Robert O’Connor, a Dublin-born musician who has steadily developed a cult following since the release of his Nashville-tinged single “You Found Me” in 2018, has been dubbed “Ireland’s best-kept secret” by The Q Review.
The artist’s last three singles peaked at #2, giving him eight straight Top 5 hits on the LGBTQ Music Chart. The praise from the critics has also been noteworthy, with RGM magazine praising his 2020 EP “Transcendence” as “a pop masterpiece” and Talk About Pop Music calling his music “an accomplished collection of songs worthy of being heard by a wider audience.”
His most recent song, “One Way Ticket,” is a pulsing electro pop anthem that is unlike anything else you’ll hear on the radio right now. It was produced by Gareth Shortland (Steps, Erasure), with vocal production by Richey McCourt (Aimée, Erica Cody). On September 9, “One Way Ticket” was made available for streaming, with Sakgra and Gareth Shortland remixes coming two weeks later on September 23 and 30. Adapted from the upcoming EP “Severance,” which was released on October 7. Check out the single “One Way Ticket” and the exclusive interview below:
1. Can you tell us a bit about where you come from and how it all got started?
ROBERT O’CONNOR: I was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland and I’ve been musically inclined for as long as I can remember. My musical journey began when l discovered my parent’s records, I would play LPs while sitting in the lid of the record player — that’s how small I was at the time — and my hunger to discover more just getting growing. When I was around 5 I joined a well-known stage school here and appeared in a number of theatrical productions at Dublin’s biggest theatres. For a period of time I would go to school, and head straight to rehearsals afterwards, and then eventually the productions would last a few weeks and it was like a world within a world. I loved the lifestyle, there was an element of escapism about it.
2. Did you have any formal training or are you self-taught?
ROBERT O’CONNOR: When I was 8 I got a keyboard for my birthday and then started to take my grades — so I can read and write music. It wasn’t until I was around 17 that I started to really think about singing on my own, as a career. I went to a vocal coach to assess my voice and took some coaching classes to build my confidence, and then started recording demos. I never had my voice “trained” as such though, but I’d love to have more coaching in the future.
3. Who were your first and strongest musical influences and why the name ‘ROBERT O’CONNOR’?
ROBERT O’CONNOR: I grew up in the ‘90s collecting compilation album CDs and I fell in love with dance music, but I still had a strong connection to the pop music I had heard on my parent’s records in the late ‘80s — from ABBA to Fleetwood Mac. I had a deep appreciation for the lyrics, the melodies, and how they made you feel. When I was 10 I became obsessed with pop acts — from Steps to Savage Garden — there was a full spectrum of styles I adored, and then a little later I explored singer/songwriters like Dido and John Mayer, and bands like Coldplay and Arcade Fire. I was a musical explorer, and I wanted to hear every genre, I even had brief affairs with jazz and then what I would call a life-long affair with trip-hop and chill-out music. Why the name Robert O’Connor? I was born with it! I had no interest in a stage name.
4. What do you feel are the key elements in your music that should resonate with listeners, and how would you personally describe your sound?
ROBERT O’CONNOR: I am the sort of artist who has changed lanes musically with each era of my career — but there is always strong pop melody at the core. I have come from a traditional singer/songwriter sound on my debut album through indie pop on the follow-up and then when I returned in 2018 after a hiatus I came back as very much a country artist with a string of singles that I’m still very proud of. I found a force pulling me back to making electronic pop music and for the past two years I’ve been exploring different flavours of that genre — from more modern EDM on ‘Transcendence’ to a much more nostalgic sound on my new EP ‘Severance’. I think my lyrics are true-to-life and storytelling and will resonate with listeners, but also I think I have the benefit of the production of the actual music not sounding much like anything else you’ll hear on radio right now. Some of these songs sound like long lost ‘80s or ‘90s tracks, and I think that resonates with a niche group of people.
6. What’s your view on the role and function of music as political, cultural, spiritual, and/or social vehicles – and do you try and affront any of these themes in your work, or are you purely interested in music as an expression of technical artistry, personal narrative and entertainment?
I stay out of it. I want to release great pop music that people enjoying listening to and that I’m proud of as a body of work. Being vocal about your political views is dangerous because the entertainment industry is very one-sided and if your opinions don’t align perfectly, you run the risk of alienating yourself from an industry that already requires you to swim against the tide every day that you’re a part of it. I’ve also never been a social warrior, and I think that has been to my detriment in a way — if I signed up to a “cause” that is currently trending, and peddled it, I would have that as an angle for press to latch on to, and that becomes the headline and the reason you are receiving coverage — but it has always gone against me and therefore if I receive coverage it is purely because of my musical output. As far are spiritual views are concerned, I’m sure in some ways they present themselves in my lyrics at times. I remember a producer asking me was I sure I wanted to use the word ‘God’ in one of my songs when I sang it in the studio for the first time, and I was baffled, but I kept the line intact because it was something that came in a stream of consciousness while writing the song, and it felt odd to take it out in case it offended someone.
7. Do you feel that your music is giving you back just as much fulfilment as the amount of work you are putting into it, or are you expecting something more, or different in the future?
When you sit in the studio and listen to a completed song that you have written for the first time, you forget about all the struggles. Financially, it could certainly give me more back, but for me it’s been important to drop that expectation and purely judge my “success” on musical output and the fulfilment I feel in my heart as an active artist. Something small that has meant a lot to me since returning to making music in 2018 is being able to say “I’m an active artist releasing music”, rather than “I used to be a singer/songwriter”. I really enjoy the process of creating not just the music, but also the campaign around it that delivers the music to my followers — the photos, the styling, the teasers, the videos, and even talking about it in interviews like this. Sometimes when I’m sending out hundreds of emails at the beginning of a campaign I wonder how much easier it would be if I had a publicist acting on my behalf, but as someone who is used to being under control, I know that I could never trust surrender that, and I would always feel that I could do it better myself!
8. Could you describe your creative processes? How do usually start, and go about shaping ideas into a completed song? Do you usually start with a tune, a beat, or a narrative in your head? And do you collaborate with others in this process?
I listen to a lot of music, old and new, and I’m grateful to Spotify and YouTube for recommending new music to me on an ongoing basis that inspires me. I could literally hear a synth or a beat or a line that ignites inspiration for a new song. I also enjoy watching films and reading books and finding inspiration there. There have been times when I’ve passed a painting and used the name printed on it as a song title. Titles often come first to me, or topics that I want to write about, or even just a feeling. There are a few different approaches — for instance with a song like “Been & Gone” on the new record, I was at work and encountered a situation that I felt could be detrimental to my relationship. I wrote the line “Stranger, when you walked in that door, I knew something was up and everything had changed”. It’s very often a dramatised version of real events. From there I wrote a vocal melody and took it to my guitarist who I recorded a basic acoustic with, and eventually gook it to my producer who would then make it what it is today. In other instances, less often, I’ll be sent an instrumental demo that has no vocal melody or lyrics. That was the case with my new single “One Way Ticket” — Gareth sent me the instrumental demo and I was completely obsessed with it and knew I had to write something that was an undeniable fit for the track. It’s my favourite song on the record and it was written in an unconventional way for me, there were boundaries and limitations with it because it was a pre-existing track in a way, but I found myself at my most creative when that demo landed on my desk. Sometimes changing up your approach is the best thing you can do!
9. What has been the most difficult thing you’ve had to endure in your life or music career so far?
ROBERT O’CONNOR: I would say the most difficult challenge for me to date came at the very beginning of my career, before I’d even released my first single. I has signed a contract with an independent Irish record label, and by that time I had recorded my first two singles, which I funded myself. The deal was that they would release the singles and then we’d focus on my debut album. This was the 2005, so it was pre-streaming, and even before downloading your music was the norm, physical CDs were still the standard. I had invested a lot of money in the release of the single, as well as everything that goes with it — professional photos, a publicist, live musicians for a launch gig — anyway, the label kept pushing back the release of the single and eventually pulled the plug altogether. I was under contract to them so essentially was in limbo. It was stressful and embarrassing, and no-one knew what was going on in the background, so I felt it just made me look like a total amateur. I had a similarly disappointing experience with a well-known Irish A&R man before I released my second record a few years later, and since then I’ve been very careful about who I choose to work with. These days I have a small creative team — a pool of producers, remixers and other creatives that I work with — and I find it very difficult to invest much trust in businessmen, and women, in the industry.
10. On the contrary, what would you consider a successful, proud or significant point in your life or music career so far?
ROBERT O’CONNOR: After the first lockdown happened in March 2020 and I had to stop playing live, I decided I wasn’t going to take time out, and that I would just have to adapt to a different way of doing things without being allowed to leave the house! I started by getting back the masters for my debut album and re-releasing everything independently on streaming services. After that I set about giving some of my songs that I felt hadn’t reached their full potential another chance. I teamed up with a Peruvian producer, Skynem GT, who I met through a competition I ran, and we completely re-worked a number of my songs and released them as singles, eventually resulting in my EP ‘Transcendence’, which received rave reviews from bloggers and critics. One critic called it “a pop masterpiece”, and honestly I couldn’t think of a more perfect review. The experience of making that record and building relationships with media as well as listeners online reinvigorated me, and in a way I saw during that year that you can take something terrible, like the lockdowns we found ourselves in, and build something brilliant out of it.
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Photo credits: Daven Casey