“Proffering reassurance in the face of inevitable sorrow” is what New York Times’ chief popular music writer Jon Pareles has said about Irish songwriter Declan O’Rourke. His many fans in his home country would, of course, have known only too well that O’Rourke has been spreading hope, love and emotional clarity for almost 20 years and across six studio albums.
From his debut album, Since Kyabram (2004), the County Galway-based artist has been praised by songwriting and media figures such as John Prine (“a great songwriter”), Edith Bowman (“Since Kyabram is an album I will listen to for the rest of my life”) and Paul Weller (“he writes the sort of classic songs that people don’t write anymore, songs that sound like they’ve been around forever”). His work, meanwhile, has been covered by an array of world-class artists, including Christy Moore, Camille O’Sullivan, Eddi Reader, and Josh Groban.
“My goal is to take something that has already moved me,” says O’Rourke, “and paint it into some kind of poetic vehicle that will carry it to others, with the correct instructions inside for them to unpack it and get the same result. Over time, I have found that being an artist is a process of stripping away layers of yourself in order to get to the core, to get to something that is pure and honest.”
O’Rourke has been crafting songs from his mid-teens, his attention snagged from the age of 13 when he was given a guitar by a priest whilst visiting Kyabram, north-central Victoria, Australia. By the time he was 24, he had returned to Ireland, landing in the middle of – and settling comfortably into – a fiercely creative music scene in Dublin that was the fertile breeding ground for the likes of Glen Hansard/The Frames, Paddy Casey, Gemma Hayes, Damien Rice, Lisa Hannigan, and many more.
A turning point, however, was with the release of Since Kyabram, the success of which secured him a record contract with the major UK label, V2. His follow-up album, Big Bad Beautiful World (2007), effortlessly confirmed his appeal in Ireland as well as with an increasing list of well-connected advocates.
O’Rourke’s third album, Mag Pai Zai (2010) fared even better than his first pair, as well as being included in Irish music writer Tony Clayton-Lea’s acclaimed book, 101 Irish Records You Must Hear Before You Die (“there are songs here that will bring tears to your eyes and make you contemplate important matters such as life, love and what makes the world go round”). With Mag Pai Zai, O’Rourke received heightened media attention in America, with coverage in Spin, American Songwriter, Wall Street Journal, NPR’s World Café and USA Today.
In 2012, O’Rourke appeared on BBC’s Transatlantic Sessions along with such music luminaries as Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas and Amos Lee. (During a subsequent Transatlantic Sessions USA tour, in 2017, he performed alongside the likes of James Taylor, Roseanne Cash, John Paul White, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Maura O’Connell.) In early 2014, meanwhile, an appearance on Mountain Stage aired on over 300 NPR affiliates, thereby achieving an unprecedented level of exposure for him.
Ever willing to experiment with his creative output, between October 2014 and September 2015, O’Rourke released a new song every month, making them freely available exclusively to his mailing list subscribers as well as to followers on his various social media platforms. In December 2015, his fourth studio album, Gold Bars in the Sun, contained a selection of these songs, which included a number of collaborations, most notably a duet with his friend, John Prine, the songwriter’s songwriter.
Never one to allow a golden creative opportunity to pass him by, in October 2016 O’Rourke released In Full Colour, a collaboration with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra that presented selections from his back catalogue so beautifully orchestrated (by O’Rourke over a series of concerts spanning ten years) that it prompted Irish music magazine Hot Press to write “it transports you to another world.”
In 2017, O’Rourke released his sixth album, Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine. A long-term project of his, a themed album written around one of the most sombre and tragic events in Irish history. “These deeply lyrical songs of loss, of longing and of forced exile are enough to send shivers down the spine of the most objective listener”, noted The Irish Times. As well as praise from the critics, the album’s themes caught the positive attention of prominent academic scholars. In 2018, one of its songs, The Great Saint Lawrence River, was nominated (in the Best Original Song category) for a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award. Another album track, Along the Western Seaboard, won O’Rourke the Best Original Folk Song at RTÉ Radio 1 Folk Awards.
What’s next for this intuitive songwriter, whose expressive work gently catches the light in many different ways, is a new album. Released in February 2021, Arrivals is yet another departure. Produced by no less a figure than Paul Weller, O’Rourke remarks that the music icon “was there every moment, before, during and long after, discussing ideas about this and that, even down to the artwork. It was hugely impressive.”
In several important ways, O’Rourke’s new, emotionally potent songs hark back to when he started out during the glory days (and nights) of Dublin’s singer-songwriter scene. The truth is he doesn’t like walking the same path over and over again. A deeper truth is that while artists need to secure themselves to their own identity, they also have to explore outside it.
“If you had a palette of different colours as a painter,” says O’Rourke, “why would you limit yourself to red and white?”Listen on Spotify Book tickets