Declan O’Rourke told David Hennessy about working with Paul Weller, addressing the issue of refugees and asylum seekers and how he was devastated by the loss of his friend, John Prine.
Award-wining singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke is back with his new Paul Weller-produced album Arrivals.
Recorded in a stripped back style to reflect his minimalist live performances, it has been described as his most emotionally raw and affecting album to date.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as busy in my life,” Declan tells The Irish World of getting ready to release Arrivals.
Of course he would never have foreseen the Covid world he would be releasing it into.
“I’ll tell you what. It’s so fundamentally different this time around. It’s probably half Covid-related and half just the way the world works now but it’s a vastly different system. And that’s a nice challenge in a way. It feels like we’re getting a great response so far so it’s all good.
“You don’t see anybody. There’s no direct contact with people. Everything is virtual. There’s a gap between you and your audience. You’re not out performing, telling people it’s coming but the fun side of that is that you get to do it all from your armchair and at my stage of the game, not being brand new at it, I really like my time at home.
“I was kind of reinventing the way I was doing things the last couple of years anyway and really trying to focus on getting more home and family time.
“I know that this thing is going to be over eventually so I’m not going to worry about it too much. I’m trying to make the most of how things are at the moment and I of course look forward to getting out and playing for people when the time comes but I think we all just have to be realistic and kind of make the most of it and get ready for when it’s over.
“To be honest, I’ve just been burying the head in what I’m doing. I don’t really pay too much attention to news and hype generally anyway. I think if I need to know something, it will find me because there’s a lot of noise out there and a lot of changing opinions on things. You can spend your life worrying about it and it will change anyway so I tend to just roll with it.
“I had actually taken a break from touring for the first time in twenty years December 2019, from gigging somewhere almost every week for 20 years. I could count the times on one hand that I didn’t play somewhere for more than a couple of weeks.
“I think many families and many parents who have careers and working lives some for this time is a real gift because you really get to spend it with who’s important and share time with your children that we wouldn’t normally be getting and might not get again. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
The title track describes joyful airport reunions, the likes of which we were prevented from seeing last Christmas. Declan says travelling and arriving became an accidental theme of the record.
“It was quite amazing because I kind of discovered this accidental theme long after I had chosen a name for the record and selected the songs. It’s like almost a tangential theme that runs through some of the songs, different kinds of arrivals, if you wanted to look for it.
“I think it’s kind of a self-portrait of where I am in my life at the moment both in terms of personal and professional life because my personal life is intrinsically linked to what I do as an artist. I think when you are a creative person it’s deeply personal and you can’t really separate the two. Even though you do it for a living, it’s a massive part of what you are.
“Some of the record is about finding the balance between home life and work.”
Fans have already got a taste of the album in the singles The Harbour, In Painters Light, Andy Sells Coke and the most recent The Stars over Kinvara.
“There are stories that come through it. A lot of people have, since they’ve heard the singles, been remarking on the storytelling angle of it. That’s something I’m completely unaware of when I’m writing. I don’t sit down and say, ‘This one will be a kind of story narrative’ or ‘from this kind of angle’. They kind of just come out and maybe my leaning is just as someone who likes to share the detail of things. Some people call it storytelling. I don’t know. I don’t judge it. It’s just what feels right to me. What I like, what I enjoy expressing and what gratifies me in that way.”
Paul Weller had been vocal in his endorsement of Declan from early on in his career.
On working with the former Jam frontman and the so-called ‘modfather’, Declan says he was there for every moment even discussing ideas about the artwork long after the recording was done.
“It was a gorgeous experience, I have to say. I was going to joke and say it was an absolute nightmare but it was literally a really enriching experience. Couldn’t meet a nicer guy. He was there with me every step of the way. Before, during and after I was in regular touch with him about every aspect of how it was going. He’s just a really great guy.
“Obviously I already had a kind of friendship with him at a distance over a long period of time.
“I was just just coming to a time where I wanted to make a specific kind of record. It was going to be very stripped down. I’ve never really done it before despite the fact a lot of my performing over the years is based around solo shows.
“I wanted to make a record that reflects that because I’m very at home in that environment both in my writing and my playing. I also felt that people who come and see me year after year would appreciate that.
“It’s kind of a collection of songs that came along that were really pointing in that direction. It felt like now was the time to do it.
“But I had always produced myself and I felt that because I was going to approach it that way it could be kind of a lonely experience and I wanted somebody who gets what I do and really importantly somebody who I would respect enough to accept all of their suggestions and to give them that power.
“It kind of happened in a very organic way. I was kind of thinking in that direction for a little while and I just got Paul’s new record and I was listening to it one morning getting my son ready for playschool and it just struck me all of a sudden that he could gear decades of studio experience into his recording. You could really hear the thousands and thousands of hours and how relaxed he was in the studio.
“I just had a real epiphany and I went, ‘Jesus, imagine how much I could learn by sharing an experience with him in the studio. Maybe he’s the guy’. And I think I text him that day. I just said, ‘Have you ever produced anyone before?’ And it went from there fairly quickly.
“I think I wasn’t prepared for how cool and how nice he was, how good our chemistry was. That was just something I’ll never forget and I’ll always be grateful for . It was done in a lovely way, quite fast as well.”
Declan had just released his debut album Since Kyabram in 2004 when he first attracted Paul’s praise and says having Paul as a fan really helped him to establish himself.
“It was brilliant for me in two very significant ways. He is somebody who has been around for as long as he’s been around and has seen the great, the good, the bad and the ugly come and go. And I was a young buck at the time. It was my first record and for him to single you out and say, ‘This guy is special’ was really, really encouraging and it kind of gives you a confidence to go, ‘Maybe I am doing something right’. And gives you encouragement to follow your instincts more and trust yourself.
“And the second part of it was that it made people sit up and listen as well because I guess they had the same thought. They said, ‘Well, this guy is around that long and he thinks this guy is good. Maybe he’s worth a listen’.
“It became a really nice kind of introduction to lots of people as well, a foot in the door.”
One song on the album, Convict Ways, deals with the chequered history of Australia, the country where Declan did some of his growing up as his family moved there when he was 13.
“I have a big connection with Australia anyway. There’s a few songs on there that have some kind of connection to Australia including Arrivals as it happens. It’s about picking my uncle up from the airport who’s living in Australia for 50 years.
“Around 2017 I visited Fremantle, Western Australia in January and I was invited to take part in a festival commemorating the 150th anniversary of the last ever convicts’ ship landing.
“I think they were maybe aware of my work on the famine. I was delighted to be invited to go out to Australia really for any reason in January but they kind of hinted to me that maybe I could write a song and I said, ‘Look, I won’t make any promises but any excuse I’d love to write a song if I can find one in the story’.
“Politely I said that kind of thinking to myself, ‘That’s probably unlikely if it hasn’t grabbed me by now’.”
Declan has explored historical topics before such in his epic live show, Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine but found Convict Ways a great way to address the modern issue of the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
“Anyway, they sent me some material. I started reading up on it and it did turn out to be an incredibly fascinating story but one of the things that became quite a driver as well was that there is a huge movement of people around the globe in recent times which is being described as the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation: The movement of displaced people around the world.
“In Ireland we have a system called Direct Provision. It’s a hugely significant topic and one full of tension.
“It’s happening all over the world and Australia has had a lot of controversy about their handling of it. I know from living there a long time they have a very chequered past in terms of their immigration policy, ‘whites-only’ policy just in their short history. They have a lot of problems in that regard.
“I just felt that if they were to be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the end of the convict era, they really needed to look at what’s happening now to be qualified to do that. That became something that is very heavily leaned on in the song and it gave me an excuse to really sink my teeth into it.
“Then basically when I arrived in January, I was really glad that I had written the song because when I was picked up at the airport, even though I hadn’t promised it, the first person I spoke to said, ‘I believe you’ve written us a song’,” he says laughing.
“It made it onto the record. I brought it into the studio and I actually thought Paul wouldn’t like it. I thought he would cross it out and in the end he fought me really hard to keep it on.
“That was really nice and I’m really glad he did because I think it fits.”
Declan as been described as ‘the Irish John Prine’ and even had the pleasure of recording and performing with the great man.
Declan says of his Covid-related death last year: “I was devastated. He was a really good friend. I got to know him and shared a lot of lovely times in his company over the last ten years and he was a really, really sad loss especially just to go like that at the hands of this thing.
“He was a brilliant man. He was just a real gentleman, a real sweetheart. He was exactly the same in his songs as he was in person and I’ll miss him dearly. He’s been in my thoughts so much over the last six months. Just for many reasons he keeps coming up over and over and it’s just one of those really sad things.
“Of course being compared to him is the greatest compliment because he was such an incredible songwriter but there will only ever be one John Prine.”
Arrivals is out on 9 April.
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