A Lot's Happened Since Kyabram

Ros Blair talks to Irish singer-songwriter Declan O'Rourke

Amongst those of us lucky enough to have gotten our hands on a copy of Declan O’Rourke’s debut album Since Kyabram back in 2004, the Dublin born singer/songwriter’s brilliance has been something of an open secret.

Declan O’Rourke is an Irish performer through and through, but sooner or later, we at home are going to have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that he is destined for bigger things. With a re-issue and re-packaging of Since Kyabram around the corner following a new deal with V2 records, and a celebrity fan-base including Paul Weller and Gary Lightbody, the question is, can he?

‘Half of you kind of wants or expects to do well. You hope for it, but you’d have to be a true egomaniac or something to believe outright that you’re going to do really really well,’ begins Declan. ‘You have to have a little bit of belief in yourself.

'I’m not a completely mainstream artist anyway, so I don’t expect to hit number one or anything like that. I hope I will get some recognition. It’s not really a surprise when it happens, but it’s nice.’

In 2005, O’Rourke won Best Debut Album in the Hotpress Readers’ Poll, and his record hasn’t left the Irish charts since. Softly spoken, light-hearted and modest, he does not favour histrionics when talking about his success so far. His retelling of his beginnings as a musician, however, hints at a capacity for self-mythology that never goes amiss for any guitar-playing balladeer.

‘My desire to become a performer developed over time. Watching other people perform when I was a kid, seeing the admiration they would get - I wanted to be like them. I always wanted to be musical.

'My family and I moved to Australia when I was ten. I was about 13 when we visited a place in the countryside called Kyabram. I think it was in Victoria somewhere. We stayed with a priest, and he caught me playing with his guitar a couple of times.

'When we were leaving, he decided to give me the guitar, because he had two. It was a classical guitar - nylon string. He showed me a couple of chords and off I went. That’s where it all began.’

Songs like, ‘Galileo’ and ‘No Place to Hide’ are testament to the extent of O’Rourke’s talent. A songwriter in the most literal sense, his excellently observed melodic sensibilities are a delight to listen to, the calibre of material so high on ‘Since Kyabram’, one can understand V2’s decision to make a concerted attempt to break territories outside Ireland with it, even if it means fans who have known about the record for two years having to wait a while for a sophomore release.

But have there been any compromises made by O’Rourke himself in this arrangement? The change in cover art, he insists, is not a substantial concession. He’s comfortable with his level of control.

‘We did change the cover of the album, but that’s all. The way the deal was structured was to give me creative control over everything and basically nothing is done without my say so. I have the final say on what songs go on records, what producers are used, what happens to the music … obviously no one has any say in what I wear.

'We re-recorded two tracks on the re-release of the record. That’s what I wanted to do. They were improved, but they (V2) also wanted to tamper with another couple of songs, and I don’t think that went too well. I kind of half regret that now. But I still have the old record, so I don’t really mind.

'There was a plus and a minus, so I kind of broke even. One track in particular, ‘Your World’, I’m not happy with that and I can understand why people would see it as more streamlined or whatever because it does have a smoother sound to it.’

On the brink of an extensive Irish tour, playing with best friend and fellow musician Chris Hertzberger for the first time in eight years, O’Rourke enthuses about the joys of playing live, particularly here in Northern Ireland.

‘When you're performing your songs on stage, it’s totally different to when you're playing them on your own. When you play on your own you imagine yourself with an audience. But when you’re actually up there, you are in the room, in the moment and enjoying being so. You can’t hide anything. Your true self comes out.

‘When I write songs, I try to just tell the truth of a situation, the good and the bad. People up north respond to that. Even when I played with Paddy (Casey) doing support slots, the people in Northern Ireland seemed to be really focussed.

'A lot of the time, people in Dublin are a bit spoilt, because so much music comes through there, and although that is slightly more the case now for Belfast too, for some reason the Northern Irish audiences just seem more appreciative of the musicians who perform for them.’

He’s come a long way since Kyabram, and he still has far to go. But he’s ready for the journey. Whatever happened to that first guitar?

‘I still have it. It’s up in my mother’s attic at the minute. It’s falling apart but I wouldn’t get rid of it. I have kept every guitar I’ve ever owned. I couldn’t dump them. I used to give my guitars names. I don’t anymore though, because I’ve realised they don’t come when I call them.’