. And we developed kind of a friendship from there, slowly and gently over the years and at a distance like I said. But it was kind of, every once in a while. A nice respect there. I would send him my new records, kept up on his, and he continued to say nice things over the years as well. It was just really, really nice to hear. So I kind of felt like there was a nice channel open there, in a way.
I’d never had any real idea of working with him or doing anything like that, but I was in the time leading up to this record early last year and I knew that I wanted it to be a certain kind of record. Which was, y’know, kind of in the gear of some of my favourite records of all time – quite stripped back. I’d say probably 70 per cent of my shows over the years are just me and a guitar anyway, and I think I’m really, really comfortable in that realm – both in writing and in my performing. But I had never done that on record. It’d always been dressed up in something or other. And there’s a purity and simplicity to just the core of things, and so I kind of wanted to capture that. Y’know, not just in principle but because the songs that were coming were leaning in that direction.
I normally produce myself, and I knew that making a record like this and producing yourself probably wouldn’t go together so well. It might be a lonely experience, y’know? [laughs] And I guess I wanted a really trustworthy solid pair of ears to bounce things off and somebody who I would be happy to give that control to as well and tell me what to do a little. And I was in touch with him and I had been listening to his latest record early last year. I really liked it and I could hear decades of time in the studio and the experience, y’know? It just kind of struck me one day that I could really learn from somebody like that, and how much I’d enjoy maybe sharing the experience with him. Because we had the distant friendship – we’re separated by the Irish Sea for a start – and I just thought, “maybe it’d be a nice thing to actually do something together and share in the experience and have a bit of fun”. And making a record was a good excuse to do that.
So I asked him and he said yes, and then it was just really, really wonderful – really enjoyable experience. Couldn’t have been prepared for how nice a guy he was and how well we connected – really nice chemistry. I loved everything he had to suggest. I’m not an easy person to please in that regard, I usually know exactly what I want and what I don’t want. And so I felt it was kind of a gamble in a way, because I didn’t know him all that well either. There’s one similar thing, although my career is almost a baby career compared to his obviously – I’ve been around a while. But I noticed that he shifts around in the style of what he’s doing from record to record and that kind of cut across my career as well. And so, y’know, I knew that he wasn’t going to try and make it into a mod record. But there was a bit of taking a gamble but it was hugely rewarding – it came back to me in spades.
Were there any songs that were particularly easy or particularly difficult in terms of the writing?
I don’t think anything was particularly difficult, no. I tend to chip away at songs, and the ones that I like get finished. They’re kind of like horses in a race – you could have five or ten songs on the go at any one time and you just kind of chip at them. It’s almost a pastime, just constantly constructing. Some of them fall away and they don’t do anything or you just get stuck. I think any ones that you do finish, y’know, generally have some kind of enjoyable quality to them. So I don’t think you struggle. You struggle sometimes in a creative way to achieve what you want to get out or to build the vehicle for it, but not in a way that’s painful, y’know? But every song you write is like learning to ride a bike again, they’re never the same.
You’ve got a virtual show coming up as part of AmericanaFest UK in January – what can people expect from that?
It’s just gonna be… well, it’s hard to know myself to be honest, because it’s a new world we’re entering – y’know, the virtual world of live performances. I haven’t really done very much of it at all. I’ve kept quiet all year in that regard. I know most performers have been doing something – it feels like that anyway. So I guess we’re just gonna film in a really nice place. I’ll have a few musicians, a string quartet. It’s just like a 10- or 15-minute set because there’s quite a few artists.
It’s been three years since your last record [2017’s Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine]. Do you think your approach to your music has evolved since then?
Fairly significantly, I think. And more in ways of – how do I say this? I guess maybe three years ago or so we had a baby, a little boy, and for the four years previous to that I had released an album every year. And y’know, that’s really intense going in terms of schedules. It’s like 24/7 round the clock for four years. And I was an independent artist as well all through that, and you’re kind of doing most of the work yourself, not just the creative stuff. And we wanted to start a family and it was really, really important to me to be able to make the two things work together – not be throwing myself against the wall day in day out all year round, y’know? So I kind of decided I need to change the way I do things and make things count more, maximise the work I do.
A friend of my father’s actually said something to me, and he’s a creative person himself but with some business experience and training in his arsenal as well. We were talking about things and he said, “The thing you need to do is, that you need to increase your yield”. And I said, “What does that mean?” And he said, “Well you need to be doing less so that you have more time to be at home and be around family and all that”. And I was like, “Yes, that’s music to my ears!” [laughs] And, y’know, I kind of made a very conscious decision that that’s what I was gonna do because I couldn’t keep doing it the way that I was doing it, and I had to get help on board, and really re-evaluate a lot of things. Some of the songs, like I said, we’re going full circle now, were me kind of figuring that out. And I feel like in many ways it’s kind of manifested now with how I wanted it to happen. That’s really nice for me.
What’s next on the horizon for you? Is the album the big focus over the next six months or so?
Yeah pretty much. Just get the record out and promoting it and preparing for when live gigs will happen again. And apart from that I think just making the most of things. And with all respect to people who have most definitely suffered through this time, I think there are benefits for a lot of people as well – unexpected upsides to it. And I think, y’know, making the most of those things and time to reflect on how you’re spending your life, things that you’ve wanted to do for yourself for a long time and all of those things. I had actually started to, last December, before any of this pandemic stuff happened at all, I took time off from live performing for the first time in 20 years and it was going to be until autumn this year. Now that’s obviously going to be a lot longer but I was kind of in the mode already. I’m just trying to make the most of that because I don’t know when the next time I’m going to have such a big break is, y’know? It’s being creative as well and using it for good.
Declan O’Rourke’s new album, Arrivals, is out on 5th February 2021 on Eastwest Records.