Saturday March 17 2012 8:00 PM
Let’s hear it for the freshly minted independent artist, the ones that have shaken hands with the devil that is the corporate music industry, and then decide to go it alone. Declan O’Rourke is one such independent artist. “Maybe I knew what I wanted too much. I’ve learned from experience that there are certain things that are very valuable about having a record company. But I felt it was time to start owning my own music. I don’t own my first record (Since Kyabram, 2005), and have very little control over that and the second record (Big Bad Beautiful World, 2008) in how they get into the shops, how they’re packaged, presented, and so on.”
Needing control over his artistry, his own work, was of primary concern to Declan, and this assertive characteristic permeates throughout his music. His debut, Since Kyabram, proved to be a perfect calling card for a struggling songwriter who had been feverishly plugging his wares since early 2000. His follow-up album, Big Bad Beautiful World, easily consolidated his appeal in Ireland, but his sense of independence inevitably conflicted with music industry norms, and eventually the singer-songwriter was out on his own again.
Following a couple of years shaping a new batch of songs, Declan returns in April with his third studio album, Mag Pai Zai. Not only is the record yet another intriguing stage in his creative life, it is also a collection of his best songs to date.
“If it weren’t my own record,” he reasons, “I’d say it blows the other two albums out of the water. The second album was a huge learning curve. I listened to it recently, almost by accident, and I kinda liked it. But I feel as if I wandered off the path with it. Whatever the reasons, I found it difficult getting up on stage, with just a guitar, and holding onto an audience’s attention. I went for more of a band-oriented sound on the second album, more robust music. I was having fun, for sure, but the songs definitely weren’t built as solidly as they were on the first album, and as they are on the new one.”
The songs on Mag Pai Zai came in a flourish following a bout of writer’s block, after an average of one song per month for about ten years, Declan didn’t write anything for almost 18 months. There were various causes for the interruption in creativity, but the primary one, he says, was the over-analysing of his songwriting process.
“It got to the point where I was censoring myself, or editing my ideas too quickly. I was too ready to say that this song wasn't going to work, or that song sounded too much like someone else. It got so bad that I ended up in a place where I wasn't writing anything at all.”
It took a while for Declan to climb his way out of that temporary but aggravating situation, but when he did he says he felt completely liberated. “I wrote more songs in 2009 than I ever did in any other year,” he beams. “Practically all the songs on Mag Pai Zai came from that burst of songwriting.”
From Since Kyabram to Mag Pai Zai, Declan has matured as a songwriter in ways he would never have thought possible. While it must be good for the creative ego to know that singers of the calibre of Eddi Reader and Josh Groban have covered his songs, it’s a salutary lesson, surely, to realise that what had been considered the correct way to do things was, in fact, wrong.
“Up to a certain point,” he reflects, “probably up to the second record and the aftermath of it, I felt I knew what I was doing. I had a system for songwriting and was pretty sure I knew the process. But when that stopped, I felt I had to tear up the rulebook. Perhaps I was scrutinising it too much... So I had to unlearn, throw away what I thought I knew, and admit to myself that I didn’t know how to do it. I just had to allow ideas through and see where they took me.”
That Declan O’Rourke is in a new, different and more elevated place as a songwriter is proven by the sheer quality of the material on Mag Pai Zai. From the deceptively simple opening song, ‘Slieve Bloom’ and the heart-wrenching tale found within ‘Langley’s Requiem’ to the life affirming ‘Be Brave And Believe’ and the tear-inducing poignancy of the closing track, ‘The Hardest Fight’, he has fortified his talent with a firm mixture of intuitive lyrics and pure melodies. The album, which was mixed at New York’s world famous Platinum Sound Recording Studios, features contributions from violinist Steve Wickham (who worked with Declan on Since Kyabram) and internationally renowned arranger Fiachra Trench (who collaborated with Declan on the orchestral arrangement of ‘The Hardest Fight’). Allied to all of these plus points, though, is the manner (and, indeed, the times) in which the album was created.
“Because of the way the music industry is going, and the way the world is right now, money-wise,” he explains, “there seems to be this surplus of goodwill around. Because we were funding the record ourselves, everybody that worked on it cut us really good deals, added something, and became a part of it because they wanted to be a part of it. That made it so much easier to work with them, and I was much more appreciative of the creativity they were giving of themselves. When I listen to the album I hear that, probably because of those memories. I hope that even a hint of that goodness, that mood, is captured.”