Galway singer Declan O’Rourke’s new album is a moving self-portrait that delves into his own family history while embracing the universal. He talks to Alan Corr about working with Paul Weller and how he learned to just let go

A while back Declan O’Rourke listed all the places he has ever lived on this grey and blue marble suspended in space. "I counted up the amount of times I’ve moved in my lifetime. It was staggering. It was 27 times," he says, wondering at himself. "I’m 45 years old and somehow I’ve lived in 27 different places . . . "

I can almost see O’Rourke shaking his head of curls and flashing his winning grin as he talks to me on the phone from his attic studio in Kinvara.

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Pinballing around the planet is often the lot of the travelling musician, storyteller and collector and O’Rourke’s own peripatetic sojourns have taken him all over - from his native Galway to Ballyfermot in Dublin, Australia, back to Ireland, then back to Oz, and finally back once again to Ireland, where he has settled in his current eyrie in Kinvara with his wife and young family.

"All those different places are fundamental portals in your life," he says. "New people and new experiences and they weight on you heavily in one way or another in that sense of longing."

"Someone in the A&R team had given Paul Weller my record and at the time I really didn't believe it, I thought they were blowing smoke into my pocket or whatever but he called me himself out of the blue."

The coastal town in Galway is now the longest O’Rourke has ever stayed still ("You know when you’re in a good place.") but that lifetime of questing and upheaval certainly forms the backbone of his remarkable new album, a self-portrait of a record called Arrivals.

So, you might say O’Rourke, who first made his mark with in 2004 with his debut album Since Kyabram and breakout single Galileo, knows a thing about arrivals and departures. It’s left him well placed to gather up the stories and experiences for his gorgeously minimalistic new songs, which were recorded with fellow craftsman Paul Weller in just six days in Surrey.

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It’s a record in search of a deeper meaning, overflowing with a quiet wisdom, and ever the history boy (O’Rourke’s last album Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine laid bare the darkest era in Ireland’s story), the ghosts of the past call down through the ages on Arrivals.

O’Rourke is constantly circling back to Irish history and several of the new songs were dredged from his own family story.

"There was a huge amount of emigration in my family. I have lots of relatives abroad from even before I was born that I got in touch with," he says. "When I was about ten we moved to Australia and came back a few years later and went back there again years later so I know what it’s like to be the emigrant and then coming back with also missing people while they’re away.

That's him in the spotlight . . . Photo credit: Ruth Medjber

"No names are mentioned but the characters that feature in these songs are real people. They say write about what you know..." he says, a true master of understatement.

"More than anything, I’m a sucker for stories and the struggle for human rights and freedom and the stories that I’m exposed to have been in Ireland."

Arrivals puts O’Rourke’s resonant voice and virtuosic acoustic guitar playing to the fore and it recalls classic seventies songwriters with a decidedly Irish tinge.

Having sought to carve things down to the bare necessities of expression over six albums, Arrivals is O’Rourke’s most reflective and minimalist collection yet. Closing track This Thing we Share sounds like a barely there Chet Baker jazz standard and there is something of the woodworker at work here, paring things down to their essence.

"The more you add to those situations, the more it gets in the way of the purity of the sound." Photo credit: Lawrence Watson

"I live in that space," O’Rourke says. "I’ve spent most of my time on stage alone and I write in that space too. It’s very comfortable and you don’t have to worry about anyone else. Space and spaces, like a certain room or the stairwell of a building, become so important to the sound and I learned years ago that the more you add to those situations, the more it gets in the way of the purity of the sound.

"I really always wanted to get to this point, and I was longing to make a record like this, and I was lucky that this was the right time and I was lucky that my producer agreed."

Ah, his producer. O’Rourke first befriended British music veteran Paul Weller, a man who’s travelled from barbed post-punk, through café chic soul, to elder statesman solo artist, as far back as 2004 when Weller expressed his admiration for O’Rourke’s timeless song Galileo. In fact, Weller said it was the song he’s wished he’d written himself.

"The first three songs on the album are the perfect self-portrait of where my life is right now." Photo: Lawrence Watson

"Someone in the A&R team had given him my record and at the time I really didn’t believe it, I thought they were blowing smoke into my pocket or whatever but he called me himself out of the blue," O’Rourke recalls.

"He was really lovely on the phone and said lovely things. He’s a really lovely man and an incredible musician. Way back then it was wonderful for somebody of his stature to endorse what I was doing. It was very reassuring for me as a young artist that I was doing something right."

"I suppose all of us are seeking what we want whether it's surfing Netflix or travelling, we are all looking for the nicest thing to eat on the menu or the nicest thing to wear that day."

From there, the friendship blossomed, they stayed in touch over the years and when it came to making Arrivals, O’Rourke knew he wanted a collaborator who would challenge him and Weller, a gentleman with some forthright opinions, was the man to call.

They spent six days recording in his Black Barn studio in Surrey and his commitment went beyond the music. "He did a lot of work before we even stepped into the same room and he was there long afterwards," O’Rourke says. "During recording, we lived in the studio at the same time, he was in one cottage and I was in another next door, and we got every day and went to work.

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"It was a wonderful experience but one of the things that showed me how deeply he’s gotten into it was near the end we were discussing the running order of the songs, the way one song runs into another can change a lot.

"I thought to myself, the first three songs on the album are the perfect self-portrait of where my life is right now' and the next day, Paul said to me, `You know, Dec, I think the first three songs are a perfect self-portrait of where you are in your life right now’.

"He said the same words. I was blown away. There was great chemistry and I think we’ve formed a lifelong friendship out of it."

It’s a simpatico that has resulted in an album on which O’Rourke seems to divine a secret way into the heart of the songs, letting them breathe and sigh with a life of their own.

It marks another point of arrival and departure on O’Rourke’s endless pursuit of beauty. "That’s a nice way to put it," he says. "I suppose all of us are seeking what we want whether it’s surfing Netflix or travelling, we are all looking for the nicest thing to eat on the menu or the nicest thing to wear that day.

"For me or anyone who is creative you’re sometimes trying to create your own most beautiful thing and you have to be inspired by the beauty you see around you."

With Arrivals, Declan O’Rourke is home at last.

Alan Corr @CorrAlan2

Arrivals is out April 9th. Declan O’Rourke presents the global livestream launch of Arrivals from the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on April 14th with Paul Weller, John Sheahan and more. Tickets available here.