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In Conversation with: Declan O’ Rourke

"I think the biggest lesson I've learned is to let go"

He’s currently in a battle with Taylor Swift for the top selling album in the Official Irish Charts, but singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke doesn’t need the luck of the Irish when it comes to his newly released album Arrivals which has received widespread critical acclaim.

Music Editor Emma Harrison spoke to Declan about Arrivals, the process of song writing, his forthcoming live stream at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and what it was like to work with Paul Weller.

House of Coco

Congratulations on your new album Arrivals. I had the pleasure of listening to the album this morning and I absolutely loved it. I think every track is completely stand out. It feels like it’s your most emotionally revealing and personal album today. I don’t know if you would agree with that?

Declan O’ Rourke

I would definitely think it’s my most direct and personal record. The most emotional. Working with Paul (Weller) was great because even though I wrote the songs, he steered me towards those more personal songs. You know, because there were other ones in the mix too, there were other possibilities.

He very clearly steered me towards the more intimate personal stuff.

We had a conversation early on saying ‘Do you think we should include something in there that might get airplay’ and he was saying ‘Well, you know, fuck knows what gets on the radio anymore. Nobody knows. Just try and make a good record’.

It’s a great record and great records stand up to time and that was music to my ears, you know, because I don’t write with a commercial thing in mind. But you know, you tend to kind of sometimes look for ‘Okay, well, what’s the more commercial song I have listened to that, you know?’ So, it was great to just be allowed to be me and be totally free. Free to indulge, you know?

House of Coco

I know Paul has been a huge fan of yours for a very long time. He’s also cited your song ‘Galileo’ as a song he wishes he has written which must be such a huge compliment as he’s an incredible songwriter.

How did the collaboration come about? It’s such a big deal for both of you to work together (him as he has never produced anyone before) and for you to have him come in as a co producer, because you’ve always done this yourself.

Declan O’ Rourke

It was a huge deal – yeah! I guess a bit of a long story with how he how he came to be the guy. We had this friendship at a distance from a few years now coming up on 15 years or so. And really, just I’ve always found him to be such a sweetheart, you know, a really gentle person, very kind and very encouraging.

But you know, I never never thought of working with them in that way. Or I say anybody because I’ve never really worked with a producer before. But I was going up to making this record. I could feel the songs growing.

I’ve got a young family here and I was reaching a point where I was having a bit of a metamorphosis, personally in terms of my approach to my career and what I wanted out of my life, people say when you hit your 40s, like, hitting a plateau and I definitely identified with that, just, you know, you don’t really give so much of a shift what anyone else thinks, you know, what you want to get more, you want a bit more of a peaceful life. And I had, I’ve made something like four, four records, four years in a row and had self-managed for years and things like that.

But the decision was largely down to do with family and I kind of made this decision that I didn’t want to do that way anymore. So, it’s either got to be done properly and embrace the whole thing where I hand over the reins to other people who were specialists at their field.

In terms of a producer, it was with this bunch of songs, particularly having because I felt they were very stripped back and I personally felt it was going to be like an acoustic record, which I’d never done, even though it’s probably my most comfortable set of clothes on stage, I do a lot of shows on my own, and I’m really comfortable in that skin and you know, that’s the way I write to. With these songs coming that way, I thought I really want a second pair of ears. I could trust them to challenge me and reinforce me otherwise, it might be a kind of a lonely experience.

I wondered what it be like to be in the studio with Paul. I could learn so much. And then it kind of clicked, I was like, ‘Okay, well, maybe he’s the guy, you know’ and it’s the first time he has ever produced anyone. 

House of Coco

That’s amazing – it’s a huge honour to you as well, because he has never produced anyone else and he’s so busy.

Declan O’ Rourke

Well, it was an absolute honour, you know, and I guess it was probably a risk for both of us because you don’t know what’s gonna happen. But that’s the beauty of, you know, I felt personally that I was rewarded 1000-fold for taking that risk and handing over the reins. Because, you know, I knew there was no half measures if you get Paul Weller on board, and he says, Yes, you’re not gonna start arguing with them and say, no, not the brevity there.

So, you accept whatever he has to say, you know, and once the decision was made, it was easy. It was great. And I just went with it. And it was the most liberating thing ever. It just was like, jump on and let somebody else drive and just look at the pictures at the windows.

House of Coco

You spent six days at Black Barn working with Paul? What is he like to work with? In terms did he give you a lot of free rein, or was he quite prescriptive in his approach?

Declan O’ Rourke

He was great to work with and again, going back to the risk because we’ve no idea what might happen, you know but he was obviously lovely. But, you know, you’re no idea what will happen, but it was instant chemistry which was fantastic. He was there for everything.

He had done his homework; he was really into it. But there was no way in the world it could be described as a ceremonial role. He was in the trenches with me all the way he was asking about lyrics and you know, and he listened to everything.

You know, he listened really intently before I arrived there, obviously, we had some opinions on things and decisions. When we recorded, he would sit there and he listened to me playing the songs and sometimes he’d say, ‘do you really need a little bit in there? Could you live with that?’ But he was gentle, you know. He’s been that guy

In any case, he was right, every time!

House of Coco

Would you say this is your favourite album that you’ve created to date?

Declan O’Rourke

Yeah, I actually love it. I love them all for different reasons. But each of the albums are moments in time and you know, you don’t regret anything. That’s the way you have to approach it.

Otherwise, you’d never let something go, you know you have to do the best you can at the time and move on.

I’m extremely proud of a lot of what I’ve done already, and I wouldn’t change it. But for where I am in my life right now.

Yes, it’s the best record I could have made, and I feel great about it.

House of Coco

Incredible! You mentioned that you have to have a lot of songs to bring to the table for this album.

Was it just a case of curating what you had and made your selection based on factors like raw emotion as opposed to commerciality?

How did you create what was going to end up on the album and there’s some incredible songs on there?

Declan O’Rourke

Thank you. I just write as a pastime all year round.  I think over time in my career as a writer, from my early attempts from say in the late 90s, I would finish songs so that I could play gigs, I averaged 10 or 12 songs a year, I might start 20. But I see them, they’re like horses in a race and that I might have quite a few on the go. Then you’re just chipping at them. You know, if you get stuck on one, you just leave it. And sometimes it will come back to you. Because something will remind you and yeah, and yeah, I love it more, you know, in that way, it’s like a process of natural selection.

You’re not trying to force anything, you’re not trying to write something just for the sake of it and force it out, which tends to be crap, you know, what the good ones get finished. And the other ones, sometimes they just drift away, sometimes they come back years later, you never know. But they’re just kind of falling off the end of the conveyor belt.

Right now, I would normally be constantly touring, and I always love going on stage with a new song and playing it for the first time. It gives me both a thrill as well as a challenge.

So, you’re constantly trying to have new material, and this was just the collection of songs that was current and calling out to me over the last couple years.

Going back to what I was saying earlier, I really felt that these songs charted that metamorphosis I was talking about when I felt this shift in my life and how I wanted to approach my career. I was actually ready to quit if maybe couldn’t find the balance, and to live the life the way I wanted with my family, because that was by far the most important thing to my family is everything to me.

I thought I was having to maybe just let it go and I’ll give it my best. Maybe I’ll just do something else, you know? It’s really strange that as soon as I let go after 20 years, relentlessly driving, trying to, you know, build this career and when I let go, it kind of feels like it started to run away, you know? Yeah, I think it’s the most liberating thing you can do actually is kind of just saying, you know, what sod it! I’m letting it all go and what happens happens!

Photo Credit: Lawrence Watson

House of Coco

Well, I am really glad that you didn’t quit music as you are amazing. In terms of your approach to song writing. Is it the lyrics first, is it the melody or does it depend?

Declan O’Rourke

in my early career, I actually used to maybe start off with a plain little riff or a piece of music.

There are so many ways to do it, you know, I can only talk about my own methods. There’s no right or wrong way. But, you know, in my early attempts, again, I would almost have a stream of consciousness, and I just ranted all this stuff. And I was probably still maybe slightly angsty, coming out of my teens.

I really didn’t like what was coming out of it, I would finish the song. And then I would say, wonder ‘what that’s about?!’ I was maybe 19 or 20. I got annoyed with that and I just said I’m not gonna do this anymore. And I stopped, it was probably the last time I had a metamorphosis, artistically, you know, I stopped, and I said ‘I’m not going to write another song, until I can sit down, and I can write a song about something I want to write a song about’ – and I know what I’m doing.

I stopped writing for a year and then I came back. I wanted to be able to write something as well, that was possibly uplifting without being twee because I found that everything, I had been writing was more introspective and maybe a little bit angsty, you know, I wanted something that would make me feel good as well.

House of Coco

That’s actually a really mature approach for a 19-year-old!

Declan O’ Rourke

Yes, although probably I didn’t know what I was doing. You know, I knew I loved music. And I wanted to do it. I wanted to keep doing what I was doing. I didn’t have a career and at that point, so there was nothing to lose, I guess, you know, when I came back it kind of worked, and I approached it differently and I never stopped writing since.

It has to be triggered by something – an emotional feeling or something that really tickles your brain or something that really interests you. It will begin with a thought. I would just say to myself ‘what does that sound like?’ You know, it’s become a subconscious thing. I don’t think about it anymore. But what would that sound like?

Right at the beginning of the very process, you hear something, you just go with that and then the words and the music, you keep marrying them, bringing them together and I find it much easier to do it that way.

House of Coco

You’re an incredible storyteller. You have likened your new album Arrivals to a self-portrait – do you have a favourite song from the album material? What means the most to you? I am sure they all mean a lot to you in every way.

Declan O’Rourke

They do. It’s very hard to pick out one because it changes and when you’re writing each one specifically, they feel like your favourite thing, you know. But, you know, the studio has a very interesting effect on songs. Because sometimes you go in with you think are the best songs or are the leading songs, there can be a shift, sometimes depending on what happens in the studio.

There was this one song, and I hadn’t paid too much attention to it. I had the melody, and I haven’t played it out loud. In fact, I’d sang it on stage twice, but without music. We were in the studio and Paul, Ben and I sat down for about an hour just tinkering with it. Paul was on the piano and I’d never thought about having piano on it and I had a rough idea for drums, and it just blossomed out of nowhere. Then there were just these lovely textures and with this song, there was less of me in it, and it was more of a joint effort. It was more of a surprise to me than the ones that I knew already. That in itself wouldn’t make it a better song, but I just love where it landed.

House of Coco

One of my favourite songs of your album is ‘Andy sells Coke’ as I understand it it’s about someone who has a bit of a rude awakening and sees things they don’t necessarily want to see.

Can you tell me a bit more about that?

Declan O’Rouke

The song is about a reaction to being at a party and it’s an eye-opening reaction to being exposed to a lifestyle that I don’t engage with. It’s essentially a few steps further back along the train than I currently am in my life and I was never somebody who dabbled with coke or anything like that. It’s a horrible, fucking horrible drug and I had that written by the time I got home the next day. I had come up to the city, spend the night and by the time I got home, it was written.

It was just kind of a cathartic reaction, you know?

House of Coco

It’s a fantastic song. You’re going to be doing a live gig on April 14, which is a week after the album is out. This was filmed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

Declan O’Rourke

Yes! It’s our National Theatre, beautiful place, great history and I was thrilled – thrilled to play a gig on a stage with musicians. It was really, really enjoyable. It really surprised me that I remembered how to do it. My last gig had been in 2019 actually so I had a little break.

You know, in the lead up to this record, my new manager, and I decided, you know, just you should disappear for a little while. And suited me because of the new me wanted to just spend time with family and then lock down kicked in. So, it became an extended longer break and I mean, personally, I’ve thrived on it. I’ve actually loved it creatively.

My whole family got COVID over Christmas and we got through really, really well all things considered, you know.

House of Coco

I am so glad they are all doing much better Declan.

With regards to the live gig, can you tell me a bit more about what to expect?

You have mentioned that you have got some special guests…I don’t know if you can tell me a bit more about that?

Declan O’Rourke

I can’t really Emma! All I can say is that I know that you’re gonna enjoy it. I’m excited! What I can tell you is that you’re gonna enjoy my special guests! You know it was a real treat, to be able to play again.

House of Coco

Do you have plans to tour the album?

Declan O’ Rourke

We are trying to put some dates in. It’s not our first attempt, of course, you know but, you know, everybody’s safety has been the top priorities. We are trying to put dates in for the UK and Ireland. I don’t know exactly when they’ll happen. But we will. You know, it’s gonna happen at some stage whenever it can happen.

House of Coco

In terms of what inspires you musically. I know you’ve referenced people like Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell who has been huge influence on you.

Who else has inspired you musically so far?

Declan O’ Rourke

Well, you said Joni Mitchell who has certainly been a huge influence. Certainly, Neil Young. You know, some of the friends I made along the way kind of influenced me there has been some great Irish music like the Dubliners and Paul Brady – this is all amazing music that I was brought up. My parents were very eclectic. When I was growing up, they listen to anything from Motown to Bob Marley.

Dire Straits, Irving Berlin, Sinatra – I love the song writing standard of that era, you know, and they have all had a big influence on my writing. I love Hendrix and I love the Beatles. You know it’s just great music from all different genres.

House of Coco

You started your career in Dublin doing open mic nights. Going back even further you were in Australia, which is when you picked up a guitar for the first time. Please can you tell me a bit more about your journey into music for the people who perhaps don’t know, your background?

Declan O’Rourke

Sure, so I was raised in Dublin and we’d always get the extended family together. After dinner we would do a sing song, and the kids would be encouraged to do something and later on the grownups would have theirs, and it was just really, really cool. You know, even now we have them, we have these family gatherings.

It was a great – almost like an early school or something because it was where we were handed the gift or passed the torch or whatever, we would just love music and performance. It would cut out any nerves very quickly, very early on.

I picked up the guitar while I was there was 14 in Australia and came back to Ireland not long afterwards and started finding like-minded individuals and just playing music all the time. I kind of started writing songs by accident.

House of Coco

You’ve got one of the most distinctive voices I think in the whole music industry.

How important do you think it is to be so distinctive that when you can hear two notes from a song on the radio and it’s instantly recognisable as you?

Declan O’ Rourke

Well, thank you so much. I wish everybody felt the same. It’s a lovely compliment. I just try and use what I have. I don’t think I’m the greatest singer ever, but I just like using it as a bit of an emotional paintbrush or something.

House of Coco

You once famously described the music industry as a scary place quite a few years ago, how you think about the music industry now? And do you feel like you’re kind of, you know, less intimidated by it. Because you’ve just always relaxed into yourself. You’ve had this metamorphosis and your kind of just doing your own thing?

Declan O’ Rourke

Yeah, absolutely. I mean I think, you know, before I got into music, I thought of the music business as a scary place and full of stereotypical evil characters and whatever. It didn’t turn out to be that you know but it turned out to be a complex business.

There are some very hard decisions to be made and sometimes you fall on either side of something and it’s a capitalist world, and the music industry is based on that model. And, you know, that’s not ideal when it comes to arts, but it’s how it interacts with the world and people and it’s how we get people.

I think I did have some experiences, in say, the late noughties that made me not think of it as scary anymore at that point one side, but I didn’t like it and I was angry. I became kind firstly protective and self-controlling of how I put my music out there.

I tried that for a number of years and watched how it worked on that, you know, I didn’t stop creating. I still kept putting out records that I felt like I was putting everything into them. And that I was kind of making the same level of art whether it was for 10 people or a million people. You know, it didn’t matter but the model was unsustainable, the way I was doing it.

You need to get your music to people, in order for it to be sustainable, and to keep creating it at a certain level, to certain standards and to have some kind of a balanced life, which, which I’ve talked about already. And so, all of those things conspired to make me decide that over either embrace it like a big boy or just maybe not do it at all, as we’ve discussed. I was very happy to accept whatever comes this time around. So, I found some brilliant people to work with.

Everybody that I’ve been working with so far, even in the in the record label have been fantastic. You know, it’s been a really pleasant experience. I’m so happy that I made that decision. Hopefully it continues to do well, and I can get my music out there, which is the name of the game.

House of Coco

What would you say is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned in your years of being in the music industry so far?

Declan O’ Rourke

I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is the recent one is that to let go. You know, that was a very important personal and spiritual lesson and everything on many levels, but it probably has been the one to most benefit my career so far. I mean, it’s still to be written and it’s still unfolding, but it certainly feels like it was a fundamentally very important decision.

I don’t know if I’d have made it earlier. would have anything changed? I don’t know. I just wasn’t ready to do that at that time. So, it feels like the right thing now.

I’m just very happy that I came to this point, for everything a reason.

House of Coco

I think everything happens at the right time. In the right situation, for sure. So, what is next for you?

Declan O’ Rourke

 I’m going to continue to evolve as an artist and to create and to make things that reflect what I’m feeling and hope that it finds a home and people and it continues to resonate with people.

 

Declan’s latest album Arrivals is out right now and tickets for his live streamed show are available now.

 

 

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