'I couldn't believe people had no problem with who I was'

Villagers' Conor J O'Brien on a year of personal and musical evolution

Villagers' Conor J O'Brien.

Villagers' Conor J O'Brien.

THERE IS no standing still in the world of Villagers' leader, vocalist, and songwriter Conor J O'Brien. The Ivor Novello winning, Mercury Prize nominated, artist has undergone a prolific last 18 months, releasing two albums and seeing his music evolve in new and different directions.

Yet the man himself does not think of all this in terms of how the rest of us see it - the continual flowering of a wonderful talent - he takes a more low key, modest, view, although it is clear he loves his work.

"I guess that's all I do really, play music and write songs," Conor tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. "When we're not touring, and even if we are, I'm getting new ideas, and recording things onto my phone. I might be working on stuff I've done previously, ideas that are maybe a few years old, that I left aside because they weren't right at the time, but that I come back to because they might fit now, or I see them in a different light. It's a cycle of stuff that comes back and forth. As a matter of fact we're making new recordings now. I love writing so much, I can't stop!"

April 2015 saw the release of Villager's third album Darling Arithmetic. A complete volte-face to the heavily layered, ambient/electronica influenced {Awayland}, Arithmetic was stripped back to the barest essentials of Conor and acoustic guitar, with minimal accompaniment, delivering his most intimately personal songs to date.

"I tend to trust my instincts," he says. "When I was writing the album, I discovered that the songs were revolving around much more personal themes and the music reflected the lyrics. There was a more intimate sound, like it was whispering in your ear - and not in a creepy way! I never really mould things too consciously, I just mould it until it's pleasing to the ear. With {Awayland} I was consciously moulding it for festivals, and I really wanted it to fit into that place. It did its job, but I tired of that and wanted the next album to be more intimate."

'I took a little time to be me'

That intimacy is reflected in Conor's admission that, "if you do a word count of the use of 'I' and 'me' in the songs on Darling Arithmetic it's a lot more than on any other album I've done, as I needed to sing about love, sex, sexuality, homophobia."

Conor felt that, in tacking these issues, he was "writing about something small", in that it was how these issues impacted on him personally, but instead the songs have become a mirror for many listeners lives, especially, 'Hot Scary Summer', and its arresting line: "All the pretty young homophobes looking out for a fight".

"I've received lovely letters from people," he says, "one was from a woman who was having difficulty with her son who was gay - not because he was gay, she wasn't worried about him, but she was worried for him. She was out walking with her dog and had her headphones on listening to 'Hot Scary Summer', and she said that song helped her work through things and realize that the world is changing.

"It's really, really, nice to get things like that. The support and reaction I've got from people has been extraordinary. I go to the merch desk a lot more after shows and people have been sharing their stories, about dealing with bigotry or romance and their love life. The songs have connected on a whole other level."

Villagers II

'Hot Scary Summer' captured a mood in the run up to the Marriage Equality referendum and Darling Arithmetic saw Conor feel comfortable with coming out publicly as a gay man. At his Electric Picnic concert last year, he told the audience that the resounding Yes vote in the referendum made him feel a fully accepted citizen in his own country.

"The Yes victory was everything to me!" he declares. "It's strange when you can finally feel comfortable in your own skin. I couldn't believe people had no problem with who I was. It had always been difficult to gauge."

While the man found the experience liberating, for the artist it is slightly different. "I've always felt a hum of bigotry since I was born and you have to normalize that in your head," he says. "I internalized it and made music from it. As a writer, after the referendum, I felt I'd lose the tension I was building my music on. You can get addicted in that Stockholm Syndrome way, thinking about what it could do to me as a writer - I'm still struggling with that one."

'I cannot control these ever changing ways'

Next week will see Conor and Villagers play the arts festival Big Top, and Galway has long been a good place for the band. "One of our first shows outside Dublin was Strange Brew at the Róisín Dubh," he says. "That was a blast. It was an amazing place to get to know the audience. We always have a great time when we're in Galway."

At the concert, audiences can expect Darling Arithmetic's songs to quite different from how they appear on the album. "We've fleshed out lots of the songs," he says, "there's lots of different interpretations and extending sections and grooves. The versions have changed even since we did the reinterpretation album. They're meta-reinterpretations! Hopefully we can surprise ourselves without it all becoming jazz."

Perhaps prog-rock is a better term? "We do use synthesizers," he says. "Prog-rock? I don't mind that."

That reinterpretation album was Where Have You Been All My Life?, featuring new arrangements of songs from Villagers' first three albums. Generally such releases are a stop-gap while the artist tries to find a new direction. Not so for Conor.

"While we were touring, we realized the songs were in a place they hadn't been before and we thought about getting them down before they changed again," he says. "Part of me wished we'd recorded them about six months later, changes in the set have turned them into something else again! There was no rehearsal with these. It was 'Let's just get it down in one take.' For me, it was about flexing a muscle."

Villagers blue

Given how Conor's music has evolved from {Awayland} to Darling Arithmetic to how his songs have been reinvented through the band's live shows, can Conor even predict what his next album will sound like?

"We're in the middle of making something quite 'golden' sounding, glistening, there'll be synths on it," he replies. "Again, I'm trying to keep it quite simple, for when you mix acoustic guitars with synths it can be quite jarring to the ear. I'm trying to marry the two. Some of the songs have fast tempos, I'm trying to make something to dance to."

Lyrically Conor says an emerging theme is having faith. "Not necessarily religious faith, but faith keeps popping up on a general level, but I haven't thought about why yet," he says. "Everything I'm writing about, in the news, there is a lot going on around the world that is basing itself on the idea of faith and not necessarily truthfully either, and there's a vacuum for me after songwriting of Darling Arithmetic and that will be filled quite nicely by writing an album around this theme. It's still very vague though, I'm still figuring it out."

Villagers, with special guest Mick Flannery play a 'Galway International Arts Festival/Róisín Dubh presents…' concert at the Big Top in the Fisheries Field on Tuesday July 19 at 7pm. Tickets are available from www.giaf.ie

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