The Private Life Of Gilbert O'Sullivan
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.
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.
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
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
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.'
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.
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.
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
no surprise then , that he is not known for his flashy lifestyle or high-profile
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
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
'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.
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 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
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
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.