Folk Alliance International’s 2021 Folk Unlocked Virtual Conference: Part 6 of 8 – Declan O’Rourke
This article is the sixth of an eight-part series covering Folk Alliance International’s 2021 Folk Unlocked Virtual Conference, dedicated to Declan O’Rourke and his festival performance as part of the four-artist Culture Ireland Stage showcase, a joint effort between Folk Alliance International and Culture Ireland (Irish: Cultúr Éireann). Culture Ireland is a division of the Government of Ireland’s Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. Their mission is to promote the Irish arts worldwide.
Declan O’Rourke is a singer-songwriter from Dublin, Ireland. On the evening of Tuesday, February 23rd (CST), O’Rourke streamed a three-song set that h had recorded specifically for the Folk Unlocked festival one week prior at The Workman’s Club, a live music bar in Dublin.
Playing a Guild 12-string acoustic guitar, O’Rourke sang playful rhymes in a baritone, somewhat speechlike cadence, with falsetto used at choice moments. Accompanying him was The Leinster Quartet, consisting of Deirdre Reddy and Rachel Grimes on violin, Aoife Durnin on viola, and Paula Hughes on cello. To my surprise, one of the songs O’Rourke played—off his debut 2004 album, Since Kyabram—was about none other than Galileo Galilee. That song, titled “Galileo (Someone Like You)”, features a waltz beat, and a backdrop of jazzy chords against which O’Rourke’s already lush voice seems to melt. As he did with the other two songs in his set, O’Rourke’s expert-grade performance was delivered with the unmistakable air of genuine joy.
I was fortunate enough that Declan O’Rourke took the time to answer a few questions I had, via email. Read on to see what he had to say!
Note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Image courtesy of Declan O’Rourke’s management team
Ben: You’re able to write terrific songs even with another songwriter on board, as was the case with “Galileo (Someone Like You)”, which you wrote with Seamus Cotter. Would you be able to talk a bit about what that collaborative process was like?
Declan O’Rourke: Thank you. I pride myself on being a writer first. It’s the urge to express myself, and create that drives any and all other aspects of my career. Without that as the driving force, I believe I would not have pursued music as a career beyond being a musician.
Co-writing is not something I have done very often, or am attracted to as process. But the decisive factor has always been that it has only worked well for me when attempted with partners I’ve known intimately, such as very dear friends, even my brother on a couple of occasions.
Galileo was one of the more successful attempts. But it was an unusual case. Shay Cotter and I met on the songwriter circuit in Dublin when we were cutting our teeth as young performers. He was a very dynamic performer, and a great writer. We admired each other’s talents and became close friends, sometimes touring together. We wrote a couple of times together over a couple of years, and in preparation to do some more one time we discussed some ideas on a road trip. One of the ideas that Shay brought to the table on that occasion was a one-line kind of sketch. It had no music at that point, and no particular narrative, but it was pretty, and it had something. I was taken by it, and a few days later I began to write a chorus around it. I sang it to Shay down the phone that day, and he felt it was different than what he had in mind for it. But he encouraged me to continue with it, which was nice, as I was excited about where it was going. So, we came to an agreement there and then, and a certain split based on the same. Then, I continued and wrote the rest of the song. It has served me very well, and I like to think it has been very kind to both of us.
Ben: Your duet with John Prine, Let’s Make Big Love, off your album Gold Bars in the Sun, is quite notable. Whom else have you particularly enjoyed working with in such a capacity?
Declan O’Rourke: I don’t often collaborate with other people artistically. But when it’s right, and not done too often, I think it can be a very beautiful thing.
Working with John was the stuff of dreams. We had a great mutual friend, in Maura O’Connell, who introduced us, and as John had a holiday home near where I live in Ireland, we had some semi-regular hang-outs and music sessions in the corner of a local pub together over a few years. We became good friends, and he invited me to tour with him numerous times, in the States, the UK, and as a guest in Ireland too. All memories of which I will treasure for all of my days. He was an absolute sweetheart of a man, and a mentor too in lots of ways.
We discovered a shared affection for the music of the Ink Spots, and in particular for their habit of having a “recitation” in the middle of the song. When I wrote a song in tribute to them, I invited John to do the recitation. He said “So you like my singing so much, you want me to talk on your record?” We laughed a lot at that. Let’s Make Big Love was recorded at my studio that summer, and we did it together in one take, on the same microphone. It was magical, and we nailed it.
I recently asked my great friend Paul Weller to produce a record for me, and he very kindly obliged. He was another incredible artist to work with, and I’m infinitely proud of the results. He really brought it to another level.
Other people I have collaborated with in such a manner, are the Transatlantic Sessions Band, led by Jerry Douglas, with some amazing musicians. I have worked on numerous occasion over many years with John Sheahan of The Dubliners who is a great friend, and a lifelong hero of mine.
Ben: You spent 15 years working on your most ambitious album, Chronicles Of The Great Irish Famine. Could you talk a bit about the making of that album, and about what you learned from that endeavor?
Declan O’Rourke: Around the year 2000, my family learned from an unearthed document that my grandfather had been born in a place called a workhouse, also known as “the poor house”. We were intrigued, but didn’t know much about what that meant. When I dug a little deeper I found out these institutions were built all over the country on the eve of the Great Famine, of the 1840’s. I found a book on it later that year, and on the first page read about “the man who carried his wife home from the workhouse, mile after weary mile, and was found the next morning, dead, his wife’s feet held to his chest, as if he’d been trying to warm them.” To say the hair stood up on my neck… I’ll never forget the mixture of emotions that ran through me in that moment.
My next thought, as a young writer, was “Why don’t we as a nation, all know this story?” Ultimately, I felt that nobody in the world could read that story and not feel empathy. So of course, I set out to record it myself, the way I best knew how to—and with passion—in song. In the process, I came to the realization that we actually empathize by imagining ourselves, and our own loved ones in such situations. That was somewhat of an epiphany. And for that reason alone, I believe it is so important that we keep our histories alive, in whatever form that may take. The stories are powerful, instructive, and universal in this way.
Anyway, while researching what became that first song, “Poor Boy’s Shoes”, and discovering many more powerful stories, I soon realised that one song could never do the subject justice. That, when combined with the fact that what was undoubtedly the largest and most significant series of events in the history of our country had been so badly neglected in song—in the arts entirely, even—brought me to set myself on a mission… to research thoroughly, no matter how long it might take me, and to document those stories in song. The greatest challenge was in attempting to turn over every stone, in such a vast sea of information, and to patiently find such personalised accounts. It took me almost 17 years to write 15 songs. I recorded 14 of them in 2017, and it became Chronicles Of The Great Irish Famine.
Ben: You’ve got a new album coming out on April 9th, called Arrivals. Could you talk a bit about your particular artistic goals with this newest album?
Declan O’Rourke: I really wanted to make a record that was stripped back almost just to me and a guitar. It’s really where I’ve always been most comfortable whether in a live setting, and in terms of writing or performing. I sometimes think the more layers you add the more you take away from the space that enhances the purity of a song. Everything has its place of course, and at other times in your career you want to tear off the roof with a band, or glide on the wings of an orchestra, to add things, and experiment. Certainly, my urge to strip it back was just following the songs that were coming on this occasion. The decision to take this minimalist approach was informed by two other significant factors though. One subconscious, and the other perhaps less subconscious.
The first was that after the birth of my son 3 years ago, I just found myself yearning for a simpler lifestyle… Hitting my forties around the same time was also a bit of a plateau. It was like reaching a place in myself where I knew what I wanted, and it wasn’t to work myself to death making and touring a new record every year as I had done the previous four. And really this wish for simplicity just seemed to manifest itself somehow in a simpler form. It felt right.
In a way it was going back to the start. Of what I felt when I first enjoyed the feeling of being a writer, but also drawing on the influence of some of my favorite records of all time, such as Ladies of The Canyon by Joni, or Nic Jones’ Penguin Eggs, both super sparse, and pure as the snow.
Paul Weller, who I mentioned earlier, guest produced the record. He really went with, and echoed the vision I had for it, but he also rather brilliantly suggested we add just the briefest light texture here and there, four bars of Hammond on this song, solo cello on that one, etc. So brief at times, as to be almost rude, was how I perceived the concept in theory. But in every case, it absolutely worked. Much to my amazement, I feel it gave the recordings a timeless quality, but also made them contemporary at the same time by saving them from being too sparse. It was a stroke of genius.
Ben: Lastly, is there anything else in particular that you’d like our readers to know about you?
Declan O’Rourke: Not that I can think of. Great questions! Hence such long and detailed answers.
I always try to encourage people to join my mailing list via http://www.declanorourke.com
Anyway, best wishes, and please send us a copy of the article when it’s out! Thanks for the invitation.
Next, I will cover the performance of American Black Roots singer-songwriter and historian Vienna Carroll. Make sure to visit Big City Folks to check it out!
What a great interview!