Irish acoustic troubadour Declan O’Rourke has the enviable distinction of having written a song called Galileo (Someone Like You) which remains to this day the song that Paul Weller wishes he had written.
Weller has extended his admiration for the song-writing of Declan O’Rourke by producing his latest album Arrivals at Weller’s own Black Barn Studios. In conversation with Acoustic Review’s Andy Hughes, Declan recalls his route to his latest release, from being given his first guitar by a young priest in Australia, where Decan had emigrated with his family in 1987. He takes up the story –
We were visiting family friends in Kyabram which is a long way from Melbourne where we were living. We stayed the weekend with them, and there was a young priest there who had two acoustic guitars. I started noodling around on one of them, and when we left, he gave it to me – it’s sitting on the wall here behind me now, a real sentimental instrument for me.
How many guitars do you have now?
Probably around twenty, and people who don’t play ask why I would need so many. The fact is, they all do different things, some are nylon strung, some are steel, there are electrics, baritone, high strung, Nashville tuned, I have only ever given away two guitars in my life so some are sentimental like the first one.
What was the first music you enjoyed growing up?
When I was a teenager, I loved Guns ‘n’ Roses and Metallica, and Jimi Hendrix, and I learned to play electric guitar. It surprises some people who hear what I write and perform now, but I believe that anything and everything that interests you as a musician and as a songwriter can be informed and influenced by what you hear. The influence may not be at all obvious, but it is in there somewhere.
What made you switch back to the acoustic guitar?
As an Irish family, we all had a song as a party piece, it’s kind of a tradition, even if you are not actually very musical, so have a song you can do when people come around to socialise. I wanted to be a drummer first, and when my voice broke it dropped into my boots, and was a mile away from the singers I enjoyed listening to back then. I practised guitar every chance I got, and then I heard Andy Irvine and Paul Grady’s album and I was completely hooked on that, it’s still one of my favourite records today. I was trying to figure out the tunings, because I had no idea what an open tuning was or anything like that. Paul Brady became a mentor and a great friend of mine. I was on tour with him once and asked him what his influences were, and he gave me some albums that he enjoyed, there was Penguin Eggs by Nic Jones, and a Waterson Carthy album, and I loved Martin Carthy’s playing.
Did you learn about open tunings by ear?
Once I figured out what it was about, I experimented shifting strings around and seeing what worked for me. Martin Carthy showed me some of the ways he tuned his guitars, and I used some of those tunings on my records.
What acoustic models did you use on your new album?
My main guitar for the last twenty years has been a Maton which I bought in Australia before I moved back here. I think most acoustic guitarists find a luthier that makes the guitars he or she enjoys playing, and it’s Maton for me, I have had several of them over the years. I found out that the cedar top has a warmer and darker sound that the spruce, and the darker the wood finish, the darker the sound you get.
Around three years ago, a young luthier offered to make a guitar for me, and I wasn’t sure, but he said it would be good experience for him, and if I liked it, I could play it. The guy is Lloyd Edwards, and the guitar he made me features heavily on my new album, I played it on six tracks on the record. My other favourite guitar is a Guild twelve-string which my wife bought for me, the perfect present, something you really want that someone else buys for you. I’ve had a pick-up built into it, and I like that a lot as well.
What did you say to your luthier about what you wanted for your guitar?
I asked him for a cedar top because as I said, I like that sound. I also asked for a thick neck – Maton have quite thick necks which I like, something you can get hold of, some acoustics have thin necks, almost like electric guitars, but I prefer the thicker neck personally. I also asked him for a matt finish on the wood because I find that sometimes a hard gloss finish gives an edge to the sound and I prefer the sound from the matt finish.
Your new album is produced by Paul Weller, what was his input to the recording process?
There’s an on-line interview we did where he says that he did very little, but he is far too modest. Paul had a huge effect on how the album turned out, I can’t imagine it without him as the producer.
When I arrived at Paul’s studio, I had about fourteen songs, and he suggested the ones that stayed, and put some aside for another time. The group of songs Paul chose songs that sit well together, he made a different choice, a braver choice of material than I would have done on my own. He told me not to worry about singles and radio play, just make a good album that will stand the test of time.
I thought it would just be me and an acoustic, and when he suggested texturizing with Hammond organ, I thought it was really weird, but it worked perfectly. The idea that you bring something in for a few bars, and then drop it out again sounded so strange, but Paul was right, it absolutely worked and made the album sound so much better.
Do you like to record your vocals and your guitar together or separately?
I always record both together. I find that if you split them, you play and sing differently, and then the task of matching them together becomes really difficult. To me, you can tell, well I can with my own recordings, if the two are separated, and it sounds false and stilted because something is lost in the production. I am a great believer in getting the song down and moving on, and Paul likes to work that way as well. We recoded the entire album in six days.
What’s your song writing process?
Mostly I have everything written in my head before I touch the guitar. I find that if you start playing and looking for ideas, your mind leads you down old trails and you revert to old habits. I find that my mind never knows what is going to come next, so it makes the process feel much freer.
Do you regard your guitar playing as a bed for your stories, or is the guitar an integral part of each song?
I think they are each an essential ingredient. When I am composing in my mind, I am thinking about the words and the music together. I think if you regard them as separate, that makes you a poet and composing an instrumentalist, and I see myself as a songwriter. I love the craft of song writing, of being inside a song, and it may take a few days, or a few months for something to come together, but if it is going to work, I will stay with it until it is finished. I like fine-tuning a song, hammering out the weaknesses, cutting away the unnecessary bits until what you have left is something that is solid and that will last.
Are there any tracks that will need attention in rehearsals when you take them out on tour?
A couple of intricate instrumental breaks will need some attention I think, but nothing too hard that I can get my head around them quite easily. When you write a complex guitar piece and record it, there can be an element of hit-and-hope about it, which is fine in the studio, you can have a few goes at it. But on stage, it has to be right, so I will make sure I have everything practised so I don’t have to think about it too much, or worry about it at all.
Are you keen on practice?
I have never specifically practiced; I play for pleasure and that’s how I have always approached playing the guitar. I took a break last December, after being somewhere playing every week for twenty years, I thought I’d pull back and have some family time. Of course, Covid has extended that time because there is no touring. I have been really enjoying playing some flamenco guitar for the pleasure of learning and playing it. I met a busker called Edwin Page in Australia, and he showed me some good finger-picking techniques that he uses, and he gave me some Paco Pena music to listen to, so I am really enjoying my downtime doing something very different to what I usually do.
Do you have any advice for songwriters?
I think it’s about chipping away, whether it’s doing that with a song or with your career. Keep chipping away at what you enjoy, and the love of music will get you through. If you enjoy playing and you enjoy writing, then they are crafts, and like any craft, you will get better with experience.
Declan O’Rourke’s latest album is released on 9 April 2021.