Search icon

Music

18th Oct 2018

Head Above Water – a conversation with Conor O’Brien of Villagers

Dave Hanratty

Villagers Summers Song

The man behind Villagers on making the Irish album of the year and shutting off from the world while creating new ones.

The pub, conveniently sandwiched between points A and B, is probably just the right level of busy for a Friday afternoon.

Horse racing flails from one television, football from some nondescript European league on another, the low rumble of commentary from both bleeding into one indistinctive blur. Sun glints through the window.

It’s nice, in a ‘wouldn’t make a habit of it’ sort of way.

Conor J. O’Brien has a busy itinerary, his appointment with JOE just the latest in a string of media commitments that will ultimately stretch across a month before all is said and done.

It’s release day for The Art of Pretending to Swim, album number four in the Villagers canon and handily one of the finest Irish releases of 2018.

On this day, Conor will enjoy a headline appearance as part of RTÉ Culture Night, as well as the small matter of an intimate record store performance.

A week later, he’ll grace the stage of The Late Late Show. The following month, Jools Holland will come calling. In between that, a secret show at the National Concert Hall for the hardcores.

A pleasingly busy time for an artist who continues to flourish, having seemingly began in something of an upward trajectory.

O’Brien’s first shot in musical anger was found amongst The Immediate, a short-lived collective of friends that produced a pair of EPs and one full-length effort – 2006’s In Towers and Clouds – that remains quite beloved by many some 12 years on.

“We were just dreaming all the time,” O’Brien muses now, looking back ever so briefly.

A stint as part of Cathy Davey’s band followed, but he was always going to strike out on his own.

And so it was that Villagers arrived in late 2008, armed with a handful of songs and a couple of rehearsals prior to their first gig.

As it was then, as it is now, O’Brien led from the front, his backing band ultimately interchangeable over the course of the journey.

Comparisons to Cohen and various other dark folk wanderers became commonplace, as did awards and acclaim.

2010 debut Becoming a Jackal picked up an Ivor Novello award for its title track, later joined by an album gong from the same institution for third record Darling Arithmetic. In between, the captivating {Awayland} took home the Choice Music Prize. O’Brien dressed like a mime on that big night in Dublin.

Over the course of four records, he has crafted and curated entire worlds. A little older now – grey hair suits him, though he’ll never not appear somewhat youthful – O’Brien has begun to extend more welcoming invitations to those who want in.

Two glasses of whiskey and one ginger ale hit the table. We’re off to the races.

JOE: Is that your go-to interview drink?

Conor O’Brien: Well, [laughs], if it was, I would be quite the alcoholic, so I try not to. Especially with the amount of interviews I’ve done in the past two weeks.

Are you exhausted?

I actually feel alright. I just did a German promo trip, which I’ve never done before, it was kind of wild. It was great, though, just travelling around Germany with one guy from the record label, taking four-hour train rides in between to radio stations and so on. It was cool to get outside of Berlin and see different parts of Bavaria.

There’s something kind of romantic about the train, isn’t there?

Totally, I agree. I really like trains. They’re my favourite form of transport.

Are you much of a public transporter?

No, I cycle now. Since I moved into Dublin I’ve started cycling a lot more, which is kind of strange. I don’t know why I didn’t when I was in Malahide.

I find Dublin absolutely terrifying to cycle within.

I’m one of those cyclists who instead of putting my hand out, I’ll go with the pedestrians and end up walking across the street with my bike. It’s fucking terrible.

I was in Amsterdam during the summer. Dangerous when you’re on foot.

Yeah, because they don’t expect you to be on their lane.

I tweeted about there being more bikes than people in Amsterdam, and then panicked because I figured that was offensive, so I deleted it immediately.

I did a ‘delete’ last night. I was in Munich airport and I did a tweet where I was just talking about the weirdness of the situation.

This security lady was holding my guitar capo and saying, ‘What is this?’ and before she asked what it was, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s for a guitar’ and then she went, ‘Well, I wouldn’t know about that, I’m just a woman and I only know about cosmetics’ and I just went, ‘Ha ha… feminism?’ and she laughed awkwardly and didn’t quite know why I said it.

We just laughed awkwardly about it. Then I tweeted about it, and in so many characters on a page does that look like I’m saying something about women in Munich or something? So I deleted it.

‘What point am I trying to make here?’

My whole point was, ‘Isn’t that weird?’ but then I deleted it. What’s the point in telling the world about my weird little airport story?

How do you find being Villagers the artist versus Conor the person on Twitter?

I don’t use it as much for saying things that aren’t Villagers-related. I wouldn’t be like, ‘Here’s my dinner on my holiday’, you know? I don’t really see the point in that.

And I don’t know if that’s very mentally good. When you’re on holidays having dinner, you should be in the moment.

Is it mentally good to pay attention to press? Your reviews have all been pretty strong…

Not all of them. I’ve read some very bad ones.

How do you react to that?

I just usually agree with all of it. I think they’re right when they’re criticising it a lot, and then I think they’re right when they’re saying it’s the greatest thing in the world. I just agree with all of it! I don’t have any problem with people giving their opinion.

It’s slightly annoying when it’s lazy and you can tell that they actually haven’t really listened to it. That’s annoying, but I don’t mind if people don’t like it.

Critics can go down blind alleys.

What I find really interesting and weird, and I’ve noticed it even more since I’ve started thinking about it; every time a review references a lyric or quotes a lyric, no joke, about 90% of the time they get it wrong, which I find bizarre.

If you’re going to choose one particular lyric to quote, it’s only one sentence. You can find it online or whatever! I find it so weird. Even really good reviews, they’ll talk about how amazing this lyric is, but it’s not what I wrote.

You’re hardly indecipherable.

In fact, I over-pronounce, quite often. I’ve tried not to do that so much recently.

When someone has a specific interpretation, and they put so much of themselves into that but are just flat-out wide of the mark, are you ever tempted to tell them?

Not really. Interpretations are great, because I don’t know literally what I am writing about. I’m just closing my eyes and squeezing the songs out, it’s all feelings-based.

Interpretations can sometimes teach me things about a way that maybe I hadn’t seen before – ‘Ah, that is what I’m saying’ – but what I do feel, sometimes, is that lazy reviewers and journalists assume that I wanted to do something with a song, when I know for a fact that I didn’t. I was writing that song for a completely different reason.

If they write things like, ‘Well, in this song he’s obviously trying to do this, but he fails’ and it’s like, I ‘failed’ because I wasn’t trying to do that kind of thing. That aspect is kind of weird and a little bit annoying, but everything else is fine.

Darling Arithmetic was the album that got me properly into Villagers. Having gone back, I now see the progression, the wider picture. Has evasiveness been replaced by elusiveness?

That album and The Art of Pretending to Swim are in a very similar place.

Even if they sound quite different, there is a similarity in terms of how they flow and how they hold on to grooves. They’re not quite as jittery as the previous albums which were more high anxiety and the representation of a quite addled kind of brain.

These ones are more about trying to hold onto a feeling and to let the listener in, I guess. There’s definitely a little more thought as to how it will make a person move, and how people are going to enjoy it in a really simple entertaining way, as opposed to just using purely as therapy. That can have mixed results.

Have you ever fully surrendered to your work as a direct form of therapy?

I think that’s mostly what I do with it. That’s why I make music a lot of the time.

Therapy is so weirdly and wonderfully personal.

I read your piece. I thought it was really cool.

That was a month on the page, a month in my head.

That was intense.

People have said nice things, but I’d honestly be more comfortable having a conversation with someone critiquing it.

[Laughs] No, no. It connected a lot with me.

With the new album, I got less a sense of agitation – I mean, there’s a bit of that, because there probably always will be with the music that you make…

Because… life!

It’s a very natural sounding thing, though. I love the refrain on ‘Real Go Getter’. It works on a surface level, but I hear a spike there, too.

The idea behind that one is that it’s almost like some form of internal pep talk. You’re not really sure if the singer really means it, or if they are saying it in order to get there.

At the end of the song, it all breaks apart and it’s like the person head is in shrapnel and pieces. I was trying to bring that aspect out, where you’re not really sure how reliable the narrator is.

How reliable of a narrator have you been over the four albums, would you say?

I sort of skirt a lot of narrative techniques. I’m not exactly doing the Randy Newman thing of playing characters, but I kind of am, sometimes. I’ve never really nailed my… what’s the expression? Sail to the mast?

Colours to the mast?

My colours to the mast? I’ve never really nailed my colours to the sail on the mast, as I’m pretending to swim. I just feel like I’m skirting lots of things and sometimes it fails, and sometimes it doesn’t.

With all of the music that I’ve made, even if I feel proud of it or not proud of it, and if I feel awkward about it listening back, it all came from a genuine place, a soulful place. Regardless of whether or not I succeeded, for me they are documents of where I was at the time.

With lyrics, I think we take artists as both the person and a character simultaneously, but I guess the blur of that can be confusing. Are you mindful of keeping that in check?

Not when I’m singing, because you’re fully in the moment. All the other parts of the promotional world… I’m not the most extroverted, I’m not doing it for the reasons that maybe some other people might be doing it. There’s definitely a lot of tension and clashes when you’re a few weeks into the promo run and you’re thinking, ‘What am I doing? This isn’t me, I should be the bass player’.

It’s a funny one. How the self interacts with society is always a confusing and tension-filled world. That’s magnified by what I’m doing where it’s like, here’s something that I’ve worked on for two years, obsessively, and now I have to leave my little hovel and show it to everybody.

It’s a very strange pattern, if you look over the course of a few years. I’m not always comfortable with it, but I’m obsessed with it so I can’t help it! It’s a problem.

Does talking about it ease the problem?

Mostly it’s positive. Mostly I’m just super-buzzed. I’ve done all of the rehearsals with the band and I can tell that the gigs are going to be properly awesome and exciting. We’re enjoying it so much as a group and we’re going to be playing bigger rooms this time around. Mostly excited, but it’s always tinged with, ‘I’m an introverted person, go away everybody! I want to read my book, and tweet about reading my book.’

You recently spoke about your old band The Immediate, saying that you were never supposed to find yourselves on the stages that you set foot on.

We were just dreaming all the time. We weren’t really thinking about that.

Does the stage feel like home now?

Yeah. I think because I had the two years after The Immediate where I was playing guitar with Cathy [Davey] and in those two years I wrote the first album and it really was like, ‘This is it, I’m going to do this and I’m going to tour and I’m going to sing these songs’.

That was a decision. I decided. And then you bring out the first EP and next thing you know you’re playing in front of six thousand people before Tracy Chapman… in Nantes. That was weird.

Does it ever stop being a bit scary?

Life?

We can go there. But first, stepping onto a stage in front of thousands.

I actually find that quite easy a lot of the time. I find things like Tower Records in-stores a bit more terrifying, where it’s almost like a little party and you’re the host and you can see everyone’s faces. That’s a little more terrifying. I hate hosting parties!

The bigger the audience gets, I find it easier to take it all in. It changes the way that you interact with whoever you’re playing to. Maybe it makes it more abstract, so you close your eyes and get into it yourself, and the more you do that, the more they go with you.

How about that whole life thing, eh?

Oh, life, as Des’ree said. What is it, ‘I want a piece of toast?’

“I don’t want to see a ghost / It’s a sight that I fear most / I’d rather have a piece of toast / And watch the evening news.”

Yeah, see, I wouldn’t trust her. I don’t know, that’s a very wide question.

It is. I’m in my mid-30’s now…

Snap.

Some people have this, ‘Oh, it’s all downhill from 30…’ thing and I’m not saying that it is or that it isn’t, but I do have this… ‘Shouldn’t I feel a bit wiser?’ feeling. A bit more accomplished?

Something will just click one day. ‘Oh! I’m wise now.’

Everyone’s just winging it. When you’re a kid and you think your parents have all the answers, and one day you realise…

They didn’t, either. It was all a lie.

Existential crisis, basically, is what I’m saying. How do you keep that at bay?

By making art, baby. I actually always wanted to be middle-aged, ever since I was very young.

I don’t know what it was, I had this obsession about being in my forties and I knew I would have everything sorted. We’re not there yet, though. Maybe it does happen? As soon as you turn 40, it just clicks.

Is it a weird time to be making art? It’s a healthy period for Irish music, but artists are struggling to keep a roof over their head.

Well, it’s impossible to live in Dublin if you’re not rich. So, that’s a problem. Being a musician and artist, all of my friends are in the ‘not rich’ bracket, because they are all creative types, as well. The problem with it is that artists are crafty little bastards, and no matter what is going on they will still make their art.

That makes it less difficult for the people on top to go, ‘Oh shit, there’s no culture anymore, we better change the system’, because everyone is always finding ways to do things, which is really inspiring at the same time. It’s a weird one.

I wonder, as I did with that piece during the summer, if we take musicians for granted. He’s fine. She’s grand. They’re okay. Don’t worry about them.

Totally. There’s a hell of a lot of work, and it’s not something that can be taken for granted. On the other side of the scale, artists need to know that they need to put the fucking work in in order to get anywhere with it. That also needs to be said.

I literally give up my life for a while when I’m making albums. I just disappear and sometimes don’t leave my apartment for three days if I’m on a buzz. Maybe that’s part of why I’m able to do it.

That sounds very romantic. Is it?

Oh god, it’s just smelly and a bit gross! I mean, I do the washing and all that.

The idea of shutting off from the world does have a charm to it.

It does. It’s not good for you so much though, either. You have to be careful about it, because it is quite natural, for me, to do it. I don’t why, it just always has been. In the past, where I knew I had a couple of weeks free, I would just work and work and work.

When I did the animated video for ‘The Meaning of the Ritual’ almost 10 years ago, I just decided, ‘I’m going to do this until it is finished’ and I didn’t really leave the house that I was living in in Malahide for about 35 days or something.

I mean, I left in that I did jogs all around or went to get milk and stuff, but the plan was to finish the thing and then go back to life. That’s how it worked.

Did you establish some weird relationship with whoever was working in that shop?

The house that I lived in, there was maybe six other people. The room that I used was Dave’s [Hedderman, The Immediate bandmate], his old studio, and it literally connected to the kitchen.

So I’d be in there and then at about 6am one of my housemates would come in having just gotten up for work and we’d exchange pleasantries as standard. There was no question that I wouldn’t be there!

I have a friend who once didn’t leave his house for about three days and when he went to the shop he found he was unable to speak properly.

That happens to me sometimes, I get that feeling.

Especially being on tour and not having to do anything for yourself, and then coming back after eight weeks or so and suddenly, ‘There’s nothing in my fridge! Where’s my hummus and my carrots? Where is everything?’, and then you realise that you have to go and pay for it and go and talk to people.

The video for ‘Fool’ deals with dating anxiety, which I suppose everyone can relate to. Has it affected you, particularly?

Oh god, yeah. Of course. Also, I’ve got that double thing of sending someone a picture of my face and then they’re like, ‘Hey, you’re that guy from that band! Are you Conor Oberst?’

Have you been mistaken for him?

No, no. We met, though. We met years ago and took a picture together. We’re both laughing, it’s quite funny.

You’re on the album campaign trail. How many journalists have asked if you can swim?

Actually, only one! In Munich.

Maybe we all thought it would be too trite. I can’t swim, for the record.

You can’t?

No. That water safety ad you see in the cinema with Liam Cunningham doing the voiceover saying, ‘Hey, listen, just don’t go into shock, yeah?’ freaks me out. Your dulcet tones aren’t going to save me, mate.

His tones are particularly dulcet, though. He’s got a nice face to go with it, as well.

I presume the album concept is not necessarily imposter syndrome but… fake it until you make it, perhaps?

A little bit. I was writing that song – ‘The Art of Pretending to Swim’ – the whole way through, trying to write the album, and then never really wrote it, but the album had lots of bits from it, so it’s there, it’s in the DNA.

It’s kind of how I feel about life; you’re not swimming, you’re not drowning, you’re kind of just making it up – the duality of how that is quite beautiful but also quite terrifying.

That duality is imprinted on every song on the album, so I figured it had to be the name of the album. I did finally write the song, but it’s more of an instrumental groovy synth piece.

The artwork is stunning.

Oh, Niall McCormack. I nearly killed him! ‘Can we just try 10 more versions?’ He was amazing, so open, so talented. I still look at it sometimes and zoom in and notice all these little things I didn’t see before, even though it looks simple at first glance.

A lot of things are slightly off in it, which gives it a subliminal connection to the album because the album is kind of loopy and groovy but also has those weird off-beats. I wanted it to connect in a simple, visceral way.

Speaking of visceral, what scares you the most? Spiders, for me.

I’ve got a bit of a bad spider thing. Wasps, I’m really bad with. I’ve been laughed at, openly.

In Germany, they have this wasp problem and they don’t give a fuck. They sit there, eating, with a wasp on their fork and just engage in polite conversation. For me, it comes from childhood when I got stung.

I have a really vivid memory of being in school, I was probably eight or nine, and I remember seeing this wasp flying towards me. I ran away, I thought it was gone, and the next thing I know it’s under my shirt, stinging me.

And I looked in. I have this very strong childhood visual memory of seeing the wasp leaving the sting in me before flying away. Weirdly, I gave it to my teacher, who took the sting, put in an envelope and posted it to my family.

That’s the behaviour of a serial killer, right there.

I remember my mum being like, ‘…..Okay? That’s weird’. Maybe it was a legal thing, in case we wanted to sue the wasp or something.

Since then, I’ve had an irrational fear of wasps. There’s a rational fear of them, but if there’s one near me, I can’t help but run away and scream. I don’t mean ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestants’, just to clarify…

Our half an hour draws to a close. There are other conversations to engage in, where talk of David Lynch and Twin Peaks and album titles that nearly were takes hold.

We barely scratched the surface, and that feels about right.

For Conor O’Brien and Villagers, there is forever new territory to map out, to call his own, to make ready for others who are ready to get lost for a little while.

The Art of Pretending to Swim is available now on Domino Records.

Villagers headline Metropolis Festival at the RDS, Dublin on Saturday 27 October before embarking on a winter tour of Ireland in December. For more information, click here.