In The Sapphires O’Dowd plays an Irish musician playing piano in Australia’s outback bars in exchange for beer money. His life is spiraling downward until he discovers a group made up of four of talented Indigenous Australian sisters. Trouble is, he doesn’t like the music they sing.
“When I met you,” he says in the film, “you were doing all country and western things and that’s fine, we all make mistakes.”
For O’Dowd that speech was art imitating life. “My dad played guitar in pubs playing country and western music,” he says. “So I feel like the whole speech I do about country and western music is something that has been pent up in me since I was 14. Carrying his guitar case to listen to bad Merle Haggard tracks.”
“Country and western music is huge in Ireland. I don’t know why. It’s all Kris Kristofferson and a bit of Willie Nelson and Clint Black. Dad was really into it. Maybe it’s that country and western has some origins in bluegrass and bluegrass has origins in Irish music. There’s something going on there. And Irish people love a good whine. We’re great at it.”
In the film he convinces the girls to trade country for soul music and shapes them into a version of The Supremes.
“I wrote this speech about how country music is about loss, but soul music is also about loss — you’ve lost but you haven’t given up — and that has a nice payoff in the film.
“Country music is kind of whiny,” he says. “He left me, now what am I going to do with my life? Whereas soul music is like, ‘I’m going to get that bugger back.’ It’s nice. It’s a nice turning point in the film where we’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves. That’s an important element for the entire story. About moving on.”
Thinking back on his teenage years, he speculates if his attitude might have been different if dear old dad had sung a different kind of music.
“I wonder if he had been an amazing Al Green-esque songster if I would have still said, ‘This is so lame.’ I wonder sometimes with people whose parents are cool. I’ve been working with Rashida Jones recently and I’m like, ‘How can you not think your dad is cool?’”