It’s been a lifelong labour of love for Jack O’Rourke, quite literally. The release of debut album Dreamcatcher last September placed the spotlight on the young singer-songwriter, entering the Irish album charts at No 19 and peaking at No 5, and since then his star has been in the ascendant. O’Rourke talks freely about his musical roots.
“At home, I heard everything from Rory Gallagher to Maria Callas, from Hank Williams to Ella Fitzgerald. My parents had great taste, and they raised me on a diet of god-like songwriters— Cohen, Kristofferson, Paul Simon, Joni — so I think the bar was raised pretty high when I started writing. In my teens, I liked Kate Bush, Nirvana, Bowie, Tom Waits, Dylan, Bright Eyes, Randy Newman. I was drawn to the piano from aged three — my ma’s friend Phil had one, and for some kids it was a football, for me it was the piano!”
O’Rourke has gigged ferociously in the past few years, concentrating his efforts with laser focus in the Cork city and county area, a strategy that has given him a bottom line of following to work from, but not necessarily one favoured even by more dedicated artists, who find themselves heading out nationally to get seasoned and build a following. How does maintaining such a strong local following influence O’Rourke’s creativity? “Well, it builds your audience and gets your name and sound out there. Whether with my band or solo, I’ve been lucky with radio play and press traction so that spreads the word, but the personal connection you get with an audience live is priceless. You can build on that. It inspires writing and being more spontaneous and improvisation in a live setting. Keeps you on your toes! Cork is an interesting city — different altitudes and characters and paradoxes — the city and it’s streets, language and slang... it’s all over my tunes. But there’s something universal in that.”
Dreamcatcher met with huge critical acclaim and almost entirely sprung from a DIY effort. What was that like to see happen? “It was so rewarding. Having a top 5 album and seeing Frank Ocean one above ya is surreal on the charts! The tour selling out, and all the great reviews, and radio play. I’m proud of those songs. They’re honest, and the album as a piece of work tells a story and musically, it’s eclectic, while based around my piano and voice. It’s been well received. My producer Christian Best was really invested in making all the songs sound cohesive as a piece of work. I’d great musicians with me recording. I can listen to it and not cringe! Having said that, alot of help was on hand.”
O’Rourke quite literally soundtracked history with his song Silence being chosen as the official anthem of the YESEquality campaign in 2015, backing the successful marriage equality campaign in that year’s marriage referendum. That must have been an out-of-body experience.
“Silence kind of fell out. I never set out to write a groundbreaking song. It was my story. Often with songs, you keep things vague. That was so personal and auto-biographical and explicit. However, it was the story of countless others.
“I still get letters about that song, even from people who voted yes and were going to vote no. The story of a child who was born just a bit different is honest and universal. I never anticipated to be like Joan Baez or Springsteen or people who write songs that soundtrack a moment in history, but I’m proud of Silence and what it’s done for people and perceptions. Performing it live is cathartic still for me and others.”
The success of Silence and other singles led to extended touring with likes of Sinéad O’Connor among others. O’Rourke gets into what stood out to him most about that hectic period. “Pretty amazing experience meeting your heroes. Your back stage talking about John Grant with Sinéad O’Connor and looking at her priest attire.
“A really lovely, gentle woman. One of the voices of the century. Ultimately, being star struck never fades away completely but I feel lucky to have shared the stage with artists that I really admire.”
Any words of advice for artists looking to tackle the world of major media on a DIY basis, off the back of O’Rourke’s own enviable radio and press presence?
“Be prepared! It’s relentless. Get good PR and a manager. And see it as baby steps. Ultimately, you have to believe in your art and your songs. People gravitate towards honesty. And not everyone will dig you. That’s okay. And limit your time on social media when you’re promoting — I’ve had to cut back because it can take over and self-promotion can ruin the creative process, so it’s a balance that I’m still trying to manage!”
O’Rourke will be performing as part of the Right Here, Right Now festival on Saturday, April 29, with the full might of the Cork Opera House Concert Orchestra behind him. What goes into the preparation for such a gig? “A lot. I’m so pysched for this gig! I played in The National Youth Orchestra as a kid. It’s almost like playing heavy rock or metal or trad or jazz when it flies. All these different melodies interluding. There’s something so epic about being part of that collective. I think alot of my songs lend themselves to orchestral arrangements. There’s alot of Mahler and Tchaikovsky in my songs. John O’Brien is my orchestral arranger and I think he’s a genius. I can come up with parts, but he knows every section by heart and knows what will work in brass, percussion, strings etc.
“There’s a bit of trust in letting someone arrange songs you’ve written yourself. But I trust him. To be singing my songs on top of that soundscape will be amazing. And The Opera House and Coughlans Live are providing a great opportunity for a community of artists in Cork. We’re all out there gigging on the road and it’s nice that our efforts are being brought to such an iconic venue. It’ll be sweet.”
The rest of the year promises to be packed with creative adventures, including a little left-turn from O’Rourke’s main body of work.
“Summer, I’m going to travel, rest, get the creative juices flowing and write my next songs. I’d love to interpret my favourite Americana songs down the line so I’ll arrange them. And I’m playing Indiependence, Sea Sessions and other festivals. Some electronic stuff with Freezerroom coming out soon.”
Jack O’Rourke plays the Opera House on April 29 (€20).
Others on the bill for the three-day event include...
April 28: Interference and guests – The Right Room, 7.30pm €20.
April 28: Friday Night Ramble – The Green Room, 10pm free.
April 29: Saturday Night Ramble, The Green Room, 11pm free.
April 30: Mick Flannery plus Marlene Enright, The Right Room, 2.30pm €20.
April 30: Hank Wedel, Greenshine and Clare Sands, The Green Room, 4.30pm €10.
April 30: Súp Trio plus support, The Right Room, 7pm €15.
April 30: The Shaker Hymn and Ian Whitty and The Exchange, The Green Room, 8.30pm €10.
April 30: Marc O’Reilly and John Blek & The Rats, The Right Room, 11pm €20.
April 30: Shookrah, The Green Room, 11.50pm, €10.