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Cork, Ireland
An Irish based alternative music blog. Music news, gigs, live reviews, album reviews... You'll find them here. If you want anything featured or removed, please shout. I hope you'll discover something new to love on this little experiment of mine. Currently editing the Music Section of the UCC Express and contributing to Motley magazine on campus, as well as writing for PopCultureMonster and 4FortyFour. Always looking for new projects so please get in touch if interested. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Interview: Conor O'Brien of Villagers

This article originally appeared in the January 19th issue of the UCC Express.

Just before their sold-out show at the Savoy in Cork before Christmas, Conor O’Brien of Villagers invited Music Editor Kevin O’Neill to the band’s dressing room to discuss the year just gone, flamenco dancing and chewing gum in Singapore.

Often uneasy on stage, O’Brien tends to let his music do the talking. He is clearly uncomfortable speaking in crowds and, as I rapidly discover, this shyness is prevalent in his daily routine too. As we sit in the small room just off the band’s dressing room in the Savoy Theatre, Cork, lights flickering, he takes a little while to warm to me, though gradually he seems to relax, in a manner not dissimilar to his stage performances. As the show goes on, Conor’s confidence grows and grows.

Exhausted from the year just gone, the full band scarcely moves when I enter the dressing room. Only a sprightly O’Brien jumps to his feet to greet me. He tells me that they rearranged their entire day to fit me in, having played in Kilkenny the night before and travelled to Dublin to record radio slots earlier in the day.

Conor tells me how tough they are finding it stuck in the back of a van all day. “The music in the van is more meditative than anything, when you are stuck there for six hours… I’ve been listening a lot to this music from Ghana… It’s called hi-life. It’s very chilled, very floaty. In particular this guy called Chief Stephen Osita Osadebe. We listen to a lot of the National too – we all enjoy ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’. And our tour manager is Argentinian so he’s introducing us to a lot of South American music.”

Despite being more at ease talking about other people’s music, I take Conor right back to the beginning, eager to find how they are coping with their success. 2010 was Villagers’ year: Mercury nominations, American tours and number one albums. However, they are very grounded about it all.
“I think we worked up to the success gradually. If it had happened any faster, I wouldn’t have been able to take it all in, but we’ve done three or four tours in Ireland and worked up to where we are now.”
Signing to Domino Records (the home of Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand and Pavement) was the final push that Conor needed, it seems. Rather than creating a pressure, it brought it all home.
“It gave me an impetus to write more. I just went back to my house and wrote more songs. It gave me a deadline and spurred me on: I wrote ‘I Saw the Dead’ and ‘Set the Tigers Free’ after.”

It is interesting that ‘I Saw the Dead’ was formed after the signature: the song notably charts the difficulties of making a mark in the music industry, something that Conor, in particular, would have experience with having been a vital part of Dublin band the Immediate in the mid-00s.
On the cusp of a likely success, the Immediate simply collapsed.
“Two of the guys just didn’t want to do it anymore. Not much more we could do about it then.”

While coming so close to the big time and faltering at the last hurdle might have been a cause for concern for many, it didn’t haze Conor in the slightest. He simply picked up his guitar and embarked on two years of touring with Cathy Davey, an artist he has nothing but the highest admiration for. The two worked together again this year with Conor providing much of the instrumentation for Cathy’s number one album, The Nameless.

“Cathy is just amazing. She’s so talented – there’s no pressure on me when I’m playing with her. She’s doing all the work. You should hear the demos of the tracks she writes: they’re just as good as the finished product, she could do it all herself.”

The pressure, on the other hand, comes when fronting Villagers.

“It’s tough, you have to talk to people. I don’t like talking to people. I like singing to them. But I’m getting better, I think.”

Such self-doubt is surprising, given the competence of the performances. Conor’s stunning solo performance of ‘The Meaning of the Ritual’ on Later… With Jools Holland, for example, has almost 30,000 hits on YouTube in the nine months since the show aired. The quiver in his voice is telling, but he finds solace in his music.

“I never set out to put together an album. I just kept writing songs (when on tour with Cathy) and, eventually, realised that I had enough to put an album together. That’s the way I do it: I don’t write to put something in the marketplace, it’s very in the moment. I’m obsessed with what I’m doing at the precise moment of writing.”

What changed in 2010 for Villagers? For one, the live show. The dynamics are constantly changing: to date, Conor has done solo slots on Jools Holland and the Mercury Music show, as well as travelling throughout America on his own. In Ireland and Europe, on the other hand, the full-band has been present.

“It’s very much a band now. We’ve been on tour for so long and we’ve gone all around the world together, we’ve gotten tight. But it’s also gotten loose, which is a good thing.
I’d call it a band right now, but in January everyone’s going off to do their own thing – I’m gonna write. I can’t wait to get back to writing.
But I hope we get back together. I just want to make sure it stays loose and fun. Everyone is doing it because they want to, nobody is forced to. We are a band in the truest sense of the word.
The first show was just me and the drummer, and it grew then. But we’re going to Australia and Singapore in February as a two piece so that should be interesting. Better remember not to chew and chewing gum over there, they tell me it’s illegal!”

It is the solo shows that I want to focus on, however. When listening to the album, the frailties of Conor’s character are on show and, while these are evident in the full band shows, they are the very core of the solo shows. ‘The Meaning of the Ritual’ tingles with fear, while ‘That Day’, ‘Twenty-Seven Strangers’ and ‘The Pact’ all long for approval.

“The Mercurys and Jools were such exciting shows – they really set us up to do the UK shows. Since then we’ve had full crowds everywhere in the UK, we’re going back next year to do full shows.
The Mercurys was exciting. It reminded me of going to the circus as a child, lots of flashing lights everywhere. Lots of tigers, lots of jackals!”

The solo shows were not his idea, however.

“No, no, no. They wanted a band to fit a certain mould and asked us would we mind. I would have preferred the full-band, but it was okay. The solo shows we’ve done in the UK and the US were really great, really intimate. You can find parts of the songs that breathe a little more, but then with the band you find something much more exciting.
It’s simple mechanics – someone behind you beats a drum, you start to sing louder.”

Time is getting away from us, the rest of the band begin to check in on Conor. Soundcheck is in a few minutes and I’m eating into the rare free time they have before shows. I press Conor to talk a little about the writing process.

“I like Randy Newman. He likes to get inside people – especially people he doesn’t like. He writes some really hate filled songs. Neil Young then is very different. He writes such simple, almost child-like songs, but I like when people take the risk and just play with words.
That’s what I tried to do. Just spill the words onto the page.”

But what about now? The first album was driven by a mixture of subtle hate and childlike innocence, what of number two?

“I’m listening to a lot of Elvis Costello. He’s much more academic (than Neil Young) but it’s great to study if you like words. And our tour manager has introduced me to this Argentine singer named Mercedes Sosa. She’s got this really deep, passionate voice.”

Conor begins to sing this dark song, remarking that “the rage is pretty awesome” in it.

“In Seville recently I went to some really old school flamenco nights, the non-touristy ones. The kind where you have to just stand and watch if you are an outsider. I just stood and watched the interaction between the dancers and the music, I really got something from it – eventhough I couldn’t understand the words.
It was sung with such power and conviction. I’m going to try and put some of that into my music in the future.”

So can we expect this flamenco infused sophomore album to surface in 2011?

“I don’t like to second guess myself. I don’t know is my honest answer, but if I was to guess I’d say no.”

Not the resolution I was looking for, but Conor seems optimistic about the songs he has floating around at the moment. The “sunlit stage” that he sings about on an early EP is ready and waiting as I depart, with Conor eager to take to the stage, bathed in shyness and excitement. Watching him on stage, it is almost a different person, though the shy undercurrent is ever present, even if he masks it well.

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