Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell interviews singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke about creativity, inspiration, and his new record, Arrivals.
Declan O’Rourke released Arrivals on Friday, April 9th. A 10-song LP, the album is stripped-back, interesting and beautiful. O’Rourke is a neighbour of my family home in Kinvara, a small seaside village in South Galway. O’Rourke lives on the edge of the karst landscape of the Burren, on a peninsula touching the Atlantic Ocean - the perfect place to see the stars, skies, and seas he writes about.
“I don’t know, I just feel the instinct to do it” he answers, when I ask ‘why do you write?’ “It’s become kind of a habit and a place that I like to go…It’s a good question, I’m just trying to figure out why... over years and years of doing it, it’s become something instinctual...If you ask me why I started, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve always felt from a very early age, since I can remember, and I think wanting to be an artist.... I just loved the idea of expressing yourself through something beautiful, and I don’t know what else is beyond it - maybe just some kind of desire to be approved of, or something you’d have to ask Freud about”
I find it interesting to think about and ask why we create. During the past year, as part of The University Observer, and OTwo in particular I have talked to artists, and musicians, and thinkers about why we make. What is it about the act of creation that inspires us? I have decided that I like the idea that we don’t really know, that it’s a compulsion, almost.
“I’ve got a cousin who’s an artist and we’ve been talking back and forth a little bit, and talking to each other... I suppose maybe not about why we do it, but how it has affected our lives and what is art, you know. I don’t think we’ve come up with any definitive answers, but it’s very enjoyable to discuss it and I think that is the honest answer. It’s almost like a spiritual centering or something, you know?”
“I have a series of cards on my desk here, and [...] you pull out one every now and again and each one has a little bit of wisdom on them. One of them said ‘creativity is a spiritual practise - it’s not something we try and perfect, it’s something that we do’... I think it’s true - you turn up everyday and do it because you enjoy it, like a 24/7 hobby. If you did it just based on the success you’re hoping to achieve on the other end, which is a totally separate thing, I don’t think you would do it, or do it as well, you know. I like the idea that it’s just something we do to feel in touch with ourselves”.
For me, with the theories and thinking about art and the urge to make, comes the idea of creating or conjuring beauty. I ask O’Rourke if he feels pressure to make something beautiful?
“No. No, I don’t think so. I write for myself first - if I don’t like it, no-one else gets to hear it... You write and you try to create something beautiful because you enjoy it, ...you instinctively set out to capture, you know, if you have a certain emotion that you want to share with other people. Your job is to try and paint that for them, and put it in kind of a musical vehicle, and you’ll know if you’ve done it”.
My question about the creation of beauty was one that I was most intrigued to ask O’Rourke. I find it difficult to call a movie, or book, painting, building or song ‘my favourite’. To categorise something as worthy of more recognition than anything you have experienced implies that its resonance with you goes beyond all else - almost other-worldly. To be so struck by a piece of art, something fabricated, crafted and created, is an extraordinary experience. It wells up inside you like emotion and stays with you long after your first encounter. I have only experienced it sporadically.
O’Rourke released ‘Galileo’ in 2004, and the song is just beautiful. It is soft and thoughtful and real. To have such an impact, it makes me wonder, can beauty be fabricated? Or is it all the hard work that goes into every record, but with a stroke of something more - genius, luck, love... I’m not sure. Can you try to make beauty? Is it tangible, predictable? Do you know while on this journey that you have something there?
“Thank you for the compliment... I can only speak from personal experience, but every time you finish a song, you know, if I’ve worked really hard on it, and the one you’re working on is the one you’re most excited about. The other ones, they’re all fine, you’ve done them... it’s actually the thrill of it... I’ve described it like being on the back of a horse or something, you know it’s when you’re in the flow and you know, creating it. When it’s over it’s kind of a little bit underwhelming and sad, and you want to get to the next one.
“I was very excited about Galileo when I wrote it, but it was one song of many along the chain. I do remember, and sometimes I see it as a mark of a good song, is if I get a Eureka moment, or the gears shift or twist when I’m writing it and I discover something, or you figure out how you want to end it... you do a kind of mental kind of fist-pump or ‘whoop’, you get very excited.
“I remember in the middle of writing that I had the [chorus written] and I sat on it for weeks and I really liked it but I just kept thinking about it over and over. I kept saying ‘who would be saying this?... I [was] working in a house with my dad and we were renovating a house in Rathgar I think, and there was a library in the house. I picked up a book anyways, at lunchtime, and it was called Galileo’s daughter. I only got to read a page or two but... I just thought ‘wow, I’d love to write something about him.’ And so, when I was thinking about this chorus and waiting, and one day it just clicked... I realised he could be saying it from the point of view of trying to understand it. And when that clicked in my brain I was very excited. I felt like something had happened, and the patience had paid off waiting for it”.
In Arrivals, as in his other records, O'Rourke sings of cosmology, of gods and stars and the sky. I ask O’Rourke if he believes in ‘more’?
“No. I don’t really, no. I mean, like everyone else in Ireland, I was raised that way... I think more now that there was a great comfort in being spiritual in a religious way when I was young, but at a certain point in my life, all of the pieces didn’t add up. But you know, that’s my own belief. And I try not to be reprimanding or something of anybody else's beliefs... I think as much as religion is responsible for so much bad in the world, there are teachings in almost every spiritual doctrine and discipline that you can take as beautiful lessons. I believe in not just subscribing to one, but taking the good from whatever you can”
Prayer was something that I thought about through the album - not in a religious sense, but the idea of being hopeful and reflective. Music in a way has that rhythm and that ritual, even structurally, with a chorus and learned repetition. I muse aloud over this thought and ask; what is prayer?
“I like where you're going... I think that’s very valid. I think prayer is a kind of meditation and that’s why it works for people, regardless of what’s behind it or not. And I think songs are the same - anything that you annunciate and repeat over and over is kind of a mantra and an affirmation. And so it becomes functional in the same way.. if you pour your hopes into something like that. And I firmly believe that this record, in many ways, was me figuring out what I wanted from my life at this point in time through song, and interestingly it kind of manifested after that, you know because I said it aloud, so I’m very happy about that”.
I ask what comes first - the poetry, or music? To me, for Arrivals, when you remove the music, it becomes a collection of poems.
“I hope so! And I would hope that somehow they’re not dependent on each other. [But] of course [they are] to some extent. [I] like to think I’m very deliberate and very fastidious or something, about the words, and they have to be able to stand up on their own. So I like the idea that they could be poems, if you took the music away. But if it was just that I don’t know if I would do it, if I wasn’t putting it in a song. I’m not sure”
In O’Rourke’s music, there is a strong understanding of when to add and when to flourish and when to hold-back. Particularly in this record, I feel that because of the restraint and almost the simplification (and I mean this in a good way) shown, it shows more bravery or courage in deciding when to flourish.
“It’s the first time in seven records, you know, it’s the first time I’ve actually stripped it down... You know, most of the year round it would be just me onstage... I’m very comfortable in the space of just myself... I’ve always loved it when you find a room or a stairwell, or something in a house or a building and the sound is really lovely and pure. It can be any place, you know, but you just find like, sacred spaces - not like a big church or something, [but] a room that is really warm, and sends a sound back to you that has a nice little echo. There’s nothing like that space... I think they’ve been a lesson to me because [when] you’re in a space like that, the more you add or the louder you play, the less you hear. It gets too busy and you drown out the purity... I’ve always looked forward to the time when I make a stripped-down record.
“In the studio I succumb to the temptation to add things that I couldn’t do on my own. But I have to give a huge amount of credit to Paul Weller for that aspect of it as well, because you know, when I approached him to make the record [...] we both agreed that the songs were leaning in that direction. But I had almost gotten too comfortable with the idea of it just being me, and maybe him challenging me in terms of some of the arrangements, or what was a good performance or not - he introduced the idea of subtle textures, he described them as little colours, brushstrokes, you know, things that could be unobtrusive. I didn’t know that they could be unobtrusive. If you had just a guy and a guitar, and halfway through the song you introduce something out of nowhere, and then take it out. To me that sounded like it wouldn’t work, but I was shocked at how well it worked and how much it complemented everything.... And so, he’s got to get the credit for that in terms of your question”
I add that ‘brushstrokes’ is a nice way to put it, because it doesn’t influence the overall sense of Arrivals, it just adds another soft layer. I ask O’Rourke should listeners be pedantic in their listening - is the order of the album important to him?
“Oh listen, everytime you make a record, yeah you absolutely labour and, I don’t know, torture yourself over things like that... In the way that artists are obsessive, you tend to have huge magnifying glasses on while you’re inside. And that’s your job, you know, because nobody else is ever going to look at it so deeply”
“We did labour over it, between Paul and myself in this case... It was quite nice because he had the idea of the absolute old-school way of thinking I suppose - he was making suggestions from the very beginning in terms of vinyl. [One] of the first things he suggested was ‘I think that should be the end of side one, or the start of side two’ you know, and I was like ‘oh brilliant’ you know, because my last three or four records have all been on vinyl and that’s the big thing you’re excited about - so you know, it feels more artistic somehow.
“We went around the houses a few times on this, and we certainly didn’t argue but we debated on various things and tried to convince each other if we agreed or disagreed about the placement of a certain song. [You’ve] got to test it everytime, it’s not a theory and you just go ‘I think that’ll work there, grand.’ Like if you put a slow song on directly after a fast song, it can feel much slower than it actually is, because it’s all about your perspective coming into it and even what key goes with which one, and you can’t have two together that have a similar beat and what have you. It’s all about a journey, but lyrically I felt the first three songs, when I listened to them in order, were a perfect kind of self-portrait of my life right now”.
Arrivals tells stories of the good and the desperate, but also stories of the simple and the quiet. It is a wonderful LP and I look forward to the day when we can come together to hear it live, in person.
Arrivals Livestream Launch from the Abbey Theatre is taking place at 8pm Wed 14th April. Tickets can found online at https://declanorourke.com