After his hit song ‘Silence’ provided the soundtrack for the marriage equality campaign, Cork singer Jack O’Rourke is glad he waited to release his debut album, writes Ed Power
JACK O’ROURKE is glad he waited. The ‘Silence’ singer has been quietly toiling on songs for years. But it is only now, in his early 30s, that he is enjoying the sort of success young artists dream of — a fairytale that has included a performance on The Late Late Show, sell-out gigs in Dublin and Cork and ‘new big thing’ chatter from Irish music’s people in the know.
“A lot of friends and family would say, ‘When are you going to let these songs out there?,” he says. “I’m really happy I held back until now. As you get older you become more comfortable in your own skin and have a stronger sense of what you want. Had I come out with this material six years ago, the results would have been very different.”
O’Rourke finally releases his debut album, Dreamcatcher this week. The singer, from Ovens, near Cork city, is a veteran live performer (among other thankless gigs, he had a stint as a piano bar crooner) and had a hit with the aforementioned ‘Silence’, a break-up ballad that was adopted as the anthem of Amnesty International’s marriage equality campaign. But conceiving and recording an LP was an entirely new experience — enjoyable but not without moments of struggle.
“It takes it out of you,” he nods. “You have to find a balance. Between serving the songs and actually making the record. A lot of the material I had assembled have been in the vault a long time. You have to accept not everything is going to make the album.”
As a teenager O’Rourke played in a punk band and while Dreamcatcher isn’t quite a head-banging affair a certain punkish intensity runs through it. “I used to listen to a lot of Metallica. Then I got into roots music, then old time country. And then I got into jazz. I needed to work things out musically — to see where it was all at for me. The piano and my voice were always at the centre. At that age, you soak up so much. I just loved Tom Waits — for my first gigs I would gargle whiskey to try and replicate his voice. Of course in the long term you can’t replicate an original – you have to find your authentic self.”
He’s always been confident and was not shy about sharing his songs with friends and family.
“There’s always a certain bravado in rock and pop music. The piano is almost like a shield. It’s not as if it’s therapy — but it covers you as you play. I play in quite an introverted way, with a piano in front of you. Playing live, I will sometimes stand behind an electric piano as I’m fronting the band. It’s a different kind of vibe. I like both. The personal songs were hard to share, especially if they were personal. The first time I played ‘Silence’ for my parents… if something hurt you, it will hurt your family or friends.”
These are heady days for confessional music in Ireland. With artists such as James Vincent McMorrow and Lisa Hannigan releasing career-best records, does O’Rourke feel he has to prove himself?
“Neil Young once said that competition is for race horses,” he says. “There are so many great musicians out there — even friends of mine in Cork, such as [soul singer] Brian Deady. What’s the point in wishing that I was doing better than him? He’s a different type of artist.
“You can’t try to replicate what someone else has going on… I’m a piano balladeer who dabbles in rock. There is so much great stuff coming out of Ireland — you look at Conor O’Brien from Villagers, he’s incredible. You can be influenced by something. Ultimately, you have to bring something of your own to the table too.”
There was a time when Irish singer-songwriters were easily caricatured as miserabalists in over-sized jumpers, pouring their hearts out at navel-gazing length. O’Rourke, who blends acoustic music, rock and even r’n’b and funk, typifies a new, more ambitious generation.
“Things come in waves — I’m eclectic in my tastes. People want to label you. But my favourite artists are all chameleons. You can recognise their voices but they will move in a lot. I’m sure I’ll do an album where it’s just me at the piano at some point. Right now, if I was doing just one thing, I’d get bored.”
O’Rourke is by day a teacher at Gaelcholáiste Mhuire, An Mhainistir Thuaidh (commonly known as the AG at the North Mon) in Cork. He enjoys the contrasts between music and teaching. Holding down a job keeps him on his toes and makes him appreciative of his music career. Would he ever give it up?
With so much attention coming his way, he may soon have to think about it. As things stand, he’s happy to juggle two very different callings, he says
“You have to wait for the music to visit. It’s not going to fly into the room when you want it to. Whereas with teaching you have to go in and deliver. There’s no messing about. You just get on with it. That appeals to me.”
A busy job must occasionally distract from writing, however? What if that muse soars in the window as he’s putting manners on a rowdy class.
“There are always holidays. I take time off at Christmas and Easter and try to get into a different headspace. At those moments, it’s easier to do something heartfelt.”
He recently played at the Electric Picnic festival for the first time. The gig was at one of the smaller stages, deep in the woods. It felt as if he was performing on the set of Lord of the Rings.
“I came back to school the following week. I’ve a lot of things up and coming on the music side.
My Leaving Cert music class asked, ‘Sir, how are you going to do all that?’ Well, I got through the Picnic. So things are off to a positive start.”
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