The Private Life Of Gilbert O'Sullivan

Source: The Jersey Evening Post

Writer: Gill Kay

Date: 18 sept 2010


Having not given an interview to the local press for more than 30 years, it is easy to imagine a Howard Hughes-type reclusive hiding from the world whenever the name Gilbert O'Sullivan crops up.  But nothing could be further from that image.  And now he is the subject of a documentary that will be screened at Next week's Jersey Branchage Film Festival.

Gilbert O'Sullivan - real name Raymond Edward O'Sullivan - is an engaging, expressive and talkative man who merely likes his privacy and is quite happy to sit alone in his music room writing lyrics and working on his next album.

'I'm not a Hello magazine type,' he admits. 'I'm just a normal bloke.  But people are surprised that I'm still keen to be successful - so I was keen to do the film.

'At first I said no way - how can you follow me around with a camera?  But they came to Ireland and Nashville and they never got in the way.  My wife and the two girls gave it the thumbs-up, but I haven't seen the film and I'm not going to.

'It's a basic shyness thing - when I used to be on TV I would look at it from 30 feet away, I just couldn't watch myself.'

To make the point, he recalls an incident from when he was at the height of his fame.  'It was a red carpet event in Leicester Square.  I went with my sister and they sent a car to pick us up.  When we arrived, there were hundreds of people packed around.  I asked the driver to go around again when I saw the crowd.  Then I got him to pull up around the back and I pushed my way through the crowd to get in,' he said.

It seems that Gilbert O'Sullivan is a performer who can face an audience of thousands on stage, but doesn't like the attention off it.

'I can play in front of 4,000 at the Albert Hall [as he did recently] and I have no problem sitting there for two hours playing, I'm very confident and I enjoy it immensely.  But there is this dichotomy between the shyness and the performance.'

It's no surprise then , that he is not known for his flashy lifestyle or high-profile appearances.

I'm not really comfortable in social situations and I like to stay at home.  As a lyricist I need the solitude.  I work five days a week for seven months of the year, so you have to like that environment.  Aase, my wife, has been really good allowing me that freedom.  She is the one who does the social thing.  She has lots of friends she meets regularly.'

It was Gilbert's brother and right-hand man Kevin who organised this interview and showed the way through the immaculate O'Sullivan house and up a narrow staircase to meet the man.  Wondering whether the 'recluse' would be hunched over a dusty piano, it was a surprise to see him, a little bit older but as slim as ever, sitting in what looked like a student's den.  he was surrounded by hundreds of CDs and LPs apparently randomly scattered across the floor.  But in fact they were very carefully laid out so that he can access his collection at a glance.

It belied the fact that some critics accuse him of being indifferent to music trends.  'I am very aware of contemporary music and what's going on - if you want to be a songwriter you need to be,' he said.  'And I think the best way to study music is to listen to it.'

His current playlist includes Jersey's Nerina Pallot.  'I have both of Nerina's albums - she's very talented and it's nice to see someone of here ability get that profile.'

The 'den' is where Gilbert creates his music.  It is obviously his space and he admits that this is the only room in the house that the cleaner is not allowed to touch.  He tends to it himself.  'I would have made a good domestic,' he jokes.

The room seems untouched by time, with not even a mobile phone or a computer in sight.  He doesn't even know or reads what's on his own website.

'If people send me stuff of theirs that they want me to hear on the internet, Kevin will pass it on to me and I'll give them an opinion.  I know the internet is an incredible thing and I know I keep losing out by not being on iTunes,' he admitted.

For someone keen to be successful again, he is remarkably laid-back about getting his music out there.  And it's not easy to get hold of his albums.

'I quite like not being available in HMV,' he said.  'You see people like Tom Jones for sale for two or three pounds - I don't want to be like that.  iTunes may happen but not yet.  I'm working towards that, but I'm not bothered.  I sell up to 30,000 albums in Europe and worldwide, so that's nothing to be ashamed of.  It's quite respectable.

He still writes all his lyrics in longhand, and in the adjoining music room an old 1970s ghetto-blaster sits on top of the Bechstein piano, so he can tape the songs he's working on.

'These machines are really hard to get hold of nowadays,' he said.  'The old ones have a built-in microphone and they're so easy to use.  I've tried using a digital recorder, but the writing is tiny and I gave up trying to use them.

However, it's not all low-tech, and he is immensely proud of his purpose-built recording studio next door which is packed with all the latest technology.  he showed off the enormous 48-track mixing desk, pointed out the 'live' room, the home-comfort facilities and then he opened another door into a room that looked like something out of a James Bond film.

It hummed with more technical life-support gizmos that apparently had something to do with keeping the mixing desk alive.  but he is generous with his studio and is known for his support of young musicians, though in a quiet way.

'We have allowed certain local bands to come and use the equipment - bands who are very keen and serious.  It gives them a chance to experience studio time that would cost an enormous amount in London.  It's nice that I can do that.  I also have my own engineer.  To have this facility is great.  It's the only one in the island and I'm very proud of it.'

It's a long way from Gilbert's art school days in Swindon, when he used to play semi-professionally as a drummer and found he had an ability to write song lyrics.

'It was a good grounding.  I did four years of graphic design and book illustration and it was nice to have that freedom,' he remembers.

It was at this time that he developed the idiosyncratic flat-cap Bisto-kid image that has been impossible for him to shake off.

'I just wanted to be different and to look different - the Charlie Chaplin jacket, the basin haircut, and I chose this character Gilbert,' he said.  'For three years I tried all the record companies.  They loved the songs but didn't like the look.  They thought I looked like a freak.

'Then I sent a demo to Gordon Mills, who was the manager and producer for Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck.  The story is that when he saw the picture he threw it in the bin.  he took it out later and really liked the songs.  Gordon, to his credit, also let me keep the image.'

Gilbert O'Sullivan went on to hit the top of the international pop charts in the early 70s with Clair, Nothing Rhymed and Alone Again.

Ultimately, things started to go awry and a long legal battle and the very public parting with Mills was painful for all concerned.


'It was very sad.  It had been a good relationship.' said Gilbert, who was very close to the Mills family.  'Gordon was spending more time with his gorillas at his private zoo and in America, and I wanted to try a different producer - that led to a parting.

'It started as a small issue but it grew into a sad affair, especially for his family.  It wasn't about money.  I only went to the lawyer to get my interest in publishing sorted out.  But a whole can of worms opened up.  It wasn't a matter of wanting to do it, it was a case of having to do it.'

It was after he had won the court case, and a period living in Ireland, that Gilbert and his family moved to Jersey.  'My wife Aase didn't like living in Ireland so much, but when we came to Jersey, she loved it.  we had two girls of school age and we thought it was a really good place to raise children.  Helen-Marie went to St Peter's and Tar went to JCG Prep and JCG.'

He is thankful that they didn't follow him into music.  'They both love music, but I was always hoping they wouldn't go into the business, he said.  'The girls now both work in London.  Helen-Marie is in music production and Tara is in PR.'

While many people wonder what he has been doing for the past 30 years, his work regime is relentless, with an output of a new album every two years, including his latest one, Gilbertville.  Now 63he says he still feels 21 as a songwriter, adding: 'As long as there's fire in the belly to do it, I'll keep doing it.'

Fans in his home basses of Waterford, Swindon and in Jersey may wonder why he hasn't performed locally, but he says it's a bit too close to his own doorstep.

'I want to re-establish myself first - but it's definitely on the cards.  I'm going to do a charity concert.  That's the plan.'

While his popularity may have waned in the UK, he has amassed legions of fans worldwide, especially in Ireland and Japan.  He divides his time between Nashville and Jersey, writing and recording, and recently finished his latest tour in April.

He is very single-minded, if not obsessed, with producing his music, but maintains a happy family life.

'I am pretty prolific with the music, but I'm very disciplined.  I work a five-day week, but weekends are for painting and dusting.'  In his spare time Gilbert, who doesn't drive, enjoys taking the dog for a walk, and watching movies.  I used to enjoy tennis and I take an interest in gardening, but I'm more of a sweeper-upper and straightener of rugs nowadays!' he said.

Looking back, Gilbert O'Sullivan admits to having only one regret - a photograph showing his Gilbert character wearing short pants.  'It's the one image where I wore shorts.  It was for a newspaper shot,' he recalled.  'It was the same jacket and cap and those short trousers - I wore them just to be outrageous.  To this day people talk about those short trousers, but it was only for one picture.

'I think I pushed the button too far.  If I'd worn make-up or a dress I would have been credible - but short trousers?' He laughs, but admits that he used to get annoyed whenever he was asked about it.

Meanwhile, fans can look forward to seeing the documentary at the Branchage Film Festival next weekend and asking him questions afterwards.

'I'm really looking forward to it - the Branchage festival is a wonderful thing.  It's good for the island and I hope it's a great success.

But what sort of questions does he expect?  We did a Q&A in Donegal and I was asked all sorts of questions, with some inane one as well, like why have you got long hair?  I don't mind what questions I'll be asked, but I expect people can ask about song writing and music generally.'

But a word of advice: maybe it's best not to ask about those short pants.

Out On His Own: Gilbert O'Sullivan will be screened at the Opera House at noon on Sunday 26th September.