Gilbert O’Sullivan

Gilbert O’Sullivan’s latest formidable self-titled album was released last August 2018  and reached Top 20 in the UK Charts, receiving critical-acclaim worldwide, and to celebrate its release Gilbert is performing a series of  rare solo concerts “Just Gilbert”  around the UK that will see him present new songs alongside all his classics such as ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’, ‘Nothing Rhymed’ and ‘Clair’ in an intimate, acoustic setting.

The tour ‘Just Gilbert’ is it all about new material?

It is as a result of the latest album, every time you put out a new album you need to spend time on the road to promote it.  Up to this album it was always the band, I have a great band.  But what we decided to do this time was something more up close and personal, just myself and my guitar player. We played small venues to begin with, so it has developed from there, we ended up going to America for the first time in forty five years, doing shows in New York and Philadelphia. 

Bearing in mind that to take a big band with two guitar players, keyboard, singers, saxophones – you can imagine the cost.  Being just the two of us has worked really well, we recently played Snape Maltings, a wonderful evening and a great audience.  Part of the fun of taking new material on the road, getting out there to promote, is that although you do a sample of new material, the majority of your act over two hours is a combination of all of the best-known songs.

The album has been out since last August and somehow, I missed it. Normally when I prepare for an interview I listen to latest releases in the week before but circumstances contrived against me and I first listened to ‘Gilbert O’Sullivan’ at 5am this morning!

(Laughs) Not exactly the best time to be listening to a new album!

Well I have to say I found it immensely relaxing and very enjoyable.

Well, the involvement of Ethan Johns, the producer, helped the album to sound as it does. He is very analogue. He is the son of Ben Johns, who produced The Rolling Stones in the sixties, did some Beatles stuff and The Who and other people.  We recorded it all on tape and because of that it has retained a certain warmth as it’s not just digital.

Did you set out to create that warm sound or did it evolve in the studio?

Well it was recorded at my home studio, a 48 track, purpose-built studio, built from the ground up in a separate building.  It has all the latest solid-state logic desk but I do have those sixteen track tape machines anyway.  What we have tended to do in the past is just use them for recording rhythm sections.  Now, you always end up on digital but the good thing with Ethan is that we recorded everything on tape.  The process for me is that we meet up, we rehearse the song a few times. Then Ethan puts the red light on and we record two or three takes then move on to the next song – so it’s all pretty live in that sense.

I didn’t know that I was going to be working with Ethan until I met him.  When a new album comes up, I like to work with different producers.  The last producer on the album before this one, Latin ala G! was Peter Walsh.  This time I met with Ethan in London to discuss the project, he then came over to Jersey to listen to the melodies, there are no lyrics at this stage, we picked out ten or twelve and he went away to prepare and I spent the next three months writing the lyrics.  That’s how it came about, it’s not rocket science.

You say that because it is what you do everyday but to mere mortals such as I it might as well be rocket science.  Working with different produces, is that a way of keeping the music fresh?

Ah the relevant point is that it is the same singer, the same writer it would be very comfortable for me to use the same producers but the excitement for me is always about working with new people. The input that a new producer can bring is important I think, getting that variation, that input from somebody other than yourself makes a difference.  Also, given that we’ve had 20 albums out over the years it is good to change things, it become too predictable if you are always using the same people.

One thing that strikes me is your quirky way with words – the simplicity of, for example ‘same the whole world over, every year we get a little bit older’, do you know where this skill with words comes from?

I think the interesting thing is that out of every ten songwriters eight write the words but only two write the melodies – it is much harder to write melodies!  Look at rappers, they don’t write music, but they can come up with the words.  The ability to ’do’ words is in everybody, it is in you, we are born with an ability with words.  But with music it is different, a love of music comes from being influenced by it, by hearing it, by feeling the effect it can have.  That is how composers can write, most contemporary composers from Lennon & McCarthy to Ray Davies, we don’t read music, we do it through a love of music.  I’m a great Spike Milligan fan, I love his use of words, so there is an element of that in my lyrics, playing with words, changing the meaning.

I wonder if you would indulge me and give me the story behind two tracks on the album, one is ‘Where Did You Go To?’ the other being ‘Dansett Dreams and 45s’

‘Where Did You Go To’ is just a fun track. Ethan is not mad about pop music; he is quite organic in his approach to music.  So I said to him, this is your pop song, you are going to record a pop song. And when he heard the words: “…here’s a man, Desperate Dan..” he said “Right, we gotta do that!” It’s a joy for me, I’ve been doing this for so long, but I still get enjoyment out of it.

‘Dansett Dreams’ – I talk about this in the show. The Dansett is the record player we all had growing up in the 50s. 

In New York I mentioned this thinking that The Dansett was an American invention but it’s British. 

My daughters, in their early thirties, have no idea what a Dansett was or how important it was. 

We couldn’t afford albums, but we could afford to buy the odd single, or maybe we knew somebody who had an album we could borrow it.  That aspect of the song is important from a nostalgia point of view, but the song also deals with issues that are going on today.

And of course, on ‘This Riff’ you have the late Chas Hodges playing piano.

That was the final track we did, I wanted to have more pianos on that. We wanted two rock and roll piano players one of whom was Chas Hodges who did a harmony with me, I hadn’t asked him to do that but when he came to the studio, he said “I have this idea…” and it worked.

It is obvious from the passion in your voice that you enjoy what you do but how do you relax when you are not writing or composing or touring?

I am very disciplined. Monday to Friday is all about the music room and work but Saturday and Sunday I never go near it… I’m good at picking weeds, I’m a walker I enjoy walking with the dogs – I’m pretty normal.

Thank you very much Gilbert for taking the time to talk to Grapevine Magazine.

  • 7 Oct – Cheese & Grain, Frome
  • 8 Oct – Tivoli, Wimbourne
  • 10 Oct – Harlequin Theatre, Redhill
  • 11 Oct – Westcliffe Theatre, Clacton
  • 13 Oct – New Brighton Floral Hall, Wallasey
  • 15 Oct – The Apex, Bury St Edmunds
  • 16 Oct – The Stables, Milton Keynes
  • 18 Oct – Babbacombe Theatre, Torquay

For the full set of tour dates click here.