An Interview with Conor O’Brien from Villagers

Conor O'Brien spoke to Peter McLoughlin shortly after the release of Villagers second album, {Awayland}.  

Villagers are performing in the Empire music hall on 16th March 2013.

Firstly, what’s the story behind the name ‘Villagers’?

 Conor: There’s not much of an interesting story behind it to be honest. It was just a name I came up with toward the end of writing the songs [from ‘Becoming a Jackal’]. I wanted a name that was anonymous sounding. I didn’t want a name that would pin down the kind of music it was because I wanted the music to be free to change. I knew I would have to get a group of people together to play the songs, because I used a lot of different instruments on the demos. I wanted a name that described a group of people basically, and ‘Villagers’ seemed fitting.

Considering you’re the major creative force behind ‘Villagers’ – the album covers and the band name leave much to the listener’s imagination; you as an individual are not ‘on display’ so to speak. Was that a conscious decision?

C: Yeah. The artwork is really important to me in terms of how it links to the music. I think if you’re making art it’s nice to stretch the imagination a bit and do something a bit more interesting rather than just having a press shot of yourself on the front cover.

As far as critical success goes, Becoming a Jackal was very well received. {Awayland} has been the same: are you happier with the critical success you’re receiving or is it more important to you to have a wider public acceptance?

 C: I prefer having non-critic people into the band, but it’s obviously nice to read people digging the band. I have a bit of a problem with the way that works – with certain ‘anointed’ people having the power to control whether other people want to hear your music or not… But, you know, I guess with the internet and streaming and stuff everybody has access to any sort of album they want to hear. I prefer the idea of the public being into it rather than a single journalist being into it.

 The chorus of “Earthly Pleasure” contains the lines “I truly understand that I don’t understand a thing”; how much should we assume that the ‘I’ in your songs is you – as opposed to a character confined within the song?

 C: For me anyway, when I’m writing a song, I think I’m aware of the fact that there is always aspects of myself coming into it but I like to use characters and interchangeable pronouns, and I like to play with that kind of thing, because I think craft is more important than song-writing. There are too many song-writers who just whine about their last breakup or whatever and I don’t really see the point in that. I think the point is to make something universal, something somebody can add their own experience to. I prefer to use theatrical elements, like a power-play between characters and songs, to mirror whatever is happening, either in the world around me or the world internally.

You did a fantastic cover of ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ on the Daytrotter Sessions; is Leonard Cohen one of your major influences?

 C: Yeah, he would be. I’ve actually listened to him for a long, long time – since I was in school – and I really like him. He’s an amazing song-writer, he has a lot of amazing albums and he is undeniably good. It would be hard to obtain his level of cool. He creates all these very emotional songs without even having to raise his voice – there’s something very peaceful about him and I like that. Not many people have that [quality] – they need to kind of rock the songs to make them emotional, but he manages that with only his words and notes.

How did the creative process on {Awayland} go?

C: Well it started with demos that I was doing on my own – I worked on those for months and months. They mostly started as electronic experiments. I was trying to learn how to use new equipment. I wanted a new project, a different sound, something that I hadn’t been able to get before. I wasn’t writing very much on the acoustic anyway so I just decided to make another type of noise.

Then over the course of 8 months or so lyrics started appearing and I started playing the acoustic again and the demos stated turning into songs. I sent them to the band after that. We rehearsed for three days in Donegal and that’s when they really came alive – some changes happened, we kinda kicked the shit out of them a bit and made them a bit more groovy. We were focusing on the live aspect, thinking about having to tour them for two years.

Once we rehearsed them we all [the whole band] went into the studio – which was a big change for me because I did the first album myself. It was a little bit daunting but it was better because I didn’t have to worry about the instrumental side of things in the same way. I was able to think about the songs thematically; the emotional aspects of the songs.

It was more team-work for a few weeks, and then the band left and me and Tommy [McLaughlin] were the only two left for another few weeks. We mixed it, and added stuff to it, and that was how it went really.

And speaking of themes briefly, there seems to be a humanist, a naturalist tone throughout the album – is that what were you going for?

 C: Yeah – I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about when I started the album, so that seems to have come out of trying to approach things from a really innocent perspective. I needed to hang the writing process on something. I wanted that childish sense of wonder, of curiosity of the world, and that’s the sort of main vibe that is coming out in the songs – I don’t know if I fully achieved it but I think there’s a tension there in trying to achieve that – the tension in trying to get rid of all your worldly experience. If you try to strip that away when you’re approaching a project it’s hard. That’s what the songs are, the process of trying to do that – trying to see things through a completely naïve set of eyes.

{Awayland} is available now.


Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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