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10 Questions for Gilbert O'Sullivan

The '70s hitmaker chats with Goldmine on the eve of his first US tour in more than four decades
Gilbert O'Sullivan (Courtesy of BMG)

Gilbert O'Sullivan (Courtesy of BMG)

He may be best known for the classic 1972 single "Alone Again (Naturally)"—which sat atop the US charts for six weeks and garnered three Grammy nominations—and US chart action may have ceased for him around 1974, but singer/songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan has never stopped making excellent music. "I’ve never lost the enthusiasm I have for writing and the ideas that flow from it," he says. On the eve of his first US tour in more than four decades, titled Just Gilbert, he spoke with Goldmine about the upcoming shows, his musical influences (a few of which may come as a surprise), and, of course, his signature song.

Goldmine: First, the most obvious question: since this will be your first US tour in many years, what made you decide to perform live in the United States after such a long absence? 

Gilbert O'Sullivan: One of the reasons is because my first and only US tour in 1973/74 was a disaster, albeit a wonderful one! (We had great musicians, a full orchestra, and a private plane.) It should have been clear to [my] management that even with three million selling singles, to put audiences in the seats you need the experience of being an opening act for a major arena artist before...headlining yourself. That’s what led to us on the one hand selling out at Carnegie Hall, but on the other losing out badly in large arenas around the country, which resulted in the tour being pulled [before] heading to the West Coast.

I've toured extensively with my band since 1990 and we have tried to get back to the States, but because of the costs involved it was unlikely to happen. That’s why with just myself and my guitarist Bill Shanley, the opportunity arose allowing us to come over and perform. Better late than never!

[Just Gilbert] is a very up close and personal, intimate performance lasting over two hours and we are really enjoying it, although I would still love to bring the whole band over. Who knows, we may be able to in the near future.

GM: Will your 2022 set list concentrate mainly on the “oldies,” or will we have the opportunity to hear some of your superb, more recent tunes such as “I’m in Love with Love (Again)” (from 2006’s A Scruff at Heart) or “Where Did You Go To” (from 2018’s Gilbert O’Sullivan)?

GOS: The set is comprised of my best-known songs and popular album tracks plus a few of the new songs. I’m really pleased you like "I’m In Love with Love (Again)." I’ve performed it quite a few times and it always gets a good reaction.

GM: You dedicated your self-titled 2018 album to your mother, saying she’s the one “…who made my career possible.” In what ways did she influence your career?

GOS: There is no history in my family of music playing any part in my love of it, other than the singalongs that would frequently take place in family circles. But my mother is the one who had the piano brought into our home. She also made it possible for me to have an electric guitar and later a drum kit, none of which I could have bought without her help. And remember, she was bringing up six children on her own, with my father having passed away when I was 12 years old.

GM: Gilbert O’Sullivan is a wonderful, timeless-sounding album and one that brought you back into the UK album charts after a long absence. How did that feel?

GOS: I’ve been very happy with all my album releases, but this one was special, helped in no small part by it being produced by Ethan Johns. It received some very good reviews and [airplay], leading to a top 20 chart position [in the UK], the first for a new album of mine in 40 years.

GM: Folks who are only casually familiar with your work might assume that you came out of nowhere with “Alone Again (Naturally),” but you had been recording for nearly five years and had several successful singles in Europe prior to your signature song. Tell us a bit about your pre-“Alone Again” days.

GOS: Well, my first single came out in 1967 as a result of a recording agreement with CBS. Two songs were recorded with full backing and a brass arrangement. But I persuaded CBS to release a demo I had recorded in our garden shed called "Disappear." It didn’t set the world on fire, but it was a start. I then moved to a company called Major Minor in 1968/69, who in my opinion destroyed the best song I had written up til then, called "I Wish I Could Cry," dealing with the death of Bobby Kennedy.

My next recording was "Nothing Rhymed" in 1970, with my manager Gordon Mills producing. It was, for the first time, the most wonderful experience—singing live and playing the piano, with great musicians in the rhythm section. I had no idea if it would be a hit, but for me it was everything I could hope for. [The song would become O'Sullivan's first to hit the charts and rose into the top 10 in the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands.]

More success in the UK and Europe followed with "We Will" and "No Matter How I Try" [both of which cracked the UK top 10]. [Then it was] the session for next single, which was to be either "Alone Again" or "Out of the Question." Everyone thought with "Out of the Question" being the more commercial, that should be the release. But in the end, "Alone Again" won out. 

GM: Speaking of “Alone Again (Naturally)”—how does it feel to have people tell you how that song speaks to them personally? I’m sure it must happen all the time.

GOS: I'm sure the subject matter of the song is the reason it resonates with so many people. And not only with those I meet, but with the amount of plays and covers it receives. Of course, it surprises a lot of people that it’s not based on personal experience, but my point on this is as a lyricist you don’t have to experience the subject to be able to write about it in a sincere and understanding way.

GM: You mentioned covers of your songs a moment ago. There have been many over the years: artists as diverse as Burton Cummings, the Pet Shop Boys (with Elton John), and Hurricane Smith (who took your composition “Who Was It?” to #23 in the UK charts back in the day) have recorded Gilbert O’Sullivan tunes. I know there are countless others as well. Do you have a favorite cover of one of your songs?

GOS: Anyone who covers my songs get a positive reaction. I don’t have to like it; it’s the fact that they want to record it that pleases me. As a big Nina Simone fan, her recording of "Alone Again," while not sticking to the original lyric in part, is special, as are Sarah Vaughan's and Neil Diamond's versions. However, one of my recent favorites is a heavy metal version of "Alone Again," played at lightning speed by a Japanese band. It always brings a smile to my face.

GM: Who are some of your musical influences? Paul McCartney—whom you often get compared to because you have similar superior storytelling abilities—seems to be someone who may have been an influence at some point.

GOS: The Beatles along with Bob Dylan and the radio were the biggest influence on my songwriting. Lennon and McCartney for great songs, not least how they looked. And Dylan for great songs, but also his voice. I also like Goffin and King as songwriters, and Joni Mitchell. Current influences are everything from John Mayer to Alison Krauss, and the Chainsmokers to Taylor Swift. Oh, and soundtracks to musicals dating from back to early 20th century.

GM: You have a new album due in 2022, which will be your twentieth studio album. What can we expect?  Please give us some details.

GOS: New album, with songs produced by Andy Wright who also produces Simply Red and Simple Minds. What I’ve always said is with me being the solo writer and singer of all my songs, what helps to give it that extra vital ingredient is in the production. It’s what they bring to the table that can make a significant difference to the sound of the record.

This album has a very live sound about it, with very little overdubbing. There are top class musicians, with the lineup being two guitars, bass, drums, and keyboard. Me on piano, plus an orchestra on some of the tracks.

GM: Even though you haven’t seen a lot of chart action in recent years, you have continued to record and release excellent albums since your 1970s heyday. What keeps you going?

GOS: It’s the love of songwriting that’s the be all and end all. Without the songs there would be no artist and no career. It’s a joyous occupation and long may it continue!