When Declan O’Rourke Had Questions About Life, He Found The Answers In Song

Declan O'Rourke - Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Photo by Ruth Medjber @ruthlessimagery

In a world clad with shortening attention-spans and a seemingly never-ending onslaught of over-stimulation, Declan O’Rourke and his intimate, contemplative music brilliantly stands out.

And for good reason—since his debut record came out in 2004, the Irish singer/songwriter has been making a name for himself as a troubadour of sorts, writing the type of classic, heartfelt songs that have seemingly fallen to the wayside in recent decades. Perhaps best known for his tune “Galileo (Someone Like You),” which has been covered by the likes of Josh Groban, Eddi Reader and more, O’Rourke’s thoughtful approach to his craft has resonated with thousands on both side of the Atlantic (including John Prine, who recorded a duet with O’Rourke in 2016).

Now, on April 9, O’Rourke is releasing Arrivals, a new collection of songs that tackles themes of family, love, loss, separation and more, all with the tact and care that the 44-year-old songwriter is known for. Produced by the legendary Paul Weller, the record is O’Rourke’s first with a major label in over a decade.

American Songwriter hopped on a Zoom call with O’Rourke to discuss his creative process over the past few years. Bogged down by the stresses of being entirely independent and fighting against a growing cultural apathy, O’Rourke almost walked away from music for good during this time. However, having a family and finally ‘letting go’ of his control proved to be the blessings he was waiting for, spurring some of the greatest creative output of his career thus far. Read our conversation below:

American Songwriter: Since your last album came out in 2017, a lot has changed, both in the world and in your life—what can you tell us about this time?

Declan O’Rourke: Well, I’ve been doing this professionally for almost 20 years, right? From 2004 to 2008 I was with major labels—I had a few, I guess, ‘bumps in the road’ with that kind of thing, as everybody does. I was fiercely independent for a number of years after that… up until now, really, with this record.

From 2014 through 2017 I made four albums—one a year. I was managing myself, still fiercely independent. I was giving it everything and, God, I was working around the clock all year round. I was finding that even though I felt that the quality of the records was very good—and I was putting everything I had into it, both in terms of effort and financial resources—everything I was making was just going back in. I felt like I was putting in the same effort whether it was for 10 people or 10 million people; the effort was as high as could be. I was getting orchestras and everything else, I was just doing it really properly and really well.

But, I just wasn’t getting the traction. I didn’t have the resources to publicize myself or my work better—I didn’t have the ability to get the music to whoever it needed to get to in order to have healthy growth. And I mean in the simple way of just being sustainable at that level, being able to continue to make art in the way I wanted to make it. We have so many problems with revenues and streaming and all that kind of stuff… it was unsustainable. I was in a cycle of ever-diminishing returns.

AS: How did all of this contribute to the creation of Arrivals

DO: About two years ago, I felt this record coming. Many of the songs were road-tested, just because I gig new songs all the time. Sometimes you feel a group of songs starting to formulate into a groove and you think ‘Oh, that’s a record.’ But this time, I stopped and had a talk with myself. My wife and I had decided to start a family—we both really wanted that and I knew that it was going to necessitate a big change in how I spend my time, specifically in regard to how much of it I devote to making music. I wanted to do what was most important: be a family person. 

So, I sat down and started talking it over with myself and the universe, really. I was kinda prepared to let it all go, to be honest. I just thought ‘I can’t keep doing it the way I’m doing it, I’m tired of doing it that way. So, I’m either going to do it differently or I’m not going to do it at all.’ 

At that stage, I think I already had the record sorta half-made. I felt it was a really good record, so I said ‘Okay, well I’m going to have a really good go at this now—I’m going to get proper management, a proper international record label, an international tour agent, etc.’ I was going to do it the ground-up way, really, and I was ready to stop holding onto control. 

To cut a long story short, the most interesting thing happened from that point: as soon as I ‘let go,’ I pulled out every business card I had ever collected and put them into piles of ‘managers’ and ‘labels’ and what-have-you. Within a year or so, I had a great manager and I had an international label deal with Warner and I had an international touring agent. And I feel like I have a pretty strong record too—it was produced by a great icon, who also did a fantastic job. So, the universe is answering my questions. I find it interesting that as soon as I ‘let go’ after 20 years of relentlessly driving, it started to drive itself. I find that fascinating. 

AS: Family is certainly a big theme throughout Arrivals—how has becoming a father impacted your artistry? 

DO: My wife and I had a little boy just over three years ago. The songs that were coming for this record were landing on either side of that, really. I guess we started recording around a year after that. 

I guess I was struggling to balance work and family life. Family is everything to me, it’s huge. Especially in the times we’re going through, I think we’re all understanding that more—we’re all a bit more conscious of how important our loved ones are. We’re less likely to take that for granted. Family has always been the biggest thing for me. I have a large, extended family and we have great get-togethers and stuff like that. 

So, it was as simple as that, really. I wanted family to come first. But, the songs, ironically, became a charting of that journey and those decisions and, strangely enough, a manifestation of them too. They kinda mirrored each other—my life manifested what I was singing about and vice versa. The songs helped me figure out what I was trying to achieve in my life and therefore, they kind of made it all happen. It’s interesting. 

AS: You’ve said before that “We all feel very strongly about various aspects of what is happening in the world right now, and I don’t know if I ever managed to speak my mind well about them before.” This record certainly strikes a certain chord in the current moment—do you feel that perhaps this time you managed to “speak your mind well” about them? 

DO: I feel that I’ve tried, in the past, to explore contemporary themes in songwriting, to say something about what was happening in the world. But, I never felt like I was getting it right. I don’t know why. But now, I feel that just maybe my writing has evolved to a level where I feel like I’ve finally achieved it. I don’t know, maybe I was trying too hard or thinking about it too much before. They just came out this time without me realizing it. If you try long enough, you get good at it. Err, you get ‘better’ at it… ‘good’ is someone else’s opinion. 

AS: What did the writing process for this record look like? 

DO: I just write all the time. I don’t have a hugely prolific output—over the past 20 years, I’ve probably finished, on average, around 10 to 12 songs a year. That’s not much, though, compared to how many songs I start. I usually have a few going at one time, almost like horses in a race. Some of them take longer—they could take a couple years, even. Others come very fast. They kinda peak and fall away, but if they’re relevant, they’ll keep coming back and eventually finish themselves. I try to never force them, but just chip away at them like a constant hobby. Some of them get finished and some of them don’t—some of them might even come back way later on because something reminds you of them again. 

But, those ones that are more topical and less of my own personal life—those come about because of how strongly I feel about certain themes. A big one on this record is the movement of displaced peoples around the world and the growing apathy and right-wing reaction towards it. That bothers me a lot. We see so much of that in our world and I’m so frustrated and infuriated by it. So, I think that filtered into two or three songs on this record.

AS: In a lot of ways—from the years-long devotion to writing one song to the nature of your work—I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen. One thing I’ve read him talk about is how there’s a certain sense of “seriousness” that is lacking from the music industry; I see your music as combating against that. To me, Arrivals is a deeply serious album, but, echoing a quote from Cohen, “Seriousness is the deepest pleasure we have.” It’s not dreadful or a bummer for being serious, but it’s actually quite beautiful and touching. 

DO: Well, even being mentioned in the same conversation as Leonard Cohen is a compliment, to start. When it comes to songwriting, I do take it very seriously, especially when I’m trying to address serious topics. My manager actually accuses me of being too serious, sometimes. She’s always saying ‘I wish people could see more of the smiling, quirky you, you know?’ But, I don’t know, there’s plenty of time to have fun. I try to imbue my writing with hope and beauty. I don’t think you have to make things sweet sugar-coated in order to do that. I like to give my audience credit for their intelligence. Even though you have to psychologically consider every line and what’s being delivered to people in the end, you’ve gotta give them credit for their intelligence and try not to spoon-feed them too much. We’re living through serious times in a serious world, so we want to treat them seriously and give them serious things, thoughts and philosophies. Even now, I’ve gone way off on a tangent of philosophy in my own life. 

So, in terms of what it’s like to write things like that—the only reason I do it is if it’s gratifying somehow. Maybe I feel like I’m answering questions for myself. It helps me understand what I’m thinking and what I’m feeling. There’s the added bonus of having something beautiful or pretty at the end of it—this piece of art that you can share with people.

AS: In that sense, how does it feel to be putting out this record now at what is hopefully the tail end of the pandemic? 

DO: Strangely, I’m not in any hurry. I’ve been working on this record for two years, which is a longer gestation period than anything else I’ve ever worked on. And it’s called ‘Arrivals,’ funnily enough. 

But overall, it’s been so enjoyable. When you put something that you feel really good about, I guess that it’s a little bit like when you have a child that comes of age and is leaving home. One half of you is wishing them well and wants to push them out into the world, but the other half doesn’t want to let go of them at all. So, it’s a little like that.

Declan O’Rourke’s new album Arrivals is available everywhere on April 9. Watch the music video for the record’s title track below:

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