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Interview: Gilbert O Sullivan
BACK in 1972, Glam Rock was making it’s presence felt and the first stirrings of Osmondmania were in evidence, but the top selling UK artist in the world of that year was a young man dressed in boots with a cloth-cap and pudding-basin haircut.
Gilbert O’Sullivan cut a strange figure sitting at a piano singing his personal, autobiographical songs.
“I’ve no idea why those particular songs seem to be more successful," he tells me from his home in Jersey where he has lived for two decades.
“They’re just songs; I don’t analyse everything I do – that’s up to the audiences.”
“But,” he adds. ”I do take my writing very seriously.”
“I reflect the way people talk, and even though I’m Irish, I’m a very English songwriter in the way I observe things.”
His latest album, Gilbertville, was released last year and was hailed as one of his finest albums and has led to a re-appraisal of his work, and as part of a reissue campaign, A Singer and his Songs –The Very Best of Gilbert O’Sullivan was released on March 5th.
And he is also going out on the road with an 11-piece band which includes a string quartet throughout March and April.
Gilbert first appeared on the charts at the end of 1970 with the Top Ten hit Nothing Rhymed, this after having been a songwriter for CBS Records for a number of years during which he wrote songs for The Tremeloes.
“I come from a working class background, but we always had a piano, the thinking of my parents was that if one of your kids could play it, you could make some money at it.”
“Later on, I put the piano in the garden shed where I could practise. Luckily the neighbours were very tolerant – the noise must have been atrocious!”
His next Top Ten hit came a year later (after a couple of medium hits) with No Matter How I Try.
Alone Again (Naturally) was a US chart-topper and he topped the British charts with Clair and Get Down.
1973 also saw him gain two Ivor Novello Awards for Best Song (Get Down) and Best Songwriter.
But it was unique image that made us sit up and listen to his songs.
“The image was my idea,” he explains.
“In all honesty, the inspiration behind it was The Beatles. When they came on the scene, they looked different.”
“In those days, to be a singer, you had to look good and that meant long hair, but I rallied against that.”
“I had it all planned, the haircut, the clothes, everything.”
He was signed by Gordon Mills at the MAM Agency.
“Nobody liked the image, but Gordon knew that success would come through the songs, but if he had said that he didn’t want the image I would have walked.”
Summing up, Gilbert states simply, “The contract between the looks and the music worked.”
“I was never really interested in looks, but I am proud of what I achieved.”
A couple of years went by and Gilbert did indeed eventually change his image and became a reluctant heart-throb.
One thing noticeable about Gilbert’s playing style is his way of ‘chopping at the keyboard’ with his left hand.
Gilbert took the time to explain how it came about.
“It’s easy really.” He begins. “The first band I was in – which included Rick Davies who went on to form Supertramp – I played drums, and I find that playing the piano is very rhythmic, so my left hand is like playing the drums on a keyboard – it’s just for the rhythm.”
Continuing about how he learnt to play, he carries on.
“Of course I had piano lessons, but the teacher asked me to play by looking at the music, but I played by ear.”
For the tour, he says that the new album will not over-shadow the concert.
“Even though I’m still promoting Gilbertville, and will be up until July, the show – which will last about two and a half hours –will be an all-round mix of my career.”
“We’ll play 35 or 36 songs which will contain all the well-known songs, some album tracks and new stuff.”
“We also usually play Can’t Think Straight, which I recorded with Peggy Lee. It’s the only duet I have ever done, and we show the video as a back-drop.”
This is in fact, the second part of the UK tour, which began last year, and Gilbert is really looking forward to playing live again.
“I’m playing in a few places that we haven’t done before and what’s really enjoyable about it is seeing and meeting the people who are interested in my music.”
After the tour, Gilbert is moving on to his next work.
“I never write when I’m on the road,” he says, so after July – apart from the odd festival – I’ll lockdown and concentrate on the next project.”
“Every two or three years I bring a new album out. It enables me to keep studying the art of song-writing.”
“I love it and never tire of it.”
“It’s a constant treadmill that I really enjoy.”
Despite 40 years of constantly working Gilbert still has ambition as he tells me.
“I still strive to be successful, even though I never wanted to be a global star.”
“I feel that I’m re-establishing myself and still have a competitive edge – which is good at my age.” He concludes laughing.
Gilbert O’Sullivan will be appearing at the Anvil, Basingstoke tomorrow night (Tuesday).