Conor O'Brien The Villagers

Villagers gig review and interview

Villagers gig review and interview

Villagers are taking their album “Where Have You Been All My Life?” on tour. The album was a selection of old and new songs recorded live in the studio. Same applies to the concerts on this tour. I had the opportunity to see one of the gigs in Düsseldorf, Germany, at the beautiful ZAKK centre.

Let me just say, grab the chance to see Villagers on this tour. You’ll get a great support act, the Ye Vagabonds, a beautiful ascending set of Villagers’ songs showing off, deservedly, just how accomplished they are as musicians based on synthesizers, fluegelhorn, harp (!), drums, double bass and acoustic guitar.

For a show that is perfect to a tee, it exuded a lot of warmth and spirit – and no, you just have to go there. It was masterful!

Of course, I had to disturb the awestruck and respectful silence of the majority of the audience vehemently for a minute or two (sorry, but it did help!) to give out to the minority of the audience who were chatting non-stop, really, really annoying. They might need no harm, but you have to ask yourself, why not save yourself the effort and the others the pain, when you want to chat to your friends and discuss the music with the music in the background, and just stay at home and put a record on.

So, there, that said, I will now invite you to read the interview that Conor O’Brien kindly gave me for this blog and the radio shows on www.novumfm.de and www.byte.fm. A nicer man hardly ever has treaded this earth!

The Villagers

Here goes:

Offbeat Music:
Thank you, Conor, for taking the time for an interview. Let’s get straight into that. What was your upbringing like? Was there a lot of music in the house?

Conor O’Brien:
There was, mainly classic jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald or Nina Simone, lots of Frank Sinatra. My Dad’s obsessed with Frank Sinatra. And my brothers and sisters were playing lots of music and I was the youngest, so I was always hearing these different areas of music, slowly becoming greatly obsessed with it. So, definitely lots of music.

OM:
Some people get deeper into music as kind of rebellion when they are teenagers. Obviously not, when the parents listen to nice stuff. Did you have to rebel or did you have a supportive family when you said you are going to do music?

Conor:
They were very supportive. It’s a very boring answer. It was very easy for me (laughs). Basically my brother gave me his guitar to use and I was kind of left alone, to my own devices a lot which was nice because I was really obsessed with making visual art as well, painting. So I did for years, probably didn’t get out of the house enough. My parents supported me. It was a perfect childhood really.

OM:
After school, did you get straight into making music?

Conor:
After school? I went to college and I did English & Sociology for three years but then I was writing the whole time and started a band. I was in a band called The Immediate. We were playing around Ireland and a bit of the UK and a little bit of France. That ended and I became a guitar player for a girl called Cathy Davey and that was the first time I was starting getting paid, having money for making music. I couldn’t believe it, incredible. I worked on the first Villagers album while I was touring with her round Ireland and the UK.

OM:
The approach to your four albums so far has always been a different one, so it seems. Could you shortly take us through the albums without simplifying it too much on your approach to them (whether intentionally or not)?

Conor:
I think with all of the albums, I never went into them with a very locked specific idea of what I wanted. Each of them had a different method. The first album (Becoming A Jackall) was quite…there were a lot of pre-written notes and words and almost poem-like sections in my notebooks and so I had a big backlog of stuff. The actual making of the album was almost like putting all these things together like in a jigsaw puzzle, trying to figure out what is the most coherent way to piece together these previously made things.
With the second album ({Awayland}), a lot more stuff had to be written closer to the time of it being recorded. There was a lot more fight or flight syndrome, you have to get it down and it has to work which was really interesting. It meant 15-hour days for a few months just focussing. I was trying to learn to produce as well and make electronic sounds and also write words and figure out how to make that into a narrative for a folk band type thing. And mix that with experimentations of sounds. It succeeded sometimes and it failed at other times.
For the third album (Darling Arithmetic) , I just decided to write the most intimate, something that no filter on it really. I got rid of the filter and wrote the first things that came out of my notebook. The music reflected that as well because it was more stripped and bare. So that was a really different feeling, a different atmosphere. I then decided for the first time to use my homerecordings as the actual finished product which was interesting as well because they are a little imperfect.
And then this new one was recorded in one day with the band. So it’s basically a session album. We mixed it the next day. That was pretty quick.

OM: Coming back to “Darling Arithmetic): That kind of was a breaking point for you in terms of writing more personal stuff and opening up and also technically (even when not intentionally). You virtually took the demos as the final product. What did your management or your label think about this?

Conor:
They were actually very supportive. It meant, it is quick and it is delivered. They liked the way it sounded. They could probably hear that it couldn’t be forced into a pop mould. They are smart in that way. I didn’t have any resistance at all. In fact, with the last record before, the was a suggestion from one of the guys from the label that perhaps there was almost too much production going on and I should try and relax on that a little bit. I kind of agreed with that. They are supportive, like my parents (laughs).

OM:
When you were doing that, was it a cathartic experience, releasing something or was it more painful?

Conor:
Oh, lots of different emotions, I think. The album deals with so many different things which are beautiful but also painful. There is a song just about the beginning of a relationship and love. And then there are songs about the opposite side, the end. Songs about bigotry and homophobia. I was waiting until I was good enough a writer to try and deal with these things in a non-crass way or a tacky way. I wanted it to be simple to a point but sometimes that can translate to maybe naïve or …There is a fine line between simplicity and…

OM:
Being superficial or clichéd?

Conor.
Yeah, clichéd or not really giving enough credence to the depth of the emotions that you are trying to portray. That was interesting. But there were a lot of emotions. I did it over a period of eight months. The recording was about eight months in my house, so every day and I was mostly alone (laughs). It got very strange. But it was cool. I like it.

OM:
So, on the one hand you really opened up and got personal. On the other, you wanted to leave a little space for listeners to find themselves in a song, so not like: Here’s the message and that’s how you are receiving it? How difficult is that, to find that balance? To say something about yourself and at the same time to leave it abstract.

Conor:
I don’t know. It’s a weird one because I don’t know how important it is and I might have even changed my opinion on it in the last few weeks even. It’s a cultural thing. It is a very Irish thing to perhaps not talk very openly about your emotions. Or, if you are doing it, the initial communication from you will be something that will be instantly open and cheery. But it will take a while. When you are in Germany, people will instantly say what they want or what they feel or what they mean. (Doubtful look from OM). Not necessarily all the time. There is definite linguistic there. When people communicate and they are like “I do not like that”, “I do not want that” whereas in Ireland you’d say: “I wouldn’t be liking that maybe.”
OM:
Like the word “No” does not exist in the Irish language?

Conor:
Exactly. And you can’t really say “no”, it’s really rude. You feel really bad.

OM:
Or you’re asked “How are you?” and you are expected to say “I’m grand”. In Germany, you’d say “I’m shitty” and if you tried that in Ireland, people would look at you shocked.

Conor:
Yeah! It is seen as a confrontational thing in Ireland to suggest something negative straightaway. So, there are layers to break through. Maybe some of my writing suffered from that a little bit or perhaps there is a way of using that. I don’t know, I am trying to understand whether I really believe in what I said or noticed in the interviews for this (chuckles).

OM:
I talked to Siv Jakobsen, a Norwegian singer-songwriter the other day and she said she does not want to spell everything out too much but to create an atmosphere with the music, the words and the voice and even images to leave things a bit open for the listener to see themselves in the music. Is that where you’re coming from?

Conor:
That’s important. The song is only completed by the listener. Knowing that as a writer is a really interesting thing to play with. There’s something to be said for enigma a little bit. Letting someone use their imagination which is a beautiful thing. Art can only really do that. You’re not like selling a hamburger to someone.

OM:
When you sit down and write a song – some people are obviously aiming at commercial success or looking at how to perform a song or how is this going to land with listener – how do you do that? Do you just write for yourself first?

Conor:
With “Darling Arithmetic” I wrote exactly what I wanted to write, in the room I was in, on my own. I was not thinking about being on a festival stage or whatever. With the last album I was totally thinking about that. I was focussed You can hear that in the way it sounds. There is a lot to be said for both of these methods. You can use all that in different ways. I am even mixing them. It’s a funny one – I keep changing my opinion about it as well (laughs). I started to make a lot of sequenced music again, electronic music. A lot of that is just based on how you feel when your body is moving to it which I want to try and get back to a little bit. I am getting obsessed with harmonies too.

OM:
How did you pick the songs that got a rework on “Where Have You Been All My Life?”

Conor:
How did we chose them? It was just what we were doing at the time on tour. We were in the middle of touring. It was quite funny though, a lot of the songs are not hugely different. It is just a different band playing the song. Since we have recorded this album, we’ve changed them for this tour. We are promoting the album, but they are different versions again. They are re-imagined versions now that we are playing. We feel like we should be going back to the studio and re-record the album…but probably not. It is time to move on.

OM:
Is there a song you cannot identify with anymore?

Conor:
There are songs that I cannot really identify with. But I don’t see that as …there are songs where I feel, I was dishonest in them. But of me goes: Cool, you’re exploring dishonesty. I don’t see it as illegitimate suddenly. I like seeing art as everything you do in art being legitimate. You can put everything out there. There’s always a way of changing it or singing it in a different cadence where you realise you are connecting with it again.
There is a song “Greatful Song” on ‘{Awayland}’ which kind of annoys me. I was reading lots of atheist literature at the time. About a year later, I was: I don’t even care about that anymore. I was just writing something based on what I was reading at the time. I do not care about that stuff anymore. I does not mean anything to me. That’s cool. Photo albums always have embarrassing haircuts in them. Villagers videos have embarrassing haircuts in them. The bowl-haircut (laughs).

OM:
What is the best song you have ever written?

Conor:
Oooooh….phew…..oh god, I dunno….och, I can’t answer that….depends on what you enjoy performing at the moment really. Last night the best song was…what WAS the best song last night…maybe ‘The Soul Serene’. I really enjoy that because it has a lot of space in it. Maybe that one.

OM:
It said somewhere you enjoy travelling and you are home wherever you lay your head and then that you regard Dublin as your home. What inspires you more? The travelling bit or the being at home and digesting bit?

Conor:
All of it feeds in. When you are touring you take a lot of notes on your phone and when you get home, you get time to close the door and figure it all out. It’s all part of the process really. This is probably my favourite tour we’ve ever done. Wouldn’t have said that two years ago – I was more of a home bird two years ago but now I am really excited about travelling and bringing these shows. They are the best shows we have done, I think, ever. That’s exciting – I am enjoying that a lot.

OM:
So, what can we expect tonight? What’s going to happen?

Conor:
Er…..laughs….Magic…It’ll be magical. There will be a sort of evolving energy to the show. It’s not as much as a one-note show as the Darling Arithmetic tour was. Then, we even brought like a house lamp on stage. We wanted it to feel like a living-room and everyone to sit down whereas this show – it builds a little bit. It gets quite full-on towards the end. It’s a gradual kind of thing in this show with a release right at the end.

OM:
Sounds good.

Conor:
I am better at doing it than talking about it.

OM:
Is there someone you would really really like to collaborate with, maybe not in songwriting (difficult) but performing?
Conor:
Oh…I dunno….performing?…hm….I am trying to get the guys from “Ye Vagabonds” who are opening for us up. Maybe tonight. We are going to see if it works. So then…(Laughs). I don’t know who else really. I had the idea of stretching my musical horizon a little bit. I am going to have a little jam with my friend Meike who comes to Dublin. She is in this musical collective orchestra called “Stargaze”. We have done stuff with her before. But I just spent a day in her apartment the other day – she has this old Indian instrument called the Bulbul Tarang. She was playing her bass flute and I was learning this instrument. It’s amazing. She is going to bring it to Dublin and we are going to record something and I might make loops out of it.
I want to focus on people who are close to me, friends that I know, rather than a Kendrick Lamar really. Although, that’ll be pretty cool as well. If you are listening Kendrick, I am ready for you!

OM:
Everyone seems to love Kendrick Lamar…final question: In how far do you think your country has influenced who you are?

Conor:
It has a lot but I think it’s only been in the last couple of years, I would even believe that. It is very engrained. I did not grow up in the folk scene. But the more you travel around the world, you more you realise how much music is everywhere, in Dublin and in Ireland. You can’t really walk out the door without someone playing guitar in the street. So that of course influences you a lot.
But some of the other aspects of Ireland, negative and positive…I dunno…

OM:
It being an island?

Conor:
It being an island, yeah. I’ve been thinking about that recently, the psychology of that. If you haven’t left it. There is real sense of community amongst musicians in Ireland which is perhaps unique to Ireland. Maybe?

OM:
I had mentioned Siv Jakobsen and she is said that it is the same in Norway, also sparsely populated, also a folk tradition and people stick together.

Conor:
Yeah, yeah…right…

OM:
Thank you very much Conor;

Conor:
Cheers, thank you!

Published by

Alice

Host of Offbeat on novum FM and Kaleidoskop on ByteFM