DECLAN O’Rourke took his courage in both hands when he stood in front of a 50-piece orchestra for the first time in 2012.
“You have to have a brass neck,” says the popular singer-songwriter of his collaborations with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and other classical ensembles, now collected on a new album, In Full Colour.
“The first time I did it, I learned the hard way — perhaps at the expense of my dignity. Orchestras like things done in a certain fashion and you have to work with that. To be fair, they are incredible at what they do. If you have written the music down correctly, then they will play it exactly as you imagined — only better because it’s real. That is incredible to witness.”
It had crossed his mind that classically-trained musicians might deem his largely acoustic pop beneath them somehow. He was pleasantly surprised when this proved not to be the case.
“Orchestral players could be said to have a reputation for being snooty. I found them to be fairly personable. If there were any titters or giggles... they were discreet.”
O’Rourke has just gone on the road with the new album, though he obviously hasn’t squeezed a 50-piece orchestra into his tour van. Instead, he is performing with his regular band and a four-part string quartet, whose contributions paint a picture of what he is reaching for on the new LP. “We’ve had some lovely responses,” he nods. “I am playing new songs and also catalogue stuff that I like performing, and to which the audience clearly responds also. With the string quartet, it gives a very good representation of what we are doing with the record.”
The Dubliner was one of a number of singer-songwriters who came to prominence in the early 2000s. As with Damien Rice and Paddy Casey, he championed a heartfelt style, with confessional lyrics and songs that emphasised honesty and intensity over twinkling choruses.
Irish audiences responded with enthusiasm. His 2004 debut album, Since Kyabram, was launched with three sold-out performances in Whelan’s and became a top five hit. He was soon headlining festivals and playing to sell-out theatres across the country (and even received an unlikely endorsement from one Paul Weller — a fan of the single ‘Galileo’).
However, here his story took a familiar turn for the worse as he signed to a prominent UK label only for his music to fall flat overseas (in his defence, his label, V2, went out of business weeks after he came on board). As with many Irish artists he discovered, in the most painful fashion, that parlaying a loyal homegrown audience into an international following is not easily achieved.
But his Irish fan base has remained loyal and the five concerts he performed with the RTÉ orchestra were all sell-outs. Thus it was logical to collect the re-worked material on record. In Full Colour is, he reports, was among the most straightforward collections he has yet recorded.
In the studio, it was largely a case of staying true to those life interpretations.
“All the hard work had been done anyway. The most difficult bit was arranging the songs. That was a big challenge and I did a lot of it myself. It took a long time. In one instance, I really locked myself away for six weeks and knocked it out. If I’d had to make this record from scratch it would have been an absolute monster. Thankfully, that proved not to be the case. It was easy and natural because the work had already been done in an organic way.”