15th August 2015
Latin Ala G
Q: I’d like to ask you two questions about it: Firstly, when you went into the studio with the songs, did you give all the musicians a free hand to do what they wanted or did you have their parts worked out?
GO: They would come around the piano and I would play it for them the first time so that’s pretty much how they would get the tempo. Then they would go to their corners and give what they could give. The drummer would put his play on it, the percussionist would add his part and then there were two guitar players. One of them also played Flamenco so we could have acoustic and electric so they had the freedom to do what they want based on the tempo that I set.
Q: Is that the way you always work?
GO: Yeah. We would then play it a few times and then take it. That’s it.
Q: On the video you made of it you say you play as a group, live in the studio…
GO: Yes very much so.
Q: Is that a live vocal as well then?
GO: No. All the vocals were done again. I’m singing along but it’s just a guide vocal. That’s just to give them an idea and lot of it is mumbo jumbo because I haven’t got the lyrics in front of me. I don’t really like the idea of working just with a drum machine and then bringing in the musicians. I like working with a band and I play really percussively so they see how I play and we get on really well. Part of the fun of recording generally whether you are recording with English, American or in this case Spanish musicians is just the joy to become part of the group. We had another keyboard player on this album and he plays in a traditional kind of way, the way a session player would do but with me it’s kind of very rhythmic. They need to see how I play too, especially the drummer because it’s important that he understands that I’m playing almost like him. It’s great to be able to do that together though: to be part of the unit that is recording it. You do little overdubs – solos and stuff – but the basic tracks are recorded live.
Q: Once you started playing with those musicians, did their contribution influence or change the song structures in any way from your original vision?
GO: No. The songs were completely finished but what they added was the vital part. If I had recorded it with English musicians, as great musicians as they are, it wouldn’t have been the same. We had originally planned to go to Brazil but the funny thing about Latin music is that although Brazilian is the influence for me, Brazil is the only country that doesn’t speak Spanish. Most Latin countries speak Spanish but they speak Portuguese. It would have been difficult for us to go to Brazil because there is always a risk with Brazilian musicians that they might not turn up on the day (laughs) – they are kind of easy going but going to Madrid was fantastic because my producer, Peter Walsh, knew the people we should approach – top guy.
Words and Music
Q: For me, you have a way of capturing English characteristics and personalities in words and music similar to how Lowry captured them in his paintings…
GO: Yeah very English – absolutely.
Q: Do you make observations about people wherever you go or is it only the quirkiness of the British that lends itself to your music?
GO: Well if I was brought up in Japan it would come out of here. To be a good lyricist is to observe and take things in. Watching people is fascinating and you see all kinds of people; the way they dress, the way they act, talk, behave and I read newspapers so a lot of my lyrical ideas stem from what is happening in the newspapers. So in effect it’s what I like to do but the only odd thing about writing about current events is that if you don’t use the lyric now or in the next six months, what you may want to write about may be out of date. So there is always a risk writing about contemporary issues but I can’t resist that and I don’t write a song just about an issue. I might start off on one thing but then I’ll go into another area and talk about something else: a bit like a newspaper. That’s pretty much me as a lyricist and there is an understanding of situations as well. We had some people in before you asking the question about whether Alone Again (naturally) was based on personal experience and it’s not: it’s just based on an understanding of that kind of situation. You don’t have to experience it to be able to write about that kind of sensitivity.
Q: The characters you write about in your songs and the incidents surrounding them, for example Mary Ann, Ted and Sarah Jane in A Friend Of Mine or the anonymous narrator in Permissive Twit, are they based on things you’ve seen and people you’ve observed or completely made up in your head?
GO: Sarah Jane was my arranger’s daughter’s name. There’s no real person that particularly comes to mind, it’s just the name sounds good so it’s things like that. One of the things that fascinates me about lyrics is that you complete your melody which can lock away like Irving Berlin did – he called it his Trunk of Melodies – and in five years time, if it’s a good melody, you can use it like McCartney did. He wrote When I’m Sixty-Four when he was twelve or thirteen years old: Melodies are timeless but lyrics can date.
Q: You’ve tackled some very important and difficult topics in your lyrics: aside from the obvious things that we all think are taboo, is there anything you wouldn’t write about?
GO: No. I touch taboo subjects on this album with a song called Let’s See which is about child abuse. I don’t think we as Pop musicians should be bluntly talking about these things though, you have to do it in a subtle way because just as much as I don’t want to see a politician playing a guitar, I don’t want to see a guitar player rapping on about the world and what’s going on. I incorporate what’s going on subtly and child abuse is really high on the agenda at the moment. You see, you start with a blank piece of paper, you have your melody and of the twelve songs, maybe a couple of them have a title which will lead you in a direction but most of them don’t and that’s the fascinating thing with lyric writing because you often don’t know where it’s going to take you. So you start with your blank piece of paper, struggle for the first day but by the fifth or sixth day, you have more lyrics than you need. It’s the Leonard Cohen thing where you just continue. You write three middle-eights, eight verses instead of three you need – you can’t resist it! You’re not going to use them but you spend that time writing the tenth lyric of a song you’re never going to use. I’ve always done that and I read about Leonard Cohen doing the same thing.
Q: So somewhere in your house there is a big box of unused Gilbert O’Sullivan lyrics…
GO: Yeah but it’s important to let those ideas come out because as a writer it serves a purpose.
Q: Your website is excellent with a ton of information about Gilbert O’Sullivan…
GO: Yeah my daughter Tara is doing that.
Q: Are you a social media person as well?
GO: I am very internet unfriendly. (smiles) I have no idea, don’t have a mobile phone. My brother works for me and Tara as well as doing the official site gets me up every week to go into the studio to sing a song or play a bit of a new song which I have to dress up to do and look smart but I realize that it’s important because she’s of that generation and she says ‘Dad, this is what you have to do’.
Q: 1980 you let your feelings be known about the music business back then with I Love It But on your Off Centre album. What’s your opinion of the business now and the way it’s going these days?
GO: Well I just saw a TV program on BBC World which was Don McLean on Hard Talk and he looks a bit aggrieved about the business but I like it and tend not to be critical of it because I’m in it and I like what’s going on. I have a purpose built 48 track digital recording studio that’s very up to date. I can’t work it: I have an engineer to do that. I do my writing on a piano, not a guitar (I tried but I’m left-handed so gave up) and there are other keyboards there which are not important for my writing but I think it’s important to have all that technology available to you. As for the business with streaming, tweeting and Facebook and all that stuff, it’s the way that it is and if you can’t stand the heat of that, then just get out. I would be worried if it affected the writing that I do and I’d be very worried if I had to learn it - that would do my head in I think – but there are good records coming out all the time and as long as I can hear good songs and good artists coming through, I get off on that.
The Forrest Gump Box of Chocolate Questions:
Q: What is your detuned Bechstein piano?
GO: It’s detuned a semi-tone below concert pitch: all my pianos are detuned. The story is that when I started to write songs, it was in the garden shed of my home, a council house in Swindon. It was an old upright piano that my Mum had got us to begin with and it was never tuned but I could play it. Then I go to London and get a flat and think I have to have a piano. There were three of us in one bedroom apartment in Notting Hill and I bought this from a piano place down on the Wandsworth Bridge Road and it cost me £10 which was my wages and I stick the piano in the corner and put egg boxes up (for soundproofing) It was cheap and never tuned because I couldn’t afford a piano tuner so it wasn’t concert pitch which I wasn’t aware of. So then I go to the BBC and do the John Peel radio show and I’m using the grand piano in the studio. I have a limited vocal range so I’m playing something in C on that piano which on mine would have been B and I’m noticing that it’s a bit higher. I learned through that experience very quickly because of my limited vocal range, that difference of one tone is a huge difference to me and I can’t transpose: If I write in C, it stays in C. So we used to hire pianos from Steinway when I did TV shows in the early ‘70s and we’d get them detuned. It took the piano tuner two days to detune it, coming back every eight hours because it was going back up to its natural pitch. When the pianos went back to Steinway they were horrified by this and they refused to send me any more. Then I would take my own pianos to the studio to record and then electric keyboards came in the late ‘70s and they are fine because you can detune them. I have my work Bechstein which was given to me by my manager Gordon Mills which is a detuned 8’ Grand and I took that on tour around the country in 1978. (laughs) I remember the roadies trying to load it into theatres…that’s another story but anyway, that’s not the best thing to do, it needing a massive flight case and all the rest of it so I decided to have a brand new one made myself for the studio. We asked Steinway if they would make one and they said no, we asked Yamaha and they said they would if they could make thousands but not just one, Baldwin wouldn’t do it and in the end Blüthner said they would do it and that was still when the wall was up – they were in East Germany. It’s transposable with a lever on the side because obviously other people who use the studio want to play in concert pitch. They made me the only one of its kind in the world.
Q: Irving Berlin had a similar thing.
GO: An upright. Uprights are easy but there’s never been a Grand. You can do it with an upright because you can pull out the frame. I’ve got one of those and it’s on the cover of the album before last – Piano Foreplay. Irving had one because he could only play in one key but this is the only Grand. It’s great to have.
Q: Who played the wonderful guitar part on Down Down Down?
GO: That might have been Big Jim Sullivan. He played a lot of those solos; he was Gordon’s guitar player. He played the counter melody on No Matter How I Try – great guitarist.
Q: Would you mind explaining the ‘Sausage, Egg and Chips supplied by Gordon Jones’ comment on your first album?
GO: Gordon Jones was the assistant to Gordon Mills and would always be on hand a bit like Mal Evans of The Beatles so it was giving Gog – that was his nickname because he was Welsh* – a credit.
Q: What’s your favourite Keaton and Chaplin films?
GO: I used to go to the Chaplin season at the Academy when I was a student and lived in London. It was magic I can tell you! You would go into the cinema and a piano player would come and perform for the film. Buster Keaton in The General: I love all of Buster Keaton’s stuff. The droll clever humour and some of his clever stunts like the one where the wall of the house falls on him and he’s in the window…incredible stuff. Chaplin was a great influence and that’s where I got my image from creating a character called Gilbert. I used to hire from Bermans the theatrical costumers a bob-tail jacket which is what Chaplin wore and they always used to say to me ‘What production is it for?’ and I used to say, ‘It’s not for a production. I just want to take it home for the weekend, look in the mirror and bring it back to you on Monday.’ (laughs) What was nice was that when Gordon Mills took me on and things started to happen, Berman’s gave it to me. I wore that for the first few records so the image thing was created through Chaplin. Also I remember seeing Keaton in one of his films with a college sweater with a big letter on it and that’s here I got the idea of a G on a sweater and stuff.
Q: Mr O’Sullivan, thank you very much for your time.
GO: Thank you.
* People from North Wales in the UK are known as Gogs as the Welsh word for North is Gogledd.