‘It took me ages to fall in love with music again…’ – An Interview with Oliver Cole
“I’m like some sort of lovesick fool on this record,” says Oliver Cole, only half-mockingly, as he pores over the details of an album that almost didn’t see the light of day.
It’s been a scarcely believable five years since the former Turn frontman released his first solo offering, the intriguingly-titled We Albitri, with outside eyes expecting the Kell band’s cult notoriety to transfer through to its architect’s new undertaking.
It never quite turned out that way, however, as We Albitri became bogged down in music business politics and, by the time it did see the light of day, much of the optimism and enthusiasm had been sucked from the endeavour for Cole.
The experience left the softly-spoken songwriter chastened, and he freely admits the whole experience led to his confidence taking a real beating, to the point where, having completed Year of the Bird, he couldn’t quite bring himself to put the wheels in motion to release the record.
“When I finished Year of the Bird I didn’t send it to any music business people,” he tells Something for the Weekend.
“I don’t know what I was expecting. People would ask ‘when’s the record out?’ and I’d say, ‘oh, the end of the year.’ I’d been saying that for the last two years, but at the same time I didn’t send it to a single person.
“Pete [Murphy, Cole’s promoter] says I sent him a copy but it was a blank CD. I don’t know what I was expecting.
“I think I was making music a long time and, if I’m really honest, I think I was a bit disappointing with how my last record was received. It made me retire into myself a little bit. I certainly wasn’t confident about putting this record out.”
The gradual decline of Turn – the all-too-familiar story of a prodigious and retrospectively iconic Irish band whose time passed amid record industry messing – had left him disillusioned to start with, and subsequent events only deepened his disappointment.
“There were a lot of complications I had at the time with managers and labels – music business stuff mostly that took me ages to get that first ball up in the air after Turn.
“It took me ages to fall in love with music again, and it took me ages to get the ball up in the air, and as soon as I had it up in the air, fucking everybody around me was dropping the ball.
“I got very disheartened and beaten down by the whole process. And it’s different when you’re by yourself.
“When you’re in a band, you take the knocks better. When you’re three or four people people, they’ll stay standing when someone punches you, but it’s just you when someone punches you, you just go dead! Then it takes everything you’ve got to get up again.”
The character Cole depicts couldn’t be more in contrast to the contented figure who sits singing melody lines to songs, both his own and others, and liberally sprinkles the conversation with the word ‘beautiful’ while describing an album inspired by meeting his partner and welcoming his first child to the world.
While Year of the Bird has the sound of an introspective record – one that shares the same sonic space with the likes of Villagers – deeper investigation reveals an album steeped in both positivity and invention, as Cole shies away from the conventional guitar and drums set-up to experiment with harmony and structure.
“I think it is [an uplifting album]. Lyrically, there is a lot of trying to figure stuff out, but it’s moving in a very positive direction.
“What’s funny about that is that the last record, five years ago, the one that sounds on the face of it very positive is lyrically very dark. It’s funny that, because this one sounds a little darker but lyrically it’s quite beautiful and poetic.
“I’ve always been interested in that. If you take ‘Help!’ by the Beatles, and you wrote it out on a piece of paper, it’s desperately sad, but put it to [sings the melody] and it’s not sad at all!
“If you have really lovely music, and you put a lovely melody on top of it and really lovely lyrics, you’re in danger of making somebody throw up. You have to be careful not to over-ice the cake.”
In that sense he has a kindred spirit in Glen Hansard. The Oscar-winning songwriter joins Cole on one of the album’s standout tracks, the Paul Westerberg-evoking alt-country ballad ‘Magnolia,’ which Cole admits Hansard had to strong-arm him into including on the record.
“I was touring with Glen and he happened to really like that song, ‘Magnolia,’ and he would get me up at the end of his gig… he’s a very gracious host, is Glen.
“He’d get me up at the end of every gig and go, ‘Oliver played support earlier and I didn’t see him because I never like to watch the support because I get nervous – is it OK if I bring him out now to do a few songs?’ And they go, yeah.
“Then I’d come out, and he’d just leave the stage in the middle of his gig, and I’d do two or three songs, then he’d come back on and we’d do this song ‘Magnolia’ together, and he’d sing harmony and play electric guitar.
“We did it every night on that tour, about 20 or 30 gigs, so basically by the end of that tour it had developed into something quite beautiful.
“When I came home, I didn’t really want to put it on the record – and I struggled a little bit because I didn’t think it suited the sound of the record in some ways – but Glen was really persistent.”
Originally published in the Irish Sun on July 31st, 2015.