Cork singer Jack O’Rourke is hitting a new note

Jack O’Rourke is content to no longer be seen as a spokesman for gay Ireland. This time, it’s all about the music, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

THERE’S a suitcase in the corner: Jack O’Rourke is just back from his EP launch gig in the iconic London Half Moon in Putney. The scene of Kate Bush’s first public performance, it’s a stage that has been graced by artists including Elvis Costello, KD Lang and Van Morrison.

No sweat, then?

O’Rourke laughs. “I was sweating more than Christy Moore. I’d say I lost a third of my body-weight. I’m normally easy-going about gigs, but I do get nervous too. I’m quite hard on myself, I think.”

The Ovens-born Cork singer- songwriter emerged seemingly fully-fledged onto the Irish music scene with his self-released 2016 debut album, Dreamcatcher. O’Rourke’s craft, driven by his classical piano training and rich baritone voice, seemed to hark back to an era when the song was king: there are echoes of Cohen, Bowie and Waits in his ballads.

But fully-fledged, as ever with musicians, is a far cry from the truth: in fact, the heart-felt and deeply personal songs on Dreamcatcher were ten years in the making, O’Rourke says.

I grew up listening to amazing songwriters: Dad was really into Dylan and mom listened to Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, so the bar was set pretty high and I think subliminally, when I’m writing a song, I’m always asking myself if it measures up.

His follow-up EP, Ivory Towers, is lighter in tone, formed by a looser and more collaborative process; O’Rourke shares a house in Cork with Choice Award nominated singer-songwriter Marlene Enright and one of the EP’s five tracks is a collaboration with her, whereas title track Ivory Towers is a distinctly upbeat and energetic tune, less weighty and introspective than his earlier work.

For a solo artist — O’Rourke alternates between gigging alone with his piano or with his backing band — collaborations are something he’s become known for, in part because of his love of duets and harmonising.

O’Rourke’s recent appearance on RTÉ’s Other Voices saw him team up with velvet-voiced neo-soul songstress Loah, while for his Putney gig he was joined by Hattie Webb of the Webb sisters, who toured with Leonard Cohen as a backing singer and the duo are renowned for their extraordinary interpretation of Cohen’s ‘If It Be Your Will’.

“Hattie’s just amazing,” O’Rourke says. “We just hit it off, and we’ve kept up a thing and we hope to eventually record an album together.”

Many of the singers and songwriters O’Rourke credits as influences are female, and his creative relationships with women seem pivotal too.

“I do like a strong female, I think a lot of gay men do,” he says. 

Without stereotyping, for a lot of people that’s Madonna or Cher. In fact, I think Cher is a very underrated pop singer, but for me it was always Kate Bush or Joni or Emmylou Harris: rootsy divas.

O’Rourke became something of a poster-boy for the 2015 same-sex marriage referendum with the campaign’s use of his song ‘Silence’, which detailed the struggles of many LGBT people to come out and gain society’s acceptance.

In the post-referendum era, where LGBT people and gay relationships have been normalised, or at least recognised, he says the pressure to act as an unofficial spokesperson or to constantly address the issue of his sexuality is subsiding.

“It does come up,” he says. “Even though my family are so supportive, I’ve even had family members say, ‘Why did you need to say that?’ But when you feel pressed by society into adapting to what’s considered the norm, which we all did until quite recently, it has a massive impact on your psyche. There’s almost an over-compensation.

“But I think I’m over that. The first album will always be associated with ‘Silence’ being the song for the referendum, but there’s nothing specifically about being gay on the new EP other than the music being a bit camp in tongue-in-cheek way, which I like to play with. There are love songs, but they could be about any couple.”

With his career on the rise, O’Rourke says he’s in no rush to give up the day-job, teaching Music and English at secondary level in Gaelcholaiste Mhuire AG, An Mhainistir Thuaidh (the North Mon). In part, it’s because it’s a valuable grounding force, he says.

“I feel lucky that I’m a teacher: you’ve to be very disciplined. I don’t know if I have the discipline to do music full-time. There’s always a party. So it’s great that I have the nine to five. Musicians can be real navel-gazers, me included, so I like being responsible for other people; it gives balance.”

Jack O’Rourke launches his Ivory Towers EP at Cyprus Avenue in Cork on Friday

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