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The Strange Case Of Gilbert O'Sullivan

Source: The Irish Times

Writer: Roisin Ingle

Date: 08 November 2004


He used to be a star, but now the Irish-born singer struggles to get noticed.  Not that it will make him change, writes Roisin Ingle.


Gilbert O'Sullivan is nothing if not consistent.  He writes songs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day in his Jersey mansion, after which he has a cup of strong Assam tea.  Each evening he walks his dog for at least an hour while listening to his favourite radio stations on his headphones.

Having experienced Elton John-size success in the early 1970s, before disappearing for much of the 1980s - a development due in part to a long but finally successful legal battle with his former manager Gordon Mills - he has released an album every few years since 1990.  The reviews, when his albums are not ignored, are almost uniformly awful.


O'Sullivan is also consistently peculiar.  When he arrives for the Irish leg of his European tour, for example, he will, as always, bring a mirror with him, so he can better control the pre-gig reflection that stares out at him from the glass.


Most people would go to great lengths to hide this last admission, but the 57-year-old seems to take stubborn delight in people's dismay at this strange approach to grooming.  Speaking on the phone from his mother's house, in the southern English town of Swindon - where the Waterford-based family moved when Gilbert, or Raymond as he was known back then, was seven - he says there is nothing wrong with vanity.


"I'm going for a walk after lunch, and I will want to make sure I look smart.  Not because I might meet someone; just for myself," he explains, adding that his 83-year-old mother, May, is making lunch.  "There are mirrors that make you look awful - bags under the eyes and everything - so I bring my own mirror and arrange it in a way that makes me look better."


This is typical O'Sullivan.  Eccentric is the word most often used about the man who, when everyone else had long hair and flared jeans, launched his career with an image modelled on the Bisto Kids.  "Odd is more accurate than eccentric," says O'Sullivan, a stickler for words.


I should declare an interest.  Earlier this year I wrote an extremely positive piece about O'Sullivan and his music - a homage to everything from "Clair" to "Matrimony", "Mr Moody's Garden" to "We Will" - around the time his latest collection of hits, "The Berry Vest Of Gilbert O'Sullivan", was released.  Somebody sent it to him, and a few weeks later he wrote to me on his surprisingly cheery personalised stationery.  "My wife and daughters say you got me to a tee, whatever that means," he wrote.


It turns out he doesn't read articles about himself, and even though the piece was as flattering as any artist could hope, he still hasn't read it when we speak, admitting breezily that he has no intention of ever doing so.  "I have learned to avoid the coverage, good or bad - and it's mostly bad.  I am not into self-analysis.  The music is the thing.  I am not writing for critics; I don't want to become a personality."


He is open about what he sees as a conspiracy to keep him out of the popular music press, to stop younger artists being exposed to his work.  It might not be a conspiracy, but the man has a point.  Although it's cool for singers to namecheck everyone from Paul Simon to Bob Dylan, Sandie Shaw to The Carpenters, mentioning the quintessentially English Irish-born songwriter is seen as a bridge too far.  Never mind that ultracool songwriters such as Morrissey and Aimee Mann admire his lyrics or that, as O'Sullivan mentions, The Thrills popped in recently for tea and sandwiches made by his Norwegian-born wife, Ase.


Wow, I say, The Thrills: they like you.  O'Sullivan gets a bit annoyed, assuming that a reporter must be shocked that the Dublin band could like him.  His misplaced ire is a little irritating, but even as he begins a lecture about jumping to musical conclusions you can't help finding this faintly pessimistic, mordant and hyper-sensitive man endearing, especially as those are the qualities behind his best songs.


This is, after all, the man who wrote "Alone Again (Naturally)", a song about contemplating suicide, which in the early 1970s hit the top of the US charts for six weeks.  They love him in the US, apparently, giving him none of the ribbing that is par for the course in the UK.


What I really want to talk to him about is the way he feels he is viewed in Ireland and why he seems so bitter about the size of his following here.  "Not bitter," he says immediately. "I am immensely proud of my Irish roots.  I still have lots of family there, and I went back to live in Bunclody, Co Wexford, for a few years during the court case.  But the fact remains that the Irish only claimed me as their own, and were proud of me, after I started being big in England.  When the success tailed off they were the first not to buy new product, whereas in England, where they weren't 'proud' of me, they would still buy the records.  These days I am interviewed by people in Ireland and they say the Irish call me one of their own, but if that is the case why don't they buy my records?  I sell more in England, in France, in Spain, in Mozambique than I do there."


His doubts about whether the Irish care about him have been mildly assuaged by the fact that "The Berry Vest Of Gilbert O'Sullivan" is about to go platinum in the Republic.


"That's great to hear," he says. But he will never play in his native Waterford again after a 1,000-seat theatre in the town was only half-full for an appearance in the early 1990s.  "I was depressed after that," he says.  "I locked myself in my hotel room. I couldn't understand it; they were obviously trying to tell me something. I won't play in Swindon, either, or Jersey."


He is, however, considering asking a choir from his old Waterford school to join him on stage for his third Dublin concert, next month.


This year O'Sullivan was asked to perform on The Late Late Show.  He wanted to sing a song from his latest album, "Piano Foreplay", but the producers wanted something from his heyday that the audience could sing along with.  The appearance might have sold more copies of his greatest-hits compilation, but he turned it down.  "I didn't want to do it on that basis," he says.


A little bit sensitive, a little bit paranoid, a lot misunderstood, O'Sullivan is odd in the nicest possible way.  It's clear he is still hungry for success.  He speaks of having a top-10 hit again and of listening to almost all new music, particularly Damien Rice, Damien Dempsey and David Gray.

 

You can't help hoping that one of these days, when he sits down with his tape recorder at his grand piano, he comes up with a song to blow the likes of Westlife out of the charts.  "I know I can cut it with any songwriters in the world.  But I also know I can't keep doing this for ever, so time is really precious


Gilbert O'Sullivan is at the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, on November 16th; Royal Theatre, Castlebar, on November 17th; INEC, Killarney, on November 19th; Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on November 20th and 21st; UCH, Limerick, on November 23rd; and Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on December 13th.