Gilbert O’Sullivan lives and breathes to write songs. It is his passion and his talent, and the piano his constant companion.
In another life, though, he might have given comedy a go. The quietly-spoken Irishman is quick to inject a witty anecdote or quote into a conversation. The delivery is deadpan and he doesn’t wait for a reaction.
After 50 years in the music industry, though, O’Sullivan remains a dedicated and talented wordsmith. The technology might have changed but he sits comfortably in the eye of the storm.
“The state of the business today, it doesn’t really affect what I do to be honest with you,” he says. “As a writer I sit at the piano and write songs. All the technology in the world can’t change that. Mind you, I have all the technology. I have a purpose-built recording studio with everything you care to mention that makes it easier to record but I don’t really like it.
“I still use cassettes. I take the ghetto blaster with the inbuilt microphone, stick it on top of the piano, put in a cassette and off I go. When I started with a piano in the garden shed all those years ago, I used a tape recorder to put the songs down. So nothing has really changed dramatically for me in terms of the work that I do.”
The most important aspect of making music, for O’Sullivan, is the songwriting. He says he finds the process “fascinating”.
The passion is the writing but the joy is the performing.Gilbert O'Sullivan
“If I needed the technology to write, I’d be in trouble because I’m very computer illiterate. I don’t have a mobile phone and my daughter does social media for me,” he explains.
“Songwriting is the key to everything I do. Without the songs I wouldn’t be talking to you.
“I have never lost the love of trying to write songs. I have never lost the enthusiasm that I have for coming up with lyrics. And long may it continue.”
O’Sullivan is best known worldwide for his hit singles Alone Again (Naturally), Clair and Get Down – all released in the early ’70s and still heard on radio to this day.
His first single Nothing Rhymed was released in 1970, from album Himself, and was an instant hit in the UK, reaching the top 10. In 1972 his second album Alone Again (Naturally) topped both the UK and US charts for six weeks, earning him three Grammy nominations.
He had another hit single in the 1980s – What’s In A Kiss? – which was a top 10 hit in Ireland and made the top 20 in the UK and the US.
“If you ask me to sum up my lyrical style I would quote a verse from one of my songs: ‘I wanted to give her my heart but as the doctor observed, what would she do with it?’,” he says.
“At arts school I was into Spike Milligan, his humour, so there’s an aspect of that that I bring out in songs. That’s pretty much my lyrical approach in many ways. I started off doing silly poems and then the songs came and with the piano, the melodies.
“I enjoy lyric writing because I enjoy writing about things that are going on today.
“It’s interesting, the covers I get, like Diana Krall and Michael Buble. The Neil Diamond cover was really nice because he wrote to me and was curious to know what I thought of it.
“I am always flattered, deeply flattered, and I always find it a compliment to me as a songwriter, whatever the version it is of my song. The fact that someone is prepared to do it, wants to do it, that’s the real compliment to me as the writer.
“You don’t set out to do that, you know, you basically set out to write a song and record it yourself and hope that you’re successful with it. So the fact that I end up having other versions of my songs is really satisfying.”
It hasn’t always been that way, however.
O’Sullivan was part of a landmark case in the ’90s that changed an artist’s ability to sample and use another artist’s music and set the precedent on artist copyright of their music. He successfully sued rapper Biz Markie for sampling Alone Again (Naturally) in his song Key of G, and won 100 per cent of the royalties.
But O’Sullivan finds no pleasure in the result. He thinks the decision was the right one, and that justice was served, but he would rather not have had to go through the ordeal.
“Some good came out of the case because we set a precedent that meant from there on, if anybody else’s music was sampled they could use our case. But I would rather not have had to go to court. I had to go to New York and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight a case that was clearly illegal,” he says.
“This person had asked my permission to sample my song however I wanted to hear what they planned to do with it before I said yes or no. And I didn’t like it. The particular person was a comic, and Alone Again is a serious song, so I said no but the guy still went ahead and did it.”
O’Sullivan’s irritation, 30-plus years later, is evident.
“I found it really wrong. First of all, I had to sit in court and be questioned and he didn’t have to do that. In fact the guy didn’t even come to court. I’d rather not have had to go to court. It’s a bit like the Ritz Hotel: it’s like anybody can go in there but can you stay there?”
Out of the blue, there’s that offbeat humour again.
“But I have control over who has the right to use my songs because I own the copyright and I own the master recordings. People have to seek permission. A lot of sampling goes on today but it’s all done correctly,” he concludes, with a hint of pride.
O’Sullivan celebrated his 50th year in music in 2017 with a solo performance at the famous Cavern Club in Liverpool and was awarded a brick on The Cavern Wall Of Fame. And last September he was chosen to perform at BBC Radio 2 Proms In The Park at Hyde Park, London, to a crowd of 50,000 people alongside the likes of Sir Ray Davies and Texas.
“The passion is the writing but the joy is the performing,” he says.
“Seeing people enjoy the concert is wonderful. I meet them afterwards and they will tell me what they thought of the concert, what songs of mine they loved and what songs I didn’t do and I should have done.
“I love it but I’m not really a 50-weeks-a-year kind of performer like some people. I’m more like eight or nine months writing and three months performing. But in that time I get to travel and it’s hugely enjoyable.”
And it remains, he says, a privilege to be able to share his work with an audience.
“All the songs you’re doing in a two-and-a-half-hour set, the 30 or 40 songs, they’re all yours. There’s fast, there’s slow, there’s humorous, there’s serious, there’s ballads. There’s a good mix of songs to make the performance enjoyable. Well, I hope so anyway.”