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Still Driven

Gilbert O’Sullivan told David Hennessy about his new album, collaborating with Mick Hucknall and KT Tunstall and that his song Let Bygones be Bygones is not about Brexit or the Vardy v Rooney court case.

It is now more than 50 years since Gilbert O’Sullivan first had chart success with 70s hits like Alone Again (Naturally), Clair and Get Down.

Now aged 75, in his 50+ years of releasing music Gilbert O’Sullivan has charted 16 top 40 records including six No. 1 songs, the first of which was 1970’s Nothing Rhymed.

The Irish World chatted to the singer-songwriter recently about his 20th studio album Driven.

Numbers or congratulating himself on milestones are not Gilbert’s thing although he is delighted to be able to say he is still making music after all this time.

“So they tell me,” he says simply when we mention it is the 20th album he has put out.

“I’m happy. I’m not into the numbers game.

“When somebody said that to me the first time I was kind of shocked, ‘Really? That many? Goodness’.

“But if I’m doing it still, it’s because I enjoy it so that’s the most important factor involved.

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“I write the songs, which I love to do. I’m still able to write them. And then I’m still able to record them. And I still have a record company that want to release them. I can’t ask for more.

“I’m 75 years of age and I’m as full of the joys of writing as I was when I was 14 when I first started.

“Songwriting for me is the key to everything.

“As I said to my wife, ‘Next to my music, you’re the most important thing to me’.

“The anniversary thing, ‘I am 50 years…’ and all that kind of stuff. I’m not into that. I’m just happy to be where I am, hopefully in good health, and with the ability still to be able to come up with a melody and a lyric.

“I mean, it isn’t rocket science what I do, but I love it.”

Driven follows 2018’s Gilbert O’Sullivan, which was acclaimed across the UK media and achieved Gilbert’s highest UK Album Chart position in almost 45 years.

The album features duets with Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall on Take Love and big fan and Simply Red frontman Mick Hucknall on Let Bygones Be Bygones.

“Duets are kind of fashion at the moment.

“We recorded Take Love and the band and I were really happy with it.

“And I said to my producer Andy (Wright), ‘This might be nice for a duet’.

“And then I said to him, ‘Remember KT Tunstall had a song some years ago, called Suddenly I See. It had a similar kind of feel’.

“So I said, ‘Let’s ask KT.

“We sent it to her, she loved it.

“We said, ‘Okay, put your vocal on. You can do what you want, sing what you want’.

“She did, sent it back. Sounded great.

“The nice thing was that we met up so we spent the day doing the video, had a great time.

“With Mick, because my producer Andy Wright produces Simply Red also produces Simple Minds, the connection with Mick was there.

“I knew Mick was a fan of my music because I met him at a charity show some years ago.

“But Mick had said to Andy, ‘I’d love to sing on his album if there was something there that he thinks might be nice for us to do’.

“So we sent him a track called Let Bygones Be Bygones, which he really liked.

“It’s a kind of softer Mick.

“It’s not the loud, raucous Mick that we’re kind of used to hearing.

“There’s something nice about the duets.”

The only other duet in Gilbert’s back catalogue was when iconic jazz singer Peggy Lee featured on Can’t Think Straight.

“Historically, the only duet that I can really put my finger on, that I loved, was Peggy Lee. The great iconic Peggy Lee.

“Back then in the ‘80s when I approached Peggy for the duet, I didn’t want to pick a contemporary singer.

“I just liked the idea of having somebody I had so much respect for.

“So that will always be very special to me.”

Gilbert has had to correct a few people who have taken Let Bygones be Bygones in completely wrong ways.

“When I tell the audience I’m gonna play a track called Let Bygones be Bygones, I tell them that I’m meeting people who tell me it must be about Brexit.

“God forbid. It’s not about bloody Brexit.

“And then when that football case was going on with the Vardys and the Rooneys, somebody else said to me, ‘Is your song about that?’

“So I thought, ‘Oh my god, here we go’.

“The song is what everybody goes through.

“We all have those things when we disagree with our friends and we’re not prepared to apologize and, ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’.

“Everybody goes through those kinds of scenarios.”

To make the album, Gilbert O’Sullivan had to work around the pandemic but it does not feature at all in the songwriting.

“I wrote all the lyrics during lockdown.

“In a sense, unlike for so many people- The pain, the hurt, the stress of it all- For me, it’s what I do anyway when I write lyrics, I lock myself away so I’m kind of used to being on my own.

“But there’s nothing in the lyrics that deal specifically with what’s going on around us. I tend to put subtle things in.

“I think if I picked up things on this album to talk about subtly it would be climate change.

“That’s a major issue that was always cropping up even during lockdown so I’ve kind of crept that in.

“But I haven’t broached anything on the lockdown itself in the lyrics of this album.

“My mother passed away before this all happened.

“If she had been alive, it would have been a miserable time for her.

“And of course, that’s the sadness for so many people: That they weren’t able to be directly with their loved ones. I mean, it was just horrendous.

“So it’s been a strange period of time for all of us around the world.

“And thank God we appear to be coming to the end of it.”

The song Back and Forth was inspired by a story of racial prejudice that came to his attention, it was the story of a black couple in London being racially profiled by police.

“My lyrics are very often like a newspaper.

“You know, the first page about one subject, page two is about something else but the common denominator can be the hook line.

“Go right back to Nothing Rhymed.

“We had never seen starving children on the television before in ‘67 or ‘68. And it was a shock around the world to see these starving children.

“So that creeped into Nothing Rhymed.

“I do that as a lyricist.

“I pick up on these things.

“I’m an avid newspaper reader.

“I don’t set out lyrically to say, ‘I must write about that’.

“It just crops up.

“I do it in a kind of subtle way. I’m not trying to preach, God forbid, like Bono.

“I’m not out there to preach to the world. It’s just to make subtle hints about something that’s going on around us.”

In the song Blue Anchor Bay he reflects upon his teenage years in Swindon and a trip which would see him and his friends head out to the Somerset beach of the song’s title.

“It’s one of the few songs written about a real subject.

“90%, 95% of my songs are not based on personal experience.

“When I was an art student, we would take a trip from Swindon up to London and we would go to a gallery, see an exhibition or something but one year, the teacher said we were gonna go for a day trip to the seaside.

“Now that’s a big deal back in the early 60s.

“I mean, you can fly around the world now for next to nothing but in those days a day trip to the seaside was considered a big deal.

“So we went to Blue Anchor Bay, paddled away in the sea, played football and then on the way back stopped at the pub, so we had a great time.”

Gilbert O’Sullivan’s legacy and influence has been acknowledged by big names like Paul Weller, Nina Simone, Neil Diamond, Gary Barlow, Boy George, Rumer and Tim Burgess  of The Charlatans.

“It’s nice, of course,” he says of being held in such high esteem.

However going back just a few years there was some kind of snobbery about him in the music press.

“There used to be.

“There was always that thing, going back to magazines that are now gone. So I’m not worried about that. I got over that six, seven years ago.

“But up to that point, it used to bug me that if there was a review of my album at all- If there was a review- it spent most of it on how I looked in the early days and stuff.

“So that hinders any comment about my lyrics or about my songwriting.

“So that did bother me. Doesn’t bother me now. Because those magazines are gone.

“I got over it.

“I’m in a happy place and I like the work I do.

“And I like the respect that certain people have for my work. I can’t complain.”

Born Raymond O’Sullivan in Waterford, the singer and his family moved to Swindon when he was seven years old.

“We lived on the Cork Road, we had good neighbours living next door.

“Dad worked at Clover Meats, big meat factory and was offered the job in Swindon as a butcher and so the family moved.

“I’m proud of my Irish roots.

“All my musical background stems from growing up in Swindon.

“Unlike a U2 or a Thin Lizzy or Geldof, I have no musical background starting in Ireland.

“Interestingly enough, when I was first successful with Nothing Rhymed and stuff, I looked around to see if there was any musical Irish roots in my work and stuff, but I couldn’t find anything.

“I had the Dubliners on vinyl. I had other Irish artists but there was nothing there to connect me with them.

“So I tried.

“The musical roots are the UK but the family roots are there because of being Irish and proud of that.

“It all started for me in Swindon, but as I say, I’m proud of my Irish roots which get reinforced whenever I appear there doing concerts with the reaction they get.

“Concerts in Dublin have always been pretty special.

“I used to go back as a student and I enjoyed going home.

“I would just take the train and turn up at my grandparents’ house and I really liked it.

“What I like about Ireland is the roots are there, they’re very strong and I’m proud of that.”

What was it like growing up Irish in Swindon? “It was the same for everyone.

“The get togethers were always the Irish thing, the accordion would come out.

“There was a lot of Irish people in Swindon but there was none of the racial issues or anything like that.

“The days of ‘no blacks, no Irish…’ I mean that might have existed in London. I don’t think it existed in Swindon.

“I had a weird experience on one of the Irish get togethers on a Friday evening.

“They were all there in the living room and Mum said to them, ‘Oh, Raymond writes songs. Raymond, play one of your songs’.

“So I sang Disappear.

“And I was proud of the song actually.

“And there was total silence, total silence after I finished.

“So I vowed never again will I play a song to people beforehand.

“They can hear it if it’s finished, they certainly won’t hear it from me,” he says laughing.

“They obviously didn’t understand what I was singing about.

“It didn’t connect. It wasn’t an Irish Take it on Again, Kathleen.

“I vowed never again and I haven’t.

“I don’t play to anybody. I’m not somebody who goes in the pub and goes, ‘I’ll play one of my songs’.

“I don’t do that. I keep them very much to myself until they become records.”

Raymond would cut his musical teeth playing with several semi-professional bands including the Doodles, the Prefects and was most notably drummer in a band called Rick’s Blues, along with Rick Davies who later founded Supertramp.

“I moved to London in ‘67 to break into the business.

“The band I was in before that, Rick’s Blues, we were really good.

“We could have gone professional, we were really that good.

“I was the drummer, wrote the songs. And Rick also wrote a bit, but the guitarist and the bass player were on apprenticeships so they didn’t want to risk giving up.

“So that meant that Rick and I had to decide what to do so Rick went off to form a band called The Joint which became The Lonely Ones with became Supertramp.

“And then I became me, created this character Gilbert, cap and boots, pudding basin haircut which was freakish in those days.

“Long hair was the key, was the most fashionable thing in ‘67 flower power.

“I mean, the haircut that everybody has now is what I had then- But it looked odd.

“So I had this image and I would go to record companies who disliked the image but they were interested in my songs.

“I was offered a publishing deal but I wouldn’t sign it without getting a record deal.

“Nobody liked the image but I was that determined that if any record company that were interested said, ‘You must drop the image’, then I would have dropped them.

“I was that determined.

“I liked the fact of being different.

“I didn’t want to look like everybody else. I didn’t want to look like James Taylor.

“I wanted to look like nobody else and I think I achieved that,” he laughs.

“Because the serious side was the songwriting, the dichotomy of how I looked and how I wrote were very different.

“That’s why record companies had to sort of accept me otherwise they wouldn’t have got the songs.”

Gilbert O’Sullivan has headline Glastonbury, been nominated for three Grammy Awards and won three Ivor Novellos including Songwriter of the Year in 1973.

When asked what he is most proud of it goes right back to what he was saying at at the start of the interview, just to still be doing it.

“To have got through it and to still be as enthusiastic as I am about it.

“Lennon, McCartney said in an interview in 1962 or 63, ‘We could last about five years and after that we need to find out something else to do’.

“‘John and I’, said Paul, ‘we can probably continue to write’.

“Little did they know.

“Likewise for me. In ‘67 with my first record company did I think that I would be going on doing this 40, 50 years later? No.

“When you get on with life, just get on with it.

If you enjoy doing something, continue.

Why would you stop?”

Driven is out 22 July.

The single Let Me Know is out now.

For more information, click here.

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