"I’m still trying to write the song that will save the world"
Danny O'Donoghue rewrites The Script
"I'm on some other shit. I know I am."
Brother, you ain't kidding.
The first thing that strikes you with Danny O'Donoghue is energy, all geeked and raw. Like a coiled spring kept idle in a box for years, he bounds forward, seemingly in all possible directions.
This writer encounters him at the end of a long press day for new record Sunsets & Full Moons, holding court in the absence of under-the-weather counterpart Mark Sheehan. O'Donoghue will heap praise upon his friend throughout our time together, and to say that he's rather capable of speaking for himself would be a dramatic understatement.
Drama has not just informed The Script since its mainstream inception proper in 2008. It has, in accordance with O'Donoghue's narrative, resolutely stalked him and his comrades ever since.
'The Man Who Can't Be Moved', though not the debut missive, is, for many, the first time that they learned of the Dublin trio. It's the kind of song you can whack on some 11 years later and understand, completely, why it opened the floodgates for a band that are more popular across the globe today than you may be fully aware of.
Here was a track - and accompanying music video - that felt birthed in a shimmering laboratory, free of anchors like backstory and easily definable DNA of the men involved.
In this year zero, The Script emerged as more of a universal and supremely marketable creative weapon than anything visibly Irish, armed with O'Donoghue at the forefront, a screenwriter's dream of a towering, brooding model, leather jacket pulled tight over the beating, bleeding heart beneath.
If that all sounds a bit much, well, that's The Script.
Rarely has an act been so in tune and content with what they are and the precise mechanics thereof. Make no mistake, this is a diligently-oiled machine and Danny O'Donoghue knows exactly how to operate the controls.
Referring to his own music, he uses words like 'footfall' and 'product' as naturally as you or I might draw breath. He contradicts himself. He goes off on tangents that are tricky to keep track of. He lives in a bubble, but he'd love to invite you in.
You get all of this and a whole lot more from just 20 minutes in his company. By the end, it feels like a condensed therapy session. Exiting after big handshakes and larger smiles, you think that you've rarely met a human being so ridiculously earnest. Pop stars should be like this, you feel. They're not like us, no matter how hard they try.
O'Donoghue, to give him all of the credit in the world, is a trier. Now 39 years old and doing this in one form or another since the tender age of 16, he trusts in every single sound that emerges from his mouth. Enquire about standing in front of thousands of people on a regular basis and whether or not he goes into a zone, plays a character, leaves it all out there and so on, and you get a speeding bullet in response.
"I’m prepared to let everybody into my life at every point," he begins.
"Not for an egotistical side of things, but I believe in me trying to explain me and the human condition, my human condition or what condition I’m in, or even if I am human; I believe trying to go through really hard situations and writing about it in an eloquent way is the only justification I have for the shit I’ve been through in my past.
"I have to make some sense of it myself, so if it’s in rhyme, if it’s in holding a mirror up to me and, in essence, I’m looking at the sights, sounds, smells of a situation about how I feel. I’m talking about my heart and if it’s broken or not, my mind and if it’s broken or not, my soul, all these things. Everybody has a heart, everybody has a mind, everybody has a soul. I believe that us - in talking about me - people are probably listening to me singing in the first person, but I believe they’re thinking about them, they’re not thinking about me.
"I love going to the bottom of the barrel. I have to say, I really do. I hate it when I’m there, because life, say, in a death situation, nobody ever wants to go through that, but what an Irish way to go about it, to turn around and be able to salvage something from darkness. To see some kind of light, see some star in a night sky and go, ‘Wow, what can I take from this?’
"I think the funeral frame of mind, for me, everything becomes a sharp focus. And I know that’s very morbid, but I’ve taken it on as a mantra - pull the people that you love closer, and when you realise that a moment is special, stretch it out longer. Because in the realms of infinity - *snaps fingers* - that’s your life."
The O'Donoghue iambic pentameter in full flow. Just try and stop him. You probably could, but why bother? Why derail an overcrowded train of thought that argues, vehemently, that no other homegrown offering can compare to The Script. He believes it. He believes all of it.
"‘Ah, they don’t write their own stuff'," he muses, conjuring up the haters.
"Yeah, we do. ‘Oh, they don’t produce their own music’. Yeah, we do. Line me up another Irish band that does what we do. Tell me of another Irish band that produces and writes and tours [and creates] concepts for videos every step of the way. You won’t find another band. Tell me one band that does it."
Limiting it to just one other Irish outfit that does this would admittedly be difficult, but, again, let him at it. Pivot. Why does Danny O'Donoghue think that people don't see his band in such a light?
"Because we try to make our music immediately accessible to everybody. And I genuinely mean that. We had a big meeting with Tesco and a meeting with Sainsbury’s with a big presentation of our music.
"This may come across to your musos as a ‘Tesco, fuck that’ thing, but if you’re thinking about making a lifetime in music, and believe you me, I’ve never worked a day in my life, I’ve been in music, the game everybody wants to be in, since I was 16 years old - maybe I might know something about it. Maybe I might.
"This is my sixth album now," he continues, taking stock.
"For me, music should be experienced by everybody, and as soon as you go into one genre, you’re fucked. As soon as that genre is gone… who would ever have thought that people wouldn’t want to play rock and roll on the fucking radio anymore? It’s not played on the radio anymore! We have to bury guitars a little bit in the mixes in case they think we’re a rock band, because they’re not fucking playing rock on the radio anymore.
"Who would ever have thought that the NME would have had to close the magazine? And now they’ve moved online and they’re writing pieces about us there. Oh, you wouldn’t celebrate us in the magazine but the fact that we’ve got a massive footfall online, now we’re one of your massive home pages on NME.
"Like I said, I don’t mind. Once you get to a certain size, like any product, you split opinion. You really do. I think it’s a sign that we’re doing something right, that people do want to beat us. Those people who want to hate us, they can beat us with a stick, but I really believe that that would be 5%. I think the 95% of people in Ireland hold us on their shoulders and are incredibly proud of what we do. I get the sense when we walk through the streets and I go to pubs and bars - not one person says shit to me. Not one."
Of course not, because it’s not online.
"Exactly!" O'Donoghue exclaims. "Keyboard warriors. Even then, if you go on to our YouTube, it’s just people who are saying, ‘Thank god there are still people making music that means something’ and ‘Thank god you’re giving us a chorus we can sing’ instead of bleeps and blops and fucking all sorts of shit.
"It always sounds like if someone is saying to you, ‘Do you not think you’re getting the respect you deserve?’, it always feels like I’m asking for respect. I couldn’t give a fuck. I’ve never given a fuck about what some peon sitting in his room is writing about me, someone who is sitting there reviewing my records. Why are you reviewing my records? Have you sold a record? No. I should be reviewing my own records, because I’m the one who’s fucking selling records. They should get someone who’s actually written a song to review records."
A breath. A quick one.
"I’m not saying it’s unfair, because we get a great shake. But awards, plaudits, all those things, would be nice to get if you’re a young band, if you’re not already selling places out. We were nominated for two BRIT Awards in two years, then we got the third nod and I said, ‘Don’t nod us’. We don’t want the nods, give it to a younger band.
"Every year you get our footfall on your website, this kind of stuff. That brought a big change in me, when I stopped going to red carpets, when I stopped playing the game and doing that shit, because it’s a fucking game. Be under no illusions; it’s a big game."
"Every two years, something fucking devastating happens to our band."
A game not without its pitfalls.
The trappings of fame, for instance.
"The trappings of fame are alcohol, drugs, women," O'Donoghue notes, matter-of-factly.
"Anything you want, you can have. That’s the trappings of it. I feel a lot of artists are a little bit different to other people, they’re very prone to addictive personalities, very prone to drugs and alcohol, very prone to mental illness, very prone to delving fucking deep into something. As amazing as they can be onstage, using that to muster up 80,000 people, they can also do that with alcohol and have 80,000 people in a pub and you’re drinking and you’re going down.
"I’m very proud of our band that we don’t have those stories. We don’t have those Keith Moon stories with Glen [Power, drummer]. And I think that’s probably the perception - we get reviewed like a rock band; we’re not a rock band. We get reviewed by rock reviewers. We also keep our shit and our noses fucking clean, literally and figuratively. I don’t want anybody’s kid or my kid going, ‘I’d love to do what he does’. I want to be judged on the music and that’s it. Not my lifestyle.
"Everybody has a story about how they were fucked off their head on mushrooms and ecstasy and blah, blah, blah. I don’t want that said about me. I don’t want people to think that I’m off the rails, or that I’m this, that, and the other, or that anything I’ve said in my songs, I didn’t mean. Wholeheartedly, honestly and true. I’d look you in the eye and tell you."
There are other dangers.
In 2017, on the campaign trail for fifth album Freedom Child, O'Donoghue and Mark Sheehan sat down with Newsweek. The resulting interview provoked headlines, hysteria, and strange hilarity.
"THE SCRIPT: 'MUSICIANS AREN'T STANDING UP OVER TERRORISM... WHERE THE HELL IS BONO? JAY-Z? BEYONCÉ?'" ran the intro, job done instantly.
Speaking as sincerely as he has during this conversation, O'Donoghue elaborated on the record's title track.
"It came from Mark's side," he said. "His seven-year-old came up to him one day and asked, 'Dad, what's terrorism?' That's not a fucking easy thing to answer, no matter how old you are."
He would go on to state that the titans of the entertainment industry weren't doing enough to combat terrorism. Not that musicians aren't allowed get political or anything, but these full-throated declarations were akin to the time Westlife exile Brian McFadden called ISIS out for a scrap on Twitter. You'd be forgiven were you moved in the direction of a chuckle or two.
Two years on, O'Donoghue accepts the reaction. To a degree, at least. Ask him if he felt hard done by at the time and the response is as fast as it is forthright.
"No, I just feel like the people who wrote about that are fucking idiots," he exhales.
"Why would you think that we are U2? Why would you think that we are standing on this big pulpit, telling the world what to do? We were in America at the time and it was a journey for us to be able to turn around and be in there at that time. I spent 10 years living in America. I’m not saying I feel like it’s home, but I went from the age of 17 until I was 27; very formative years of my life.
"It’s not like I feel like I could say what’s going on there, but I feel entitled to at least comment on what was going on. I do see why, in retrospect, if the perception of us is of being a pop band, why would we be on a soapbox, telling people how to be? But I couldn’t help it at the time. We were in America, we were in with all these other producers and writers and we were trying to find where our relevance is in today’s world. Fifth album. We’ve already done four albums of heartbreak and going introspective, so we wanted to go outward.
"‘Divided States of America’, to us, was Mark going, ‘Well, United States of America / Divided States of America’ - brilliant! So, we wrote it and it ended up being a big stick where people who wanted to beat us had the perfect thing they wanted. But they were going to use whatever they could get their hands on, anyway. The people who were begrudging us then were begrudging us on the last album, for different reasons."
O'Donoghue may not vibe with the frequency of his detractors, but he is very much aware of it.
You wonder if the fight is a touch misplaced, especially going off on the dreaded 'you can't critique something unless you've done it yourself' ramble as he did earlier. It wasn't a good look when Lizzo and Lana Del Rey provided variations of it in recent months, and it's no more edifying here.
Still, you understand why artists may choose to meet slings and arrows in kind, not least when they believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt as O'Donoghue evidently does, that their life's work is of significant cultural and sentimental value.
Critical drubbings and a perceived lack of love can leave scars - "You guys lead the charge!" he would tell a room full of Irish press at a playback of Sunsets & Full Moons in mid-September, urging those in attendance to raise the country's creative citizens high. A nice thought, but a naive one that makes for a dangerous and disingenuous default.
As for O'Donoghue and The Script, the truth is that they are unlikely to radically rewrite their own, not while they continue down their established commercial and radio-friendly path. There's no real urgent reason to change, either. Arenas around the world continue to sell out. Devoted fans are legion. Streaming numbers scrape the sky. As the frontman sagely notes:
"I’m a white Irish guy, yeah? I’ve got 90 million views on a song I’m fucking rapping on!"
"Are you kidding me? Where else would you get it? Reviewers saying we take ourselves too seriously; fuck off, mate. You haven’t a clue. Haven’t a fucking clue. There’s a great saying - never argue with an idiot. Why? Because you’ll only lower yourself to their standards and they’re way more practiced at it than you are. You’ll always lose! I’m on some other shit. I know I am."
Again, he ain't kidding.
It seems like a full-time job just being Danny O'Donoghue. He's been through it, too, suffering personal losses that create their own ugly tabloid stories and recently disclosing that he lives with Wilson's disease, a rare blood disorder that requires daily upkeep.
"I believe in going to the well every single time we’ve been asked to, as with something devastating happening in your life; which has happened - every two years, something fucking devastating happens to our band," he explains.
"It’s incredible. To try and make sense of it is crazy, but to be in it, I feel like we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we don’t show, at least through our art, what is going on in our lives. Art is the only justification for pain that I’ve ever seen, the true justification for pain. I can only ever go to the well and go as deep down as I normally do, and take the ascendency into lunacy, over something happening.
"I went through a break-up last year. I lost my mum this year. Mark’s had a new baby this year, his third kid. There’s massive, seismic shifts happening to everybody, and where do we belong in this?"
In such respects, his palpable restlessness makes sense. You view him, high upon the precipice of life itself, beckoning it all on.
"I’m still trying to write the song that will save the world," he says, meaning each and every word anew.
"I’m still trying to write the song that’ll save me. I’m still trying to write the song that is the perfect pop song, to me, in a way.
"And the faraway hills, like they say, are always greener, but I’ve gotten to the other faraway hill and it’s just another fucking field!"
Sunsets & Full Moons is out on Friday 8 November.
The Script play the SSE Arena, Belfast on Tuesday 3 March, 2020, 3Arena, Dublin on Thursday 5, Friday 6 and Saturday 7 March, 2020 and Irish Independent Park, Cork on Tuesday 23 June, 2020.