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.
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.”
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.