Gilbert O’Sullivan: All About the Songs (Part One)

An edited version of this interview appeared previously in Stomp and Stammer.

Anyone who listened to pop radio in the early 1970s knows about Gilbert O’Sullivan. The Waterford, Ireland-born singer-songwriter scored a massive worldwide hit with the (admittedly maudlin) single, “Alone Again (Naturally.)” He’d go on to score other hits, including the decidedly more upbeat love song “Clair” (#1 in the UK and Ireland, #2 in the U.S.) and 1973’s bouncy “Get Down” (#1 in the U.K and Ireland again, #7 in the U.S.). In fact O’Sullivan landed no less than 14 songs on the U.K. Top 40 charts, and five here in the States.

The stream of hit singles may have stopped by 1980, but O’Sullivan has remained a reliable purveyor of tuneful, critically well-received albums. Those who know him only for “Alone Again (Naturally)” may have him pegged as a dour, introspective bedsit singer-songwriter, but his body of work shows him to be a writer with a wry and witty sense of humor. Though he’s generally placed in the singer-songwriter category, his music has much in common with early post-Beatles Paul McCartney, Emitt Rhodes and other artists at the mildly rocking and highly tuneful corner of the musical landscape.

His latest release – a self-titled album from 2018 – earned widespread praise; named it among the year’s best albums. Buoyed by that success, in early March of this year, O’Sullivan was gearing up for a tour of the United States; it would have been his first run of North American dates in many decades.

Of course the worldwide pandemic quickly put an end – or at least an indefinite pause – to that overseas trip. But though his plans to perform in support of Gilbert O’Sullivan would go on hold, he was happy to discuss the record as well as his connections to – believe it or not – Biz Markie and Supertramp.

Your most recent album is self-titled. Nineteen studio albums and almost half a century after your debut LP, what made you decide to make this one a self-titled record?

Well, I didn’t. It wasn’t my decision. I generally like getting involved in covers and stuff, and I always come up with the titles. The title I had for this one was Alphabetical Disorder. But the interesting thing was, the record company felt a link between this album and my very first album, and as such, because the first one was called Himself, they thought it might be nice to call this one Gilbert O’Sullivan. So I went along with it. They don’t interfere with the songwriting, but I let them interfere with the title of the album.

This album is produced by Ethan Johns, and it has that analog warmth that you get by recording on tape, as opposed to just being on digital.

Is this the first analog-recorded album you’ve done in quite a few years?

No, I have my purpose-built recording studio here in Jersey, which is a 48 track SSL desk, but every time I’ve recorded here – this album and a previous album – I’ve always recorded on tape. On this album, the nice thing was that Ethan Johns, who is the son of Glyn Johns, the very famous 60s producer, Ethan’s approach is very analog. So, the idea of coming here to my studio and recording on tape … that’s what he wants to do anyway. [The final product does] end up digital, but it does retain that warmth, which is quite important. And that’s what we did; that’s how we recorded. And I think that’s how we’ll continue recording.

Beyond the technical aspect of recording in analog, how did having Ethan Johns as producer make the album different than it would otherwise be?

I’ll give you one good example of Ethan’s approach to production. We would do the first take, with mistakes, obviously. He’d be happy with the second take. We would do one more, and he’d even be more happy with the third take. But it might be that on the third take I, or the guitarist, might say, “Eh, Let’s do one more.” Ethan says, “Well, no need.” I say, “Let’s do the fourth, because in that third one there were a couple little areas…” Anyway, so, we do the fourth one, which is perfect. No mistakes.

But then Ethan would pick the third one! He’d pick the one with the mistakes, because that, for him, was the most natural take. Because you’re not concentrating on the mistake in the one before. You’re just going through it.

Listen to early Stones records. I mean, there’s [mistakes] all over the place. The feel is fantastic. And you wouldn’t get that feel if you were trying to find perfection. So, perfection is out the window with Ethan. And that appealed to me. There might be a couple of little things that I wasn’t happy with, but Ethan would say, “Don’t worry about it.” That’s his approach: mistakes, little errors are not that important if [correcting them] takes away from the feel of something.

Gilbert O’Sullivan received very positive notices, and it did quite well on the charts in Ireland. What sets this album apart from the others that you’ve made in recent years?

The whole key to anything I do is the songwriting. And for the last album, Latin ala G!, we went to Madrid to record it with Spanish musicians. It was great. I was very happy with that, and it got good reviews and stuff. This album more so; we got our first top 20 album in the UK in over forty years.

But I don’t analyze why or how or what. Suffice to say I’m happy with the songs, the producer’s happy with the songs. Why I like to work with different producers on each album, is because if you stay with the same producer, yes, it’s really good. It’s enriching because you’ve worked with each other, you know each other, and it’s comfortable. But because it’s the same songwriter and the same singer on each of my albums, I like the aspect of bringing something new in, someone whose input can be just as important as what it is that I bring to the record. So that’s why it’s exciting always with the next project to think who it is we could get on board for production. Because what they do add is something very special, as is proved with Ethan.

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