‘You guys are really quiet,’ says a slightly bemused Conor O’Brien to the enrapt O2 Academy. Such is the respect in the room for the lyrically rich and atmospherically crafted songs that constitute Villagers’ debut album, Becoming A Jackal. Written by O’Brien, who, for all intents and purposes, is Villagers, Becoming A Jackal is an album that began as a sketch (the same sketch which went on to become the album artwork), and whose chief themes combine everything from transfiguration to death. It has seen Villagers nominated for last year’s Mercury Prize and honoured with an Ivor Novello Award for the lead single ‘Becoming A Jackal’, cementing their place on Britain’s musical scene and O’Brien’s reputation as a song writer.
When we talked earlier in the day, O’Brien commented that ‘it’s a weird thing about awards. It’s nice to be nominated, particularly for the less commercially driven ones like the Ivors because it’s voted for by other musicians. But I’m just trying to not let it go to my head and concentrate on writing.’ The success that the last year has brought should certainly be enough to enhance any band’s confidence. Coming off the back of a tour supporting Elbow in arenas across the country, O’Brien felt that ‘our songs seemed to fit in that bigger environment. They’re kind of cinematic and because of that they have the potential to fill the large spaces.’ Asked if that meant he preferred playing the big arenas to the more intimate venues he replied: ‘Not really. You can never pre-determine whether a show is going to be good. It depends entirely upon the atmosphere of the room and the people. It differs from venue to venue.’
There was certainly no sign of any stadium hangover as Villagers took to the stage. O’Brien began the set solo, playing a new song about statues which revealed the humorous side of his song-writing and immediately captured the attention of the crowd. His live renditions differed saliently from the studio versions; ‘The Meaning of the Ritual’ featured the kind of breakdown ending that we are more used to hearing at the end of the album version of ‘Pieces’, whereas ‘Pieces’itself was performed by O’Brien as another simple acoustic solo number.
O’Brien confesses to be ‘too much of a perfectionist when recording. I recorded all the instruments on the album myself and then taught them to the other guys in the band the way that I played them. It’s nice to take the songs on tour because they develop; the guys in the band are all my friends from home and they each develop their own take on the songs.’
The show itself featured four or five new songs including ‘The Bell’ and ‘Memoir’, the latter of which was recently released in collaboration with Charlotte Gainsbourg for Record Store Day. On the possibility of a new albumO’Brien remained elusive: ‘I can sort of see the shape of the new album but it won’t be out for a while – maybe not even next year. Sometimes I go through phases, like now, where I wonder if I’ve lost the ability to write songs just because I haven’t written one for a couple of weeks. I want to be sure that I have a set of songs that are ready to be released and sound like an album. I just hope people will wait around long enough to hear it.’ Judging by the attentive silence of the O2 audience, I am sure that they will.