The Great Leap For­wards

Af­ter decades feel­ing like an out­sider in his own city, Vil­lagers’ Conor O’Brien fi­nally feels at home in Dublin. On the eve of his break­through fourth al­bum, Rachel Aroesti joins him for a per­sonal tour of his lo­cal haunts.

Q (UK) - - Villagers -

It’s lunchtime in one of Dublin’s hip­per eat­ing es­tab­lish­ments, and Conor O’Brien is sit­ting at a ta­ble look­ing spooked. He’s just walked in to find that the only other cus­tomer in this par­tic­u­lar restau­rant on this par­tic­u­lar Tues­day hap­pens to be his one-time band­mate, James Byrne. “That’s so weird that he ap­peared,” he mar­vels, wear­ing an ex­pres­sion half­way be­tween amuse­ment and de­spair. “That’s what I love and hate about Dublin – it’s so small, but it’s also so fuck­ing small!” Once O’Brien has shrugged off the sur­prise, the chance en­counter leads to some rem­i­nisc­ing about the early days of Vil­lagers, the in­die-folk out­fit he founded pre­cisely a decade ago. It was a time when he re­lied on his band­mates – Byrne among them – to help him through a pe­riod of in­tense trauma. “I get emo­tional, he’s still such an amaz­ing close friend of mine,” O’Brien says, ges­tur­ing be­hind him into the dark of the café and look­ing like he might well up. “The band were very much my rock.” Af­ter re­leas­ing their gut-wrench­ingly gor­geous de­but Be­com­ing A Jackal in 2010, Vil­lagers were quickly cat­a­pulted into the in­die fir­ma­ment, win­ning crit­i­cal ac­claim and a Mer­cury Prize nom­i­na­tion. It spelled a kind of in­stan­ta­neous, wildest-dreams-style suc­cess for the group, but O’Brien wasn’t ex­actly in a po­si­tion to lux­u­ri­ate in the ego-boost. Around the time of the al­bum’s re­lease, his sis­ter died sud­denly. The Vil­lagers front­man de­scribes him­self as “a to­tal space cadet. I was spaced out for two years on tour. So that put a damp­ener on the whole ex­cite­ment of ‘Hey, I got four out of five!’” De­spite the sup­port of his friends, O’Brien’s ul­ti­mate re­sponse to his loss was to throw him­self ever deeper into the band’s sec­ond (and also Mer­cury-en­dorsed) al­bum Away­land. “I lost my mind a lit­tle bit dur­ing that sec­ond al­bum – I started drink­ing a lot and tak­ing steroids for my voice,” he re­mem­bers, nib­bling on a hu­mous toastie (much nicer than it sounds). He was pre­scribed the steroids by a “rock doc” be­fore a gig in Manch­ester. “I took them for the tour and I was wired through all those shows. My voice was per­fect be­cause my mus­cles were given this ex­tra strength, but by the end of the tour I was fucked. I got quite ag­gres­sive to­wards a lot of the band. Me ag­gres­sive isn’t ex­actly scary, I guess, but it’s still some­body scream­ing at you for no rea­son.”

It cer­tainly is hard to imag­ine O’Brien cut­ting a par­tic­u­larly fright­en­ing fig­ure, even with­stand­ing those chem­i­cally-en­gi­neered out­bursts. Small and in­sis­tently smi­ley, with pre­ma­turely salt-and-pep­pered hair (he turned 35 in Jan­uary), his face is dom­i­nated by huge soul­ful eyes that give him the look of a Byzan­tine Je­sus. But de­spite ra­di­at­ing harm­less­ness, O’Brien did ac­tu­ally start out try­ing to in­tim­i­date his au­di­ence at gigs. “I used to love singing as qui­etly as I could at gigs, so peo­ple would shut the fuck up and get awk­ward,” he ex­plains. “The feel­ing of awk­ward­ness in the room – I was ob­sessed with that.” Look­ing back, it’s some­thing he at­tributes to his own lack of self-con­fi­dence – a way of re­dress­ing the power im­bal­ance by mak­ing oth­ers feel as un­com­fort­able as he did. Nowa­days, O’Brien has changed tack rather sub­stan­tially. Vil­lagers’ soon-to-be-re­leased fourth al­bum, The Art Of Pre­tend­ing To Swim, is de­signed to get au­di­ences danc­ing un­self­con­sciously rather than star­ing at their shoes. It sees O’Brien meld his su­perla­tive acous­tic rock chops (en­dorsed by heavy­weights of the form, in­clud­ing Paul Weller and Elvis Costello) with soul­ful grooves drawn from gospel and old-school R&B. Af­ter years spent lis­ten­ing to artists like Al Green, Donny Hath­away and Roberta Flack, he re­alised how pre­cious a balm that strain of mid-cen­tury mu­sic was for his bat­tered brain. It led to him dab­bling in sam­pling for the first time – some­thing he was ini­tially un­sure about. “I was a lit­tle bit ret­i­cent about do­ing it, be­cause I’m re­ally aware of the cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion – the idea that you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ll just stick this part of this amaz­ing soul song in my song and sud­denly it will be soul­ful,’” he muses. “So I held off do­ing it for a while. Then I thought, ‘Fuck it, it’s what I want to do, let’s keep go­ing with this’, and it re­ally helped me write, tak­ing this fuck­ing amaz­ing mu­sic that you’re never go­ing to be able to make your­self and just al­low­ing it to colour your song in some way.” Suit­ably for an al­bum so in thrall to gospel mu­sic, The Art Of Pre­tend­ing To Swim grap­ples with the idea of faith (a phrase that acted as the al­bum’s work­ing ti­tle). Songs are suf­fused with al­lu­sions to heaven, hell, souls and God. It was a theme that proved cathar­tic. “It felt good to write the word ‘God’,” says O’Brien. “I al­most feel like it’s claim­ing it back from or­gan­ised re­li­gion. It’s just a fuck­ing word: it can be any­thing, it can be mu­sic, it can be flow, it can be a per­son.” O’Brien has more mo­ti­va­tion than most to want to strip the church of its power: grow­ing up in Ire­land, his child­hood was plagued by the spec­tre of Chris­tian­ity. As a six-year-old he be­came ob­sessed with pray­ing. “I thought I was go­ing to be a priest. Ev­ery night I would pray and name ev­ery­body that I knew, I’d be like mother, fa­ther, sis­ter, brother – every­one I knew at school,” he re­counts. “Then the cyn­i­cism kicks in when you’re 13 and you re­alise that your re­li­gion teacher is say­ing that you’re the spawn of Satan be­cause you’re fig­ur­ing out that you’re gay.” He sighs. “And he was the gayest per­son I’ve ever seen. Ob­vi­ously a re­pressed ho­mo­sex­ual. As an adult look­ing back, it’s quite sad.” Present-day Dublin is a very dif­fer­ent city to the one O’Brien grew up in. Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity was only de­crim­i­nalised in 1993 – but the past 25 years have seen Ire­land leapfrog over some of its more lib­eral peers when it comes to so­cial progress. In 2015, same-sex mar­riage was le­galised; this year Ire­land voted to re­peal the eighth amend­ment, which es­sen­tially out­lawed abor­tion. O’Brien is still reel­ing from the lat­ter. “You still see peo­ple wear­ing jumpers say­ing re­peal, and for me that’s al­most sym­bolic of not just re­peal­ing an amend­ment which doesn’t al­low women to have con­trol over their own bod­ies, but it also means re­peal the Catholic Church’s hold over so­ci­ety.” The re­cent ref­er­en­dums have rad­i­cally al­tered his feel­ings to­wards his home­land. “I fi­nally felt like I could em­brace the coun­try I grew up in. Even small things, like on pro­files on Twit­ter and MyS­pace, when it would ask you where you’re from, I used to say the world. I wouldn’t say Ire­land, be­cause I didn’t feel proud of be­ing from Ire­land, I felt per­son­ally re­jected.” As a teenager, O’Brien de­cided to re­turn the

“I used to love singing as qui­etly as I could at gigs so peo­ple would shut the fuck up and get awk­ward. The feel­ing of awk­ward­ness in the room – I was ob­sessed with that.”

com­pli­ment: spurned by so­ci­ety, he, in turn, shut him­self off from the out­side world. “I didn’t feel very wel­come, and the few times I tried to be wel­come, like hold­ing a boy’s hand or what­ever, I was screamed at and chased down the street.” Af­ter the pray­ing years ended, O’Brien found an­other ob­ses­sion in the form of song­writ­ing, re­treat­ing into a her­mit-like ex­is­tence for the rest of his ado­les­cence. “I’ve met friends and they’re like, ‘Where did you go for 10 years?’ I just stopped socialising and dis­ap­peared for a while. From the age of about 13 to 19, I just ba­si­cally stayed in, wrote fuck­loads of songs and tried to learn how to record on lit­tle four-track recorders.” His early com­po­si­tions were mainly in­spired by Green Day, Pink Floyd and Ra­dio­head – he cred­its the lat­ter’s nour­ish­ing out­sider per­spec­tive with “sav­ing his life com­pletely”.

Af­ter lunch, we cross the road to Dublin’s Na­tional Col­lege Of Art & De­sign. Now aban­doned for the hol­i­days, its wind­ing set of build­ings have been con­verted from a whiskey dis­tillery that dates back to the 1700s. Be­ing on the site of stu­dent he­do­nism (and al­co­hol pro­duc­tion) seems to bring out O’Brien’s re­bel­lious side – for the pho­tog­ra­pher’s ben­e­fit, he scales the de­funct dis­tillery ap­pa­ra­tus while singing Jackie Wil­son’s Higher And Higher in a pierc­ing falsetto. Once there, he chan­nels Mar­cel Marceau, a de­ci­sion prompted by his cur­rent ob­ses­sion with mime (he show­cased his skills in a re­cent Instagram post). In-be­tween shoots, he strolls round the court­yard wist­fully. O’Brien was ac­cepted at the col­lege af­ter school, but in­stead opted to study English and so­ci­ol­ogy at Univer­sity Col­lege Dublin (less teach­ing; more time for mu­sic). He did visit the art school dur­ing his univer­sity years, how­ever, to per­form gigs with his band The Im­me­di­ate on the out­door stage – which in the un­for­giv­ing light of day looks a lot like an over­sized brick step. The Im­me­di­ate were sup­posed to be a low-key stu­dent project, but they didn’t stay that way for long. In fact, they quickly tran­scended their univer­sity scene to be­come one of the most buzzed-about bands in Dublin in the mid-’ 00s. To the dis­may of the Ir­ish mu­sic press, it was a hype cut short by the group them­selves. “That band was never started with any in­ten­tions to be in any way pro­fes­sional, it was more like a soul broth­ers thing,” ex­plains O’Brien, who still seems be­mused by the whole ex­pe­ri­ence. “So when we started do­ing things like play­ing the me­dia awards in Dublin in front of about 10,000 peo­ple, we were just on­stage go­ing, ‘What are we do­ing? This is fuck­ing weird – this doesn’t feel right.’ It just ended be­cause the en­ergy wasn’t right any more, and we all knew that that part of our lives was over.”

We stroll over to O’Brien’s home, a du­plex apart­ment in the south­side of Dublin. Hav­ing spent the past 12 years liv­ing in what sounds like a hippy com­mune near the air­port, com­plete with an ad­ja­cent field of cows, his new pad has pro­vided some wel­come peace and quiet. It’s also af­forded him his own stu­dio, where he

“The cyn­i­cism kicks in when you’re 13 and you re­alise your re­li­gion teacher is say­ing you’re the spawn of Satan be­cause you’re fig­ur­ing out you’re gay. And he was the gayest per­son I’ve ever seen. Ob­vi­ously a re­pressed ho­mo­sex­ual.”

recorded the vast ma­jor­ity of The Art Of Pre­tend­ing To Swim. En route, he shows off the eclec­tic spoils of that day’s sec­ond-hand record shopping: there’s Mozart’s great­est hits, com­plete with amus­ingly psy­che­delic sleeve; Ir­ish show­band star Pat Lynch, look­ing ev­ery inch the sen­si­tive 1970s soul, and The Sound Of Mu­sic OST. “My sis­ter used to tor­ture me un­til we’d cre­ated a dance to it], that was my child­hood,” he grins. O’Brien’s apart­ment is com­pact but bright and airy, dot­ted with vin­tage mid-cen­tury fur­ni­ture and over­run by the sig­ni­fiers of a cre­ative mind. Fallen tow­ers of books sprawl un­der the win­dow sill, gui­tar cases hud­dle to­gether by the pi­ano and plec­trums spill across the ta­ble. There are scrawled notes ev­ery­where: chord pat­terns, setlists, a page de­tail­ing prospec­tive cover ver­sions. O’Brien puts Nilsson Sings New­man on the stereo and sets about mak­ing cups of tea, ex­plain­ing that most of the para­pher­na­lia is re­lated to Vil­lagers’ up­com­ing tour. For it, O’Brien had booked a lo­cal record­ing stu­dio to re­hearse in, owned by One Di­rec­tion’s Niall Ho­ran, but has now de­cided to can­cel af­ter a bet­ter op­tion pre­sented it­self – sub­stan­tially low­er­ing the po­ten­tial for a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween two of Ire­land’s most valu­able mu­si­cal ex­ports. As we climb the sway­ing white stair­case to his stu­dio, O’Brien re­peat­edly apol­o­gises for the mod­est mess. Up­stairs lies his prized col­lec­tion of vin­tage Roland synths – an 808 from 1980, a Juno from 1982 – as well as a piece of equip­ment given to him by techno bod James Holden, marked up with signs point­ing out the “crispier tubes”. O’Brien spent a lot of time up here get­ting “ob­sessed with songs I’ll never show any­one.” One such com­po­si­tion called Ma Salama, Ara­bic for good­bye, was about refugees trav­el­ling across the sea. “I went down a re­ally dark rab­bit hole with that and then I re­alised no­body needs to hear my take on that with some fuck­ing 808 go­ing on in the back­ground. That’s not go­ing to help the world right now,” he says shak­ing his head. “So I lost a cou­ple of weeks on that, it was like, ‘Ugh, what am I do­ing.’” What the pub­lic will hear, how­ever, is an LP that tem­pers O’Brien’s del­i­cately ex­pressed neu­roses with a cel­e­bra­tory streak – so much so that he’s cur­rently plot­ting a “weird chore­ographed dance sec­tion” for the band’s up­com­ing tour. Fu­elled by in­fec­tious, feel­good grooves, The Art Of Pre­tend­ing To Swim marks a new era in Vil­lagers’ evo­lu­tion – one that re­flects O’Brien’s true dis­po­si­tion; through­out our jaunt around Dublin he’s been a bas­tion of sweet­ness and light, easy-go­ing and ea­ger to en­ter­tain. It marks a heart­warm­ing de­vel­op­ment in a ca­reer that has seen the mu­si­cian wade through tragedy, un­ease and big­otry, to find him­self in a far friend­lier place: a mu­si­cal sphere shot through with joy and warmth, and an Ire­land he can fi­nally hold close to his heart.

“Ap­proach the world with cu­rios­ity and em­pa­thy. I learned that from watch­ing Queer Eye.”

Pho­tog­ra­phy: Michael Cle­ment

He does like to be be­side the sea­side: Vil­lagers, aka Conor O’Brien, July, Sandy­mount, Dublin, 2018.

Vi­sions of joanna: O’Brien waits for in­spi­ra­tion to strike, Dublin, 2018.

Off to a fly­ing start: with his first Mer­cury nom­i­na­tion, 2010.

The art of pre­tend­ing to sail: O’Brien, a man with hid­den depths, 2018.

The pluck of the Ir­ish: Vil­lagers on­stage at Bru­denell So­cial Club, Leeds, 3 Fe­bru­ary, 2016.

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