Who's ready to learn more about “Ireland’s best-kept secret” Robert O’Connor?? The Dublin-born artist has steadily built a growing fanbase since releasing his single "You Found Me" back in 2018.
With an evergrowing bundle of success, O'Connor has bagged eight consecutive Top 5 releases on the LGBTQ Music Chart with 3 of those nearing first place at Number 2. His latest release "Severance" brings the flavour in the form of 8 anthemic songs to comprise an EP that boasts skill and flavour.
I decided to reach out to the man himself to find the ins and outs of his creative process! So, kick back, relax and let's see what O'Connor has to say!
Q1: I know that there are loads to choose from but, what was your favourite track to write? And why?
I would say “One Way Ticket”. With the rest of the tracks I took my usual approach of building them from nothing, beginning with a lyrical idea, followed by a melody and then production choices, but with “One Way Ticket”, Gareth Shortland, my producer on this record, sent me an instrumental demo and I was instantly obsessed with it — the music itself felt like it referenced so many of my influences, both now and growing up — and I think that’s what has been so great about working with Gareth, we are of similar age and have a big overlap in our musical taste. I thought the instrumental was so energetic that it called for a lyric of the same nature. I wrote the lyric and melody on two bus journeys in one day, send it back to Gareth immediately, and prayed he would like it. I wanted for this song to feel urgent and incessant, and the idea to have each chorus end differently, with a sense of increasing decisiveness, by the time you get to that final line “You booked a one way ticket, you’re not coming back” with the stacked “Got your mind, got your mind made up” BVs I think it feels very empowering.
Q2: There are a lot of singer/songwriters out there who would love to shine like you do, Talk us through your writing process.
With this EP, I had a very clear vision. I wanted to make a record that was completely and unapologetically pure pop, with a healthy amount of references to the eras that I grew up in. So with a song like “One Way Ticket” there’s a fusion of ‘80s and ‘90s — you can hear that Pet Shop Boys and Bronski Beat synth sound, but there’s also little hooks that pay tribute to ‘90s acts like Steps, who Gareth has actually worked with on remixes in recent years, so it felt completely fitting. Then on “Separate Ways” there’s a darker approach with lots of ominous synths that remind me of Moloko. Another one of my favourites is “Been & Gone”, which leans into the Scandipop sound — I’m a lifelong ABBA fan and I love the combination of a somewhat sad lyric with a euphoric melody. The first taster for the EP was “Save You”, and for that track the brief was strictly to create a hard-hitting trance track that sounded like it was lifted straight out of the early ’00s, paying homage to dance acts like Chicane. Out of all my releases to date, I think this EP is the one that has the most focus, and achieves its mission the most successfully. There were songs along the way that I presented and Gareth would say “that sounds more like it’s supposed to be a country song”, which makes complete sense given that’s the kind of music I was writing before, and we had to be strict with ourselves on those occasions and not just go ahead and force them to be pop songs. I always think songs have a way of finding the record they’re supposed to be on, “Save You” has been laying around since before my first album, and it’s only now finding its way into the world, so if you want a cohesive record that doesn’t just sound like random recordings thrown together without thought, I think you need to exercise that strictness with yourself — or listen to your producer when he says no!
Q3: How long did “Severance” take to complete from the initial idea to release day?
I recorded “Save You” as a demo in December 2020 with Skynem GT right after I released my previous EP ‘Transcendence’, with the plan for it to lead the deluxe edition of that record, which was released in March 2021. It was a song I had written many years ago and recorded in Amsterdam for my first album ‘Distance’, however the original employed the heavy use of a Chicane sample, which my label then said they couldn’t get clearance for, so we cut the track from the album. When I recorded the new version with Skynem GT, we opted for a disco approach, inspired by the likes of Agnes and The Weeknd, but it just felt forced, probably because I was so used to hearing it as a trance track, so again the song was abandoned! At that time I was already friendly with Gareth, who had remixed one of my singles in 2018, and I knew he has a taste for the ‘90s and ‘00s, and the experience to produce something that felt fitting to those eras, and luckily he agreed to produce a version of the track. There was no long-term plan but when I heard the finished mix I felt that it was so distinctly different from the sound of ‘Transcendence’ that it needed to be part of its own project entirely. I think that was the point where I decided what the musical DNA of my next record would be. I released “Save You” as the first single in July 2021 and recorded “Been & Gone” quickly afterwards, which I had written very quickly after an encounter with a stranger that felt so potent and dangerous to my relationship at the time. We were sort of taking it “one single at a time”, but after the positive reaction to my previous EP, I knew that I wanted to take that sort of approach again in terms of the songs having a home and a sense of belonging together. Gareth suggested I recorded a cover for the EP that would pay tribute to an act that inspired the sound, and initially we listened to some lesser-known ABBA songs, but I was just too fearful of not doing them justice, so we went for something ABBA-adjacent, and recorded “The Last Time” from Agnetha’s solo work. Sonically, we changed it up from being a sort of ‘80s soft rock, to being much more synth pop, again employing that Scandinavian approach. Lyrically, it felt very fitting to the whole concept of the EP, which is about endings — in relationships and otherwise. During the same session I recorded “Separate Ways”, which was like the darker older sibling of “Save You”, and finally “One Way Ticket” came about and was the final recording in spring of this year. We then added the intro, outro and interlude to make it feel like a more immersive experience for the listener, and the EP was complete in early summer. Taking into consideration the way that listeners consume music today, I wanted to release most of the tracks as singles with their own campaigns including a music video and remixes in advance of the actual EP, in order to give the songs a chance to shine on their own.
Q4: Was there a point in time when you started to question your artistry? I know that many if not all artists doubt their creations from time to time. How did you overcome that?
In the past yes, I have questioned if I’m on the right path musically, and I’ve also had periods of writer’s block, but from day one with this project, I’ve had tunnel vision and bulletproof self-confidence in myself and in Gareth as a producer in our mission to create this solid pop record that acknowledges the music we both grew up on and still love today. I think it was definitely a passion project and you can feel that when you listen, at least I can! Particularly on “One Way Ticket”, I think you can sense the joy and excitement that I experienced recording that song in the finished product — it was without a doubt the most fun I’ve ever had recording a song, and leaving the studio that day I had a renewed excitement about sharing it with my listeners, and I also felt that I would spend whatever energy and time was required to make sure the track was heard by as many people as possible — and within two weeks it had become my most streamed track on Spotify, so it worked out well!
Q5: What are you hoping to achieve through “Severance”? What would be your ultimate achievement?
I feel in some ways I’ve already achieved it, I’m really pleased with the EP and how it’s been received, both my critics and listeners. The critic’s reviews suggest that I have “finally found my sound”, and my followers are adding it to their playlists and streaming of their own accord, so that’s enough for me to say that it has resonated and they’re enjoying listening to it as much as I enjoyed creating it. I think it’s one of those records, at only 30 minutes, that you can listen to in full, whether it’s at the gym or getting ready for a night out, or in the car, and it feels like a solid listen with it’s own strong identity — every track is there for a reason and every detail has been considered by Gareth and I. I also feel like this EP can open more doors for me, yes it’s niche and isn’t going to trouble mainstream radio or charts, but I do feel there’s a place for it and there’s room to explore this palette of sounds further in the future.
Q6: How would you define your artistry in one word?
“Certain”. It has no questions about its identity whatsoever.
Q7: I’ve been following your journey since our initial meeting and noticed that you have landed yourself your own Spotify Editorial playlist “This is Robert O’Connor” This is an amazing achievement! What advice would you give to other artists who are looking to do the same?
Thank you so much. It was a huge surprise to me, given I have been consistently releasing music since 2018 and never had any sense that Spotify were aware of me as an artist. It’s impossible for me to pinpoint why it has happened now in particular, but with each single I seem to appear on more and more playlists by blogs and other curators, and whenever this happens I will share the playlist across my socials and tag Spotify, Spotify for Artists etc. I’ve never had so much as a like, never mind a response, from Spotify, but that’s to be expected when you consider the volume of artists who are releasing music. I’m also conscious about treating Spotify as a social media outlet in itself, so update your pictures, make sure you add your lyrics, credits and canvases and update your featured playlist. I create curated playlists for most of my singles that feature songs that inspired or sit well beside my current release, and while these don’t tend to gain many followers, I think it’s a good exercise in staying active on Spotify while also sharing a part of your creative process. Finally, I would say the most important thing is to keep creating and keep releasing when there is no-one cheering for you. Since 2018 I have had gradually growing blog support and my level of radio support is limited to community, regional and local radio, rather than national or commercial stations, but none of these things truly matter anymore. The listeners are on social media, and you can deliver directly to them on those platforms — so use them, and keep using them until you get your desired outcome!
Q8: Lastly, what’s coming up next? Any shows planned for 2023?
I played the entire ‘Severance’ EP live last week for the first time. It was something that I had in mind for early 2023, but an opportunity came up, and despite having no rehearsals and having never sung these songs before outside of the recording studio, I couldn’t pass it up. We recorded the entire performance and I’ll be airing it online, so for fans who have enjoyed the EP, they’ll be able to see a live performance on it soon direct to their screens. The plan is also to use the footage to approach relevant productions for 2023. This is not the sort of record you play unplugged shows with — I want the smoke, the lights, the costumes and the drama! My goal is to create a great pop performance that allows me to show who I am as a live act now.