Irish singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan continues to be regarded with tremendous affection and his songs remain well-loved around the world. During the 1970s he racked up a dozen top 40 UK singles, including Alone Again (Naturally) – which also topped the US charts for six weeks – Clair, and Get Down.
Earlier this month he released his 20th studio album Driven, and he has been touring stripped back versions of his classics alongside new material. He is bringing that show – just Gilbert and his guitarist, to Wickham Festival, where he is headlining the Big Top 2 stage on Sunday.
He’s been touring this way for the past few months – including in America, Japan and Scandinavia.
Talking to The Guide from his home in Jersey, Gilbert says: ‘What's really nice about doing it this way is that it's up close and personal, so it's kind of intimate.
‘People get to hear the best known songs, and some album tracks that are often requested plus a sample of the new material. It's worked out really well. When I've met people afterwards they've told me how they really enjoyed it because they could hear the lyrics more clearly. Sometimes you get criticism when you're with the band that they can't hear the words.’
The new album features a couple of high profile duets – with KT Tunstall and Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall.
As a fan of KT’s smash Suddenly I See, Gilbert thought his song Take Love would be a good fit for the Scottish artist, who now lives in the US. It became the album’s lead single.
‘She lives in California now, so we contacted her and sent her the track, and she loved it. We said put your vocal on and do it how you want.
‘We met up when she came to London – that was the first time we'd met face-to-face – and we did the video together. We had a marvellous time doing that, it was a real joy, a lot of fun.’
For the song with Hucknall, Let Bygones Be Bygones, Gilbert says: ‘Andy Wright, my producer, he also produces Simply Red and Simple Minds, and now he produces Simple O'Sullivan...’ he chuckles.
‘I knew Mick was a fan of my songs because I'd met him at a charity show some years ago, and we'd talked. He said to Andy: “Look if Ray's [Gilbert’s real name] got any songs on his album that he might like to sing and could do a duet with him, please let me know, I'd love to do it”.
‘He heard Let Bygones Be Bygones, and it's really nice – it's turned out really well.’
Driven is the follow-up to 2018’s self-titled album, which saw the artist have something of a renaissance – it went to 20 in the charts, his highest position since his ’70s heyday.
His latest album would have been here sooner, if not for the pandemic, but Gilbert acknowledges that while it has been a horrible time, it gave him the chance to work a little differently.
‘When I met [producer] Ethan Johns for the last album, I didn't have any lyrics done, he just came over here to Jersey, heard the melodies with gibberish words, then I spent the next three months writing the lyrics.
‘The good thing about lockdown is that it meant I was able to complete all of the lyrics for this album before I met the producer, so that worked out really well.
‘For somebody who writes lyrics like I do, you need to be able to lock yourself away to be able to do it, and it's quite time consuming.
‘For many artists who depended on performing live for their work, it was terrible, but if they were writers, it gave them that opportunity to concentrate on that, so it was good in that respect.’
For Gilbert, songwriting has been a lifelong passion – but it is something he takes very seriously.
‘I started writing when I was 14, it started off as a hobby, then once The Beatles arrived, we all wanted to be in a band. The great thing about The Beatles when they came out in ’62, was that they were young, they wrote great songs, they couldn't read music, they looked different, and everything about them was spellbinding for all of us, our generation.
‘We all wanted to be in a band after that. Before The Beatles you had Cliff and The Shadows and stuff and they were great – I bought [The Shadow’s 1960 hit] Apache – but you never felt that you could be like them. You felt like they were something you could not really aspire to. That was the great thing with The Beatles – you could identify with them and you felt, well if they can do it, then maybe we could do it.
‘Songwriting then became semi-serious for me and then totally serious when I came up to London in ’67.
‘The key to everything I do, the reason I'm talking to you, the reason I do concerts is because of the songs. Without the songs there wouldn't be an artist, so everything is dependent on the material that I write and it's that important to me.’
He explains his songwriting process: ‘I don't co-write, and I've never had writers block - it's something I just enjoy. That joyous side of it has never left me. It isn't rocket science – I sit at a piano because I don't play guitar.
‘Melody is key’
‘If I need to come up with a melody, I'll sit there five days a week, four weeks a month, for however long it takes to come up with what I think is a good melody, it's that important. And then I'll sit down with an empty notebook for however long it takes to come up with lyric, and that's exciting because very often I have no idea what it's going to be about. Occasionally a title will start it off, but eight times out of 10, it's just what happens.
‘And the great thing about lyric-writing is that while you kind of start off with nothing, and then end up with so many ideas that you just can't stop. It's fascinating.’
But there’s one element above all, that Gilbert says lies at the heart of songwriting: ‘A good melody is key. There's a danger that our generation of writers, as one gets older, you lose the melodic element, and to me, to not do that is very important.
‘Take for example, someone like Paul Simon, he's written some incredible songs. But if you bought his latest album, you'd find that the production is great, the band are fantastic, and lyrically he's still as good as ever, but melodically... maybe not so good.
‘I think that's something we have to work hard and try to prevent, and that's something I do, I know how important it is to have the melody.’
And the next album? ‘That will start again in the middle of next year, when I might start to think again about a future potential record. The ideas will be there – I'll just sit down and do what I've always done.’
While perhaps not seen as one of the ‘cool’ artists, Gilbert has racked up some heavyweight admirers such as Paul Weller, Squeeze and The Kinks while Tim Burgess of The Charlatans invited him to take part in two of his famed Twitter album listening parties.
‘It's a compliment to me, for people to say that they like my work, in the same way that I have respect for those people, the likes of Paul Weller and Ray Davies, who's a fantastic songwriter.
‘Neil Diamond did a version of Alone Again on an album he released a few years ago. He sent me a letter saying that he hoped I liked his version, which I thought was really nice. And then you get people like Diana Krall and Michael Bublé singing your songs. Things like that are really special – it's a compliment to you as a songwriter.’
Gilbert has recently returned to playing in the US – for the first time since an infamous tour there in 1973/74.
‘For the last 20 years we had tried, but with a band, it's very difficult to get into America, the cost is huge. So when it went down to just myself and my guitarist, they suddenly took an interest and invited us over. So we did two shows a couple of years ago, then we did 10 shows just a few months ago. We're going back there in 2023, because in America you can spend a whole year touring and still wouldn't cover it all!
‘The reason for the big gap is because my first and only tour in America was on the back of the success I was having in 1973 – I had three million-selling singles in America, so for my first tour of America, my manager had a choice of two things, one) I support The Moody Blues, two) or I do what Tom Jones and Engelbert were doing,’ Gilbert shared management with these two fellow stars.
‘The mistake was putting me out on my own in big theatres. We filled Carnegie Hall in New York, but when we went to larger arenas it was looking bad – people weren't coming out, so the tour was pulled before we got to the west coast.
‘It was a wonderful disaster – we had a private plane, we had an orchestra, we had a great time, but we just weren't attracting the crowds and they panicked, so the tour was pulled.’
Wickham Festival runs from today to Sunday, August 4-7, with The Levellers, 10CC, Martha Wainwright, Show of Hands, The Saw Doctors and many more. Daily tickets from £50. Full weekend tickets £220. Go to wickhamfestival.co.uk.