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