Saturday 7 December 2019

A welcome return for Declan O'Rourke

After some time off, the inimitable musician Declan O'Rourke speaks to Ciara Galvin about getting back on stage, and how writing is a 24-hour hobby he just can't switch off from

Taking time out to savour precious moments of being a new father, singer songwriter Declan O'Rourke is now hitting the road again after a well-deserved hiatus.

He takes the stage at The Hawk's Well Theatre this Friday night for what he says will be a 'looser' gig than normal.

"I'm looking forward to being on the stage. There's lots of new stuff I'll be trying out and I'm kind of in the middle of making the next record and deciding which ones will ultimately make that," the Galway-based musician explains, and adds that he'll also be putting himself 'on shuffle' during the performance.

With the arrival of their baby last year, Declan said it was important not to be missing in action, and he cancelled planned tour dates which coincided with the birth.

"I had a tour in Australia which was meant for the week he was due. I cancelled everything."

Now, the self-professed stay at home dad is ready for his return to stage.

Not one for nerves, O'Rourke says he actually feels 'most zen' when on stage.

"It's the most zen state I feel, I really enjoy performing. The stuff that happens between songs and try and allow things to happen. If you could approach life the way I approach stage gigs it'd be good model," he laughs.

Since releasing his critically acclaimed debut album, 'Since Kyabram' in 2004, O' Rourke has emulated its success with his follow ups 'Big Bad Beautiful World' and 'Mag Pai Zai' among others.

With such an emphatic response to a debut, did the musician feel pressure to continue or even outdo his 2004 success?

"Not really, in a way, when you begin everyone thinks you appeared overnight and don't know you've been at this for years. I'm playing guitar 30 years this year, it goes back that far, your hobby your dream, your life revolves around it," he says from his Kinvara base, where his grandfather grew up.

Reflecting on the release of his debut, O'Rourke says he tried not to have expectations and instead tried to 'go with the flow'.

"Success is a strange thing to measure, you can do more, but you also feel you've done well...You're always striving to do better and improve, it's a lifelong journey...The thing is to never be bored and to always enjoy it and the people you're around."

Last year, fourteen years after the release of 'Since Kyabram', O'Rourke decided to bring the band together to film a rehearsal in the very cottage the record was made in.

With not camera phones or studio footage in 2004, he decided to record the reunion and describes it has a nice piece of nostalgia with friends.

Comparing songs like horses in a race, with some never finishing, the songwriter said the writing process is a '24 hour hobby'.

In 2014, O'Rourke worked on a project called Howlin' Lowly Moon where he pushed himself to release one song every month. He explains he did so in order to push himself to record and also to bring to life songs that lay in a pile.

"The problem I found was the industry standard is you release an album every two to three years, then you spend time promoting that. If you're writing all the time you have an excess of songs building up."

Adding, "If you're feeling some of that material is good enough to be released but isn't being released it's slipping down the pile."

O'Rourke also used the project to engage with his followers in a meaningful way, with subscribers receiving the songs each month. The result? O'Rourke has released an album every year since.

Last year he re-released his debut after finally getting the rights back.

"It had felt like a lost friend for awhile and I was aware people asking why it wasn't on Spotify and I wanted it on vinyl.

In 2015 he released his fourth studio album Gold Bars in the Sun. The album was the artist's first vinyl release and was largely composed of songs featured in the Howlin' Lowly Moons project.

In October 2016 O'Rourke released, In Full Colour, the culmination of his previous work spanning a dozen sold out concerts over 10 years, performing with the accompaniment of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

Following on from this the musician collaborated with some of the best Irish traditional musicians for a song cycle 15 years in the making, chronicling stories of the great Irish famine. A culmination of 25 books on the history of Irish workhouses and one of Ireland's darkest histories, Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine included the talents of Catriona Frost, Dermot Byrne, Mick McGoldrick and John Sheahan.

Speaking about the Irish music scene, the musician is buoyed by what's around currently, but admits he is a creature of habit and tends to return to his favourites.

"It seems to be very vibrant, but I think it always seems to be a difficult place for artists in terms of labels and publishers, but there is a lot of talent."

Dundalk musician David Keenan has piqued his interest.

"I like what he's doing. I heard a song on the radio one day and I had no idea who it was and I ended up pressing the old Shazam button and was pleasantly surprised it was someone so close to home. He seems to be very well formed and had great confidence. He's somebody to watch."

O'Rourke admits that he finds it hard to connect with new music and most of the time doesn't even listen to the radio, but instead prefers to work on his own music internally.

"I don't listen to the radio really, they don't play the type of music I'm into, but I don't like having the radio on at home, it switches off your inner radio. If you're a creative, you're constantly working on things in your own brain."

He adds, "I think the older you get the more emotional attachment you have to certain music and they're deeply engrained in the landscape of your life."

With a career so varied, sharing billings and stages to everyone from Bob Dylan, to Bic Runga, what has been a highlight for the musician?

Personally, he cites a special moment with his parents as one to cherish.

"One that sticks out is the first time I heard a recording of somebody else singing one of my songs and it was around Christmas time and it was actually a Christmas song."

O'Rourke recalls, "It was recorded by an African choir and I remember my parents put it on and they started dancing around the room to it. I was in floods of tears. I was looking going this is a moment I'm going to remember for the rest of my life watching my parents do this. It was very sweet."

Professionally, an acknowledgement from one of the best selling artists of all time, James Taylor is a memory O'Rourke holds dear.

Invited to play the Tranatlantic Sessions is an honour in itself, O'Rourke explains, but to be asked to perform for the Transatlantic Sessions US tour was incredibly special, sharing a billing with the five time Grammy winner, James Taylor.

Performing Galileo and a song from Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine, O'Rourke was happy with his performance in front of the 70,000 strong audience.

"As I finished and I'm walking off they introduced James Taylor and he comes on and he sat down, and kind of stopped for a second, and turned around and just said 'Wow Declan, what a song', and I kind of squealed like a little girl [laughs]. I was blown away."

Going forward, the talented musician is looking forward to his return to stage while also working on something he describes as being 'a nice surprise' for music lovers.

Declan O'Rourke plays The Hawk's Well Theatre on Friday, November 8th at 8pm. Tickets €27.50/€13.75 u18s available from

Sligo Champion