Declan o’Luasa is a multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter for solo-project Leftbank as well as member and main songwriter of Irish alt-rock band Rubyhorse. Declan speaks to Pana Markides about making it big from humble beginnings and getting George Harrison to collaborate on one of his songs. Leftbank’s album ‘The Sky On My Birthday’ is available now.
By The Hard Baroquer
Declan o’Luasa has had a long and storied career as a musician that has seemingly had it all. Before pursuing his solo project, Leftbank, the Cork, Ireland native was (and still is) also a member, and main songwriter of, Billboard-charting, alternative rock band Rubyhorse, one of a few Irish bands that cracked the US in the early 2000’s, appearing on Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and Good Morning America before the band went their separate ways in 2004. Rubyhorse is back together, but in the intervening time, o’Luasa returned to Ireland to focus on Leftbank.
Through his Leftbank project, which he records in his studio in Cork, Declan o’Luasa has so far released two albums: 2017’s ‘Why Can’t Man be More Like Animals’ and 2019’s ‘The Sky on my Birthday’ and a third is currently in the works.
Declan spoke with THB about what his career has taught him that he can pass on to the next generation of musicians, as well as how being in a band may pay the bills but a solo project is a vehicle for making the music you’d listen to yourself – especially if those influences include Tom Waits, Bob Dylan.
Tell our readers about your career so far, how Leftbank began and the musical projects you’ve been part of.
I’m a multi-instrumentalist/songwriter from Cork, Ireland. My solo project is called Leftbank and I was/still am also in a band called Rubyhorse.
Having been in a band for many years, Leftbank is my own vehicle for making the kind of music I would listen to myself. It’s interesting in that being in a band is all about compromise and solo projects have a certain freedom which can be a good and bad thing. Obviously, Rubyhorse has been far more successful from a commercial standpoint but as an artistic statement Leftbank is where my heart lies.
My career has been long and winding. I emigrated to the US with the band in the late 90’s, with nothing but a sleeping bag and a phone number. We slept on floors and couches for a year and a half and along the way got signed by Jimmy Iovine & Interscope after a lengthy major label bidding war.
We made a record that cost $400,000 that never came out, got dropped in the Industry shakeup, went on tour with Culture club and then got signed again by Island records, went to Nashville and made a great record with Jay Joyce (Patti Griffin, Cage the Elephant, Emmylou), that even featured George Harrison on slide guitar. We had a good run off that record, including a top 20 Billboard with Sparkle and appearances on Letterman and so forth. But then we got dropped again, got signed by an Indie and went back to Nashville and made our best record called ‘Goodbye to All That’.
I felt like I was coming into my own as a songwriter and was also starting to learn how to record and produce. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to make solo records and so I started the Leftbank project. It’s very liberating in that there are no rules or expectations and thus far I have put out two full lengths and working on the third.
It’s very liberating in that there are no rules or expectations and thus far I have put out two full lengths and working on the third.Declan o’Luasa, Leftbank
Your early career had humble beginnings – especially the move to the US. What made you make that move and how did you navigate the challenges of the move?
It was challenging to be sure. A band is like a gang really and you have to know that you can rely on your brothers/sisters. We arrived in Boston with nothing. We had cut the safety net, which we had to do and so it forced us to hustle. We did all kinds of things. We marched into WBCN and demanded to see the program controller. We blagged our way into all kinds of gigs and onto all kinds of bills. And mostly we worked really hard, practiced as much as we could and just played every outhouse, doghouse, henhouse that would have us.
We had cut the safety net, which we had to do and so it forced us to hustleDeclan o’Luasa, Leftbank
Drawing on your experience of career that’s spanned some 32 years now, what advice can you give to musicians and bands looking to make a living out of music?
I have a couple of key pieces of advice. The first is that you should not rely on anyone else to do anything for you. You have to keep your eye on every ball you have in the air. Try and make that direct connection with the fans because ultimately that’s the one that matters. Secondly, and this applies more so to younger artists, try and find someone like myself, older, who has been through it, to act as a mentor. We made some key mistakes early on which I think cost us real success and I think if we had had someone older, not necessarily a manager but just someone we trusted, who knew more than us, we would have made some slightly different decisions.
For example, when we signed with Interscope we went to LA and made a record when what we should have done was made a record in Fort Apache with our engineer who we had been working with all along and then just gone out on the road for a year.
I think if we had… just someone we trusted who knew more than us, we would have made some slightly different decisions.Declan o’Luasa, Leftbank
Which music artists are you most influenced by? How do you incorporate this influence into your songs?
My biggest influences these days are Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Crowded House and the sadly missed Sparklehorse. I don’t consciously incorporate, it’s more organic than that. More of a lyrical and musical tone and atmosphere.
You play all the instruments on Leftbank’s records. As a multi-instrumentalist, how do ensure you remain fluent in all the instruments you play? How does this impact your song writing process?
Playing all the instruments is both a blessing and a curse. I love having total control over the recording but at the same time I miss that magic that happens when several musicians play together in a room. In terms of the process, a song typically starts on one instrument and evolves from there. For instance, on the song When I’m Gone I was trying to get the bass tone from a Daniel Lanois song and it kind of sprung from there. It’s different every time.
I love having total control over the recording but at the same time I miss that magic that happens when several musicians play together in a room.Declan o’Luasa, Leftbank
What advice can you share about how other musicians can improve their playing?
Obviously, practice is important but there is no substitute for playing out and playing with other musicians in my opinion. A gig is worth hours of practice.
There is no substitute for playing out and playing with other musicians in my opinion. A gig is worth hours of practice.Declan o’Luasa, Leftbank
How do you navigate live performances as a solo act? What challenges do you need to navigate and how do you manage that?
When I play live, I typically bring an upright bass player and a girl called Marlene Enright who sings and plays the Fender Rhodes. I sometimes play some little loops from a laptop but I try and keep it simple. The songs take on a different life live anyway. Most musicians would tell you that.
Is there a track from any point in your career that you’re proudest of? Tell our readers the story…
Even though I am most proud of my work as a solo artist, I would have to say the song Punchdrunk that I wrote for Rubyhorse. The song itself is pretty cool, I like the lyric and the general vibe. But the main reason is that George Harrison played slide guitar on it.
We were recording in LA and a mutual friend was picking him up from the airport and happened to be playing a rough mix in the car. George asked who it was and a few days later called up and said he had this great guitar part for it and would we consider having him lay it down. We thought it was a joke at first. George was always my favourite Beatle. I talked to him on the phone and we sent him the track over Christmas and he recorded it at his house in England and sent it back to us with a lovely note which I still have. The part is just beautiful and makes a great dinner party story!
George [Harrison] asked who it was and a few days later called up and said he had this great guitar part for it and would we consider having him lay it down.Declan o’Luasa, Leftbank
What gig stands out from your whole career?
My first solo show was in a 2000-seat theatre. I had never sung on my own before and needed a couple of stiff Jamesons beforehand. It went great though and I floated off stage.
I also remember a show in the Metro in Chicago which is a wonderful venue and we took the roof off the place. The Warfield in San Francisco, The Troubadour in LA, Whelan’s in Dublin. There are so many. Every gig has a little moment of magic somewhere.
Our first ever show in the US was opening for Marky Ramone in the Living Room in Providence, Rhode Island. We were terrified of him and all he came saying was “come on ya fruitcake!”
Is there anything you’re working on or currently promoting?
I just put out ‘The Sky on my Birthday’ which is the second Leftbank record, so I am working that at the moment. I have been writing though and have another record in the pipeline. As regards Rubyhorse, we are putting out a new version of Punchdrunk which we recorded separately during the lockdown so that should be fun, featuring George of course.
Listen to Leftbank on
Follow Leftbank on