This time it’s personal: Interview with Villagers’ Conor O’Brien


In an interview last year, Johnny Marr gave me an insight into a working manifesto that’s stuck with him for 30 years, saying: “Believe it or not, there’s a real trick to making it sound so simple.” it’s a modest rebuttal of the rock genius myth, admitting that hard graft over-rules alchemy more than you’d think.

Marr may have a few years over Conor O’Brien, but the Villagers frontman echoes the sentiment when trying to pin down his new album Darling Arithmetic. It’s his third after 2013’s {Awayland} and his 2010 debut Becoming a Jackal – two award-winning records with an auteur’s hand and intricate layers that unfold over repeated listens.

The ‘most personal album to date’ may be a music journo cliche, but this time O’Brien really has gone for the direct route, shedding oblique metaphors and complex arrangements for a disarming, mainly acoustic album of first-person relationship accounts, with all the baggage.

“Simplicity was what I was trying to achieve,” he says over a coffee in a Dublin hotel. “With a lot of these songs I started taking stuff away until they started sounding as bare as possible. I was trying to not overwrite them, I’ve done that a bit in the past. I wanted to stop trying to cram 50 ideas into one song. It’s a different buzz to {Awayland}.”

O’Brien says he was listening to Lambchop “quite a bit” while writing Darling Arithmetic, and there’s a parallel between the Nashville alt-country act following up the lush widescreen production on 2000’s Nixon, with the stark piano-led Is a Woman two years later. Just like Is a Woman, Darling Arithmetic is sparse and delicate, but deceptively complex, with impressionistic electronic ambience underpinning tracks like Everything I Am Is Yours and The Soul Serene.

“I wanted to stop trying to cram 50 ideas into one song. It’s a different buzz to {Awayland}.”

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These electronic textures, along with occasional mellotron strings, are the only slight concession to grandeur on Darling Arithmetic, which O’Brien fully wrote and recorded at his coastal home in Malahide, Co Dublin, playing all instruments on the album.

“Cormac [Curran] did all the string arrangements again and we ended up using none of that, because I took it all away again and made it really sparse,” says Conor. “Initially we were going to get an orchestra, but it would’ve been a very different album. It would’ve got closer to {Awayland} again. I wanted it to sound like you were in a room with the person and that was it. Once any outside stuff came in I think it would dilute the overall intimacy of the album, definitely.”

In contrast with recording {Awayland} with the safety net of a band, O’Brien hit a few walls in the solitary process, taking a few cues from Nick Cave, who keeps office hours, grafting and wringing it out when inspiration’s at a low ebb.

“I tried to keep it Monday to Friday and 9 to 5, but then again there were two weeks when went in and I had nothing. I was freaked out. It’s horrible, you know there’s stuff there but you’re getting yourself into the wrong frame of mind, you’re worrying, you’re not relaxed. It affects everything in your life, you’re angry all the time. I had to make myself write and for a while it was some really self-conscious crap…  I didn’t wanna write like that Alanis Morissette album from 1995.

“Then finally it came back to being relaxed. Like the song Courage, I had this mantra for ages.. ‘courage… courage’ and I was also working on a song called It Took a Little Time, and I realised they were the same song.”

 

“I had to make myself write and it was some really self-conscious crap”

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O’Brien dragged himself out of solitary the odd time, and a gig by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas in the Button Factory fired a few dormant synapses, and he says: “It was just so joyous, they were really simple love songs and I was thinking, ‘I could do that’.”

An earlier live collaboration with John Grant at Other Voices in London on Grant’s Glacier was another epiphany for O’Brien, who says: “That was really inspiring, singing those words. That song is all about singing to his former self, saying, ‘Things will get better’. I remember coming off stage and thinking, ‘Shit I really need to write about this, something I haven’t really tapped yet.”

After digging himself out of the hole, he says the recording happened in “just a room with three microphones, one good mic and a nice pre-amp”, adding: “My studio is basically a little 16-track digital recorder that I bought when I was 19. No Pro Tools or anything. It was beside me and I’d record acoustic guitar or piano and play drums over the recording, usually with brushes, just tipping. I just mic’d everything up really close. Towards the end I’d add electronic textures.”

The muffled bird song that features throughout is down to a “happy accident” as he never really planned the recordings as a Villagers album. “There’s one sample of seagulls but most of the birds, they were on the vocal track, I couldn’t get rid of them because I was recording in a big barn in the summer. I was recording them as demos and didn’t think they would be released as an album until about halfway through,” he says.

O’Brien says in the past he’s been a “bit disappointed” in himself for hiding behind metaphors in his lyrics, adding: “I wouldn’t have been able to write these songs five years ago, so now [joke emphasis] I’m in my 30s, I’ve more to write about.” He says that lyrics like “tear down these walls” and “it took a little time to be me” are “almost like a coming out”, with an emphasis on artistic honesty and emotional directness, rather than just sexuality.

 

Last year’s Villagers song Occupy Your Mind was an act of solidarity with people affected by Putin’s anti-gay laws in Russia, but Hot Scary Summer is a personal recollection, a memory of “kissing on the cobblestones” turning sour, with “all the pretty little homophobes looking out for a fight”. But elsewhere, O’Brien is trying to seek out some universal truths, to the point of using raw emotional lines like “where have you been all my life?” or “this shouldn’t be hard work” – lines everyone has used some point.

“I really wanted to make it a universal as a love album. I didn’t want to be just singing to gay people,” he says. “I got rid of a lot of songs and lyrics that were too passive aggressive or bitter, or too mixed up with feelings of frustration I’ve had in the past, different aspects of growing up in the 90s and feeling repressed to a certain degree.

“I enjoyed it, it felt new writing this way from the first-person. Taking directly from personal memories, the way I never used to do. I found the more internal I got, the more universal it became. I used to try and make a bridge between my words and the world and mix up these ideas like, ‘I have to write about the environment now or I have to write about this because it’s on the news. This time I thought, ‘I’m just gonna write about how I felt yesterday’, and then usually that’s a bridge to other people.”

“There’s an ego there that I want to get rid of. I was quite inspired by the ‘egoless-ness’ of techno.”

O’Brien wrote the title track before {Awayland}, but says he locked it in his head for a few years, until he felt able to share it. He says: “I couldn’t imagine bringing myself singing it in front of anyone because it was about death and bereavement and losing someone,” he says. “I remember getting to that part of the song and singing ‘my darling…’, and instead of saying the name I wanted to put something cold and non-human in place and that helped me write the song. It was just a technique and then I really liked it, the tension between the two words.”

 

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Conor’s appearance with John Grant on Glacier at last year’s Body & Soul was one of the weekend’s poignant highlights, and he thinks that Darling Arithmetic may lead to similar mellow festival slots, in contrast to the fully-charged {Awayland} tour.

He says: “We’re still working out how to do the festivals. It’s quite a low-key show, there aren’t gonna be many rock’n’roll moments. We might try to get different types of slots, maybe earlier or smaller tents, something a bit more intimate. For the live shows we’ll probably play all of the album, with old tracks rearranged to make them suit the mood. I can’t wait.”

After touring the record, don’t be surprised if O’Brien delves further into the electronic production that’s been emerging on synth parts in {Awayland} and Occupy Your Mind, and the abstract swirls on Darling Arithmetic.

He’s not merely co-opting dance music tropes for a change of scenery, happy to drop crossover acts Caribou and Erol Alkan into conversation, along with Detroit techno conceptualists like Cybotron and Drexciya.

 

Even though the tools are different, he reckons the singular vision he had writing Darling Arithmetic has some parallels with techno and electronica. He says: “The thing I get out of techno is running with an idea. I like the idea that it’s not too self-conscious, or too contrived. The best techno starts with an idea then rolls with it. I’m getting more and more into that, like don’t carve into the song too much, let it carve itself out. You can really let it take you over in some ways that you can’t necessarily do when there’s someone singing about their emotions in front of you with a guitar. There’s an ego there that I want to get rid of. I was quite inspired by the ‘egoless-ness’ of techno.”

In the meantime though, he can’t shake off the idea of ego, with a heightened interest in his personal life. He isn’t naive enough to think the story’s over once a song is out there, and laughs recalling a recent interview in Germany.

“”I had a week of interviews in Europe. It was pretty full-on, 12 interviews a day for five days and a gig at the end of it,” he says. “She asked me if I was single or not in the middle of the interview and I kind of said it was none of her business. She said, ‘Well gimme something juicy then’. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She was like, ‘You’re obviously very bored of my interview’. And I thought, ‘Well now I am’.”

He laughs off demand for something juicy for me, joking: “Is the album enough? I spent a year making it.”

Original version in Irish Daily Star

@conradio37

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