Gilbert's still going strong
Lorraine Wylie chats to Waterford-born singer Gilbert O'Sullivan about celebrating 50 years in the music business with a new album and a return to Belfast for a concert later this week
SOFTLY spoken, with a slight Irish accent, Gilbert O’Sullivan comes across as a quiet, mild mannered man. But back in the day, when rock met glam and teen idols wore satin trousers, platform shoes and lip gloss, Gilbert was a bit of a rebel.
Instead of long, glitter-dusted hair, he opted for a low maintenance cut and topped it with a cloth cap from his granddad’s generation.
While other artists, like Bowie and Bolan took glitz to a new level, Gilbert completed his street urchin look by teeming a Charlie Chaplin jacket with short trousers and a pair of hobnailed boots.
He thought he looked great – and, 50 years later, he still likes the image.
"I think I looked good!" he laughs. "Of course, at the time, not everyone in the business agreed. I was just nineteen and trying to create an impression - to be different. Not an easy feat, especially when long, sleek hair was so fashionable.
"In the end, it was my songs that got me noticed. When Gordon Mills, then chairman of the MAM agency, listened to my tapes, he was more interested in what I could write than how I looked."
As it turned out, his manger’s instincts were right. By the early 1970s, Gilbert was an international star.
Beginning with his first top 10 hit, Nothing Rhymed, in 1970, he went on to write a string of successful songs. Then in 1972, Alone Again made its way to number one in the American charts where it remained for six consecutive weeks and eventually earned him his first gold disc.
Months later, inspired by his experience of babysitting his manager’s three year old daughter, he penned Clair, which immediately soared to number two in the charts.
The theme of success continued with Get Down and a second gold disc.
"It was incredible," he says.
"I’d never even considered success in America. My goal was to make it in Britain. Just to hear one of my songs on the radio would have been amazing!"
Suddenly, the cloth cap and urchin look was gone. The new Gilbert had longer hair and wore American sweaters printed with the letter G. As his popularity soared, the geeky kid was transformed into an unlikely heart throb.
Although, as he reveals, it’s a role that didn’t always feel comfortable.
"I was quite shy around women and while I had a few girlfriends, I wasn’t very good at the whole flirting bit. I’ve never been one for showbiz parties so I didn’t go out a lot.
"Apart from that, I worried about the affect a long term relationship would have on my work. I didn’t want anything to interfere with my music."
In 1972 he met the woman who was to change his mind: Romance blossomed when Aase, a Norwegian stewardess with Pan Am airlines, gave him a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine.
"I was on my way to America when Aase turned up at the airport bearing flowers and a drink for the journey. She knew my manager, Gordon and he’d arranged for us to meet.
"But her gesture was so thoughtful and touching. I knew I wanted to see her again. That was the start of our relationship."
It was seven years before Gilbert felt confident enough to pop the question.
"Yes, it did take a long time. But, I don’t like to rush things. I take commitment seriously and I wanted to let the relationship develop. After seven years, we knew each other very well and were confident we had a good future together."
Naturally a reserved character, he hates crowds and doesn't do chit-chat. But on stage he’s a confident performer.
"Once I’m up there, I’m never nervous and always 100 per cent," Gilbert tells me.
"It's great to get that connection with an audience especially on home ground where fans are really behind me.
"I’ve played twice before in Belfast and am really looking forward to coming back with the new album, The Essential Collection."
Born in Waterford, Gilbert grew up in Swindon, England but now lives in Jersey where he spends his time tucked away in his music room. Over the years, his dedication to music hasn’t changed – but neither has his aversion to socializing.
With a reputation as a neat freak, perhaps it’s the mess rather than the inconvenience that makes the O’Sullivan place a party-free zone.
"Maybe," his laugh comes easily.
"It’s true, I can’t stand clutter and I do like things to be tidy. I can’t help straightening things. Sometimes it drives my wife mad but she’s used to my ways by now."
When he isn’t working, he likes to walk. He says it helps him relax as well as stay in shape. Although, without a driving licence, he hasn’t a lot of choice.
"I never did learn to drive. I still don’t feel any inclination to get behind a wheel. To be honest, I’m easily distracted and my lack of concentration would make me far too dangerous to be on the road!"
Throughout his career, Gilbert has made an enormous contribution to the music scene. He’s also challenged breeches of copyright. The details of his court battles are well documented but only Gilbert and his family know the emotional cost.
"I can truly say that going to court has been one of the worst experiences of my life. It was horrible but at the same time, I was left with no choice. I needed control of my copyright. It took a toll but I’m glad I won."
Nowadays, Gilbert surrounds himself with people he can trust – his family.
It’s been 50 years since Gilbert first stepped into the spotlight disguised as a street urchin. But over time his real identity has emerged.
To borrow a quote from Discussions Magazines, it could be argued that Gilbert O’Sullivan has always been ‘the master of melodies and wizard of wordplay.’
:: Gilbert O'Sullivan plays The Ulster Hall in Belfast on Friday February 17. Tickets via Ulsterhall.co.uk or 028 9033 4455.