Jack O’Rourke on Bowie, Steinbeck and queer artists 

Singer-songwriter Jack O’Rourke, 36, is from Ovens, Co Cork. His single Silence became a torch song for the marriage equality referendum in 2015. The following year his debut album Dreamcatcher was released. He will be writer/songwriter-in-residence at the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris in 2022. His single Opera on the Top Floor is released on Friday, June 11. See: www.jackorourkesongs.com.

Growing up, I played in metal bands and grunge bands but I loved – and still love – Emmylou Harris. I remember I got a job in transition year working in a record store in Cork called Vibes & Scribes. I heard Desire by Bob Dylan and my ears pricked up to her harmony singing. She was incredible. I developed this obsession with her that still exists. Her voice is kinda rootsy, grainy yet ethereal – like a fallen angel. If she was an orchestral instrument, she’d be a cello or a French horn because her voice is plaintive and full of pathos.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill 

During lockdown, I wrote a lot of piano songs for a new album. They’re very reflective and personal. Every so often, I’d need to stick on Lauren Hill to cut loose a bit. I love the horn arrangements and her wit in The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I loved her rhyming on it. She has lines like “A Muslim sleeping with the gin/Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in/Who you gonna tell when the repercussions spin?” It would be great to dance to that song in a sweaty club after covid. She is an influence in the vein of Nina Simone.

Learning when to tone it down 

Recently, I sang some Aretha Franklin songs with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Her voice takes me to the stratosphere. There’s pain in it. Maybe there’s something there that I tap into. She has certain songs like Ain’t No Way, which her sister Carolyn wrote I found out recently. Carolyn was gay. Being of that era and also being Afro American, it couldn’t have been easy for her. The lyrics allude to being in love with a married woman. Aretha is so subtle despite all her vocal gymnastics. She knows when to tone it down too.

David Bowie, shape changer

David Bowie. 

 Bowie made a huge impression on me growing up. He was such a chameleon – musically, in every way. His style and the way he carried himself on stage. His flamboyance. It’s hard to be like that when you’re behind a piano!

Bourbon Street mixed with Appalachia

 In Cork, I love playing Coughlan’s on Douglas St. They have a little sitting room beside the bar. It’s an old pub. Edel Curtin and Brian Hassett took it over. They are musicians themselves. They created this little sitting room. It’s a bit like Bourbon St. in New Orleans mixed with Appalachia mixed with trad. Small stage, with capacity for maybe 120 people. It’s so intimate. When you’re playing, the audience is very close. The vibe is always lovely. Mick Daly is on sound. He’s a legend is his own right and the pints keep coming. It’s great.

John Prine, the master lyricist 

I saw John Prine with my dad in the Cork Opera House a few years ago. He’d been battling cancer so he was a bit feeble, but his voice was never like Pavarotti anyway, but those songs of his – he had a way with words. The economy – there isn’t a word out of place yet his lyrics don’t sound pretentious. I remember listening to him singing Sam Stone, and that line: “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes.” You’d be breaking your heart one minute then the next thing minute, the girl who was accompanying him is singing In Spite of Ourselves: “I caught him once, and he was sniffin’ my undies.” He can move between humour and sorrow so gracefully – sometimes in the same song.

Queer culture

 Growing up – outside of Eurovision and incense in the local Catholic church – there wasn’t much queer culture going on. There weren’t many queer inspirations or idols. I didn’t really know any out gay people. When I was watching MTV as a kid and looking at someone like David Bowie, Marc Bolan or Grace Jones, I got the sense that what they represented was a bit scary but exciting. My song Silence [about coming out] is certainly not in the vein of John Grant or Scissor Sisters. That song was about my own reflections and realising I was a bit different, and how that manifested in me asking Santa one year for a kitchen, which lots of boys do. That was my first maybe tell-tale sign.

Leonard Cohen and making it look effortless

 I was lucky enough to see Leonard Cohen at Kilmainham in 2008. It was lashing rain. I was soaked and probably a bit well on. I was amazed at the incredible mix of ages at the gig: to see women my mam’s age crying up front, dancing. There was something very spiritual about it. He made it look so effortless. He made everything he said between songs look like a stream of consciousness and it was sometimes, but I remember going to see him in the O2 the year after and the interplay between songs was obviously rehearsed because similar things were being said. I was thinking: this is a master – not just of songwriting, but of stagecraft.

John Steinbeck and the “despairing” Irish 

A book I keep coming back to is John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. I love his writing. The way he describes the landscape of the Salinas Valley in California. There’s a real drama in it – the saga between the Trasks and Hamiltons. Cathy Ames is a fascinating character. It’s rare you have a female sociopath. There is great life lessons in it, and it’s got a great line about the Irish: “The Irish do have a despairing quality of gaiety, but they have also a dour and brooding ghost that rides on their shoulders and peers in on their thoughts. Let them laugh too loudly, it sticks a long finger down their throats. They condemn themselves before they are charged, and this makes them defensive always.” 

Why country music shouldn’t get a bad rap

 Ken Burns’ documentary series Country Music is incredible. It’s very moving and informative, particularly the history around race and how Hank Williams really had the first rock ’n’ roll song, not Bill Haley. My dad is a very eclectic music fan, but I used to disregard country as a kid. I thought it was conservative and hick, but I became a convert. I’m struck by how honest country songwriters are: people like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, who wrote a song about her cheating husband called You’re the Reason our Kids are Ugly.

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