Villagers album details announced
Just 12 months ago, The Ticket tipped then little-known Conor O’Brien as one of the best 10 Irish acts around. Now, with his songwriting skills honed by experience and Villagers’ debut album in the bag, O’Brien is ready to take on the world, he tells Tony
The long-awaited album by Villagers, Becoming a Jackal, will be released on May 14th on digital download, vinyl and CD. The 11-track album will be preceded by a single, Becoming a Jackal, on April 17th (7-inch only for Record Store Day) and April 23rd (digital download). Conor O'Brien told The Ticket that the album was the culmination of three years’ work. “I feel like it’s scooped me out of my shell and left me squirming uncontrollably at the side of the street,” he said.
Villagers became the first Irish band to be signed to prestigious independent label Domino Records last year, after releasing an EP and 7-inch single on Dublin’s Any Other City label. They now count the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Cass McCombs, Wild Beasts and Franz Ferdinand amongst their labelmates.
Last April, O'Brien’s new project was ranked at number six on The Ticket’s 50 Best Irish Music Acts Right Now poll, and the young songwriter has also had acclaim from his peers: f Jape as “about the r to come from here”.
To accompany the album release, Villagers will play dates in Kilkenny (May 19th), Cork (May 20th), Galway (May 21st) and Dublin (May 22nd). They’ll also be supporting Wild Beasts on their Irish tour later this month. myspaee.com/ wearevillagers Lmurphy@irishtimes.com
‘INEED SILENCE, solitude. That’s the one prerequisite.”
You’ll be lucky, mate. Conor O’Brien has, unfortunately given his current status of possibly being the best-bet tip for crossover success in 2010, no more chance of achieving silence and solitude than your correspondent has of being picked for this year’s Mr Universe contest.
O’Brien, in his present guise of lead singer and main songwriter of Villagers, is poised for good things. It is not without justification. Through his initial work with Dublin band The Immediate (which abruptly split up just as the going was about to get so much better), his support work with Cathy Davey, and his latest endeavors with Villagers, O’Brien has steadily built up a fine reputation.
His schtick? Well, generally speaking, it’s all quite intense in a nervy, preppy, Talking Heads Psycho Killer kinda way. Off stage, O’Brien is incredibly polite, somewhat reserved, utterly attentive. On stage, he’s a mixture of thousand-yard-stare and focused therapist, picking out the words to his songs like a kid choosing sweets from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory: assiduously, full of concentration, but with no small level of excitement. It is no surprise whatsoever to discover that intelligent lyrics are central to his songwriting process.
“When I do the acoustic songs, especially in solo shows, I want the songs to stand up completely lyrically, or else it isn’t going to work. To play as quietly as I can and for the songs to be interesting – that’s the trick. That’s why I like lyrics. I also love arrangements, but I love twisting the two and making them work together. That’s my favourite thing in the world.”
What about his actual songwriting process – is it like drawing blood from a stone or something more eruptive? “It’s different every time, I guess. Each song is like a new project, so if you’re doing a storytelling song you might have to spend a long time focusing on that particular type of cerebral activity.
“Finding characters, layering the story – I like to do that a lot, I enjoy that kind of writing. Other writing can be more intuitive, more direct and emotional – sometimes they just come out faster. I don’t prefer one over the other. A lot of the time when I’m writing, I never complete the song I start out to write – I tend to get another song finished on the side. So that ends up as a song that was written while focusing on the song that never got written, if you follow. I don’t think you should be writing too consciously; it’s meant to be a surprise to yourself. There’s no point in doing it otherwise.”
O’Brien’s talent first came to light as a member of The Immediate, a highly rated Irish band whose debut album, In Towers & Clouds, was hot favourite to win the Choice Music Prize Album of the Year for 2006. The sudden split of the Irish band most likely to succeed (the official, if slightly glib, reason given was “existential differences”) caused ructions among their growing coterie of fans, if not consternation among some confused band members. But O’Brien carried on regardless, swiftly moving his talents across to Cathy Davey’s band (as well as contributing to her marvelous second album, Tales of Silversleeve) and spending time honing his own formidable songwriting. Cue Villagers.
It took about two years to settle into what he wanted Villagers to be, says O’Brien. He was on tour with Cathy Davey, writing all the time, and confesses to not knowing what he was going to do. “I put up some songs on the internet. I wasn’t planning on doing any solo shows, but then someone asked, and I thought, why not. It was, I suppose, at some level planned, but I don’t remember thinking too seriously about it. I always knew I was going to write songs, I just didn’t know what way they were going to be presented.”
with – well, I won’t name names . . . Domino probably get a shitload of money via the likes of Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand, but it seems to be that they use it right.”
By now, the debut album is done and dusted. At the time of this interview, there was still some fine-tuning to undertake. O’Brien talks about how, through the demoing process, he was still trying to pin down a particular sound.
“When I demo now I tend to get the sound first time around, because I’m starting to use certain arrangements, and it’s all the more cohesive. Searching for it was quite tough, though – sometimes we’d do up to eight versions of each song. But when I settled on them, and when we were making the album, it was all plain sailing. We could focus on the performance rather than the actual writing – all the work had been done.”
Searching for a sound? Is this as abstract as it seems? You can have the raw material, explains O’Brien, but that might not be the key. “There’s a certain thing about whether people will sit up and listen to the song – I mean, will they listen to me just because I’m singing about my feelings? Do they care? It’s all about creating context within the songs through the arrangements, having repeated imagery through the lyrics, using narrative tricks. That’s the fun part for me; it’s the part that I struggled with at the beginning of the process, but I feel I’m on top of that now.”
O’Brien is on top of quite a few things by this stage. Coming across like a busy bee on a diet of honey-coated vitamin pills (“Nerves? I don’t seem to be able to turn them on or off,” he offers) he has achieved more at 26 than many others twice that age. And yet, you know, he’s been through quite a lot, too.
“I remember being quite wide-eyed and excited about everything, and I’m a bit less of that now. I’m more private, I think; I’m also learning to control my nerves. That’s my big thing when I’m on stage. I feel really natural when I’m on stage, singing. But not so much when I’m talking, so I think I’ve learned to stay away from situations that I’m not comfortable with, and focus on situations where I am. Like, I wouldn’t be able to get up on stage and talk to people – no way. I couldn’t talk those lyrics in my song – let’s put it that way – yet I can sing them.”
Some people are Robbie Williams or Bono, and some are not. O’Brien is firmly in the latter category. “I find when you go to shows, sometimes you can get annoyed when you see the singer mouthing off. And yet sometimes it can be great, if they’re funny. I don’t think I’m particularly funny, so you won’t see me cracking jokes any time soon.”