Conor J. O'Brien of Villagers (photo by Rich Gillgigan)
TAS in Session: Villagers
Villagers is both a band, depending on the gig, and the acoustic solo project of Dublin's Conor J. O'Brien, former member of Ireland's regrettably short-lived The Immediate. O'Brien's powerful debut, Becoming a Jackal, dropped on Domino in June.
The Alternate Side first got turned onto Villagers when we caught a strong set from O'Brien, with just an acoustic guitar in hand, at an outdoor SXSW showcase that included Admiral Radley and Karen Elson. O'Brien, dressed for the unexpected, wintery cold of that grey Austin afternoon in a fisherman's pullover, managed to captivate a crowd that, moments before he took the stage, seemed more likely to run off to any indoor destination serving hot coffee. Rarely has one musician so readily - and warmly - won a new swath of (frostbitten) admirers.
Although O'Brien did a brief solo trek earlier this summer, Villagers, the full band version, will be touring the States beginning September 22 in Minneapolis and will arrive in New York on November 2, at Brooklyn's Knitting Factory, and November 3 at Mercury Lounge.
In the midst of a quick tour earlier this summer, just O'Brien and his guitar, the wry, soft-spoken singer and songwriter dropped by WFUV and The Alternate Side to chat with Rita Houston and play a quartet of songs, including "Ship of Promises," the haunting "Set The Tigers Free" and "The Pact," which O'Brien says is "my attempt at a gospel song." He also revealed his slow-to-develop admiration for Bob Dylan and why, despite the literary labyrinth of his lyrics, he's never considered himself to be a poet.
Rita Houston: You’re from Dublin - born and raised?
Conor O'Brien: Yeah, in a place called Dún Laoghaire just on the suburbs of Dublin. A little seaside town.
Rita: Is the music scene in Dublin a big part of what got you started?
Conor: Not really because when I started I was mainly looking towards people who I knew directly, really close to me, like friends and even my older brother got me started on music I think. I didn’t start going to shows until I was much older. I’m not the most social musician in the world.
Rita: You have created a wonderful collection of tunes. You wrote and produced them yourself? How long have you been living with these songs?
Conor: Yeah, one of these songs on the album I probably started singing about five years ago with my friend Dave who I was in a band previously. But most of them are from the last two and a half to three years and I wrote them with a bunch of other songs as well. These are the ones that I thought fit together the best.
Rita: I had a feeling you might be a prolific writer.
Conor: I’m really not that prolific. I’m quite slow actually. I like to flesh the songs out very gradually and I tend to have all sorts of different versions of the songs. But I think the trick is to constantly have songs on the go, even if they might take a year to write.
Rita: The title track of the album, “Becoming a Jackal,” is really the one that’s been getting the most attention from your debut.
Conor: It started out as a little drawing I had, a sketch. I was copying the image of Narcissus by Caravaggio. I kind of liked that myth, I find it kind of interesting for that ego-centric vibe (laughs). I don’t know why though. But in mine, the reflection in the water was a more evil-looking and canine creature so I got the title from that picture. And it gradually became a song. I don’t remember when. But I began writing around the image. Then it became an album. Basically, it’s a song about growth and change. Moving from innocence to experience, I guess. All of those big themes that everyone else has tackled way better than I have.
Rita: I don’t know about that! Now Villagers is the band name for [your work]. You’ve got guitar in hand. What song do you want to play?
Conor: Ship of Promises. It’s going to be the next single in the UK, I dunno if that happens here. We just finished a a really weird video for it.
Rita: You are a lover of words, there’s no doubt about that. Do you ever think where you got that from? Parents, uncle, crazy grandpa?
Conor: I dunno. For me, I love melody and chord changes at the beginning. When I started writing I didn’t really care about the words and it was only the last few years that I began putting a bit more focus on them. To me, words when I’m writing, they’re more a visual thing. I’m trying to describe a scene. I’m not giving an opinion; there’s no message. It’s just a painting that I’m doing. And once I figured out how to write in that particular way, where you can let your imagination go, then I think the words become a fun thing for me, rather than something just to fill the music out. I think it was just a gradual thing. And I think just getting into Dylan (laughs). That was probably the main catalyst because I realized you could do as much with just one instrument and words than you can with an orchestra. It’s the same thing.
Rita: What was it about Dylan that hooked you? Do you remember the record?
Conor: I don’t remember initially, but I remember hating him for years. One of my friends was always getting after me, saying ‘he’s really good, you gotta listen to him.’ And then one day, I think it was “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” was the first one that hooked me, as a song. After that, I just fell in love.
Rita: It’s interesting to hear you talk about your process because it’s clear that the visual is really important to you. You also did the artwork for the record and that does seem to go hand in hand.
Conor: To me, it’s kind of the same thing. They come from the same place and I made an effort to make them link as well.
Rita: A lot of goodbyes in these songs. How much truth? How much imagination? How do you juggle the made-up and the real?
Conor: Very difficult, I think. That’s the thing about these songs. I’m not really sure because they’re written in a very playful, subconscious kind of way. So a lot of the stuff is kind of surprising to me as well. I don’t really sit down to write about something; I let each line suggest the next line and they gradually form a song. My favorite songs feel like they’ve written themselves.
Rita: After years of talking to songwriters, that is the one consistent theme, of “How did you do this?” And the answer is always, “I don’t know.” There’s a huge amount of mystery.
Conor: I think it would be a bit of a shame if you knew where it was coming from. Because you’d might as well write an essay about something. That’s the whole point of trying to write a song, to maybe connect with stuff that isn’t yours, but you’re claiming it.
Rita: Some songwriters will embrace the poet tag and some will resist it. Where do you fall in that.
Conor: I wouldn’t like to embrace any tag. I don’t think I like to call myself a poet.
Rita: These are wonderfully fleshed-out tunes. But mostly you’re on the road making these things come to life on your own.
Conor: Well, we’re going to come over with a band and the two things are very different. The two kinds of shows. I kind of like them both in different ways. When you play with a band, sometimes you can miss the intimacy of the solo shows. And then when you play solo shows, you really miss rocking out. The first band show I play after a run of solo shows, I always feel like, “oh, I forgot I have to play in time again! There’s drums behind me!” It always takes a bit of getting used to again. I kind of like that. I want to keep it loose and changing. I never want it to be the same thing.
Rita: The songs on the album are so ambitious. You did all of the arrangements?
Conor: All of the arrangements were done pretty much at the demo stage. Then when we went to record the album, we were re-recording the demos in a much better way. We added a few different things, but most of it was done over a period of when the songs were written. So I’d write the skeleton of a song and then I’d have ideas for the arrangements and go back and forth, figuring different ones out. There would usually be quite a lot of different demos of the same song. By the end, I dunno why, I ended with the particular arrangements that ended up on the album, but I think they’re the ones that let the songs, the words breathe a bit more or brought out a particular aspect of the songs that I wanted. Sometimes when I play live I prefer those versions because the guys bring their own imprint as well. The songs become a bit looser which I think is one of the most exciting things for me because I can hear stuff happening around me which I didn’t even write in the song.
Rita: What do you want to play as guest DJ?
Conor: There’s a track by Nina Simone called “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” and it’s a strangely terrifying but also childish, weird take on people in general. That would be an awesome one to play.
Villagers North American Tour Dates
09/22 - 400 Bar, Minneapolis, MN, USA
09/24 - Schubas, Chicago, IL, USA
09/27 - Drake Underground, Toronto, ONT, Canada
09/28 - Mavericks, Ottawa, ON, Canada
09/29 - Casa Del Popolo, Montreal, QC, Canada
10/19 - Rickshaw Stop, San Francisco, CA, USA
10/20 - Music Box At The Henry Fonda, Los Angeles, CA, USA
10/21 - Belly Up Tavern, Solana Beach, CA, USA
10/22 - The Clubhouse, Tempe, AZ, USA
10/24 - White Rabbit, San Antonio, TX, USA
10/26 - Emo's, Austin, TX, USA
10/27 - Warehouse Live Ballroom, Houston, TX, USA
10/28 - Granada Theatre, Dallas, TX, USA
10/29 - Revolution Music Room, Little Rock, AR, USA