INTERVIEW: Villagers’ Conor O’Brien

villagersOn the impending release of Villagers third album Darling Arithmetic, frontman and founder Conor O’Brien came on the bus to Belfast to talk about love, homophobia, beautiful music and the upcoming tour.

Darling Arithmetic was written, recorded, produced and mixed by O’Brien. It is a departure from previous albums. It is not abstract, veiled in metaphor or ambiguous. It’s about love. Love in its purest forms. Right from the start of love, to the bereft end of it. If you’ve ever had a relationship, you, dear reader, are in this album.

How come it’s so sparse and pared back? “It just came out that way because I wanted to make something simple. I’ve listened back to some of my early stuff, and I really was proud of it; but I thought I’ve done that to the furthest extent it can go and I want to use my heart a little bit more  (he put his hand on his heart to emphasise that). So then the subject matter started becoming about relationships and love. It wasn’t really conscious. On the tour we’ll have a 5-piece band and it will be quite different. I’ll have a harpist on stage, and a guy who plays drums and flugelhorn.”

Will it be the same band as previously? “Two of the band are the same, the bass player and the keyboard player. The other two guys who were in the band before, they’ve joined Soak’s band actually. When you come and see it live, you’ll see I’ve chosen these musicians for a reason – really good music. I don’t necessarily want it to be all about me.”  However, he laughs warmly when I ask if that would be difficult considering the intimate nature of the album. “Yeah, I haven’t really done a good job of that”.

There’s a particular vocal he does when he is singing. He almost howls, holds the note long and almost howls. I’ve heard it in the previous albums Becoming a Jackal, Awayland and here again in Darling Arithmetic. “I get a huge release out of singing like that” he tells me. “I really like holding my voice for as long as it can go. It feels good. I think if I started to analyse it I probably wouldn’t do it as much.” He sees his singing as a release. “I wouldn’t get on stage if I didn’t have my singing and my songs. I’m not naturally predisposed to being in front of people. But if I’ve got my songs and I’m playing music that I’m proud of, then when I’m singing the songs, I have a huge cathartic release.”

“The last album (Awayland) was about making an epic statement. It was very band orientated, and everyone was playing very loud. With this one there are only ever brushes on the drums and everything is very sparse, so the songs can breathe a lot more. I’ve learned how to be more economical with the sounds and the ideas; and to leave more space for the listener. Even though they’re from my experiences and there are some very specific themes in there, I’ve worked really hard to make sure they were as universal as possible so the listener can fill in the rest of the song. I took a lot of words out, and I got rid of a lot of textures, so that it is as naked and as bare as possible. The songs can be a space where you can put your own images and your own experiences and your own memories.”

The track “Hot Scary Summer” on Darling Arithmetic calls out homophobia. It uses the word ‘homophobes’. Is it the first time he has addressed this? “Yeah, in my songs yes. Not in my private life, but in my music yes. All of the songs on the album are about an area of love. This one is obviously about the end of a relationship and all the feelings that come with that.”

“I guess when I started thinking about the negative connotations of the relationships in my life, part of that was experiences of homophobia. I’ve been threatened, I’ve been chased. Ever since I’ve been born I’ve felt the more subtle side of institutionalised homophobia. I’m in my 30’s now and it’s just time to talk about it. I was a bit too shy when I was in my 20’s to put it all out there. I wasn’t ‘in’ in my private life, but when it came to giving interviews or whatever I’d get panicky. I’ve had those experiences, so they obviously kick you back into your shell again, until the shell is broken, which is happening kind of now in Ireland to a certain degree. We are getting a bit more free thinking I think.” He’s been looking down at the table while he talks about this. But at the end of that last sentence he looks up, smiling, “well in some areas”.

What sort of ‘subtle’ homophobia has he suffered? “I remember sex education classes in school. Being told that it’s wrong.” At this point I forget my interviewer head for a moment, I interject – “Conor that’s not subtle.”  He agrees, “Yes actually you’re right, that’s really not subtle.”

“I had the most incredible taxi journey. It was about 3 am and I’d had a few drinks at a party. It was a woman taxi driver, and I was feeling quite talkative and jolly and was like “Oh you’re a woman!” She was kind of flirty in a jokey way and we were having fun. Then it came up in the conversation that I’m gay, and she just stopped talking to me. She blessed herself and said “I don’t talk to people like you,” and just looked straight ahead. I stayed quiet for a while then I said to her “What’s your problem with me? I’ve no problem with you. I actually love you on a basic human level.” She got so riled with this. She said “You need to get Satan out of you, you need to see a priest, I know people you can talk to….” When we reached my house she turned off the metre and we debated for another two hours. I wanted to get out and she was asking “When did you first know..?” She couldn’t even say the word ‘gay’.

As we were talking she started speaking in tongues almost.  She started to say things like “it’s when your mummy and daddy won’t let you play with the bold girls in the playground.”(He put on a vaguely childlike voice for that). I asked what she meant but she just kept repeating it. Then it dawned on me. I asked her “Have you ever been attracted to women?”  She told me she had once when she was in her twenties, but she got rid of it. She went to the priest and got rid of it. By the end of the two hours she was almost asking me for advice on where to go to meet people. It’s really sad. That experience really influenced songs I’ve written since.”

villagers7With all this material and life experience, does he think music is a good way to address social issues like this? “I think it can be a small part of things. But for me, thinking about music as a political act isn’t helpful for the writing. When I’m writing I want the songs to completely come from an emotional, humanistic standpoint. Not thinking about it as a socio-political statement. The more humanist and universal it sounds, and the more emotional the reaction to the song, the more momentum it’ll gain anyway.”

So with all this being said, what does he think about the potential Conscience Clause?  He laughs. “It’s basically ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish, No gays.”  It’s just another way to make people feel bad about themselves as biological entities. Regardless of what you say about protecting people’s faith, if someone’s faith is saying that somebody else is lesser than you are, I don’t call that faith, I call that bigotry. This so called conscience clause is just another way of making people’s mind’s smaller. It’s not helpful to anyone. I think they just need to chill out and go to a gay bar.”

Ireland is discussing LGBT issues at the minute, with the referendum on same sex marriage coming up in May. Is he joining the campaign? “I feel sometimes that if you want to reach people who would disagree with you, it might be stronger not to be aligned with anything other than your own music and your own emotions. Then they’ll be more prepared to listen in the first place. And if they hear a song talking about homophobes that might be a stronger way.”

“There’s a line in “Hot Scary Summer” that goes “We got good at pretending/and pretending got us good”. This can be taken as hiding your sexuality, or it can be taken on the level of having a relationship with someone and pretending the relationship is still good. I wanted the song to be as universal as possible.

They play Mandela Hall on 25th May, and I told him that over the years I’ve watched them play increasingly larger venues – from Black Box to Limelight to Empire to Mandela.  “Yes, very gradual” O’Brien laughs as he reaches over the side of the chair and pretends to be scaling a rope.

Does playing larger gigs make any difference to the show or what they perform? “Yeah, I suppose it does. I’m hoping to have different versions of the songs ready when we tour. Some nights we may want to bring out a bigger version of a song, or maybe I’ll strip it down some nights. So if it’s a bigger venue I’ll be bringing out the bigger versions. Then there’ll be a section when I’m completely solo. It does take a bit of work. I spent yesterday recording new versions of some of the older songs. Then I sent them to the band to learn before rehearsals. Songs like “Set the tigers Free” which is pretty dark and brooding on our first album. The version I did yesterday sounds like Crosby Stills & Nash, and it makes the lyrics have a very different meaning.”

Any differences between playing in the North and playing in the South? “In Dublin there’s a slightly more reverential thing. Then when you come to Belfast you have people saying “Alright what you gonna give us?” And I love it. I remember gigs in The Empire and in The Limelight. People were listening, and then between songs there was all this banter and I wanted to give them just a fuckin good show. Yes, there’s a different energy. Of course I love playing in Dublin, but Belfast has that energy of its own.” Cara Gibney, GiggingNI.com

Villagers play Mandela Hall on 25th May and the gorgeous new album Darling Arithmetic is released 13th April. Buy tickets for their Belfast show here.