Interview: Villagers

With Villagers’ new album Awayland taking over our wave lines, Emily Mullen has a quiet cup of tea and a chat with the sensitive croon and UCD alumnus, Conor J. O’Brien


With their debut album, Becoming a Jackal, bagging no less than a Ivor Novella and a Mercury Prize nomination, the expectations for Villagers’ sophomore album, Awayland,was set exceptionally high. Responding with a record that has the same creative cultivation as Becoming a Jackal, a story complete with a narrative was created. Set apart from the macabre of their first album, Awayland encapsulates the rush of emotion, and the broadening of thoughts and feeling that freedom brings.

If Becoming a Jackal spoke of the stifling restraints of home, that of “the most familiar room,” then Awayland has flung back the door and breathed in the purest of air. This emotive self-expression is a feeling, and indeed a sound, that we have now come to associate with the sensitive troubadour Conor J. O’Brien, perhaps one of the freshest, most talented and creative outputs that Ireland has released into the musical stratosphere in recent times.

Villagers started off as a solo project for O’Brien but subsequently grew into a fully functioning band (of sorts) made up of Cormac Curran, Danny Snow, James Byrne and Tommy McLaughlin. Yet Villagers will always be Conor J. O’Brien. One would wonder whether O’Brien was reluctant upon entering into a band situation again after the messy break-up of his former musical endeavour, The Immediate.

“Yeah I was at the start. I didn’t really want it to be a band per se; I wanted it to be a kind of a loose thing. It was almost like a relationship, you break up and you don’t want another one so you just play around a little bit. So I was basically just playing around with all of them! It was very loose at the start and they’ve just managed to stick around for a long time. But The Immediate was good, because I had a very particular working relationship with Dave and Pete, and we grew up writing together. It was just when that ended that I knew I would never find anyone else that I grew up writing with, so it was more out of necessity that I needed to do something where I was in control the most. It was nice to find people who are incredibly good at playing music but are willing to let you tell them what to do at the start, but this time round I relinquished some sort of power. There were a few things that changed when they started playing. So when we play the songs form Awayland it really feels like everyone has had a part in it and that everyone really owns their parts now.”

It has been perhaps an overused metaphor in music journalism, comparing a songwriter to a craftsman, but it is one which fits O’Brien beautifully. Nonetheless, at the start of writing Awayland, O’Brien admits he was conscious of the dreaded second album curse: “At the start I was really conscious of writing the right songs again. I remember just sitting down with of a piece of paper and I would write two lines and I would already have the voice of a critic in my head. I would have a critique of the song, before it was even written. But once that was gone I just sort of attempted to find a sort of inner critic, and usually that is yourself, and once you find that voice that is the thing that propels you to beat yourself up more and more.”

The self-battery seems a little unorthodox, yet for O’Brien it is that very process that lands him results: “Once you get into the rhythm of writing you shut yourself off from all of that, you really do go into a bit of a weird half-asleep/half-awake state, where you start writing and nothing comes but it’s eight hours later and you’re sort of still writing and you feel like you haven’t achieved anything but then three days later you realise that something has materialised, but you don’t feel like you were as much a part of it as you could have been. It’s really subconscious, I think the best songs are the ones that you feel like they’ve wrote themselves, but they really didn’t, because you’ve just spent hours making them work. It’s a problem, this writing thing. But it’s good once it gets results, and once you’re happy with it in the end.”

The creative concept for Awayland ultimately embarked on a new direction from Becoming A Jackal, beginning with the formation of a feeling and then gradually expanding and experimenting from there. “We basically just finished touring and I had no idea what to write about. I was just looking at a blank piece of paper and so I just started experimenting with sounds and I got my first synthesiser and I just started making really bad dance music, and slowly the songs kind of formed over a very long period of time. There was no theme really, the theme just started to develop naturally. It wasn’t as academic as the first album, which is probably UCD’s fault because I had just graduated when I wrote the first album!”

The coinage of Awayland is one that sticks to the very forefront of your mind when listening to the album. Even the notion of it is ultimately the opposite of Becoming a Jackal which spoke of the stifling comfort of home. “The title came last this time, because with Jackal the title was first and I was fitting the songs to the theme. I wanted it to be very childish, a very naive thing that a kid might say in a feeling of playfulness and freedom. I felt like all the songs were written from a very open-minded, sort of childish perspective, so I wanted to make up a word that didn’t exist. I like the way it’s the opposite of ‘Homeland’ as well, because the songs are kind of the opposite of that kind of idea of nationalities or whatever.”

Has the recording process of Awayland truthfully given him grey hairs, as previous interviews have stated? A doff of the beanie hat, accompanied by a sheepish grin, does indeed show a sprinkling of grey amidst the jet black. “Yes it was quite stressful,” O’Brien replies. “I didn’t know when to stop. I had a period of a few months where I couldn’t go out, because I knew I needed to reach a certain level. Overall that was six weeks of recording, we only took one day off in six weeks and we worked about 12 hours a day for about six weeks. Even when we finished the album we sent it to the label, they had printed it, started sending it out to journalists to review and I decided that we needed to put another piece of music onto the album. So we went back into the studio to record an ending to the album and then I emailed the label saying ‘Can you take back all those CDs?’ and they were like, ‘No, they’ve already started reviewing them!’ So even when it was finished, printed and being reviewed we were still adding more stuff to it.”

Indeed such a fine line was drawn between the two albums, you can’t help but wonder if it was linked with a sharp emotional feeling of change. For O’Brien this was the predominant influence upon this album: “That’s the feeling that we had when we were writing it; we were trying all these different sounds and all these things that we would have sort of closed ourselves off from before. This time we decided to embrace them, because we were also thinking we should make the biggest kind of orchestrated, exciting statement that we could possibly make, while we still can, while we are still arsed, you know? Because maybe when we’re in our thirties we might be too tired and bored.” The defining sense of transience, the need for fun and the urge for freedom, seem to be the overriding concepts in this album and indeed, however speculatively, in O’Brien’s life as well.

The intention for Awayland was for it to be entirely synth-driven, yet the correlation of electro beats with the familial acoustic murmurings occurred and predominate the sound of the album. “The album did start out as a lot more like the song ‘The Waves’ and it was just because I was learning how to programme beats and use synthesisers and hook them up with samplers and stuff. The whole process of the album was a steep learning curve. I think once I stood back and listened to all of the songs I kind of realised how amateur half of electronic stuff was, you know, because it was my first time doing it. I got rid of the most amateur stuff and just kept the stuff which really helped the songs, but in the process of doing all that a lot of the songs were written, which was really strange because they were written from a beat that I had made in a sampler, but once I got rid of the beat at the end there was a nice skeleton of a song there. Then we just put acoustic instruments over it, like pianos, so it was a strange sort of back and forth kind of process.”

In terms of performance, O’Brien prefers the band’s current setlist and the increase in connection between audience and musician now more than ever before. “I’m happier with the band and stuff because the shows are much more fun now, because a lot of the stuff on Jackal, when we played it, it got a little bit serious and a little bit close. I always found that when we did small little intimate shows people were affected by it emotionally, and then we would do bigger shows people would leave a little bit depressed. I thought of the idea that music should be uplifting, I had that thing of I think I had lived a little bit more, so I didn’t want to wallow in those kind of sad feelings and use the music to cry any longer. It’s almost easier to write sad songs than it is to write uplifting songs, and I wanted to challenge myself so there is still a little bit of melancholy but it’s more about like let’s dance ourselves through this. We are all in this together, let’s hold hands and kiss each other, it’s a big orgy, a big musical orgy!”

So where to next for Villagers? After an impromptu joke about the band wanting to take over from Westlife, including vivid depictions of piano ballads and the use of chairs during key changes, O’Brien gets serious: “I think we might explore a bit more of the electronic side of things, but I think I’m very aware of not using that as a reason to not bother writing a song, because writing a song is the hardest thing in the world. Whereas I could easily, tomorrow, make an ambient post-techno new wave [track]. So I still want to make songs but experiment as well. For me the song writing is the hours and the work and the love, the labour of love. That’s my obsession and I want to make sure that doesn’t get lost, but I also want to experiment with sounds and textures and try and open it up as much as possible, and make a new form of music.”

It’s difficult to fault O’Brien and not to get swept up and carried along by the band’s eagerness to make a difference in what is the increasingly disaffecting soundscape of music. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, yet lends his music an incredible integrity. Awayland is as personal as any album is likely to get. Its conception of freedom and its urges for happiness that are in such stark contrast to Becoming a Jackal, tell of a musician who is content with where he and his music are currently. Whether ‘musical orgies’ actually exist or are a conception created in the depths of O’Brien’s imagination, you can’t escape the feeling that he will put in 12 hours days just in case they actually do.

Villagers play The Olympia on February 25th and their new album Awayland is out now.