Gilbert O’Sullivan Q&A: On His First U.S. Tour in Nearly 50 Years(!), a ‘Good Song’ vs. a ‘Hit’ and Beyond

Rock Cellar Magazine

Boasting classic hits such as “Alone Again (Naturally),” “Get Down,” “Out Of The Question” and “Clair,” anybody with an ear tuned to the wondrous songs blasting out on AM radio airwaves across America in the 1970s became innately familiar with the melodic magic of singer/songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan.

His songs are marvels of melody, harmony and inventiveness, his Paul McCartney-meets-music hall flavored voice fueled his across the board commercial success. Hitting U.S. shores for his first stateside tour in almost 50 years in March, Gilbert is also readying a new solo album penciled in for release in July.

Rock Cellar: You’ve haven’t played live shows in the U.S. for decades. What prompted your long overdue return to the States to perform live?

Gilbert O’Sullivan: The history of it is the only tour I did in America way back in the early ‘70s, ’73 or ’74 , was a wonderful disaster.

Rock Cellar: Why?

Gilbert O’Sullivan: My manager Gordon Mills also managed Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. They were playing these big arenas. But the decision he had to make for me was, “Do we let him go out as a support for The Moody Blues or do we let him go out on his own like Tom or Engelbert?”

Even though “Alone Again (Naturally),” “Clair” and “Get Down” were million-selling records in America, it doesn’t guarantee bums on seats. Even when Al Green went out behind some million-selling records he bombed out initially. You had to learn your craft in terms of performing.

So the mistake made was putting me on my own. We started off in Carnegie Hall, which was wonderful, and that was a sellout. But that’s not an arena-styled venue. What tended to happen was as we moved further away from New York City the crowds were dwindling. So the tour was pulled before it got to the west coast.

It was a wonderful tour. I had a great orchestra and we had fun with the great musicians and we had a private plane taking us everywhere, so it was a wonderful disaster.

Rock Cellar: It’s astonishing given your success in the States in the ‘70s that you’ve never played a show on the West Coast.

Gilbert O’Sullivan: Well, the only thing I did after that was a guest appearance on a Carpenters show at the Hollywood Bowl, and that was a disaster.

Rock Cellar: Why was that a disaster?

Gilbert O’Sullivan: [laughing] Well, because I play piano and we know that Richard Carpenter also plays piano. So there was a grand piano on stage for me to use. We rehearsed some days before. The Carpenters were big fans of “Alone Again,” so they were very happy to have me, but on the day of the rehearsal the piano was locked and I couldn’t use it.

My manager should have said, “If he doesn’t unlock that piano and let us rehearse with it we’re not doing this.” But they didn’t, and I’m being led here there and everywhere. So I didn’t get a chance to rehearse, and on the night of the show when I walk out, the piano is there and it’s got all these buttons on it and I’ve got no idea what’s going on. It was horrendous.

So I left and went straight home and I was really upset about the whole thing. That’s my experience of the West Coast and touring.

That’s why, in a sense, it’s taken until now for me to go back over. We’ve tried for the last ten years. I have a fantastic band but we haven’t been able to come over because of the costs and expense involved. But now I’m coming over with myself and a guitar player.

We did two shows in 2019 in New York and Philadelphia and that was wonderful. To be able to, for the first time, perform for two hours and play my songs and get the reaction that I got was very exciting. I’m really looking forward to coming over; we’ve been doing this for over a year. The relationship with my guitar player, just the two of us, has worked out so well.

People like it; it’s kind of intimate, up-close and personal and you get to hear the words more clearly and it’s been a joy.

Rock Cellar: Throughout your career you’ve created some beautiful everlasting melodies, any favorites?

Gilbert O’Sullivan: I don’t let people hear when I’m working on something, other than the producer maybe. I’ve heard Paul McCartney say he will play a song to someone and ask what they think. I don’t do that. The only time that people to get to hear it is when it’s recorded.

I’m very confident in the room that I write in. When I finish a song that I’m really happy with, even if it isn’t a hit it will always be something very special to me. I’ll give you an example, I have a song called “It’s Easy To See When You’re Blind.” That’s one of my favorite songs of mine. I like it because of the interesting lyric but I also like the middle eight section and how it moves.

That’s a song that might not be a hit but it means a lot to me in terms of the strength of a good song.

Rock Cellar: One of the ‘45s I bought as a kid was an extraordinary song of yours called “Out Of The Question,” a Top 20 hit of yours in the States. What’s the story behind that one?

Gilbert O’Sullivan: Well, the interesting thing with “Out Of The Question” is it was done at a famous recording session. In those days we did recording sessions in three hours and you’d do tracks in those sessions. That’s how it worked. You didn’t spend a whole month doing an album. In the early ’70s you’d have three hours in a studio to record an A-side and a B-side.

In this instance it was two songs, and the two songs were “Alone Again (Naturally)” and Out Of The Question.” Now everybody said “Out Of The Question” must be the single because it was the most commercial. They thought “Alone Again” was good but they didn’t see it as a single.

In the end, my manager Gordon Mills said, “Even though ‘Alone Again’ isn’t as commercial as ‘Out Of The Question’ we’ll go with it.”

I like “Out Of The Question.” When I’ve been sitting at the piano, which I’ve been doing since 1964, it’s the same notes and same length of keys. I love to go into middle areas and then work my way back song-wise. [laughs] I like to go off tangents and go to areas in the middle of a song and then find a way to get back.

That’s part of the fun of sitting down and coming up with a melody. I like middle eights; I like that thing of just going off and then coming back. “Out Of The Question” has a nice middle section; I considered it a good song but it wasn’t released as a single in Europe to the UK but it did very well in America. In America I’ve had letters from quite a few people who’ve said that song was one of their favorite songs and I enjoy playing it. There’s a nice middle chord progression.

That’s the fun of writing; that’s what makes you want to sit there eight hours a day. [laughs]

Rock Cellar: So “Alone Again (Naturally)” is an unlikely song picked as a single as it deals with a very dark subject, suicide, and to top it off, no pun intended, it turns out to be your biggest hit in the States.

Gilbert O’Sullivan: I liked the song. It’s not based on personal experience, but I get into the subject. What makes you a good lyricist is you don’t have to experience something to be able to write about it in a sincere way, particularly if you’re dealing with a heavy subject. I feel what makes you a good lyricist is to be able to get into such a subject.

I was 21 years old and “Alone Again (Naturally)” was just one of the songs that I wrote at the time to be recorded. So I didn’t think, “Wow, this is going to change the world!” That’s the great thing. Those are areas you should never really go into, just get on with the job, write the song and be happy with it and then let’s see what happens.

You can’t worry about what might be successful, just get on with it.

The success for you as a writer is when you’re in that room on your own and you finish what you think is a good song, that’s success. It has nothing to do beyond that. The great thing is if you go back to the great songwriters, there are Cole Porter songs or Rodgers and Hart songs which bombed initially and didn’t happen. Then they were used in something else, and suddenly they took on another life. It just goes to show you that great songs can get lost.

If you write a good song and it doesn’t become a hit, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad song. It’s just maybe bad timing, those kind of things come into play. That’s always worth bearing in mind. If you’re happy with a song you’ve written and proud of it, that’s what you’re doing it for. You’re recording it because your heart and soul is into creating what you hope is good material.

Rock Cellar: “Get Down” was another huge hit around the world in the ‘70s and demonstrated a rockier side of your personality.

Gilbert O’Sullivan: It was my Rod Stewart and The Faces kind of record. They had a record out. “We Will” was influenced by McCartney; it could have been “My Love,” but I’m not sure. With “Get Down” there was a Faces record I liked and that kind of influenced me on that song. “Get Down” had a good lyric and it’s a good rock song, but we didn’t have a guitar player for the solo. It was just me on piano and Laurie Holloway, the arranger, on the Fender Rhodes and bass and drums and there isn’t guitar but it rocks away; I was really happy with it.

Rock Cellar: Do you recall the Rod Stewart and The Faces song that inspired it?

Gilbert O’Sullivan: It could be “Cindy Incidentally.”

Rock Cellar: “Clair” is yet another smash heard around the world.

Gilbert O’Sullivan: When it was time for a new record my manager Gordon Mills would say, “What have you got?” So I’d play the melody and make up the words. He really liked it but I didn’t know I’d write the song about his daughter Clair. That’s one of the few songs I wrote about a real person because I used to babysit for them.

Clair was one of four children. Gordon played the harmonica solo because he was a Welsh harmonica champion in his day and it’s Clair who laughs at the end of the record. I did it as a tribute to them, because he was so good for me in those early days. It wasn’t a difficult song to write, but it’s one of the few that I’ve written about a real subject.

Rock Cellar: Thinking back, what were the most memorable shows you’ve been a part of through the years?

Gilbert O’Sullivan: I was one of the few artists where it took two big successes before I actually went on the road. You see how some artists learn their apprenticeship by performing in small clubs and getting bigger and getting bigger and going from support act to going out on their own. That didn’t work for me. I supported myself out on the road on the piano.

With my success from “Nothing Rhymed” in ’70 and ’71 to ’72 with “Alone Again (Naturally)” I hadn’t done any concerts. I was pretty much staying at home, writing songs and going on a few television shows. I didn’t go from playing small clubs to larger venues. I think my first concert as a solo artist was in 1972 and I did that in Ireland at a place called The Stadium and that was very crazy. It was two years into my success.

That was very memorable, as was my first show in England at the Hammersmith Odeon. Those were really good experiences and also playing in Hyde Park to over 30,000 people was pretty special too.

Gilbert O’Sullivan 2022 Tour Dates:
Mar 4 – Houston, TX – Main Street Crossing
Mar 7 – Philadelphia, PA – City Winery
Mar 8 – New York, NY – City Winery
Mar 10 – Boston, MA – City Winery
Mar 11 – Chicago, IL – City Winery
Mar 14 – Nashville, TN – City Winery
Mar 15 – Atlanta, GA – City Winery
Mar 17 – Los Angeles, CA – The Mint
Mar 18 – Los Angeles, CA – The Mint
Mar 20 – Washington, DC – City Winery
Apr 5 – Scunthorpe, UK – Baths Hall
Apr 8 – Leeds, UK – City Varities Music Hall
Apr 12 – Birmingham, UK – Town Hall
Apr 23 – Tokyo, Japan – Sinjuku Cultural Center
Apr 24 – Tokyo, Japan – Sinjuku Cultural Center
Sep 2 – Limerick, Ireland – Lime Tree Theatre
Sep 3 – Castlebar, Ireland – Royal Theatre
Sep 6 – Kilkenny, Ireland – Watergate Theatre
Sep 9 – Cork, Ireland – Cork Opera House
Sep 11 – Dublin, Ireland – Bord Gais Energy Theatre
Nov 5 – Amsterdam, Netherlands – Carre Theatre

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