Friday 28 October 2016

'We had to sing growing up, it wasn't like the von Trapps, but we had to sing' - Declan O'Rourke

Declan O'Rourke talks to Joanna Kiernan about music, marriage and how TV shows are killing creativity

Declan O'Rourke
Declan O'Rourke
Declan O'Rourke
X Factor judges Nick Grimshaw, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini and Rita Ora. Photo: SYCO/THAMES TV
X-Factor judges (l-r) Simon Cowell, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, and Louis Walsh
X-Factor judges Cheryl Fernandez-Versini and Simon Cowell
Una Foden, Kian Egan with Rachel Stevens and Bressie of The Voice of Ireland

Over the last year, singer and songwriter Declan O'Rourke has been taking a novel approach to getting his music out to the masses: by releasing a free song each month to his website subscribers.

He describes the move as a "modern solution to a modern problem" but it's not the only form of distribution. His fourth album, Gold Bars in the Sun, will also be released in more tangible forms this coming October for those who still like to buy CDs and records.

"There are very few outlets for music now - the shops have all disappeared," Declan tells me. "But you still have to get music to people, so it was a combination of that and that young people don't buy CDs anymore, at least for now. But we still need to fulfil that need of getting it out there without trying to make money directly back from it, because I think that's a waste of time.

"I liken it to your career being like a train and you have to keep putting the coal in to keep it going - the music is the coal," Declan adds, his wonderfully paradoxical gentle-yet-gravelly voice almost as pleasant when he is speaking as it is when he sings.

"I had piles of songs building up with no way of getting them out there, and there is also lack of investment in mid-level artists by record companies at the moment," Declan explains. "They are either going for somebody who is really well established and is going to sell a million records, or somebody who is brand new and is showing potential for that.

"Somebody who's had a few hundred thousand hits on YouTube or whatever, that kind of thing, but they are not investing in the middle.

"If you are an independent artist, you have to find ways of funding yourself. So I just decided I have a studio at home. I have the material - it's up to me to bring the mountain to Muhammad essentially.

"It's an interesting process and it's been a lot of fun," Declan adds. "It makes you work very hard because you are constantly working on something and you are still doing your everyday stuff, gigging away, so you have to slot it in around everything. So it's exciting."

Declan has also been keeping busy of late planning his wedding. This week he ties the knot with fiancée Eimear O'Grady. "Yeah, we were planning a wedding on top of all that, which is a bigger task than even I thought, but we're getting there," he smiles.

Originally from Ballyfermot, Declan has lived in Kinvara, Co Galway for the last eight years.

"My granddad was from there and his life was intriguing to me," Declan explains. "He died when I was quite young, but he was a painter, an artist and a sign writer as a trade. So we grew up with all of these scenes he'd painted, that hung in all of the family's houses of this beautiful little fishing village with a castle in it and it just seemed dreamy to me.

"I was intrigued by the mystery of his background and the west of Ireland. I always wanted to explore that, so when it came time to consider buying a house about eight years ago, I went to Kinvara and what you could buy in Dublin at that time compared to what you could get in the countryside, there was a vast difference.

"I also wanted something where I could be inspired by the landscape, and it's down by the sea, so it's a beautiful part of the country."

Even though he started to play the guitar in his teens, Declan describes himself as something of a late bloomer when it came to really getting out on the singer-songwriter music scene here.

"I took up guitar when I was about 13. I was living in Australia at the time - my parents had emigrated there when I was 10," he explains. "The music culture out there was thriving - Guns N'Roses and that type of thing. I loved it, so we came home here when I was 14 and that's when I started to meet other kids around my area in Ballyfermot who were playing instruments too.

"There was a little scene of guitar players and drummers and singers and we used to use the local priest's shed to practice," Declan smiles.

"They were interesting times, but it was mostly people playing covers just of music that they liked.

"One day, I think I was maybe 15 or 16, we auditioned a guy from James's Street and he arrived up and we had been playing away and at the end of the day he said 'why don't we do one of my songs?' and we all started looking at each other.

"It was like a new concept and that world opened up to me then. I went home and started trying to write songs straight away."


Declan travelled back to the land down under once he finished school.

"I went off to Australia to catch up with friends. In Melbourne there was a huge covers scene but, again, not really an originals scene that I could access. So I spent four or five years there just writing songs and learning my craft," he explains.

"I look on it now like I was doing a little apprenticeship on my own, but I didn't realise it at the time. Then, around the time of the millennium, I decided that my family were all at home and I didn't want to be there so long that I couldn't go home. It felt like a good time to go back to Ireland and have a real go at music."

A few weeks later, Declan found his way to an open-mic night for songwriters in Molloy's on High Street, surrounded by the likes of Damien Dempsey, Gemma Hayes and Glen Hansard.

"I found myself right in the middle of this thing that was happening here. I was really buzzing and I felt like I fit right into it. I had my songs ready. That was the first time I had ever performed my own songs in front of an audience," he remembers.

"That was in January of 2000 and I ended up playing 140 times that year - around town and a few supports too. I just threw myself right into it."

Fifteen years later, Declan is a firm believer that staying true to oneself is the key to longevity in what can be a fickle and, at times, brutal industry.

"I think what the industry chases a lot is what seems to be popular and, unfortunately, our society is geared towards youth being everything," he says. "Every picture you see, social media and everything, it's all geared towards good-looking, young people and everything else is almost discarded.

"Wisdom and the older people who carry that seem to be undervalued.

"What I have always done is to just write the music that I like and not to follow the ball," he adds.

"I think that's common amongst songwriting friends of mine, people who have done well here in Ireland. If you pursue a career based on getting exposure and hitting as high as you can on the charts, I think you'll find that it is a short run off a high cliff.

"I think you have to aim for longevity; you have to build slowly and be bold about what you are doing, but stay true to yourself."

This can, Declan adds, often mean turning down opportunities.

"You have to be careful about what you accept as work, because you get offered so many things once you have a little bit of success.

"You'll be asked will you come on The Voice and maybe be a judge, this kind of thing, and I have a big problem with shows like that if I am honest, because it doesn't allow young people to do that little apprenticeship," he says.

"They may be in a very early development stage, with a lot of potential and talent, and all of a sudden they have reached the absolute limit: this wall where somebody says to them, 'No, you can't go any further here. You have to turn back now. You are not good enough'.

"That person, and whatever they may have had the potential to become, is over at that point and they are doing that en masse. I think it's horrific. I think young people need to spend more time enjoying themselves along the way and being shit before they can ever be good.

"It took me years before I figured out how to sing once my voice broke. When I was a kid, I used to sing a lot, but when it broke, I just didn't know what to do.

"When I was singing it sounded like I was being strangled," he laughs. "So I kind of abandoned it for a few years and just tried to be a good guitar player.

"I accidentally came back around to singing because I couldn't find a singer to sing the songs I was writing."

Hailing from a musical Dublin family also aided the process.

"We had to sing growing up. It wasn't like the von Trapps or anything, but you had to sing," he explains.

"Even now, we have regular, extended family gatherings and there are very few people who get away with not singing. Even after 20 or 30 years, they'll still be hounded 'go on and sing a song!' The hope is that one day they'll crack...

"It's great fun. It brings out the best in people. I think if I ever had any kind of stage fright, that made me get over it very young."

Declan's latest album 'Gold Bars in the Sun' is available to pre-order on www.declanorourke.com and will be released on October 15

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