RGM Introducing – We Interview Robert O’Connor

Hiya Robert thanks for joining us in the virtual RGM lounge today, grab a brew and take a seat.

How have you been since we last caught up?

The last time we chatted was back in July and I had just released “Over (Before It’s Begun)”, and I’ve since released two more singles and an EP, plus now this deluxe EP, so I guess you could say I’ve been busy! I have really used this time while the world is stopped to be a full-time artist. Normally I have two part-time jobs, and while they’re somewhat flexible and allow me to continue working as an artist at the same time, not having them has allowed me to really put the hours into promo and social media, rather than doing it on the fly all the time. It’s been the silver lining to this truly bizarre time.

What I like about you is that you plan for every release, is that a conscious decision?

I’m definitely a planner! It’s very conscious, I think more so even since COVID happened. When “Older ‘20” came out last February, and we went into lockdown the next month, my streams were on the rise and my audience was growing, and I had nothing else ready to release. I felt like my hands were tied and I was there with all the time in the world but not able to get to a studio. The old saying “fail to prepare, prepare to fail” is true, and also “be ready so you don’t have to get ready”. I ended up with a five month lapse between singles, which isn’t optimum on any level, so now I’m seizing opportunities and always thinking at least one single ahead. 

How positive are you feeling now we are in 2021?

I feel like, without stating the obvious, we’re in a real time of change in the world, the kind that we’ve never experienced before in our time. Change makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but my whole life has been a series of changes. I’ve studied journalism, I’ve studied real estate, and worked in those areas, but also lost those jobs overnight and have had to work as a security guard or retail worker. I made music before those experiences and I’ve made music afterwards! I think any of us working in this industry are accustomed to life turbulence, and so we’re maybe more equipped to deal with change than someone who’s gone to college and landed their goal job and never had to worry about their life dramatically de-railing! My goal for 2020 was to make the best of a bad situation, and while I had my worst year financially, I had my best year musically, releasing my EP ‘Transcendence’ and having the time to hustle and get out there and talk about it. The deluxe nine-track version is basically an album, and when I came back to releasing music after a five year hiatus in 2018, I thought the best case scenario would be that I’d release a handful of singles. Coming out the other side of that it feels like anything is possible for me.

How has 2020 effected your mental health?

Up and down, sometimes all in the space of a day! For me the key was unfollowing certain media outlets on social media that were particularly heavy-handed on the scaremongering around COVID. It’s important to know what’s happening in the world of course, but I don’t need it glazed in drama. Turning off the TV for the most part was also good for the head, not always living in real-time and having to know what’s happening with the numbers today, or what the government’s plan is for next month. People talk about having bubbles these days, but I’ve always lived in my own bubble, sometimes it’s better that way! I will say though, not having the gym as an escape has been the biggest struggle for me – weightlifting has long been my biggest stress-reliever and something I’ve had “control” over when other things were out of my control, so even though I can do little workouts at home, it’s not even close. I’ve always found it good for creativity too – stepping away from the computer, sweating it out and listening to your favourite music, a lot of my ideas come during those hours.

How are you feeling now the road map has been announced and live gig can return?

Unfortunately in Ireland we don’t have a roadmap the way you guys in the UK do, so we’re still in the dark. The last time I played a gig with my live band was in October 2019. Of course I’m looking forward to getting back on stage, but I’m not letting myself get excited for that just yet – something tells me we could be in and out of lockdowns for some time yet. The live music and hospitality industries have been hit hard. I didn’t make money from playing live, but from wedding bands to A-list acts, that’s where the money is as opposed to actual recorded music, so I really sympathise with them. I have a ticket for one of my favourite dream pop bands, Still Corners, later in the year, so it would be a really nice surprise if that was able to go ahead. I can’t wait to stand in a space with other music lovers and feel that energy that you only feel at a live gig.

We notice you have jumped on the TikTok too bandwagon, so have we, how are you finding that?

I registered my name last year and was scrolling though watching other people’s videos. At first I found it really cringe, these dance challenge videos, and it felt more attention-seeking in its nature than any of the other social media apps that came before it. That’s why I didn’t really post immediately, I was trying to find my place on there, what my niche might be. The one thing I thought I could bring to the table was my experience operating as an independent artist in the music industry over the past three years. There are so many aspects that people have no idea about when it comes to releasing music without a team behind you. The problem is though, getting people’s attention for a serious topic like that – really you’re not targeting the general public, but rather other artists who are starting out or in a similar position to you. That’s why I’ve made each video less than 60 second long and each video covers a single subject – so for instance “How to setup a radio premiere”, or “How to approach a music blog”. For those not on Tik Tok, I also post the videos on my Instagram Reels. I think it can be interesting for music fans to find out a little bit of what happens behind the scenes too – how everything you see in the final product comes together! 

What is your relationship with social media like?

Intense! I try to post most every day, especially when I’m promoting a single or EP. I’ll usually have a list of content ideas. While sometimes the audience can engage more with your day-to-day life posts or selfies, as an artist with media looking at your page, you want for it to actually look like an active artist’s page. So I’ll have things like new Spotify playlists, Behind The Song specials on YouTube, new images of course, and posts about things like radio play and blog interviews. Usually the week before and of a single release it reaches fever pitch where there’s reviews coming in and you’re trying to promote at every possible opportunity and also capture it for your socials to document that it actually happened – for instance sometimes you’ll get more listeners on a video you post of you doing a radio interview, than on the radio interview itself. When it comes to making my daily social media post I always think, this’ll take me five minutes, but by the time you’ve made the graphic, added audio, edited it, resized it for every social media outlet, captioned it and posted it to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Stories, Tik Tok, well that’s 40 minutes of your day gone easily! I do enjoy it most of the time though, and I enjoy looking back at a social media campaign when I’m in between releases and seeing the progress I’ve made and what I want to do differently next time. 

We hear you have a long distance relationship with a artist in Peru, tell us about that? 

Skynem GT, real name Jordan Arteaga, entered and won a competition I ran on my Instagram page in summer 2019. The competition was to have your own remix featured on my “Real Good Fight” remix bundle, and Jordan’s entry was the clear winner. He approached me a number of times afterwards about reworking another song from my back catalogue, and I was unsure, but when I heard his demo of “Older ‘20” I felt that the track was elevated and brought into a new era and was convinced. Each time we work on a new single, we ask ourselves “do we want to do this again?”, but when we recorded “Destination Anywhere”, and I stepped up to the plate as a co-producer, it elevated the whole project and sort of gave it more depth and more shade. “Too Late” was a victory lap for us, and a way to celebrate the critical success of ‘Transcendence’, but I’ve decided to collaborate with different producers on my next single to shift gears and keep things fresh. Myself and Jordan forced each other to grow, we challenged each other plenty along the way, and we had fun doing it. It was an amazing journey to go on with someone you’d never actually met, who lives in a completely different part of the world, and all because of a little Instagram competition! It’s times like that when I’m really glad we have social media!

What it mean to you to be to be an independent artist in 2021?

It means you play a lot of roles. The easy part is writing and recording the songs! You then have to set up the distribution, give yourself adequate time to approach radio and media, try to secure reviews, give interviews, and build a social media campaign trying to engage your existing followers while also trying to entice new ones! You also have to keep things visually interesting so that means new photo and video shoots for every release, and creating teasers that will keep your audience coming back to check for you. It often also means going “live” on Instagram or Tik Tok, to try to improve your position in the ever-changing, always-confusing algorithm, and making sure you don’t say anything wrong because “cancel culture” can undo everything you’ve worked for in a split second. What it doesn’t mean is playing live gigs right now, but it might mean performing live from home, which is not something I’ve done. I was glad I’d released an EDM record rather than an unplugged type affair when I did. Not being able to perform it live wasn’t as detrimental.

How have changes in the industry have affected you?

The industry is constantly changing, and I’m big on keeping up-to-date on what’s happening, you can’t afford not to! When I released “You Found Me” in 2018 after five years away from the scene, there had been huge changes. Back in 2013, iTunes and downloads were still the big player, and of course that had then changed to streaming being the standard. We also experienced the resurgence of vinyl, and for niche acts, CDs and cassettes too. You have to think about what formats your fans want and are willing to pay for – if you’re brand new on the scene then it safe to say most of your listeners will be casually listening to your music on streaming as part of their monthly fee, but if you’ve established a bit of a following, you might be able to sell them downloads and/or physical product on your website or on a platform like Bandcamp, which is what I have done with the Deluxe Edition of ‘Transcendence’. The ever-growing number of social media outlets make it challenging to keep a presence across all of them – you have to adopt a different tone of voice for instance on Tik Tok than you would on YouTube. There are time constraints too, so you are coming up with an idea for content and then trying to adapt that to all the different outlets. While your top fans might follow all of your accounts, you have to be aware that a post you make on Twitter, which might seem unimportant to you, might be the only time some of your follows encounter you. You have to be bringing your A-game across the board. One change I am curious about is this new campaign by songwriters, The Pact, asking performers not to take songwriting credits, and as a result, royalties, when they have not in fact contributed to the songwriting. “Change a word, claim a third” never seemed fair to me. I write my own songs, but I also support artists who don’t, and I respect that some people are performers, rather than songwriters, and that’s absolutely fine, but taking money away from a songwriter who then has to go and drive an Uber because they can’t make their rent – that’s not right.

How important is fashion to you as an artist?

It’s really important to me. I love fashion, and I always have, but I didn’t always integrate it into my music. When I released my first album, I had a stylist and he pulled all the strings – I don’t think he’d even heard the album before he styled me for the cover, which is a big no-no. The headshot on the cover is fine, it’s of its time, I looked like the Lidl value version of Enrique Iglesias, with ‘00s glossy spikes in my hair, a leather jacket, and a deeply unnatural tan. For the follow-up EP, I had performed my first reinvention – that meant I’d dyed my hair blonde and was wearing college baseball jackets. I guess I’d just watched too many American high school movies. I think I was quite conscious in 2018 that I was coming back as a country artist at the time, and to me since the music was kinda easy listening, the visuals should be easy on the eye, so I played it very safe –

denim, plaid shirts and boots – natural and outdoorsy. It wasn’t until last year when I started making more electronic-influenced music that I think I started to see myself as more of a pop artist with a license to experiment. I wanted to have fun with looks, and I did. I love streetwear, so I integrated a bit of that, and I started to become more aware of branding. With “Destination Anywhere” I did the strong orange almost “workman but make it fashion” look, and with “Over (Before It’s Begun)” it was a collision of city-meets-country, with hot pink tracksuit shorts paired with a pair of chunky black Wrangler boots. I enjoy then carrying the vibe and the colours of the photos and videos into the press materials and social media graphics. I think growing up, looking at sportsmen like David Beckham inspired me to be daring with my fashion choices – he made it OK for teenage boys to experiment with what they wore, and I think now the likes of Conor McGregor does the same. Life’s too short for every singer/songwriter to dress in Converse and bootcut jeans like it’s a uniform.

What advise would you give your younger self ?

I would say “take your time”. When I realised I wanted to release music, I jumped at the first deal I was offered and it turned out to be a bad one – I had a few botched attempts at releasing my debut single before parting ways with the label and rebooting. When I eventually released my first single, I didn’t have follow-up material ready, and I was studying at the same time. It was a year and a half later when I released the second single and album together, so there was no momentum. Now I know that planning is vital. I’m conflicted on this, because I do think the other things I’ve done in my life to date hold value, but I think I’d tell myself to focus on one thing. I’ve studied a few times and worked jobs in countless areas and as a result you’re spread thin. I know we have to make money somehow, but if you want to succeed commercially with your music, I think unless you treat it as a priority, rather than a side-line project, you don’t stand a chance. Even without PR, management or a label, I see the difference in the last year with me focusing 100% on releasing music without distractions – I’ve never had so much coverage, and really positive coverage at that.

How have you evolved as an artist?

I am my influences. In 2018, I only listened to country music coming out of Nashville – and I wanted to make country singles. I was soaking that up, making playlists, and immersing myself in the culture. In 2019 at some point, as if someone flicked a switch, I started listening to electronic-influenced pop – from the likes of Tame Impala to Pet Shop Boys and then to more experimental dream-pop by acts like Wild Nothing. The outcome of that was changing gears and releasing “Real Good Fight” and all its remixes – which experimented with all kinds of electronic sounds and resulted in me meeting Skynem GT, which became a journey of its own as we now know. Right now I’m listening to music that will inform me where I go next. My songwriting hasn’t changed dramatically – I still believe a great pop song should have a relatable lyric that resonates and a melody that hooks you in and becomes ingrained in your brain. Hopefully, it’ll also make you feel good while doing all that.

We recently reviewed your last single. How did you feel the review went?

It was fantastic! Different critics from RGM have reviewed my last few singles, and the ‘Transcendence’ EP, and I couldn’t have been happier with the reviews than if I’d written them myself! The reviews for the past three singles have blown my mind. As a result my press approaches now open with “Critically acclaimed singer/songwriter Robert O’Connor”. I’m kind of joking, but I’m also kinda deadly serious.

Tell me about your new single and  how it came about?

“Too Late” has quite the story behind it. Lyrically, it’s about an experience I had where I encountered this guy at some press events, we were moving in similar circles, he was a society journalist and he began writing about me and my music in the newspaper he worked for, which as it happens was a large middle-market title. He would email me and say “If I were Robert O’Connor, I’d buy the Mail today”. I’d go and buy the paper and there’d be a gushing article about my music, or sometimes it would be about an event I’d been at, which was silly really as I wasn’t well known, but that’s how you get well known I suppose, when a few journalists repeatedly feature you in their content. Anyway there was let’s say, an expectation, on his end, that I would engage with him and that we would become friendly, very friendly I would say he was hoping to become, and I wasn’t interested in that. Things turned sour fast and “Too Late” is written as a stalker anthem partially from his point of view. “This is not the end of you and me/it’s in the future far I can foresee” doesn’t sound so sweet and innocent now, eh? I wrote the entire lyric and melody in the shower and had to jump out to write it down before I forgot it! 

I hear you have a new EP brewing, what can you tell us about it?

The deluxe, nine-track edition of ‘Transcendence’ is out now and features five singles, all collaborations with Skynem GT, as well as four instrumental pieces tying it all together as a body of work. It’s my most cohesive release to date for sure. It’s a mood-piece – it’s summery, it’ll make you wanna dance, or drive down the motorway with the top down. I think even though some of the lyrics are about sad times – like “Over (Before It’s Begun)” and “Older ’20” being break-up and post-break-up songs – there is a sort of wistful feeling throughout the record. I think it’s also nostalgic and unselfconscious – it’s not influenced remotely by what’s on the radio right now, it’s a product of everything I have loved over the years musically. Some of that is deeply uncool, but I’m cool with that.

How was the recording process of the song and video given the various restrictions we have been under of late?

Very awkward. With some of the songs on this record, the vocals were already recorded pre-COVID, but with “Destination Anywhere” I recorded the vocals at the home of my guitarist, Gavin Sheridan, and then sent them over to Jordan (Skynem GT) in Peru, who would then assemble the whole thing, and we’d send it back and forth until we got it to a place where we were both happy. Recording the video for “Too Late” was the biggest challenge to date because of the unexpected last-minute lockdown that we had here in Ireland from December 26. I had the track recorded and ready to go, but I’d planned on recording the music video in January. When I was reaching out to people about working on some kind of low-key visual, the consensus was that it was going to be costly, getting COVID tests for everyone involved and all sorts, so I accepted that there would be no video and I commissioned a lyric video for the track, but I was very disappointed to finish the campaign on that note. Luckily, at the final hour, my friend Klara McDonnell, who is also an artist, insisted that she wanted to help me out and off we went to St Annes Park in Dublin where we shot footage before 9am on a Sunday morning while it was quiet, and sent it across to Matt N Black, who had shot my previous few videos. He compiled the footage and added his own, and we ended up with this very solitary vibe of me standing in the park while shots of people dancing in a superclub weaved in and out. It worked, I think. But to answer the question, the restrictions have been a nightmare and made things much, much more difficult as an independent artist to continue working. There have been a few times where for an moment I’ve thought “fuck this, it’s too much stress”, but I’m too stubborn to let a virus get in the way of my work.

What are your plans for the year ahead 

Take a nap? I’m exhausted. But what’s the saying, “Too tired to keep going and too crazy to stop”? That’s where I am. Music is a big part of my life again and I don’t like the idea of going back to where I was during my hiatus where I’d say “I used to be a singer/songwriter”. I love being active and building my catalogue – this is my eighth single since I came back now, and I do think that people see consistency and realise, you’re not just going to stop because you haven’t landed a big deal or you’re not being supported by the mainstream media. Those things don’t even factor into my thoughts about continuing anymore. I’m pretty much done promoting ‘Transcendence’ and “Too Late” now, so I’ll take a beat, and start planning the next release, which is brand new and recorded with a different producer. It’ll be a new chapter, and I’m still writing that chapter, so I won’t say any more about it for now except that it’s big, brave and bold.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the world?

Open Spotify, stream Robert O’Connor ‘Transcendence’, and escape the world for 30 minutes. To cleanse your palate for what’s coming next, stream the GMJS Remix of “Too Late”, it’s a bridge to where I’m going next!