Interview: Declan O’Donovan, “Broken Sky”

Declan O'Donovan - Broken Sky

Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m a full-on sucker for piano-based music, especially music that draws on multiple soundscapes at the same time. So Declan O’Donovan’s new album “Broken Sky,” which releases 2 June, was a completely perfect listening recommendation for me.

O’Donovan, who is from the Yukon but currently (as you’ll see below) is pursuing a more itinerant lifestyle, has written a lush set of songs for this latest project.  Where his first, self-titled 2012 release could easily be classified as jazz (and is also an album not to be missed), “Broken Sky” expands the sound palette to include styles ranging from prog rock to a touch of country blues.

I’ve found it difficult to tear myself away from this record since first hearing it.  From the opening track, “Let It Rain,” which actually separates O’Donovan from his piano in a bluesy, guitar- and horn-laden tune, to “Broken Sky” with its prog-rock riff in the middle, to “Keep Me In Mind” (which keeps me somewhat in mind of a Spanish tango), to the gorgeous and reflective “When I Wasn’t Looking” (which chokes me up each time I hear it), every song on the album is unforgettable.

We are so glad that Declan O’Donovan took some time from an extremely busy schedule to talk with us about “Broken Sky.”

This album seems to draw on an even wider variety of musical inspirations and styles than your first project.  Was this a deliberate decision you made before starting to write, or is this the direction in which your songs took you?

I certainly made a conscious decision even before the writing process began to paint broad strokes and draw from a larger palette for this record. In every regard I worked to push things into new – often uncomfortable – territory. Like pushing myself to actually sing! I think creativity is innately unfamiliar. Were I to just revisit the places and inspirations that I found before, I would be hard-pressed to call it something new. Only AC/DC gets away with doing that.

If I understand correctly, you wrote this album in multiple cities, but you’re primarily based in the Yukon… how does location, or a sense of place, affect your creativity as a musician?

My sense of place is rather messed up these days, by choice I’m currently homeless. I suppose I feel anxious if I stay in one place too long, and it’s been easier to simply follow opportunities and live out of a bag for the last few years. I am FROM the Yukon, but not necessarily based there all the time. And yes, my sense of place certainly plays a role in the songwriting – some kind of juxtaposition between urban and rural living. But the importance of having a home, or being from somewhere, is often more for the sake of people around you being able to identify who you are. Particularly as a musician, it’s often one of the first questions I have to answer. It’s as though people subconsciously are applying value to the geography of the music they choose to listen to. It can be a little absurd.

One of my favorite songs on the album is the title track, “Broken Sky.”  (At the risk of dating myself, portions of the song remind me a lot of some of my favorite 70s-era prog rock instrumentals.)  You sing of the broken sky as “a place where you can hide” – having lived both on the plains and in cities, I was visualizing wide open spaces when I heard this song.  What meaning does “Broken Sky” and the concept of a hiding place have for you?

Thank you! I suppose Broken Sky means a number of different things.. The metaphor of the broken sky, and the songwriting that went into the album as a whole was drawn from a notion that the world is not as we want or expect it to be. Something as elemental as the sky can appear fragmented and fragile, and it can be both unsettling and liberating to abandon this sense of security. Largely influenced by the experiences of a close friend that was struggling through a manic episode, I sought to explore and reimagine some of the high and low points of a troubled mind that was failing to maintain a grasp on the world around it. And the hiding place is certainly meant to contrast with the broken sky, I suppose its almost a ‘hide in plain sight’ type thing. But don’t leave it to me to explain the songwriting, I had very little say in the whole thing…

I was also thrilled to hear an instrumental on the album (“The Boatman”) – it seems like relatively few musicians are willing to step out on a limb and include them.  What was your inspiration for this particular piece?

It was simply a melody and a mood that I had been playing with throughout the whole writing process. It never struck me to lyricize the music, and yet it seemed at home with the whole record. It took on a few different incarnations throughout the writing and our time in the studio. Jean Massicotte brilliantly reduced it to something very basic, which provides a fantastic half-way point to what i think are certainly two sides to this record. I hope people will hear it as such.

You have a fairly extensive touring schedule planned over the next several months – will you approach touring any differently with this new album than you did for your first?  If so, in what ways?

Well in so many ways the first album was a lesson in what not to do – namely with touring! So for one thing, I won’t try to cross Canada all at once.

And once again, this album is an exploration into new things. The live show is an extension and reinterpretation of the record, and the musicians I’m lucky enough to have on board for the live show are brilliant creative minds. If given the opportunity, we manage to bring things somewhere new every night.

There’s also opportunities that weren’t there with the last record. New places in the world that have invited us to come perform and seem to be digging what we do. Namely Japan and Germany…both countries are filled with amazing audiences and some wild gigs. Like Fuji Rock Festival this summer?! It’s going to be a trip.

Declan O'Donovan

Just curious: what is your keyboard background (e.g., classical/jazz)?  You have a very definitive, assertive sound to your playing (and I mean that as a compliment).  Any particular preferences of piano and keyboard gear?

I didn’t take formal jazz or classical lessons. I took private lessons with a few fantastic teachers when I was very young. Guys that encouraged me to learn by ear before getting into some of the theory and technical side of things. I quit piano for a few years when I was a teenager to explore drums and bass and guitar and eventually came back to the instrument, exploring different styles on my own and poorly faking my way by on the instrument!

But I’m a piano player, not a keyboardist. If I’m at a keyboard it’s because I have to be. Give me a real instrument over these ugly digital eye-sore imposters any day.

~ L

Photo credit: Alister Maitland

Here is a selected list of Declan’s upcoming tour dates.  For the most current info, check out his website.

June 22 – Whitehorse, YK  – Yukon Arts Centre (Album Release Show)
June 23 – Vancouver, BC – Wise Hall
June 25 – Chilliwack, BC – Tractor Grease Café
June 26 – Salt Spring Island, BC – Tree House Café
June 28 – Duncan, BC – Duncan Showroom
June 29 – Victoria, BC – Northern Quarter
June 30 – Port Alberni, BC –  Char’s Landing
July 1 – Cumberland, BC – Studio Live
July 4 – Kamloops, BC –  Riverside Park (Evening Concert Series)
July 5 – Salmon Arm, BC – Marine Peace Park
July 6 – Penticton, BC – Dream Café
July 7 – Atlin, BC – Atlin Arts and Music Festival
July 8 – Atlin, BC – Atlin Arts and Music Festival
July 9 – Atlin, BC – Atlin Arts and Music Festival

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