Jack O'Rourke hits the right note with ‘Opera on the Top Floor’

Cork singer-songwriter Jack O’Rourke on his latest work, ‘Opera on the Top Floor’, in conversation with Downtown
Jack O'Rourke hits the right note with ‘Opera on the Top Floor’

Jack O’Rourke’s releases ‘Opera on the top Floor. Pictures: Miki Barlok

“What becomes of silent songbirds,” asked Jack O’Rourke on his breakthrough single, ‘Silence’, a song that set a template for him as a mature and sensitive songsmith.

Well maybe they might sometimes be inclined to sing a different tune, and O’Rourke did just that. Around 2017, he got on board with local groove act FreezerRoom’s joyful Fire on the Ocean album, which he followed in 2018 with his collaboration with Dublin electro DJ Kormac on the stonking single ‘New Day’.

Some of that must have filtered in with O’Rourke because he kicked off 2019 with his most uptempo track to date, ‘Ivory Towers’.

After that upbeat and energetic offering, O’Rourke’s latest, ‘Opera at the Top Floor’ is more in line with the mood and observational picture painting of ‘Silence’.

it was written during lockdown and I just let go of all of that apprehension and just decided to record it as it was on piano

“I think there was a sense of working with synthesisers and maybe creating a more modern soundscape and with that, I suppose, there is a little bit of a nervous excitement about, ‘oh, maybe it will crossover into daytime radio’,” O’Rourke chuckles self-deprecatingly, “or, you know, be a pop hit. But I think with this song, it was written during lockdown and I just let go of all of that apprehension and just decided to record it as it was on piano. And you can even hear the pedal sounds. I was writing for no other reason than to write.”

Not that the Ovens singer-songwriter disavows the wonderful ‘Ivory Towers’, but he is wise enough to know that it is fruitless to second-guess things and the best course is to follow your own instincts.

“I think if you have a song and you toil over it, or else if it’s one of those gifts that sits into your lap, if you keep trying to edit it to fit into a format that you think will match radio or a particular sound at the time, I think it’s like pissing against the wind,” he maintains.

“Because on the first album there was a lot of singles and they all got a lot of radio play, but ‘Silence’, ironically, got the most play. And it was slow, and it had a lot of chords and it was about a deep subject matter. But it resonated. So you can’t tell what’s going to gravitate towards people.”

‘Opera at the Top Floor’ was inspired by a gig he played prior to lockdown
‘Opera at the Top Floor’ was inspired by a gig he played prior to lockdown

‘Opera at the Top Floor’ deals with another kind of ivory tower, or as O’Rourke puts it a sanctuary. It was inspired by a gig he played prior to lockdown at the award-winning North Kerry live music venue Mike the Pies. The current manager and nephew to the previous owner invited O’Rourke upstairs to his uncle’s den. Observing his collection of artist books, paintings, and opera records a picture of the character began to form in his head.

Says O’Rourke: “It resonated with me in a sense that this lad was probably a man before his time and had a hugely creative voice. And there’s a sadness to that, that maybe he kept it upstairs, hidden. But there’s also a great solace in that, that he had a place he could go to.”

The mood of ‘Opera on the Top Floor’ may be contemplative but the song fizzes with vivid imagery. By singling out two couplets I feel I’m doing it a disservice by not quoting the full verses. Nevertheless: “A pint takes a minute to settle. The creamy head rises and lands like a chorus of hums.” And also: “The boyos sing Elvis and skiffle, Perched with their porter like vulture chicks waiting to hatch.”

It’s quite wordy, I suppose, but that’s what I am and that’s what I love

“I must have been at the whiskey,” Jack jokes.

“It’s quite wordy, I suppose, but that’s what I am and that’s what I love. You know, I try to be more, maybe, economical with my writing. I suppose it was around the time I was writing that John Prine died. Now, he never has a word out of place. I’m not arrogant enough to compare myself to him, but I just love his imagery. Again, it’s all about the story. The impetus and the catalyst for writing that song, you kinda feel it in your gut when a story really touches you or resonates with you. I was like, I have to write about this guy.

“It’s a little bit arrogant again to try and put yourself in his situation when you never met the guy, but I just thought about this guy who was a publican, then had another side that he kept hidden. And I thought maybe that even though he might have loved his job, meeting the lads every night, there must have been a monotony in that.”

Clearly O’Rourke was in inspired form because that song opened the floodgates on a new collection of work, which he has just recorded in Triskel Christchurch on the venue’s Steinway piano.

“As a setting it really suited these songs,” he says approvingly. “But that song was the catalyst and, I suppose, lots of other things happened in my life after that song was written and it just laid the groundwork for more songs.”

For the single he was accompanied by violinists Maria Ryan and Lucia Mac Partlin, David Kenny on viola and Aisling Fitzpatrick on cello, but he and his producer and regular drummer Davie Ryan recorded versions of the songs that feature just O’Rourke and piano.

“Davie has threatened not to want any drums on this. That’s the mark of a good drummer. I’m trying to convince him to put percussion on some things. But there won’t be any slap bass or cowbells,” he warns.

Perish the thought!

‘Opera on the Top Floor‘ is out Friday, June 11.

More in this section

Sponsored Content

Add Echolive.ie to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more