Villagers - ‘I don’t feel I’ve reached my creative peak’

HOW DO you react to the most successful year of your career, one that has seen you showered with critical praise and more people than every buying your albums and coming to your shows?

“I also feel an ‘impostor syndrome’ about it. I don’t actually deserve all the praise that’s going around,” says Conor J O’Brien, the founder, leader, singer, and songwriter of Villagers. It may sound like a strange reaction, but it is keeping him looking forward and giving him the scope to write songs he believes are his best yet.

Judgment call

2013 has been a triumphant year for Villagers. January saw the release of {Awayland}, which enjoyed critical acclaim; went to No 1 in Ireland; reached the Top 20 in Britain; and was nominated for a Mercury Award. Now the year closes with a European tour, which takes in Galway in December.

“It has been a big year,” Conor tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. “It was cool to start the year releasing the album, it was a fresh start, but it was also a weird experience. I spent so long making the album and I was obsessive about it. It was only when it came out that I could see it, for the first time, for what it was, and playing the songs live was when they really started to make sense.”

{Awayland} was Villagers’ second Mercury Prize nomination, the band’s debut, the masterful Becoming A Jackal, also having been short-listed in 2010. Being short-listed is always an honour, but has two nominations and no win yet, left Conor with a feeling of ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’?

“I honestly didn’t feel disappointed about ‘losing it’,” he says. “I feel it is a good album, but I also feel an ‘impostor syndrome’ about it, that I don’t actually deserve all the praise going around. I don’t feel I’ve reached my creative peak. If I had won, my speech would probably have been a self-abusive string of words. I’m glad James Blake won. I’m glad an album that experimented and moved forwards won.”

Yet that verdict could easily have applied to {Awayland}. It would have been very easy for Conor to have made Becoming A Jackal Pt II as his follow-up, but instead he took the more difficult path, incorporating elements of electronica, avant-garde, and non-traditional song structures. For the artistic bravery of {Awayland}, Conor was rewarded with many rave reviews and his most commercially successful work to date.

“When I read reviews of the albums, positive or negative, I tend to agree with them, thinking ‘Yeah, I could have done that better’,” says Conor, “but really I only go by what I hear from people after shows or from friends. People have told me they love the first album and the new one came at too much of a different angle. Others thought the debut sounded like a moany folk singer, but {Awayland} they can to dance to, but people seem glad you’re trying different things.”

So what led Conor to embrace electronica with such gusto on {Awayland}?

“I’ve always tinkered with electronic music,” he says. “When I was younger I had a toy keyboard and I’d have fun with that. I plugged it into my brother’s delay pedal and made stuff go backwards and create all these weird sounds. When I was making the first album it was about the words, the lyrics, and I was listening to Leonard Cohen, Will Oldham, stuff that was bare and acoustic. Before {Awayland} I was listening to electronic music, good techno, and film soundtracks. I was interested in colour and texture, and things you can bite into more, and playing with words.”

Even if Conor concentrated less on lyrics for {Awayland} than on Becoming A Jackal, the poetic, narrative, arresting quality of his words remained undimmed, as on the single ‘Nothing Arrived’:

“Savanna scatters and the seabird sings/So why should we fear what travel brings?/What were we hoping to get out of this?/Some kind of momentary bliss?/I waited for Something, and Something died/So I waited for Nothing, and Nothing arrived.”

Indeed Conor cites the Anglo-American poet WH Auden as a major influence on his lyric writing.

“In college I came across John Ashbery, a post-modern writer who had written an essay about him,” says Conor. “That started me reading him. He wrote such beautiful poems about unrequited love, they break your heart, and it’s something we can relate to as everyone goes through that at some point in their life.”

Rhythm composer

Although proud of {Awayland}, Conor is not one to rest on his laurels.

“What I’m writing now is much better,” he declares. “Maybe that’s a psychological thing I need to think to be able to do it. I think it’s more lyrically direct and in your face. I’ve been listening to LCD Soundsystem’s Sound Of Silver and that made me go back and check out their influences, so the new music has some almost synth-pop moments, early seventies New York, and groovy beats.

“I think my place, and where I’m most articulate, is when I’m putting words into song. I’m not party political, I would be more socially political and I think it will be interesting for people to hear the new material. It’s more confrontational.”

Galway audiences will hear some of the fruits of Conor’s latest labours in the form of new song ‘Hot Scary Summer’. The song has a colourful origin and says a lot about the way Villagers have developed over the past five years.

Villagers began as Conor’s solo project after his previous band The Immediate called it a day. By the time of Becoming A Jackal he had a backing band, but Cormac Curran, Danny Snow, James Byrne, and Tommy McLaughlin are much more integral to the project now.

“We toured Becoming A Jackal so much that we became a band, and we’re better as a band,” says Conor. “We were recently in Tokyo and the road crew there were amazing in setting up the shows, so we learned how to say ‘Thank you’ in Japanese. It sounded like ‘Hot Scary Summer’, that’s how we remembered it.

“One night when we went back to the hotel we wrote the song inspired by that. It was so quick. Normally I’d do an arrangement and make a demo and spend a year messing with it. This time, the guys just played and did their own thing, and we used the first gig we played it at as our rehearsal. We feel it’s our strongest song yet. It’s helping free me from my OCD tendencies!”

When it comes to songwriting, Conor says there is no formula for how it’s done. “You kill yourself if you use a formula, that’s when you start writing duds.”

For the artist, everything and anything can be a source of inspiration, it is a matter of being open to it and knowing how to navigate the material that grabs your imagination.

“Sometimes the inspiration for songs is very visual, sometimes it’s sketchy,” says Conor. “I might draw something, or see a painting, other times it’s something that’s happened to you or a friend, or I saw on TV, it all mixes about in your head. The trick is to keep recording it, write it down, or, sing it into your phone as I do a lot when walking down the street. When I build up a huge amount of them I start playing with them and that’s the fun part.”

Villagers play a ‘Róisín Dubh presents...’ concert at Seapoint Ballroom on Saturday December 14 at 8pm. Support is from Jape and Crayonsmith. Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG, Shop Street (formerly Zhivago ), and The Róisín Dubh.

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