Himself again, naturally
Gilbert O'Sullivan has been writing perfect pop songs for three decades. It's just a shame, he tells Roisin Ingle, that some people still regar him as perenially uncool.
Gilbert O'Sullivan can be a real glass-half-empty kind of guy. Take the positive review of his new album, A Scruff at Heart, in this newspaper a fortnight ago. The Waterford-born singer was unimpressed by the review, despite its standing out as one of the more generous appraisals of his recent releases. He may be responsible for gems such as Alone Again (Naturally), Clair, Nothing Rhymed and We Will, but critical acclaim has become rare enough lately.
According to Tony Clayton-Lea's three-star review, A Scruff at Heart "bubbles over with the kind of pop nous and melody that, say, Paul McCartney's latest record simply doesn't have". For O'Sullivan the praise was eclipsed by two words near the end of the review - words that at the beginning of our meeting have put the 1970s icon momentarily in bad form. "Eternally unfashionable," he repeats, not liking either the way the words sound together or their implication that he is somehow terminally uncool. "I mean, why? He could have said I was 'perceived as being unfashionable' or that I was 'arguably unfashionable'. You see, I read reviews of people like Paul Simon, and they don't talk about the fact that he's looking old or whether he is fashionable; they talk about the music, which is how it should be."
We talk about McCartney's recent appearance on the achingly hip music show Later . . . with Jools Holland, on BBC2, and O'Sullivan mentions that his own team has been trying to set up an appearance on the programme, for him to promote the new album. "We've tried, but they wouldn't give us the time of day," he says. "It's the credibility crap again." It's frustrating, he says, his expression pained. "It never affects the work, thank goodness, but it does affect me - and gives me sleepless nights and stuff. You just wonder, if the guy thought the songs were good, then why not just say that?"
I try once more to convince him that his focus should be on the overall positivity of the review, the glass-half-full view, but O'Sullivan just sighs and says he wishes that for once people would "hone in on the work" and not, he says, on "the baggage".
Ah, the baggage. That would be the pop image O'Sullivan stubbornly cultivated so he might stand out from the glam rockers and more conventional showmen who dominated the charts when he came on the scene. The baggage was pudding-bowl haircuts and the Chaplinesque-jacket-and-shorts combo. The baggage was his Bisto Kid 1930s style and, later, the white jumpers with the giant red G on the front.
He believes that had he been less sartorially adventurous he would have been even more successful, because "students would have embraced me". In the next sentence, however, he says he has no regrets about his dressing-up days. "I would rather have been unsuccessful than to have compromised. I wanted to look different. I liked being original."
All of the clothes, in case you are interested, are still hanging in a wardrobe at the singer's mansion on Jersey, where he lives with his Norwegian-born wife, Aase.
This change of subject summons a more laid-back, less earnest, positively chirpy O'Sullivan. "My two daughters are desperate to get their hands on all my old stuff," he says, smiling.
And then he's telling you about how he used to wear women's duffel coats back then, because they came in brighter colours than the ones made for men.
His eclectic taste in clothes jogs the memory about visits to relations in Waterford when an aunt used to sit her oddly attired nephew down and say: "Raymond, what are we going to do with you?" He was Raymond before he became Gilbert, a Waterford boy until the age of seven, when his parents moved the family to a council house in Swindon, in England, in search of work.
Everyone seemed to have a piano in the house back then, and O'Sullivan's mother, May, who is now in her 80s, reckoned he might pick up some extra money playing in clubs if she encouraged his interest in music. The piano was eventually put out in the shed, and the teenager would bash away on it, writing songs, until it got too late or the neighbours started throwing things on the roof. By the age of 24 he had enjoyed top-10 success with Nothing Rhymed, and in 1972 he became the top-selling artist in the UK with Clair and Alone Again (Naturally), a song whose unapologetic miserablism helped to inspire The Smiths.
Some years ago the shed was dismantled and shipped to Jersey, and it stands in his garden now, a reminder of those early days.
THERE HAS always been a frankness about O'Sullivan that comes across in his lyrics, whether, as on the current album, he's musing on schoolyard bullying or one-night stands. In conversation he is endearingly open, admitting that when his father died - he was 12 when it happened - he "wasn't as upset as everyone else seemed to be . . . I don't know why".
As he gets older, he says, he thinks more about his father, whom he remembers little. "It's strange to me that I am older now than he was when he died. I do think about him. It's sad he never saw my success. I bought my mum a new house when the money started to come in; it's that old cliche.
"My dad would have wanted racehorses, though. He liked the horses," he says, and he smiles at the idea of a stableful of animals named after the most famous Gilbert O'Sullivan songs.
He also doesn't mind discussing what he agrees might be a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a syndrome that sees him straightening the three rugs in his hallway every morning, polishing the taps after brushing his teeth, wiping the rim of a chrome waste-paper bin and sweeping up the hairs around the dog. He is obsessively tidy, addicted to order.
"If I didn't do these things before starting work each morning the image of the carpets' not being straight would play on my mind . . . It calms me. Isn't that strange?" he muses. "I am not bothered by it, but it drives my wife and children mad, although not in a bad way."
He's also a terrible hoarder, he says. At 60 he still has the key to the door that his mother gave him when he was 21 - and the wallet he carried at the time, containing a picture of an old girlfriend.
The hoarding habit came in handy in the 1980s, when he was caught in a five-year courtroom battle with his late former manager Gordon Mills over millions of pounds promised to him from the copyright of his songs.
"I had documents that nobody thought I would have. It definitely helped me win the case, and I suppose that validated the hoarding, so I continued. I have kept everything."
O'Sullivan is delighted with his new album. He calls it his punk record, because he can be heard pounding the piano keys throughout, using his favourite instrument the way other musicians might use a guitar. It's packed with great songs, several of which could stand up on Later . . . with Jools Holland without threatening the show's cool factor. Now that the punk album is out of his system he'll start working on the next one, composing from 9am to 5pm each day in his musicroom; the album will have a Latin feel, he says. "I always want to keep moving musically and trying new things.
I might be 60, but as a writer I feel young."He listens to most new music, rates Irish artists such as Duke Special and Damien Dempsey highly and enthuses about the originality of the US singer-harpist Joanna Newsom. He's had The Thrills round for tea in Jersey, and later in the summer he's expecting a visit from The Fratellis, the Scottish band playing at this year's Jersey Live music festival.
O'Sullivan is a deeply unshowbizzy, hard- working, sometimes moody, oddly charming man who hasn't lost the ability to create perfect pop songs even if the critics aren't rushing to listen any more.
And, just for the record, today he's wearing a perfectly normal short-sleeved checked shirt, trousers and a striped cardigan tied around his waist. Eternally unfashionable? More like eternally himself. Without anyone noticing, O'Sullivan has moved on. Perhaps the rest of us should catch up.
A Scruff at Heart is on the Bygum label. Gilbert O'Sullivan is at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, on October 26th, 27th, 30th and 31st, and the NEC, Killarney, Co Kerry, on October 28th