The privileges of being a Villager

It’s just gone four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon when I walk into the O2 Academy’s kitchenette for a chat with Conor O’Brien. He sits up from his stretched-out repose on a small leather sofa, slips a hand under a purple beanie to rub at his hat-hair, and places a half-chewed piece of gum politely on the table. He’s tired. The band that he fronts, Villagers, have travelled up to Oxford after selling out the London Scala the night before – ‘a heavy night,’ he admits.

The last year has seen Villagers’ stock rise rapidly. The band enjoyed near-universal acclaim for their Mercury Prize-nominated first LP, Becoming A Jackal, and have been touring the world ever since its release. O’Brien talks of the nomination with endearing modesty: ‘It was…cool. I never know what to say to things like that. It was an honour, I guess, and I felt surprised – I wasn’t expecting it.’ He confesses he felt ‘awkward’ during the ceremony, performing his token song before leaving – perhaps unsurprisingly – empty-handed.
‘I was proud of it,’ he says of the album. ‘I thought it was good when I finished it. I wasn’t doing it for expectations or critical reactions or anything. I imagined the reactions of people standing in front of me when I was singing, and I was imagining a reciprocal thing between the audience and the band’. When the band perform, O’Brien’s youthful Irish twang and mesmerising narratives generate a glass-like aura that commands silence from the audience; to shatter it would be sacrilegious. He has a penchant for carving whole songs out of routine, everyday material (a bus breaking down, a car ride home) – for writing ‘like a child’, as he puts it. Is it really so easy for him to find inspiration? ‘I like things that explore the little universes inside each person as they’re doing the dishes or whatever. It’s the unsaid conversations that don’t really happen… a song is something that says that, you know?’.

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As for influences, O’Brien places great emphasis on Hermann Hesse’s ‘Narcissus And Goldmund’: ‘I was kind of copying it [on Becoming A Jackal]. I wanted to make an album version of that book. That was the main influence in terms of themes.’ Among musicians, he cites Neil Young, Randy Newman, and even Nina Simone – whose raconteur style he evokes on ‘To Be Counted Among Men’, so as to give credibility to the ‘rather preposterous lyrics.’

The band’s evening performance is exceptional in every way; but O’Brien’s solo recitals are what really puts me under a spell. A fully acoustic rendition of ‘Ship Of Promises’ sounds better
than the original, if not as tempestuous. ‘Twenty-Seven Strangers’ holds every listener in rapt attention throughout its duration,
while two brand new songs – ‘Memoirs’ and the haunting, odyssean ‘Cecilia’ – indicate the direction in which O’Brien’s songwriting talent is rapidly progressing.

But despite my prompting, he’s loath to talk about a new album just yet. ‘We’re probably touring through till April, but I might take January off to write’, he says shyly. A pause, then: ‘I’m
just writing the whole time, whatever happens. I’ll probably feel, at some stage, like getting it recorded, but I don’t feel like it right now.’