Singer-songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan reveals the records that shaped his life and influenced his work
Last Train to San Fernando by Johnny Duncan and His Bluegrass Boys
This was the first record to really get to me. It was in the Fifties, the days of skiffle, so I would’ve been eight or nine. I'd hear music on the radio, of course, but it was amazing listening to the older kids performing in skiffle bands in Swindon, where we lived. We used to go out at night time and hear them practise.
I was too young to be in a band myself but Last Train to San Fernando was one of those skiffle records that I really enjoyed. It was a big record for me at that young age. It was an eye opener, or an ear opener, in the sense that it connected with me in a big way. Lonnie Donegan was huge in terms of the British skiffle-boom, and I liked him, but he didn’t get through to me as much as this particular record. I just loved it.
Please Please Me by The Beatles
That’s the album that started the whole thing for me: wanting to be in a band, wanting to write songs. Before Lennon and McCartney, you used to think that you needed a degree to write songs—even Carole King and Gerry Goffin could read music.
"The Beatles broke the barriers down because they were young and inexperienced in terms of musical knowledge"
But The Beatles were the first people to come out of nowhere, not from London, not from the Big Smoke. They came from Liverpool, with their accents, their look, Beatle haircuts, collarless jackets. They wrote great songs, even though they had no musical background, so they started a whole generation of people like myself. We all wanted to be in a band and that’s what happened.
In England, before The Beatles, you had Cliff Richard and The Shadows. They were great, we all loved them. I bought Wonderful Land and Apache but, with them, you never felt that you too could be in a band. Again, you felt that they were professional musicians. So, The Beatles broke the barriers down because they were young and inexperienced in terms of musical knowledge.
I remember the first time I saw them on TV; I was working a Saturday job and the big TV programme in England at that time was Thank Your Lucky Stars which was a pop show. I remember cycling home frantically from my Saturday job to see The Beatles on Thank Your Lucky Stars, and that was the beginning of a revolution. We all wanted to be in bands and so I formed my first band after that.
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan
I was hugely into Bob Dylan. While The Beatles were getting me into songwriting, Bob Dylan was the one who gave me the feeling that I could achieve something with my voice. I don’t have a great voice, but I always felt it was kind of distinctive and if there’s one thing Bob Dylan had, it was a distinctive voice. And of course, his songwriting sort of moved away from “I-love-you-you-love-me” and that kind of helped us to be able to write lyrics other than the traditional love songs that were the key at that time. Bob Dylan was a huge influence on me.
I used to spend every weekend in the garden shed singing “Masters of War”. You can’t get further away from a straightforward pop song than listening to “Masters of War”. I loved everything about Bob Dylan from Freewheelin’ up to Blonde on Blonde. He talked about everything that was going on in the world. At the time of Freewheelin’ we had the Cuba missile crisis and we were going to college, and the teacher was saying at the end of the day that we could be at war with Russia, so we were all leaving college saying, “Do we bunker down?” [laughs] “We might have to go in the loft and hide” and, you know, it was a scary time.
But Dylan was out there, talking about those kinds of things and he was a great melody writer. He’s a folk artist. His tradition of melody stems right from the great American songbook. He wrote great melodies as well as great lyrics—he could do both.
About my new album...
I always like to work with different producers and, for this record, Ethan Johns was top of the list. He’s worked with Kings of Leon, Ray LaMontagne, Paolo Nutini, so his track record is great. We weren’t sure he’d be interested but we set up a meeting, I met him for coffee, we got on well and then he came to Jersey and sat down with me here in the music room to listen to the melodies.
"Self-analysis is kind of difficult for me. It’s painstaking"
And of course, there would have been only melodies, I never complete a song until it’s going to be recorded. Therefore, once we went through the melodies and Ethan liked what he heard, he went away to prepare for the future recording and I spent the next two months writing the words.
Self-analysis is kind of difficult for me. It’s painstaking. I love the process of songwriting, it’s the key to everything I do. It’s fascinating, you just sit at a piano trying to come up with a melody and if you come up with a good melody, you can keep it. A good melody will survive any length of time, but if you finish a lyric and you don’t use it, then, because of what you’re writing about, it could become dated.
My lyrical approach is a bit like a newspaper: touch upon a subject in the first verse and then the second verse could be about something else but the common denominator can often be the hook line. The first song on the album is called "At The End Of The Day". Everybody says it when you put on the news today, you’ll always hear somebody going, “Well, at the end of the day”—it’s the most common phrase around in the world these days, everybody says it but nobody had written a song so I kind of liked the idea.
Other songs deal with various subjects and a lot of them are straight-forward love songs. I hope a sense of humour comes through in some of them, I enjoy the aspect of putting in a little bit of humour in certain lyrics due to the strong influences from my past and I just love playing with words, using them and changing them around. I find it hard but that’s my job and it’s for people to like or loathe [laughs].