“Sadness And Beauty Have Always Come Hand In Hand,” A Conversation With Conor O’Brien Of Villagers

Conor O’Brien of Villagers is the kind of songwriter who stirs a deep emotional well, surfacing feelings long forgotten or never before found. The Irish troubadour has a way with words that is both succinct and heartbreaking, never shying away from raw simplicity. Coming to prominence in 2010 with debut album Becoming A Jackal, he reached #1 in his home country with this record and his following two releases, and has subsequently gathered a dedicated world wide following.

Villagers’ latest effort Where Have You Been All My Life? was released on January 8th, and is a collection of songs that brings together some of the most touching moments of the last five years into one flowing narrative. The album was recorded in a single day at London’s RAK Studios and captures a sense of immediacy and spontaneity, breathing fresh life into old material. The final product is twelve tracks of rich soundscapes featuring a stellar cast of musicians, including Cormac Curran on grand piano and analogue synthesizer, Danny Snow on double bass, Mali Llywelyn on harp, mellotron and vocals, and Gwion Llewelyn on drums, flugelhorn and vocals. The album also features the first recording by Villagers of the track Memoir, originally written for Charlotte Gainsbourg for her 2011 album Stage Whisper.

We recently posed some questions to O’Brien on the eve of the album release, keen to understand the recording process and some of the personal influences that go into his song writing process.

Where Have You Been All My Life brings five years and three albums into a single narrative and was recorded in one day with minimal takes. What inspired you to take this pared back approach to capturing the essence of these songs?

Just being a musician, really. There was no sophisticated thought process behind it. We’d been touring quite a lot and the songs were in a really unique place so it made sense to capture that.

Were you looking to bring out something in these tracks that you felt was not translated in the original recordings, or was it more about distilling the spontaneity and energy of the recording process itself?

The latter. I’m proud of every recording I’ve ever been part of, regardless of whether I can still relate to it. These recordings aren’t about “fixing” anything, they’re more about revisiting songs and imbuing them with everything I’ve experienced since they were written.

Can you tell us about how the day unfolded, what the space was like, and any really special moments?

The whole album was recorded in one day in RAK Studios in London, which is a very beautiful place to make music in. A special moment for me was listening back to the recording of ‘Darling Arithmetic’ and having to leave the room because I was too embarrassed about the tears which were streaming down my face. I find it difficult to cry in front of people! The band were incredible that day. Everything you can hear on the album is done live in the room; no overdubs or edits.

You have said that you’re still often discovering what a song means when you sing it on tour well after the recording. Is that what you’re doing with this album in a way too? Was there any new meaning you discovered along the way?

My favourite songs to sing are the ones that I can take to different places depending on my mood as I’m performing them. Often these changes are subtle but sometimes they require more seismic shifts in the structure of the music. The album reflects this.

On the first track of the album Set The Tigers Free there is a line that says, “True love feeds on absences, like pleasure feeds on pain, so no matter where I’m standing I still love you all the same.” Sadness and beauty always seem so deeply entwined in your lyrics. Are these two ideas contingent for you?

Sadness and beauty have always come hand in hand. I don’t really know why and I’m usually struggling to break free from it. It feels like art is a good receptacle for all those thoughts and emotions that are inexpressible in most everyday settings. Maybe it is a form of therapy.

You have such a knack for exploring relationships and heart ache through your lyrics. What do you think are the vital ingredients for penning a good ballad?

There’s never a “right” or a “wrong” way to create music. Every idea is valid. The trick is to record all of it in your notebook or your phone or whatever, and then spend the rest of your time sorting through it and figuring out what works.

All three of your albums have reached #1 in your home country, where folk music has such a long and rich history. Is it important to you to continue and contribute to that story telling culture?

I don’t necessarily feel tied to any specific folk tradition, although maybe I picked up a lot subconsciously when I was younger. Music and storytelling is everywhere in Ireland and that’s something I only really began to appreciate when I started travelling around the world. It’s easy to take it for granted.

Soul Serene is such a lovely and reflective track and is quite philosophical and meditative compared to some of the other tracks on the album. What is the soul serene to you?

There’s absolutely no way I can put that into words. I suppose that’s why I wrote the song. The music does it for me! As the song says: “I’ve got no reason to figure out what it means”.

Your songs, especially on your last album, explore ideas about homophobia and bigotry. With same sex marriage legalised in Ireland earlier this year, how do you feel about the shift we are seeing in attitude globally? Are you feeling more of that acceptance personally? How does that compare now to the types of experiences that influenced a song like Little Bigot?

It’s a beautiful thing, but there is still so much more work to do. I’ve never felt more connected to the society around me as I did in the weeks and months surrounding the marriage referendum. It’s a funny feeling having the same human rights as everyone else and it’s something I’m still getting used to.

You have said a couple of times that you like to leave enough space in your lyrics and songs so that they can be relatable to everyone regardless of sexuality or gender. Are you trying to make the kind of music that people can identify with and use as a bit of catharsis in challenging times?

Perhaps. To be honest, I write purely from an emotional perspective so to discover any sort of righteous motivations within the words is an interesting development for me. It suggests that there are moral motivations buried deep inside. I’m quite a self-involved individual though, so I’d be wary of aligning myself with any sort of moral high ground.

Does writing your music work as a bit of therapy for you too? Are there any other ways you like to work through painful experiences and emotions? 

Yes. I experience quite high levels of anxiety when I haven’t made anything for any long periods of time. I guess the songs do a little bit of excavating!

This latest album revisits existing material. Are you working on new material at the moment as well? How has your style evolved since opening up and reflecting on more personal content on Darling Arithmetic?

I’ve built myself a little studio and I’m at the experimental stage at the moment. I feel like I’m in heaven.

We look forward to hearing what is next for the band. In the meantime, you can get Where Have You Been All My Life? here.

Full track listing:

1. Set the Tigers Free
2. Everything I Am is Yours
3. My Lighthouse
4. Courage
5. That Day
6. The Soul Serene
7. Memoir
8. Hot Scary Summer
9. The Waves
10. Darling Arithmetic
11. So Naive
12. Wichita Lineman