In Conversation: The Cure's Roger O'Donnell
On and off for over thirty years, Roger O’Donnell has helped The Cure’s lush soundscapes enthrall millions of fans the world over.
After spending time in both The Psychedelic Furs and The Thompson Twins, O’Donnell joined The Cure to tour behind their classic 1987 record, ‘Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me,’ helping break the alternative figureheads into the American mainstream. Later playing on their magnum opus ‘Disintegration’ and fan favourites such as ‘Bloodflowers,’ his signature synth work and delicate melodies have helped elevate the group into the icons they’ve become.
With the past few years being a whirlwind of live shows and accolades, O’Donnell has spent his downtime producing ‘2 Ravens’, eight bittersweet, and pastoral tracks, half of which boasting added flair thanks to vocalist Jennifer Pague. It’s a collection that feels both on-brand while being a vast departure from his previous solo work. Clash got him on the phone to talk about its creation, the importance of time away from the live grind, and his future plans…
“I’d been involved in a film about Morrissey called England Is Mine and the director and I had been talking about another project he was considering based on a Japanese photographer who only took pictures of ravens.” starts O’Donnell, recalling the album’s beginnings.
“His name’s Masahisa Fukase, it’s an incredible book just of pictures of the ravens and of his wife, and it’s quite a tragic story, but we were thinking about doing that. I had this raven motif in my mind. Then also, I wrote a song based on Ted Hughes at the time called ‘The Crows Fall’ which ended up being called ‘The Hearts Fall’ on the album, I’d written that song for a Phillip Glass project, he asked me to perform one of his benefits at Carnegie Hall.”
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Envisioned as a piece for a one-act ballet, the two ideas merged into the beginnings of a new record, but first, a gruelling tour schedule, 76 two-three hour shows, had to be tackled. “We were on tour for the whole of 2016 with The Cure, and I spent most of the time wishing I was home and just longed to be back in Devon, and then you get back to Devon in the middle of December, and you’re all alone, and you think, well this is a bit grim, especially in mid-winter! It was just a real time of reflection and of finding out about my playing and being creative again.”
While we imagine there aren’t much bigger highs than playing the likes of ‘A Forest’ and ‘Just Like Heaven’ to thousands of adoring fans, work is work and its crucial for a musician to take a step back and smell the roses from time to time - or in this instance stare at some desolate moors.
“Touring can be a really non-creative period because you’re traveling all the time. You get to play every night, but you’re playing the same songs every night, so it’s quite stifling creatively. So it was just really an outpouring of emotion and self-reflection and creativity that all came at once, and because it was that time of year and being in Devon, it's got a very rural but quite bleak feel to it I think.”
From ‘2 Ravens’ opening number ‘December,’ it’s clear the rugged surroundings did the trick, it’s wistful spirit invoking the dramatic landscape, reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s more minimal work. Things change shape; however, with lead single ‘An Old Train,’ Vita and the Woolf frontwoman Jennifer Pague pushing the song not only into more accessible territory but also molding it into something truly unique.
“Her vocal arrangements were very similar to the way I would have arranged instruments, and it worked immediately,” recalls Roger. “Her lyrics were really interesting because they’re kind of, she’ll hate me for saying this, they’re kinda nonsensical. I’m sure they make sense to her, but I’m not really into lyrics. I think of the voice as another instrument. Some of the songs I was adamant weren’t going to be vocal songs because I thought everything was said in the instruments, that needed to be said. But then there were other songs that were kind of empty. Especially ‘I’ll Say Goodnight’ and also ‘Don’t Tell Me’, she just did an amazing job on them.”
“My music, I think of it as very very English and very rural and pastoral, and she brought this kind of Americana to it that was like a 180-degree contrast.”
While it’s been over a decade since we’ve seen a studio release from Robert Smith and Co, O’Donnell wasted no time, recording his latest in just five days. “I did all the piano at home so I could pay attention to everything else that was going on, because if I had been playing the piano in the studio, I would have been concentrating on what I was doing.”
“The first day was the two cellists. The second day was the string quartet, and then the other days were where we used her (Pague’s) vocals. We could have spent a month on it, but we could have spent two days on it. I think it works because there was a certain degree of urgency that tempts you to get things right the first time, and I think you can overplay things in the studio, go down a rabbit hole.”
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It’s audible in the final product. In a genre that can often feel stuffy and overbearing, ‘2 Ravens’ has a live and organic vibe, something its composer strived for. “I told Nick, who recorded it. I want it to sound like we’re all in a room playing together. I don’t want it to sound like a production, and I want them all to sound the same. I don’t want one song to feel like it’s somewhere else to another. I want it to feel like we walked into the studio, sat down, and played the record, and I think he did a really good job. I wanted it to feel intimate.”
When your main outlet headlines the likes of Glastonbury and celebrates its 40th anniversary in Hyde Park, we asked how crucial it is for the musician to have something of his own to go work on, to recharge those creative batteries? “I left the band in 2005, and it was kind of a sticky period emotionally and creatively.”
Remembers O’Donnell. “I wasn’t really comfortable with what we were doing, and who we were working with, the producer in particular (Ross Robinson) brought out a very negative side of The Cure. I just didn’t feel creatively fulfilled, so I left and pursued a solo career, and I was comfortable releasing albums and doing exactly what I wanted to do.”
Still, as anyone who’s followed the topsy turvy world of the band knows, there’s something of a revolving door policy with these moody melody makers. “I was given the opportunity to rejoin The Cure which I didn’t necessarily think would ever happen, but I think we’d all known each other for such a long time, and we were also so comfortable with each other’s playing that it was a natural progression. And then, when I came back to the group, I still had my solo career, and it just took the pressure off of my creativity within the band because obviously, The Cure hasn’t released a record in 12 years, so as far as a creative outlet from within that situation is limited.”
It’s a change that’s seen the band at its most stable and happy in a long while, delivering live sets that other groups could only dream of. “We all write on each album. Then maybe we’ll get one song or two songs each.” continues Roger.
“So to be able to do this, I think is amazing for me and much better for the group because I’m way less frustrated in terms of creativity and being able to output music. Both Reeves (Gabrels, guitarist) and I both release music on our own, and Robert is comfortable and really happy that we do that, and I think that it’s good for the band.”
While ‘2 Ravens’ has proved a rewarding reprieve and with an ambitious one-act ballet based on The Picture of Dorian Gray in the planning stages, the dry ice and the stage doth beckon, 2020 already looking like it may be busy. “We’ve completed the next Cure album. It’s pretty much finished as it’s just to be mixed and have little bits done to it.”
Before the hype machine begins, however, O’Donnell’s enjoying this chance to step out of the shadows and show fans both new and old what he’s been building out in the wilderness.
“I just want the opportunity to get people to listen to it. It’s not going to sell millions of copies, but it’s just nice that I can get people to hear what I’m doing and hopefully feel the emotions and the mood of that record.” We recommend people do…
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Words: Sam Walker-Smart
'2 Ravens' will be released April 24th via 99X10 Records/Caroline International.
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