HE is one of the most passionate and determined artists…
I have encountered in quite some time! It has been great learning more about the Irish songwriter Robert O’Connor and how he has progressed the past few years. He speaks with me about his latest track, You Found Me, and how it came together; why he took a break from music; where he heads from here – I ask how important Ireland is in regards the tone and nature of O’Connor’s music.
He tells me about gig plans and a favourite musical memory; albums and artists important to him; a newer act worth checking out; the advice he would give new artists coming through; how he wants to spend the remainder of this year - O’Connor talks about working with Stuart Gray on his new song.
Hi, Robert. How are you? How has your week been?
Hey, Sam. I’m great; happy to have another opportunity to bang on about my music! This week has been good. Since I kicked off this new single campaign, the first thing I do every morning is to check my emails and my social media before I even get out of bed. I’m sure it’s massively unhealthy but I’m in tunnel vision-mode right now. I was chosen for The Best New Indie Single of the Day today so that’s a good start to the day, for sure. I was just saying how every day one good thing d has been happening and that’s enough for me to feel encouraged and keep my motivation up!
Last night ended well, too, because my track got played on a radio station in Nashville. I’m loving listening to all these radio shows I’ve never heard from around the world.
For those new to your music; can you introduce yourself, please?
I’m yet another singer-songwriter. I look through the music blogs now and can’t believe how many under-the-radar male singer-songwriters there are. I suppose my unique selling point would be that I don’t have a guitar. Haha! I started out with more of a Pop-leaning and, when I started out as a songwriter, I was very much inspired by the music I would hear in the background of American T.V. shows growing up; all those teen shows brought some great bands to my attention like Death Cab for Cutie and Arcade Fire.
I’m gonna say, that right now, my sound is ‘Nearly Nashville’: there are Pop hooks, a bit of a Soft-Rock framework, but there’s definitely a Country influence.
You Found Me is your latest track. Can you explain its story and how it came together?
Lyrically, the song is about losing your way in life and sort of going off the deep-end a bit and then a moment where you have an awakening and realise, sh*t; this isn’t a dress rehearsal, what am I doing with my life; is it what I want to be doing?! I think, for me at least, I didn’t realise that I was dissatisfied entirely, it was a slow thing - like I say on the line “slipping slowly like a landslide” - but I woke up one day and realised that I wasn’t on the right path. The ‘You’ in the song isn’t really about someone else: it’s kind of about having an out-of-body experience, where you are looking in on yourself and, in that moment, seeing everything clearly...
A friend of mine, who went a bit off the rails with drugs recently, told me that they related to the song on a profound level because they felt the exact same way, for a different reason! I love to hear those stories…
You sort of took a step back from music and are back now. What was the reason for taking some time out?!
I really regret that time-out. I try not to, but I do, and the only way I can console myself is by saying “I’m back now”. The last time I was releasing music was back in 2013. I released a remix E.P. with a bunch of underground producers and, from that, came a really commercial track called Too Late which was definitely a different vibe for me – it was like an Avicii or Swedish House Mafia track but with a Pet Shop Boys vocal – at least that’s what people were saying back then. I didn’t have the funds to promote the track and it wasn’t the sort of thing I could really gig on the live scene here in Ireland.
I was very, very frustrated because I believed in the song and I suppose I was already quite disappointed by my last proper E.P., Resistance, which came out a year beforehand. I had recorded that and had a guy who was shopping it around to labels but it was a really weird time in the industry pre-streaming and nobody really knew what they were doing.
No deal came through and I released it independently, but half-heartedly, and played a one-off gig that ended up probably being my best gig ever…and then that was it. I couldn’t afford to be hiring session musicians to go on tour; I had no-one to turn to and ask ‘So, what now?’ I gave up but, far back in my mind, I had hope that it wasn’t the end. Those five years have been a rollercoaster: I went back interning as a journalist and eventually got a job writing for a website and doing social media management.
The site I was working for then closed down and I was working in nightlife as a security guard - that was an eye-opener, I can tell you! While I was doing that, I took a business course and I never thought a year later I’d be using the business tips I learned to run, basically, my own business with this music project; doing the day-to-day management radio plugging and P.R. I don’t have as much money now as when I was working full-time but I am much happier to be finally back where I belong.
Tell me about Stuart Gray and how he came to work with you. What does he add to You Found Me?
I rang Steve Hogan, who produced four songs on my first album, to see if he’d like to work together again. Turned out he’d packed up his studio and was working full-time as a drummer - but that phone call was a turning point. Before that, I’d been talking to producers here and I just couldn’t find someone that I connected with. Steve recommended Stuart Gray, who had a studio in a rural part of Ireland and he said he’d set up a meeting.
I was nervous about going into a room and singing these new songs for someone – it’s tough at the best of times but especially when you haven’t been in a studio in seven years and been living in a different world basically. That first meeting was casual and really nice. We talked about what I liked and didn’t like musically; Stuart played me some tracks he’d produced for other artists – and when I heard what he’d done for some Nashville artists, who were coming to Ireland to work with him, I knew Steve had got it right.
It was right before Christmas; we had two writing sessions in quick succession and regrouped in the New Year for two afternoons of vocals. It was a very quick process - and that was appealing to me because I’d been in situations before where it had taken months and I was feeling very eager to get back out there as soon as possible!
Will there be more material coming later this year?
There will! It’s almost time for me to start making decisions about the second single. The track is already in the can; it came from the same sessions as You Found Me – but I don’t want to just chuck it on to Spotify and hope for the best. I want to do absolutely everything in my power to get the song heard around the world. The song travels a little further down the country path and, previously, I was saying to Stuart and Steve that, maybe, I should be kind of focusing on servicing mostly American radio with this, but now the whole Country trend is happening and even the most ‘Pop’ artists like Kylie (Minogue) and Justin Timberlake are getting on board the Country train - so hopefully being ‘on trend’ will go in my favour!
I’ve been writing way more often since I stopped working as a journalist, which is kind of ironic! I think it’s because I have a purpose for the work and I’m a little bit boosted by the positive reaction to You Found Me.
Dublin is where you were born and raised. How important is the city in regards your music? Is it an exciting place to find great music?
I’m gonna be totally honest: it’s not massively important or influential on my music. I have always been much more inspired by American music and, actually, I really like a lot of what’s coming out of the Scandinavian countries too – like First Aid Kit and Say Lou Lou; they both have very distinctive sounds. In saying that, it is an exciting place to find new music. There are countless open mic nights and, so, there’s an opportunity for everyone. I’m going to test-drive my own new material at those in the near-future. A lot of the Irish bands who tend to do well, though leave Ireland for London and often what happens then is, after they’ve found some success on the live circuit in the U.K., the Irish blogs and media all want a piece.
I don’t know. It’s a weird concept to me that you have to be validated abroad for Ireland to really take ownership of you - but I guess that’s what happens when you take cues from a bigger neighbouring country.
Which artists do you take inspiration from when it comes to your own sounds?
I have an ever-expanding palette of influences! If we start out old-skool; I have to mention Fleetwood Mac. Then, in my teens and twenties, it was all about Death Cab for Cutie, Coldplay; Arcade Fire, John Mayer; Pet Shop Boys and Dido. Right now, I still listen to those but I’m even more passionate about discovering new acts – so I was excited to hear the Country/Urban fusion from the likes of Sam Hunt and Brett Young and I love Dream-Pop, so acts like Swimming Tapes, Few Bits; St. Lucia, Empire of the Sun and The Pierces.
Right now – and I didn’t foresee this coming at all - I’m obsessing over the new Charlie Puth album, Voicenotes. The Pop hooks are so instant you remember them after one listen and the whole record is self-produced with this kinda Hall & Oates vibe. No matter what I’m doing, I’m listening to music while I’m doing it and, if I’m not, I’m making songs up in my head…
Can we see you tour this year? What gigs do you have coming along?
I really hope so! There’s no tour in place, but just this morning I reached out to a promoter about a meeting to discuss opportunities. I always knew I wouldn’t be ready to gig around You Found Me, but I’ve been offered gigs and it’s my number-one priority now that the single is out there in the world doing its own thing. I have never gigged outside of Ireland and that’s something I’m desperate to do this time around. With the likes of SoundCloud and Spotify Analytics, it’s become easier to see where your listeners are and so, really, you can use that data when deciding where to play live.
For me, the U.S. seems to be where the listeners are for the most part, but they’re building up in the U.K., France and Germany too. I would love to get on a few support slots to increase my visibility and just feel out how people respond to me.
How does it feel being up there on the stage? Can you describe the feeling?
It’s been a while for me, but you never forget the feeling. The songs really come to life and when you can engage the audience, that’s really special. It can be difficult when you’re playing new music because it’s not familiar to people and I suppose that’s where covers come in, but it really is a balancing act. I’ve played a lot of acoustic gigs in the past and, while that can be convenient, what I’m really excited for is to play with a full band again.
I want to bring a show that’s really energetic and has an atmosphere. I think all too much you hear ‘male singer/songwriter’ and you think ‘boring’ - but it doesn’t have to be that way!
What do you hope to achieve in 2018?
I hope that I can build on the support I’ve had from the radio with the first single. I hope the second single resonates with people because it really is a from-the-heart song: it was written in minutes and it’s a simple song but I think it’s timeless. Actually, one of my friends said to me, “How confident are you, on a scale of one-to-ten about this single?” and I said “Conor McGregor” because I’ve never felt more confident about a song, I really do believe it’s ‘the one’.
Hopefully, Spotify and Apple Music will get on board and add me to some playlists - because that’s really the way to reach listeners now. As much as I’ve enjoyed managing myself in making this comeback actually happen, from organising the recording to reaching out to radio and all the follow-ups, I would love to have someone fighting my corner with me. If I could go into 2019 having released the three best singles of my career I think I’d be pretty happy because, at the end of the past five years, my thought has been ‘I wish I’d released music this year’ and it really made me sad no matter how content I was feeling in other areas of my life!
Have you got a favourite memory from your time in music – the one that sticks in the mind?
It jumps out straight away...
I had just had the day from hell where I was interning in a P.R. company in Dublin where the girls were bitchy and the boys were worse (think The Devil Wears Prada, except everyone wants to be Miranda Priestly). I didn’t fit in at all and each day felt like a month. At the end of this particularly awful day, I got home, opened my laptop and found an email from my then-record label – an indie in London – saying that Universal Music had been in touch and wanted to distribute my album. To go from such an extreme low to such a high was really quite a rush.
Which three albums mean the most to you, would you say?
We’ll. Get the cliché one out of the way first and say Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours
I think if you can make a record that’s as timeless as that is, and have it click with so many generations, you’re really doing something right.
Dido - No Angel
It came out for me at a time when I think I really needed it – it was in my stereo for over a year and the way she told stories in her songs really appealed to me and made me consider song-writing as a form of therapy. It was also the beginning of my love of Trip-Hop. I loved that there was an Electronic influence: it wasn’t a straightforward middle-of-the-road, singer-songwriter album.
It’s really tough to say just three, and I do seem to be going back to albums that I heard when I was barely a teenager, but Madonna’s Ray of Light…
I think will always be one of the best bodies of work from a Pop singer and it’s been a reference point for so many artists since. I just saw, last week, that it’s twenty years old now which blows my mind. The level of reinvention on that record was phenomenal and William Orbit’s guidance was profound.
I love that she sang about fame on Drowned World/Substitute for Love - and the way they used samples from obscure underground tracks and built upon that. Like Kanye West said recently: We need to be less concerned with the ownership of ideas: it’s exciting to borrow elements from different places and make something new out of it.
What advice would you give to new artists coming through?
Fasten your seatbelts; you’re gonna feel bipolar for this ride...
There are a lot of ups, and often a lot more downs, and you can’t let yourself lose focus. You have to believe your own hype because, if you don’t, no-one else will. (The last time out I wasn’t confident the way that I am now). Maybe it’s because I’m happier with my product, who knows, but I firmly believe that it’s not so much about luck but rather the ability to hang in there and hustle as damn hard as you can. My motto from the outset of this era was ‘Do something every day that will put you out there’, so, every single day since the end of January, I have been sending my single to bloggers, radio stations and promoters all over the world.
I’ve read countless articles about how best to approach bloggers and how to submit your music to D.J.s because I really wanted to get it right this time - and I knew no-one else was gonna do it for me! Most days I’ve had an email back, whether it’s to do an interview or it’s a play for the song on a radio station, somewhere in the world. (The last time I stuck to Ireland and that was a big mistake). Use the internet, that’s what I’d say; make yourself look as good as you can on social media and engage with other artists and any fans you pick up along the way. I have a lot to learn, though, so I’m far from an expert! Ask me again when I’ve got a hit record!
IN THIS PHOTO: First Aid Kit
Are there any new artists you recommend we check out?
They’re not brand new but I really rate First Aid Kit. I think their single, Fireworks, is monumental and really moving. I love that it’s a bit nostalgic – generally, if it feels like the '80s or '90s, you can be almost certain that I’ll be on board.
Do you get much time to chill away from music? How do you unwind?
I find it really difficult to switch off. I’m constantly thinking that I could do more and that’s not good, I know that…but I have an insatiable hunger for success right now. The only time I can switch off (to a point) is when I’m doing something physical, like weightlifting, and it focuses the mind and you come out of it feeling physically sore but mentally a lot lighter.
I haven’t been doing as much of it as I should lately but I’m going to get back on track any day now! I had good progress last year when I really went at it and I do think that with physical strength comes mental strength.
Finally, and for being a good sport; you can choose a song and I’ll play it here (not any of your music - I will do that).
Can I have Twin Shadow’s Saturdays (featuring HAIM)?
I heard it on a French radio station that was playing my single and it put me in the best mood. Just like that, he had a new fan because I was straight on to Apple Music to listen to his album, Caer. Again, it’s quite nostalgic, I’m still not sure who it reminds me of…maybe Bruce Springsteen. It sounds like an '80s movie - and that’s the way to my heart!
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