Alone Again, or…?
For Gilbert O’Sullivan, It’s All About the Songs
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; Allmusic.com 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.”
The album track “Love How You Leave Me” reminds me a little bit of Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks. Both of them are American artists who fall into the “witty, literary, quirky” category. Do you think that label applies to you as well?
“Yeah, I like playing around with words. I mean, Randy is great; I bought his very first album when it came out in ’67. I must have been one of six people who bought it!
“My whole approach to songwriting stems from a Brill Building mentality that I’ve had and continue to have: clock in at 9 o’clock and leave at 5, and see what you’ve done. If you haven’t come up with a melody, [at least] you’ve practiced, so it’s not a waste of time. I’ve been heavily influenced by the likes of Randy Newman, [Gerry] Goffin and [Carole] King, [Neil] Sedaka, Neil Diamond, all those kinds of people. As I have by [Burt] Bacharach and [Hal] David, Harry Nilsson, then going right back to Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart. That’s where everything about songwriting comes from; that’s how you learn your craft.
“What I don’t want to happen is … for example, take Paul Simon. Paul Simon is a brilliant songwriter. And he continues to be a great lyricist. If you buy Paul’s latest album, it’s a great band, and the production sounds great, the musicians are fantastic. But there’s a melody lacking somewhat, I think, if you compare current Paul Simon to early Paul Simon. So, I work really, really hard on the melody front of it.”
It was 30 years ago that you won a lawsuit against Biz Markie for unauthorized sampling of your biggest hit, “Alone Again (Naturally).” From a creative perspective, what did you think of the matter in which your work was re-purposed?
“Well, I mean, I own the rights to my songs, so I protect every song. ‘Alone Again’ is the one song I’ve published that I have an agreement which they’re not allowed to use for any comedy. I take it very seriously looking after it. And so, the Biz Markie thing, they asked if they could use it, and I didn’t know who he was. And so, like anything to begin with, we said, ‘Well, let’s see what it is you want to do, and we’ll review it.’ And I didn’t like what he wanted to do with it. So we said no.
“But that didn’t stop him from putting it out. That’s why I had to go to court. That’s the reason. All he had to do was just apologize and take it off the market, but he didn’t. And the sad irony for me is that I’m the one who had to go to court and spend hundreds of thousands of pounds to sue him. He didn’t even have to bother to go into court; he wasn’t even there.
“But I suppose the good thing that came out of it – apart from that I did win it, and of course I should have – is the fact that it set a precedent for sampling. And so for the first time there’s a legal precedent for the future. So, it helped and helps people from then on if their work is being sampled.”
You were born in Ireland but moved to England when you were seven. Do you think there’s any lingering Irish character in your music?
“We moved because in those days the grass was greener on the other side. My father was a butcher, and the work opportunities in England were better than at home.
“So all my musical background stems from growing up in England, in Swindon. I’ve actually looked for an Irish link, but I haven’t been able to find one. I’ve listened to the Clancy Brothers and all the rest of them, but the connection for me is just popular music, which I grew up listening to in England, and that’s where all music stems from in my background.”
Swindon … when someone mentions Swindon and music, people maybe think of you and XTC. That’s about it.
“And Rick Davies! Rick and I were in a band called Rick’s Blues. Rick Davies is a fantastic musician. He taught me to play blues piano. He’s just a wonderful musician. We got together and we were quite a serious band. Rick on keyboard, me on drums. We recorded a couple demos of my songs in the studio in London, Rick and I doing a duet. And we could have actually turned professional, but I think the bass player and the guitar player were on apprenticeships so they didn’t want to risk it. So, therefore that meant that Rick needed to be in a band and I could be on my own. So that’s why Rick went off to form a band which ended up becoming Supertramp.
“My relationship with Rick was all about music. He’s a fantastic musician. He’s one of those rare musicians who can play. Big influence for me on the musician side. As I say, teaching me to play blues piano was very important in those days.”
Where do the ideas for your songs come from?
“Well, just the love of it. I started way back, sort of in the middle ’60s. My first songs would be copying somebody else’s melody. And then the first real song I wrote was a song called ‘Ready Me Steady,’ which I actually do, occasionally, on stage. Just a great little rock song.
“Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan were huge influences for me, and that period in the ’60s the songs were just coming out of the radio ten-a-penny; it was wonderful. It’s all about the songs with me, and I’ve never lost the enthusiasm. It’s not rocket science. I sit at a piano and I search for a melody, and if I come up with a good melody, I stick it in a trunk. Because a good melody will survive any length of time. I never finish a lyric until I know it’s going to be recorded.”
One more quick question. When you’re at home around friends and family, they don’t call you Gilbert, do they?
“No, Ray. Raymond O’Sullivan is my real name. But they can call me Gilbert if they want to!”