Driven to Tour Again, Naturally
By Jay S. Jacobs
Gilbert O’Sullivan sure believes in making up for lost time. The 1970s hitmaker – who had three chart-topping hits in the US, “Alone Again (Naturally),” “Clair” and “Get Down” – had not played a live gig in the US since 1973 when he did a couple of US shows in 2019. Born Ray O’Sullivan, he sold tens of millions of albums in the 1970s and was named the male singer of the year in 1972.
He’s since had a long, fruitful career as a singer and songwriter, releasing many records and touring over the years throughout Europe and Asia. But somehow, he never made it back to the States as a live act until just four years ago.
Now, O’Sullivan is on his third tour in the last four years in the United States. In fact, he had a tour planned in 2020, but it had to be postponed until the next year due to the COVID pandemic, which shut all touring down around the world. (We actually spoke with O’Sullivan about the planned tour in January of 2020.)
Now he has a tour planned for this year with himself and his long-time guitarist Bill Shanley, starting in Boston on March 11 and rolling through eight cities before closing in Nashville on March 22. He’ll be hitting Philadelphia at the City Winery on March 15.
Also, O’Sullivan recently released his latest album, Driven, which has been gaining huge buzz and appreciation worldwide. The single, “Take Love” with guest vocalist KT Tunstall, has also caught people’s attention.
We caught up with O’Sullivan a few weeks before the start of the tour to chat about life on the road and the long, rewarding life of being a singer/songwriter.
You hadn’t done any performances in the US for 43 years. Now, you’ve done US tours in three of the last four years – and of course, the 2020 tour was postponed due to COVID. What made you think it was time to return to the States? Do you plan on continuing to do it annually now that you’ve broken through and started coming again?
It all stems from way back in ‘73, when, after having three-million sellers in America with “Alone Again (Naturally),” “Clair” and “Get Down,” I was beginning to tour in Europe and the UK. It was decided that we would have the first American tour. So my manager had to make the decision. Remember, this is not my department. (laughs) I write songs. I make records. I sing. I leave all the organizing all the touring to other people. Anyway, my manager Gordon Mills, who managed Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck, had to make a decision. With three million sellers, does he [have me] go out on his own and do what Tom and Engelbert are doing, big theaters? Or does he [have me] support the Moody Blues? Because you know what happens, you support a major act, and then you become a major act, but the support act.
He had to make that decision. Not my decision. They made the wrong one. Other than Carnegie Hall in New York with just me, which was a lovely show. Once I went out to bigger arenas, it was becoming a bit of a disaster. The tour got pulled. It was a wonderful disaster. I mean, we had a private plane, an orchestra, really nice people, but it got pulled. That was the end of my touring in America. Then we go through to the early ‘90s. [I’m] getting a band together. By the middle ‘90s, I’ve got a really good band. I still have them, of course. We tried to get into America, but the cost of bringing a band into America, as you can imagine, is pretty high.
It just wasn’t feasible. Three years ago, my guitar player [Bill Shanley] and myself decided we would do up close and personal intimate concert, just the two of us, around Europe, UK and Ireland. Over two hours, and people would get to hear the songs very up close and personal. It’s good to hear the words more clearly. That then opened the door for [the US]. As a result of that, with it being the two of us, the offers came in. (laughs) After such a long time, it’s nice to think that we got there eventually.
Most of the shows that you’ve done in the States over the last few years have been at City Wineries in different cities. How did the connection with City Winery happen?
That’s not my department, Jay. I leave that to management. It’s their department. They’re the ones. I’d always said in the ‘90s, “How can we get into America? Keep chasing with the band.” Then of course, you came on board when it was down to just the two of us, so that was out in the way. I don’t know why the Wineries. They’re good venues because they’re intimate, up close and personal. Those are ideal venues for appearing in. But I’m happy to be playing anywhere. Just to be able to get to America, after all, it was a real plus factor.
You released Driven last year and that was, I believe your 20th album. How has recording changed over the years?
Well, ironically enough for me, it hasn’t changed much. With me, it isn’t rocket science. The last album, the one before, the one before that; here’s how it works. I decide on a producer. I like working with a different producer [each album]. Why? Because it’s always the same writer, always the same singer. The producer brings his aspect to the table. That can vary and it can be interesting. So I meet the producer, agree with a producer, then he has to hear the songs. I play him the 12-13 melodies without the lyrics written. He picks the 12 he likes. I go away and write the lyrics. Studio session is set up. We go into the studio. I meet the musicians. I allow the producer to pick the musicians. I think that’s a good thing. I could choose musicians, but I feel that the right producer, he’ll know good people.
That makes sense.
So, I meet them for the first time in the studio. They stand around the piano, after we shake hands and stuff. I play the first song, any song on a piano. They go back to their chairs. We rehearse it a few times. And we take it. That process is how it’s been and how it is. It isn’t like rocket science. We don’t spend three days with the drum machine. We don’t spend days and days doing overdubs. It has a live feel. Not intentionally, it’s just because it works. We see no reason to change that. We’re in an era now where real drumming is almost out the window. How many records you care to mention, it’s drum machines. That used to be the 80s thing. In the 90s real drums came back and now here we are back to drum machines. But I like having the real drummer there.
The single “Take Love” is a duet with KT Tunstall, who is great. I interviewed her years ago. How did you decide to have her be a part of the song and what was she like to work with?
That came about because we finished recording the track and I said to Andy [Wright], the producer, “This could make a good duet.” We thought about who we might want to get. I said to Andy that KT Tunstall had a song some years ago called “Suddenly I See,” a really good song. That’s not a dissimilar feel to what we were doing with “Take Love.” So let’s approach KT. As you probably know, she lives in California. We sent her the song. She loved it. Then we sent her the parts. I told her, “Sing what you want.” It was great. The lovely thing about all that was that apart from it being a really good record together, she came to London before the record was released, and we spent the day doing a video. I hadn’t done a video in about 30-odd years. Spent time with her talking about music and stuff. Really good. Nice person to work with. Very talented, too.
Mick Hucknall also appeared on “Let Bygones Be Bygones.” How did you get involved with him?
Again with Andy the producer. Andy Wright produces Simply Red. He [also] produces Simple Minds. And he’s produced Simple O’Sullivan. (laughs) He goes to see Mick. I knew Mick was a fan because I had met him at a charity show, just to say hello to some years ago. Anyway, Andy would go down and visit Mick while we were recording. He came back and said that Mick had said to him, “If Ray’s got a song that I could sing with him as a duet, I’d love to do it.” We sent him a couple down there and he chose “Let Bygones Be Bygones.” [It’s a] nice version, because it’s a softer sounding Mick, not the kind of raucous Mick Hucknall you hear on Simply Red. It was really nice to have him.
Driven has done rather well as did your last album, Gilbert O’Sullivan. How gratifying is it that there was still a big audience waiting to hear new work from you?
I was always troubled in the past with reviews. I rarely get them because of how I presented the image that I presented. But ironically enough, Driven has got the best reviews I think I’ve ever had. That’s really nice. That’s the business justifying me continuing. It’s one thing to be making records now that nobody notices. But if you’re making records, writing songs that people are talking up… yeah, I don’t mind. (laughs)
When you were getting started, could you have ever imagined that you’d still be playing music for a career after all this time?
We didn’t really think like that. Because you’re young, and you’re just enjoying the moment. You’re not looking beyond what’s really going on. You have that famous incident; the Beatles when they were in the dressing room, they were being asked by a British reporter, “How long do you think this will last? And what do you think you’ll do?” So Ringo said, “Probably last a few years, and I’ll become a hairdresser.” John and Paul said, “Well, maybe, we could continue writing songs for some years.” But they never saw beyond a few years. I think it surprises us all.
The thing about what I do, if I wasn’t writing songs, I wouldn’t be talking to you. But the joy of songwriting is still there. I mean, I have that hunger for it. Hence the title of the album Driven. I am driven because I come up with the goods. Then if I come up with the goods, you want to get them out there to whoever is interested. I love it, so long may it continue. As long as I’m able to do it.
Your first big hit, “Nothing Rhymed,” was inspired by world hunger. How did that come about? It’s surprising looking back that you were so ahead of the curve on writing on that subject. So many people have written about it since then, but I can’t think of anything before that.
Here’s what happened. On television [they showed the starvation in] Biafra. We saw for the first time, starving children and stuff. Nobody had seen that on TV before. It just shocked everybody. The whole of the UK, where I was living in London, were just shocked by the images of the starving children. So that got into the song. My songwriting is often done like a newspaper. Page one can be about one subject, page two could be about something else, the common denominator might be the hook line. So I brought that in.
I remember Richard Curtis, the film director [he wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and directed Love Actually], he gave a speech on television a few years back, talking about some of the work he’d done. He said he drew great inspiration from seeing Gilbert O’Sullivan singing about starving children. “Nothing Rhymed” became a very special song for a lot of people, which is really nice. And you’re subtly bringing that subject up [in the song], you’re not out there becoming other than a singer. You’re just making people aware that this is going on and maybe we should do something.
Another song of yours that was big that made people aware of things is “Alone Again (Naturally),” which is such a beautiful song, but it’s lyrically so sad. I know that it’s in no way autobiographical to you but was it difficult as a songwriter to get into such a desperate headspace?
No. Just before I started writing that I had been still working as a postal clerk in London, earning 10 pounds a week and writing early in the evening, or on the weekend. So when Gordon Mills signed me up, I was able to write full time, and gain 10 pounds without having to be a postal guy to do it. I was in heaven. I was able to write during the day. One of those days, I was coming up with “Alone Again.” I’ve always said, you don’t have to [have] experience to be able to write about serious subjects. I think that’s what makes you a good lyricist. Once you get into that subject, you just get into it. That’s what happened to that song. The other song I was writing at the time was “Out of the Question,” just a good, fun song. The funny thing was we had to go in the studio not long after these two songs were completed to make the next single. Everybody thought “Out of the Question” would be the single. People liked “Alone Again,” but they didn’t think it was commercially strong. We know what happened.
You wrote “Clair” about your manager Gordon Mills’ young daughter. Are you still in touch with Clair? Do you know how she feels about the song after all these years, now that she’s an adult, too?
She has two children of her own. Yeah, we see her. We meet up with her. We had a nice incident when I did Hyde Park. I was one of the guests for Hyde Park concert with the BBC Concert Orchestra in front of 30,000 people. My daughters invited Claire to come along to see it. She had been to other shows previously in theaters, but this was very special. She came along and my daughter said to me that when I sang “Clair,” during that performance, she almost had tears in her eyes. It was very special. Something really nice about that.
“Get Down” is one of your more rocking tunes that really became big. As a songwriter, do you enjoy playing with different styles and genres?
Yeah, that’s the key to what you’re doing. God forbid every song would be a ballad. You have that variety. It helps in concert, too. We’re two hours. You don’t want to be singing the same song for two hours. It’s good to have variety. What gets you off as a songwriter is to sit at the piano rock it up, something will come. Then something else will be slower. Something else can be medium. That’s the joy of songwriting. You don’t really know what’s going to come out of the woodwork. (laughs) But it’s fun.
I’ve noticed in the two Philly shows that I’ve seen you do in the last few years that that while you cover songs from throughout your career, one of your US Top 40 hits, “Ooh Baby,” has not been on the playlist. Is there a reason why that one was skipped?
Yeah. I liked the record. It actually made the top 30 in the Black charts in America. At the time it was a big deal. I just thought there was there’s too many bloody “ooh babies” in it. I’m coming around to performing it, but I’ll just cut out some of that. The reason is simply that there was too many “ooh babies” in that. It’s the one record when I look back and listen to it, there are too many of them in there. I wish I’d have reduced the amount. It’s not a bad little tune. Got a good feel about it.
What are some of the songs that you’ve written over the years that you feel that might have slipped through the cracks, that you’re very proud of and think that represent you as an artist, but they never really got as much notice as you’d expect?
You can feel like that, but you have to make sure that it doesn’t last very long. You just get on with it. You’re happy with it. It’s a success when you’ve written what you think is a good song. It’s a good song. It’s a success when you make the record and you’re happy with it. There are people who have made records they don’t like, and they become successful, and they hate them. At least every song I’ve written that’s been released, I’m happy with. (Laughs) But “Ooh Baby” with too many “ooh babies.” Of course I have [some songs I thought would do better]. There’s a song called, “It’s Easy to See When You’re Blind.” I really liked that song. Then there’s the one I wrote about 9/11, which we’ll be doing on the American tour, “All They Wanted To Say.” I get a lot of mail from people in America with that song because I picked up on an aspect of 9/11 that that wasn’t getting a lot of attention. So yeah, there are there are songs out there, Jay, but I’m happy with them. Many of them we perform.
I saw your recent statement about the recent death of Burt Bacharach. As a songwriter, how did he inspire you?
A big influence. Bacharach and [lyricist Hal] David… I mean, fantastic. A great melody writer and a great lyricist. Hal doesn’t get the credit. It’s always the lyricist who seems to lose out a little. Rodgers and Hart – Lorenz Hart didn’t have a happy life. Richard Rodgers and Hammerstein. They’re great collaborators, and one wouldn’t be there without the other. Burt Bacharach, “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” he wrote (hums the tune). Hal David wrote the words that we all know. It is a huge influence itself. Never a week goes by here when I don’t put on Bacharach CDs, because the melodies are great. That’s how you’re able to write yourself because you’re influenced by hearing great melodies. Whether it’s Carole King – [Gerry] Goffin and King. Whether it’s [Neil] Sedaka/[Howard] Greenfield. Whether it’s even Dylan, or whether it’s Lennon and McCartney, you hear great music, and that’s what enables you to be able to do it. Without hearing good music, without getting that influence, I think you’d struggle.
Now, speaking of influencing other artists, years ago I interviewed singer Mark McGrath of the band Sugar Ray and I mentioned to him the fact that he had paraphrased a line from “Alone Again (Naturally)” in his hit song “Fly” – “Twenty-five years old, my mother God bless her soul.” He said I was the first person who had ever mentioned that to him and that he was a huge fan of yours and the song and that line was just a little tribute. Did you know about that usage in the song, and how does it feel that your work has inspired so many artists who came in your wake?
Well, I mean, I’ve objected to changes of lyrics in the past, but that was paraphrasing what I said so I wouldn’t object to that. It’s a nice line. A few other people have [done that]. I seem to remember there was a band formed by Barry Gibb’s son [Steve Gibb], and they did a version of [“Alone Again (Naturally)”]. Sarah Vaughan did “I remember I cried when my daddy died,” which I liked. Nina Simone went too far. She went a little bit well over the top. I wasn’t mad about that. But I was a great admirer of Nina Simone. In fact, she was a big influence.
She was a great artist. I have to admit I don’t know her version of your song. I’ll have to listen to it… or maybe not. (Ed. note: I did listen to her version on YouTube, and the lyrics were nearly completely changed.)
You can get it. I have the album that it came out on [the 1982 album Fodder on My Wings]. It was done at a time when I wasn’t made aware of it. When I became aware of it, it was already done. But my admiration for her stopped me from overreacting. (laughs) She loved the song, but she just added elements. I think she went too far but, in the end, I let it go because she’s a huge influence.
Along those lines, I remember years ago the rapper Biz Markie tried to use a sample of “Alone Again (Naturally),” without giving you credit, and that became a legal battle. What exactly happened with that?
The good and bad thing about court cases and taking somebody to court is… the bad thing is, is it’s very expensive thing to do. The good thing is that in this instance, it set a precedent, because it was the first sample case to go to court. That meant that every sample case after my case meant that people had to have permission to do it. Whereas before the Biz Markie scenario, if you’d have been sampled, nobody would have done anything about it. That was the positive thing to come out of it. Biz Markie is a comic rapper. They asked if they could use it, and I asked to hear it. I didn’t want it. I didn’t like it. No comedy element can be allowed with that song. I make sure in my publishing agreements that nobody can ever use that song without my permission. But he went ahead and did it anyway. He never stopped, so I had to go to court and in America, of all places. An expensive business, hundreds of thousands of dollars before we get into court. I’m the first person that had to go on the stand. Biz Markie wasn’t even there at the court. (laughs)
But we won that case. I was never going to lose, but I had to go through all that you have to go through. We won the case. We won it simply because Biz Markie’s record label was put out by Warner’s. They distributed. This court case happened at a time when you’d be coming up to the Christmas period for album sales. So, the judge turned around and said that if you don’t take this recording off the market within the next month or the next week, I’ll have every Warner Brothers [record] taken off. (laughs) The “S” hit the fan big time. By the time we walked back to the lawyer’s office, it was all over.
You have been writing your own music for years. Did you ever consider collaborating with other writers?
I don’t need to collaborate with anybody because I’m turning out the lyrics as I am turning out the melodies. As long as I’m doing that, why do I need to collaborate? If I felt a weakness on one of them or the other, I might. Lyrics take a long time, so you could argue that maybe it would be nice at some point [if] you’ve got the melody, give it to somebody else to do the lyric and stuff. But at the end of the day, however long it takes me to do a lyric, I’m always happy that I did it.
One cool thing about your shows is that you play over 30 songs, and every single one is an original. A lot of artists would throw in one or two covers. Have you ever considered doing that? Or why did you decide you wanted to only record perform your own songs?
I don’t do covers. I mean, some… “She’s a Woman,” [by The Beatles] I’ve sang a little because I got influenced by that song. I wrote a song quite similar to that. And a bit of Fats Domino. Big influence.
I was reading recently that they “Get Down” was sort of influenced by The Faces’ “Cindy Incidentally.”
Inspiration. That kind of inspired me. Yeah, when I first heard that, it set me off in that area. That happens. There’s a lot of songs. You know the song “Just call me angel of the morning?” [“Angel of the Morning” by Merrilee Rush.] That was influenced by a Rolling Stones ballad. You get that. That happens. And that’s a good thing. That’s a good thing to be influenced by. As long as what you’re doing is original and not a copy.
It was funny, seeing you in concert these days and seeing people with their cell phones in the air. How has touring changed over the years?
Yeah, there is that going on. As far as I’m concerned, I just go out there to perform. In the old days you’d be doing an hour. I started off pretty badly in terms of live performance. As you probably know, a lot of performers, even songwriters, start off by singing in clubs and stuff. They get their apprenticeship in the club area before they get into success with big bands and whatever. I didn’t come through like that. I came through just simply by writing songs in a garden shed. I had no experience of live performance before “Nothing Rhymed” came out. After “Nothing Rhymed” came out, it was two years actually, it was 1972 before I actually did my first tour. So it was always the songwriting that occupied my time, not performing. Once I started to do concerts, it would be an hour set. The only mistake I ever made was when they put me in at the London Palladium for two shows a night. It was horrendous, because without the experience to handle my voice, two shows a night killed me. In between shows, I would be lying on the floor with all this stuff going into me to try and get me to get through the next hour. I’ve learned through the years to the point now where vocally, I look after my voice, and I’m a much better singer than I used to be. The only difference for me is that. In terms of audiences, anybody that comes along to see me, I’m happy with it. (laughs) It might have been a younger audience in the early days. The people that come to see it now, it’s a cross section. A bit of a cliche to say that, but it’s true, young and old. I meet them afterwards. That’s what I like about live performances. You get to meet people and they’ll tell you what they think of you – good or bad. (laughs again)
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