Meet an old-fashioned wordsmith in a modern world

ON A ROLL: Gilbert O’Sullivan brings his 50th anniversary world tour to Newcastle’s Civic Theatre next month.

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 injecta 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 comfortablyin 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 Istarted 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”.

Gilbert O’SullivanAlone Again (Naturally), Clair and Get Down – all released in the early ’70s and still heard on radio to this day.

His first singleNothing 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 wasa top 10 hit in Ireland and made thetop 20 in the UK and the US.

“If you ask me to sum up my lyrical style I wouldquote a verse from one of my songs: ‘Iwanted 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 thenthe 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.

“Youdon’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 ’90sthat changed an artist’s ability to sample and use another artist’smusic and set the precedent on artist copyright of their music. Hesuccessfully sued rapper Biz Markie for samplingAlone 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 weset 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 personhad asked my permission to sample my song however Iwanted to hear what they plannedto 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.

“Ifound 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 Ihave control over who has the right to use my songs because I own the copyright and Iown 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 50thyear in music in 2017 with asolo 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.

“Ilove itbut I’m not really a 50-weeks-a-year kind of performer like some people. I’m more like eightor nine months writingand 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.”

Gilbert O’Sullivan performs at Civic Theatre Newcastle on March 16. Tickets are on sale now.