Our friends at Sodajerker return! This time around, they speak to a songwriter who’s topped the singles charts six times
orn Raymond O’Sullivan in Waterford, Ireland in 1946, Gilbert O’Sullivan moved with his family to the Wiltshire town of Swindon at the age of seven. The move would turn out to play a key influence on his future career choices, as it was while attending the Swindon College of Art that he met future Supertramp founder Rick Davies. The two played in the first serious band that O’Sullivan was involved with, and it was this that gave him the impetus to become a professional songwriter.
After coming to the attention of manager Stephen Shane – who convinced him to change his name to Gilbert, as a play on the name of the operetta composers Gilbert & Sullivan – O’Sullivan signed with CBS Records, but initially saw little success. Undeterred, in 1970 he sent demo tapes of his music to Gordon Mills – manager of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck – and was soon signed to Mills’ own record label MAM Records. Before the end of the year, O’Sullivan had scored a UK No 8 single with Nothing Rhymed, with his debut album Himself following a year later and making it to No 5 in the UK album chart. It didn’t take long to top that success, with his October 1972 single Clair giving him his first UK No 1, and cementing his place as a songwriter of great acclaim. He would go on to top the UK charts again with Get Down the following year, while in total he’s had six No 1 singles worldwide.
Sodajerker caught up with O’Sullivan earlier this month, following the release of his 18th studio album Latin Ala G!, and discovered a songwriter who’s still completely in love with his craft.
We can hear still hear your clear sense of melody in the new album – Latin Ala G! – despite its obvious Spanish influences
“Yeah, what’s the key? I mean it isn’t rocket science is it! I sit at the piano until I come up with a good melody! What I do is that if I’m in a writing mode I’ll sit at the piano for hours on end trying to come up with a melody, and if I do I’m from the school that you take a good melody and put it on cassette – at least I do because I still use cassettes – and then you just try and do another one. The key is that good melodies will survive any length of time. Whereas if you come up with a lyric, because you’re writing about things that are going on around you at that time, if you leave it for a year it might be out of date.
“That’s pretty much my approach. And then I’ll sit with an empty notebook for hours on end, and it can take you a week to do a lyric, so you’re looking at three months to write 12 songs. It’s a long process but it’s usually enjoyable. I mean, I love songwriting: without the songs there’d be no artists.”
“I sit at the piano eight hours a day, five days a week”
Some songwriters have told us that they find staying away from an instrument frees them and makes it easier to write melodies. Do you find that at all?
“Occasionally I will. In the band I played in while I was in Swindon there were a couple of times when I’d be walking home and I came up with the melody to a song. But it hasn’t happened very often. I’m the Brill Building kind of songwriter: I sit at the piano eight hours a day, five days a week and four weeks a month if necessary. And I’ve always said that if at the end of a day, having spent eight hours sat there, you don’t come up with a melody, it’s not wasted time because you’ve practised and rehearsed and you’ll be getting better.
“The joy for me as a songwriter is the ignorance factor, because most contemporary songwriters, from Lennon & McCartney up to the present day, don’t read music – we can’t read music. The reason that we’re any good is our love of music, that there’s something extra, and when we hear music there’s something that resonates within us and it allows us to suddenly come up with a melody. So the key is that the fact the music we heard and loved and bought is what led us to do it.
“Great melodies are hard, really hard; I hear people all the time tell me ‘I’ve written 50 songs’ and I say ‘Oh really?!’ Good melodies are the things that are the hardest to come up with, but they’re the things that are worth pursuing. It gets harder as you get older and the danger is that if you’re not liking what you’re hearing around you, you might lose that melodic touch. So it’s very important for us contemporary composers who don’t read music, to maintain that element that allows us to do what we think we can do.”
And that comes through in your music… we can see from recent albums of yours, like Gilbertville, that there’s been a real effort made with the melody
“I hope so. I have no control over what happens when the record is made, but the joy for me, sitting in this room, for all the time I spend in it, is that songwriting is everything to me and I get a great deal of satisfaction out of completing what I think is a good song. Then the record gets made and the song gets put out there and I just hope that people like it, maybe enough to buy it.
“But if they don’t then that’s okay because the fact that I’ve written the song and that I’m happy with it, it kind of justifies my existence in a way. And that, at this point in my career, is a real plus.”
“Working class families always seemed to have a piano in the house”
You have a very distinctive piano style, with your left hand almost acting like a hammer. Did you have piano teachers that tried to beat that out of you, or did you just teach yourself?
“Working class families always seemed to have a piano in the house, so that’s the first thing… my mother’s logic was that if one of her children could play the piano then they could earn a good spot in the pub when they got older! I had piano lessons but I didn’t like the theory, and the teacher found me out when she saw me playing the piece properly but not reading the music. So that stopped!
“The Beatles were the catalyst for me getting into music, and I could identify with them being able to write music without being able to read it, just through their love of it. We all identified with that. In my first school band I was the drummer, then in my youth club band I was beginning to delve into writing and we did a couple of my songs. Then I got a more serious band and the leader of that went on to form Supertramp, and I went off on my own and tried to break into the music business. So the two of us were really very serious and thought that we could turn professional.”
What can you tell us about your colloquial approach to songwriting… where does that come from?
“Colloquialism is so important to me, because I like to think I write the way that people talk and I certainly don’t want to be writing in the way that people talk in New York and LA – I always had difficulty with using the word ‘babe’, for instance. It’s the Englishnes. I’m an English songwriter: I’m Irish by birth but that’s not part of my songwriting roots. I left Ireland at seven and was raised in Swindon and all my background in terms of songwriting is growing up in Swindon. It’s very important that if you’re writing as an English songwriter that you write the way that people talk.”
Your songs tackle big issues in a sophisticated way, like in Nothing Rhymed. What was the inspiration behind that?
“That was inspired by the first time that there’d been starving children shown on television and it really resonated with everybody who watched it. As a lyric writer I just write about what I read in the newspaper and what I see on television; I’m a good observer, so I incorporate all sorts of things that I see going on around me, which I like because it means that I’m not just sticking with the one subject. And songs like Nothing Rhymed are about the sort of things that you very often read about, the horror and the violence that goes on in the world, the starving, those issues are the day-to-day things which very often interest me as a lyricist.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 70 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Stuart Murdoch, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 53-minute interview with Gilbert O’Sullivan – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.