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Interview: Roger O'Donnell on finding his voice outside of The Cure

The widescreen wash of Disintegration, the wildly successful 1989 album by The Cure, owes a huge debt to the expansive textures spun by keyboardist Roger O’Donnell. Initially drafted via the Psychedelic Furs to assist a stumbling Lol Tolhurt on the Kiss Me, KIss Me, Kiss Me tour, Roger soon found himself engaged in the band's songwriting process. An on again / off again member of the group ever since, he has lent colour and shape to Wild Mood Swings, Bloodflowers, The Cure and the towering Trilogy live set. But there are more strings to his bow; somewhere along the way, O'Donnell has found the time and presence of mind to fulfill his own vision - releasing numerous solo albums, a litany of collaborative efforts and founding his own record label.

Born into a musical family, Roger O’Donnell was surrounded by music from a formative age, filling him with a sense of the possibilities that perhaps only music can provide and potentially setting him on a life-long trajectory.

“I was born next to the piano at home, so I was exposed to music before I was even born. Both my parents played instruments and it was just a very normal part of everyday life - they both encouraged me to pursue music, but I don't think I ever thought that it would be my whole life”.

The usual childhood and secondary school dalliances with embryonic groups followed, until Roger found himself playing his first paying gig as a member of legendarily pyromaniacal frontman Arthur Brown’s band:

“Actually, Arthur had calmed down quite a lot by that stage. There were no longer any pyrotechnics on stage. Most of all I remember the bass player getting into an argument with Arthur about money, which ended in him firing us both" O'Donnell laughs.

Despite being an avid composer, it wasn’t until 2004 when he was asked to contribute some music to a documentary about Bob Moog - the inventor of the eponymous Moog synthesiser- that he took it upon himself to finally release his debut solo album[if gte vml 1]><v:shapetype id="_x0000_t75" coordsize="21600,21600" o:spt="75" o:preferrelative="t" path="m@4@5l@4@11@9@11@9@5xe" filled="f" stroked="f"> <v:stroke joinstyle="miter"></v:stroke> <v:formulas> <v:f eqn="if lineDrawn pixelLineWidth 0"></v:f> <v:f eqn="sum @0 1 0"></v:f> <v:f eqn="sum 0 0 @1"></v:f> <v:f eqn="prod @2 1 2"></v:f> <v:f eqn="prod @3 21600 pixelWidth"></v:f> <v:f eqn="prod @3 21600 pixelHeight"></v:f> <v:f eqn="sum @0 0 1"></v:f> <v:f eqn="prod @6 1 2"></v:f> <v:f eqn="prod @7 21600 pixelWidth"></v:f> <v:f eqn="sum @8 21600 0"></v:f> <v:f eqn="prod @7 21600 pixelHeight"></v:f> <v:f eqn="sum @10 21600 0"></v:f> </v:formulas> <v:path o:extrusionok="f" gradientshapeok="t" o:connecttype="rect"></v:path> <o:lock v:ext="edit" aspectratio="t"></o:lock> </v:shapetype><v:shape id="Picture_x0020_2" o:spid="_x0000_s1027" type="#_x0000_t75" alt="" style='position:absolute;margin-left:125.8pt;margin-top:1.05pt;width:177pt; height:274.5pt;z-index:-251657216;visibility:visible;mso-wrap-style:square; mso-width-percent:0;mso-height-percent:0;mso-wrap-distance-left:9pt; mso-wrap-distance-top:0;mso-wrap-distance-right:9pt; mso-wrap-distance-bottom:0;mso-position-horizontal:right; mso-position-horizontal-relative:margin;mso-position-vertical:absolute; mso-position-vertical-relative:text;mso-width-percent:0;mso-height-percent:0; mso-width-relative:page;mso-height-relative:page'> <v:imagedata src="file:///C:/Users/smar9/AppData/Local/Temp/msohtmlclip1/01/clip_image001.jpg" o:title="792f5e5026b9ffa801009efd7e76ed0c"></v:imagedata> <w:wrap type="tight" anchorx="margin"></w:wrap> </v:shape><![endif][if !vml][endif].

“That invitation led to my recording of two records performed and recorded entirely on a Moog Voyager, and that turned out to be a huge gift to me. It gave me a voice of my own again, a musical personality after many years of being a little lost. I had always used synthesis to craft sounds and orchestrate songs with, but this took it to the ultimate level”.

Roger has often cited the creation of the subsequent album, The Truth In Me, as a period during which he rediscovered his passion for music. I wondered if it was liberating to finally have the freedom to paint in his own colours:

“It was something that I needed to do. I needed to rediscover myself and be relaxed about what I did, why I did it and for whom. That record was very, very personal to me and it remains so. It started me on the path of writing for orchestra and the building of melodies and complex harmonies using one note at a time. I had also, as you say, through a variety of reasons, lost my love of what I did. We can lose sight of what we do and forget the fundamentals, so events during this period led to my ears being opened again”.

Last year O’ Donnell released his album Love and Other Tragedies, an exploration of myth and fable, with songs devoted to the tales of Tristan and Isolde and Orpheus and Eurydice (a perennial favourite among musicians).

“The initial project we worked on was Scheherazade and we decided to continue the theme of classical literature to complete the album because, in my opinion, they're very pure and tragic love stories which have never been bettered. Funnily enough, a lot of musicians steer away from tackling these classic stories because they've been approached so many times, but I don't have any problem with it".

The album features Julia Kent of Antony (Anohni) and the Johnsons on cello, although the two musicians never met during its recording.

[if gte vml 1]><v:shape id="Picture_x0020_5" o:spid="_x0000_s1026" type="#_x0000_t75" alt="" style='position:absolute;margin-left:-7.85pt;margin-top:103.5pt;width:451.3pt; height:212.9pt;z-index:-251655168;visibility:visible;mso-wrap-style:square; mso-width-percent:0;mso-height-percent:0;mso-wrap-distance-left:9pt; mso-wrap-distance-top:0;mso-wrap-distance-right:9pt; mso-wrap-distance-bottom:0;mso-position-horizontal:absolute; mso-position-horizontal-relative:text;mso-position-vertical:absolute; mso-position-vertical-relative:text;mso-width-percent:0;mso-height-percent:0; mso-width-relative:page;mso-height-relative:page'> <v:imagedata src="file:///C:/Users/smar9/AppData/Local/Temp/msohtmlclip1/01/clip_image002.png" o:title="PromoImage1"></v:imagedata> <w:wrap type="tight"></w:wrap> </v:shape><![endif][if !vml][endif]“We were introduced by way of another project and enjoyed working together so much that we decided to turn those initial sessions into a full length album. We’ve only met in person once and worked on the album online using Dropbox. Julia is an amazing and gifted musician and we share an understanding of emotion, so she is able to articulate exactly the sentiments I try and describe. If I could play the cello, I would strive to play like Julia”.

Like many musicians who engage with underground or unconventional music, O’Donnell has dipped his toes into the world of DIY with the creation of his own record label 99X/100 - affording him an outlet to release his own music, while also providing a platform for some of the lesser known acts that have snagged his ear.

“My ex-partner Erin Lang and I started the label in 2005 as a reaction to the general disinterest of established labels in the music we liked and were creating. We found a few like-minded artists and put out a few albums and now use it to release music we love, usually made by friends. It’s a thankless task though and unsustainable financially".

Whilst busy with his touring commitments to The Cure for the foreseeable future, O’Donnell has a number of other projects and collaborations percolating and waiting to unfurl once his weary bones find their way back home.

“I have several projects that I am working on at the moment but which are, for the most part, on hold whilst I tour with The Cure. I’m producing a classical ballet with Les Saisons Russe in Moscow based on the Oscar Wilde story ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. We have been working on this for a few years now and it’s a rather large project to say the least!” he laughs.

"I have another piece for piano and string quartet based on a Ted Hughes poem, 'The Crow Falls', which will be choreographed for the prima ballerina Veronika Part. We’ll be performing that next March in New York at the invitation of Philip Glass at Carnegie Hall. It's a very big project and a lot of work, but I'm incredibly proud of it".

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