Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Out Of The Question:

An EXCLUSIVE Interview with

By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

(An edited version of this interview appears in Discussions Magazine)

     Though he is best remembered in the U.S. for his massive 1972 hit “Alone Again (Naturally)”, Irish-British singer/songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan does not deserve the ‘one hit wonder’ tag that he has been laden with on these shores. To begin with, he actually scored THREE bona-fide hits in the U.S. in the early ‘70s (“Clair” and “Get Down” were the other two). And unlike most of his contemporaries, he’s never stopped recording and touring. He may not be as prolific as he was in the early ‘70s, but Gilbert continues to release albums every few years, none of which has seen U.S. release. In fact, apart from a few ‘best of’ collections (including a best seller on Rhino Records), Gilbert has not released an album in America since his ‘70s heyday, which is an absolute shame.
     Often said to be a mixture of the whimsical side of early solo Paul McCartney and the moody, observational style of Randy Newman, Gilbert’s unique songwriting style is probably closer to early Harry Nilsson than those two artists. Then again, Gilbert’s love of pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll songwriters like Cole Porter is evident in his material as well. He’s a mixture of music hall, Pop, Broadway, Folk and just about any other song-based genre you can imagine. The important thing to remember is that, to this day, he continues to write songs that are just as good as anything in his back catalog, if not better. His love of songwriting is apparent in everything he has recorded and he has never released anything that he doesn’t sound passionate and spirited about. Gilbert does not rest on his laurels and he refuses to live in the past. He is proud of his back catalog but remains dedicated to the craft of songwriting. And unlike almost all of his contemporaries, he hasn’t lost the ability to write great melodies and stunning lyrics.
     Over the course of 2012, Salvo/Union Square reissued remastered and expanded editions of Gilbert’s first seven albums (Himself, Back To Front, I’m A Writer Not A Fighter, A Stranger In My Own Back Yard, Southpaw, Off Centre and Life & Rhymes) as well as a career-spanning Very Best Of, which covers his entire career up through Gilbertville. Listening to songs like the gorgeous “Dear Dream” or the 9/11 tribute “All They Wanted To Say”, it’s amazing that some of the best songs here were written and recorded some 20, 30 and even 40 years after his so-called ‘heyday’. Seems that Gilbert may not have reached his peak yet!
     The album reissues are sound amazing and look great, which is a trademark of anything that Salvo/Union Square does. Each of the seven albums, which were released between 1971 and 1982, are truly stunning collections of pop confections. His hit singles only tell part of the O’Sullivan story: the albums fill in the blanks with some truly amazing musical musings. There may be a dated production gimmick here or there, but the songs withstand the test of time and each release is highly recommended.
     Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to have a chat with Gilbert, who was gracious enough to talk about the reissues as well as his new material, his love of songwriting and more…

SPAZ: Your back catalog has been remastered and Salvo/Union Square have released your first seven albums in their Singer And His Songs reissue series. You’ve also been promoting your latest album, Gilbertville. How are you feeling about things right now?
GILBERT O’SULLIVAN: I’ve given my catalog to Union Square, who are a very good company. They will release everything worldwide. But the reason that I work, the reason I’m on the road isn’t because of my back catalog. Of course I’m very proud of it, but it’s because I release a new album every couple of years. Europe gets those, but you don’t get those in America. To me, my future depends on what I do new, but I’m conscious that it interests you because you don’t get the new material. But Union Square will release the back catalog, the early albums, in your territory so therefore, it makes sense to talk about it. But I’m very happy with it. They do a good job; they’re a very good company. It’s the firsy time I’ve given away the rights for a period of time to another company.

SPAZ: Being that you are still promoting Gilbertville, is it difficult to look back and talk about your old recordings?
GILBERT: I get offers all the time to do TV shows around the world and they just want me to do an old song. I always turn them down, but what I accept is when I can do a new song and an old song so I never mind that. For me, it has to combine the new and the old. I’m not one of those artists that is just sitting in the past. There’s nothing wrong with that. There are people that don’t make records any more, don’t write any more and they’re very happy to live with their back catalog. I’m proud of my back catalog, but I balance that with what I’m doing now. I like to think that people are interested in what I’m doing now as well as the interest they have in my past.

SPAZ: While there have been reissues of your albums in the past (notably in Japan), why did it take so long to finally do it properly with remastering and bonus material?
GILBERT: The Japanese did a good job over there. In America, apart from a Rhino Records ‘best of’, they did put out a limited box set (through Rhino Handmade), which was really nice. I’ve had offers from American companies to do a best of but I’ve turned them down. I’ve had offers from other parts of the world to do a best of and I’ve just resisted that. With Union Square, I talked to them and it took 2 ½ or 3 years before I agreed to it. Based on what I’ve seen, the work they’ve done with other artists, I felt comfortable that they would do a good job, so I think we’re in good hands there.

SPAZ: Were you actively involved in putting the reissues together?
GILBERT: Totally. Absolutely. Of course, talking with the journalists about the songs (for the liner notes), agreeing with what was put on it, approving the artwork… I’m very, very careful about how it’s handled and who handles it.

SPAZ: Judging by the demos on your debut album, Himself, it seems that you had worked out your sound early on. Has it been difficult to maintain your individuality in the midst of constant musical changes over the years?
GILBERT: I was never really conscious in terms of individuality: I just sounded like I sounded. In the beginning, if you listen to my demos, I was very Dylan influenced. Dylan is a vocalist and Lennon & McCartney are a catalyst for songwriting. So, if you put those two together, you get me. I don’t have a great voice: I have a distinctive voice, I have a good voice. Obviously, I’ve gotten better as a singer as the years have gone by. For example, on earlier albums, I did a lot of double tracking. It’s interesting: when you don’t have a really strong voice and you double track, it sounds really good. But when your voice starts to get better, double tracking doesn’t sound so good.

SPAZ: Each of your albums are filled with timeless songs that are just as relevant and exciting today as they were 40 years ago. Did you ever think that you’d be sitting here, talking about the album four decades later?
GILBERT: I’m very, very ambitious, very determined and very enthusiastic about songwriting. I love songwriting. Everything I do is based around songwriting. Without the song, there’s no artist. It’s a love I have for that. I’ve never sat here and wondered what makes something a big success or not. Or what makes a hit record or what is it people like about me. I just get on with it. It’s blinkers on. As long as you concentrate on what it is that has got you to where you are…

SPAZ: Do you have any particular memories of recording your debut album, Himself?
GILBERT: Some of it was recorded in Las Vegas because Gordon Mills, my manager, was with Tom Jones in Vegas. In those days, you did two songs in three hours. Everything on that album was done in three hour sessions. We’d go into Decca studios and do two songs in three hours, come back and do string arrangements and then I’d put a vocal on in another small session. There was never a period in those days where you’d have a whole day in the studio, where as now you can take a week to put the drums on.

SPAZ: Your recording career actually began a bit before your debut album. Do you remember when you first realized that something special was happening?
GILBERT: The very first session with Gordon Mills was an extremely memorable one. Up to that point, I’d been serving my apprenticeship with record companies. On CBS, the first record I made, I didn’t like it and so I got them to release the demo of “Disappear” as a single because I didn’t like the records I was making with Mike Smith, who was the producer for The Love Affair and The Tremeloes, who was usually successful. I didn’t really care much for what they were doing but I was the new kid on the block and who was I to tell them what I wanted? So, I moved from CBS to Major Minor. I had a really good song written about the death of Bobby Kennedy called “I Wish I Could Cry”. I was really proud of that song. But they ruined that for me so I left them. So, I decided that I needed a manager to help me. When Gordon came along and he liked my songs, the first session with him was a revelation. I was working with great musicians and we did were “Nothing Rhymed” and “Independent Air”, the first two songs in the three hours. Forget the fact that I had no idea if “Nothing Rhymed” was going to be a success or anything. But those two songs were the first time that I’d made a record that I really loved and felt really proud of. I didn’t even care how it was going to be received by anybody. Those are the sort of things you remember. In a sense, from there on in, working with Gordon when we were in the studio was great fun because he produced the records. He wrote songs himself, so he understood the process.

SPAZ: In many of your songs, you sing from a point of view other than your own. Have you found it difficult when critics or fans confuse the issue and assume that you are expressing your own personal feelings? When I was a kid, I truly did feel great sympathy for the singer in “Alone Again (Naturally)”….
GILBERT: I don’t mind. It’s not based on my experiences: it’s based on an understanding of someone in that situation. What’s the criteria for a good lyricist? What the criteria for good fiction? Situations that you believe in. I like dark subjects. They interest me. If I don’t have the experience of being stood up at a church or attempting suicide, I like to think that when I get into the lyric, I get into what somebody in that situation is going through. That’s what interests me. That’s where the love of being a lyricist comes from: the fact that you envelope yourself in those situations. I am very comfortable with people who THINK it’s me. I don’t mind that, there’s nothing wrong with that. Once the song is out there, if your take on what it’s about is very different than what mine was, I would say that you’re absolutely right because it’s your song. Once it goes out there, then its yours so whatever you think it’s about is acceptable to me. I would never criticize anybody who has a different explanation to a lyric of mine than what I actually meant it to be.

SPAZ: You’ve often been compared to Paul McCartney, Randy Newman and, to these ears, Harry Nilsson. What were the main influences that helped create your unique sound?
GILBERT: As a 17-18 year old starting to write songs, I had Ella Fitzgerald Sings Cole Porter. I had Ella Fitzgerald Sings Rodgers &Hart. I was interested in songwriting. It’s like being an artist. I was an art student for four years and when you study art, you go through the history of art: the classics and contemporary art. In musical terms, what do we do? We listen. People would say to me, “How do you write songs? You don’t read music.” Well, none of my contemporaries from 1960 onwards read music…. Maybe Goffin & King did read music… certainly Bacharach did. But Lennon & McCartney didn’t. Ray Davies doesn’t. I don’t think Billy Joel reads music. None of my contemporaries read music. Why? Our ability to write songs comes from a love of what we hear on the radio. It’s the love of music that we hear that makes it slightly different to what people hear: it seems to resonate deeper. Because we’re writing songs, what happens is, in the beginning, you write exactly like what you hear but eventually, you write something that you hope is an original idea. For me, it’s always about songwriting. There’s never a moment when I feel that ‘I love you’ is a boring subject to write about. I always feel I’m learning as a songwriter. I still think there’s loads of ways to write about the same subject that you’ve written about for 40 years. It never fails to excite me when I sit down with a blank notebook, and I haven’t got a melody that I’m going be working on. People say that “Alone Again (Naturally)” is a depressing song. OK, it might be depressing, but I was very happy when I wrote it. People say “Well, you wrote about unwanted pregnancy and getting rid of the baby.” Well, I’m not for abortion, but you put yourself in the situation of a working class family with a daughter who gets pregnant. Does she get rid of it or does she have it? It’s very easy for me to write about these things because it’s real life. As a lyricist, those kind of subjects and areas interest me.

SPAZ: Your latest album, Gilbertville, is yet another great collection of fantastic tunes. Songs like “Missing You Already”, “All They Wanted To Say” and ‘Private Eye” are just as great as anything you’ve done before. Since you don’t release albums as prolifically as you did before, how many completed songs did you have to choose from in order to come up with the songs that made the album?
GILBERT: I’m a disciplined writer. I sit down five days a week, four weeks a month. I just stay there. It’s never a waste of time. All you’re looking for is a tune, a melody. When you get something that you like, you move on, you do more. You just keep collecting melodies. And the key is this: if it’s a good melody, it will survive 5 years, 10 years, 20 years…. Never finish a lyric. If you end up finishing a lyric and not recording it, the lyric could become dated. So, what I do is I try to come up with melodies. When I sit down for the next project, I have enough melodies. There’s no lyrics, not titles, just a collection of melodies. Very important. The melody is that important to me. So, that’s how it will work: I’ll sit down with the first melody and I’ll have no idea what lyrically it is going to be about. But each album will be based around that particular approach.

SPAZ: So, that’s how Gilbertville came about?
GILBERT: For Gilbertville, I always wanted to do an album in Nashville. But I don’t like Country songs. I like Pop songs. We were working with Nashville musicians in a really good studio. It was an exciting project. I think it’s a danger, no matter how good you are, if you use the same musicians every album and you’re the same writer, no matter how different you might think the songs are, there’s going to be a certain sameness about it. The way to avoid that is to vary it, to go somewhere else to do it… to give each album a slightly different aspect to the one before it. That’s very important I think.

SPAZ: Has your routine changed over the years or is it pretty much the same?
GILBERT: It’s exactly the same. I have lots of technology that I buy to supposedly help me to record stuff but, nah, I throw that all away and I go back and stick to the cassette. It’s a comfort zone for me. As a lyricist, I think that there is something in you that allows you to be able to use words. But I think musically, you have to be influenced. There’s a great danger for contemporaries of mine that we lose the melodic touch simply because we don’t like what we hear now and we’re not that bothered by it. I try to avoid that because I’m conscious of what could happen in that area. I try to be as melodic as I can because I feel that it is vitally important. I’d hate to think that I would be dependent on a song that had a lousy melody but a good lyric. To me, they’re equally important.

Thanks to Gilbert O’Sullivan
Special thanks to Steve Fruin, Steve Bunyan and Kevin O’Sullivan

LIKE Gilbert on Facebook HERE

Available NOW:


Back To Front

I'm A Writer, Not A Fighter

A Stranger In My Own Backyard


Off Centre

Life & Rhymes

The Very Best Of: A Singer & His Songs


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