We look back on Conor O’Brien’s Vil­lagers ca­reer and make a pitch for him to be our best pal

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - THE TAKE - LOUISE BRUTON

The Art of Pre­tend­ing to Swim, re­leased on Septem­ber 21st, 2018, is one of the best al­bums to be re­leased in Ire­land last year. The fifth al­bum by Vil­lagers, its re­lease also marks 10 years since Conor O’Brien be­gan mak­ing mu­sic un­der that name and in terms of longevity in the mu­sic in­dus­try and un­fail­ing tal­ent, 10 years is some­thing to cel­e­brate and what bet­ter way to cel­e­brate that hav­ing O’Brien down as our new VBF? The hon­our is all ours . . .

A crum­pled up ticket saved as a me­mento tells me that the very first head­lin­ing Vil­lagers gig was on Fe­bru­ary 21st, 2009 in the now closed (and soon to be turned into of­fices) Craw­daddy venue at the end of Har­court Street. As a for­mer mem­ber of The Im­me­di­ate, the four-piece in­die band that saw mem­bers David Hed­der­man, Peter Toomey, Barra Heavey and O’Brien play mu­si­cal chairs on­stage, tak­ing turns at singing, drum­ming and play­ing gui­tar or bass, O’Brien was al­ready known to a lot of mu­sic fans in Ire­land but not like this. Sit­ting at a piano, alone, O’Brien was shap­ing his soul on­stage through sen­si­tive and softly-hushed songs from his Hol­low Kind EP. And for a ten­ner, we saw the start of some­thing re­ally spe­cial.

In April 2009, sand­wiched be­tween Lisa Han­ni­gan and Róisín Mur­phy, The Ir­ish Times had Vil­lagers down as one of the 50 Ir­ish bands who would soon make it big. The prophe­cies turned out to be hella true. Now signed to Domino Records – the only Ir­ish act to be signed to the Bri­tish in­die la­bel – his de­but al­bum Be­com­ing A Jackal ar­rived in 2010 and even though it was just over a year since Hol­low Kind, the de­mand for more mu­sic from Vil­lagers made this al­bum a long-awaited al­bum.

O’Brien’s suc­cess as Vil­lagers wasn’t just home pride. His na­tional hero sta­tus was no­ticed from afar and per­for­mances on Later… With Jools Hol­land beck­oned, in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­vals booked him and sup­port slots with Griz­zly Bear and El­bow kept him busy up un­til the re­lease of his sec­ond al­bum Away­land in 2013. Like Be­com­ing A Jackal, Away­land was also nom­i­nated for a Choice Mu­sic Prize but it lost to James Blake’s Over­grown. How­ever, it reached the num­ber one po­si­tion in the Ir­ish mu­sic charts, sit­ting ahead of the Les Mis­er­ables sound­track, Ed Sheeran’s +, Emeli Sande’s Our Ver­sion of Events and Ri­hanna’s Un­apolo­getic. That’s quite the top five.

One month be­fore the 2015 mar­riage ref­er­en­dum in Ire­land, O’Brien re­leased Dar­ling Arith­metic, an al­bum that delves even deeper into his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences as a gay man. As vi­cious de­bates took place on prime­time Ir­ish TV and peo­ple went knock­ing on doors ask­ing for equal­ity, on Hot Scary Sum­mer, O’Brien sings “Thank you for your hard work but I’ve had it up to here, ’cause this shouldn’t be hard work. At least not the kind that makes us half a per­son, half a mon­ster”, cap­tur­ing the fraught end­ing of a re­la­tion­ship while re­flect­ing the pre-ref­er­en­dum tur­moil. Dar­ling Arith­metic wins the Ivor Novello Award for the Best Al­bum of 2016 and Ire­land votes yes for mar­riage equal­ity on May 22nd.

Go­ing for a big­ger sound, and wear­ing very dash­ing blaz­ers for ev­ery per­for­mance, The Art of Pre­tend­ing to Swim sees O’Brien fall into a more con­fi­dent role as a per­former. Al­ways an in­cred­i­ble mu­si­cian and song­writer, his live shows in 2018 con­tain a glim­mer of swag­ger and as he tours The Art of Pre­tend­ing to Swim, through reg­u­lar up­dates on his In­sta­gram, we can see him per­fect the art of learn­ing to play the flugel­horn. A man of many tal­ents, here’s to 10 more years of mu­sic.


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