Everything I Am: Interview with Villagers
Quite honestly I wasn’t that thrilled with this piece, which was quickly put together based on a last minute mail correspondence. In spite of that others seemed to really enjoy it, and TIDAL has even used it in their advertising. I’m also very fond of the album. ]
Conor O’Brien may sport a fetching beard these days but the third album he’s recorded as Villagers finds the Dubliner shaving his music right down to the bone.
In contrast to his 2010 debut album Becoming A Jackal and its 2013 successor [Awayland], both highly-acclaimed and Mercury-nominated, Darling Arithmetic is a brave and committed step to stripping his art bare of ornamental veneers, and revealing a truer image of himself while at it.
O’Brien plays every instrument on these exquisite, melodic songs in a beautifully sparse fashion, as well as recording and mixing it himself at home, revealing a single-minded artist at the peak of his already considerable songwriting powers.
Reflecting on his newfound sparseness, O’Brien recalls, “On [Awayland] I was experimenting with lots of stuff, which I really enjoyed. But when I started this album, I wanted to get on one line, with the same feeling from start to finish, that I was emotionally satisfied with. Right before I started writing the songs, I watched De Sica’s film Bicycle Thieves, which has this one clear vision, so beautifully executed and so simple. I even thought of giving each song its own love adjective, like ‘Unrequited’ or ‘Unconditional’. I’d been a bit disappointed in myself for hiding behind metaphors.”
Lyrically, O’Brien has found a similar bareness, revealing more of himself than ever before.
Darling Arithmetic is entirely about love and relationships – not in a long-winded, conceptual narrative manner but a concise statement of nine songs and 37 minutes, encompassing the various shades of feeling – desire, obsession, lust, loneliness and confusion, and deeper into philosophical and existential territory, across a cast of lovers, friends, family and even strangers.
Three albums in, Villagers is the front for playfulness and seriousness, mystery and revelation, an open-ended and flexible beast that can be anything its creator wants it to be.
By going back to the root of songwriting, O’Brien has reinvented himself. As he said when releasing his first album, “I don’t want Villagers to be the finished product, but to be constantly changing, moving and growing. I’m really proud of this album but I feel like I’ve only just started getting somewhere, and I can hear so much more.”
We shared a brief correspondence with with O’Brien while he was on tour.
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This album appears to be your most honest in terms of songwriting, as well as as your most stripped down in terms of sound. Did you reach some kind of change or revelation in how you make music? Is this what Villagers will sound like next time around?
I suppose you could call it a revelation. I think perhaps it was a million tiny little revelations all informing each other. I have absolutely no idea what Villagers will sound like next time around, which is exciting for me.
You’ve said it was important that you to make these songs universal, even while opening up about your personal life. Can you talk about why that was important for you?
I think openness in music and art in general is an important quality. I’ve always battled with the idea that creating something deeply personal can somehow void it’s universality but when I was writing this collection of songs, I voided that idea. This was a good decision. It seems obvious to me now, but the realization that plumbing my own depths could somehow end up creating something as transparently universal as these songs was a profoundly revelatory one to make.
Was your opening up about sexuality influenced by the growing acceptance in society, or was it a point you reached in your own life that made you more keen to talking about it?
It was a little bit of both. From the moment I became self aware, I was made to feel uncomfortable about my sexuality by society. Even now, at the age of 32, I can’t hold my partner’s hand in public without getting, at best, disapproving looks or, at worst, threats of violence. I’m one of the lucky ones having grown up in a wonderful and supportive family environment.
Of course there is a growing acceptance in society but I can’t help but think that many straight people simply can’t relate to the grating consistency of the need to repress yourself on a daily basis, whether subtly or explicitly. Indeed, many LGBTQ people can’t either, because we’ve had to assimilate it into our selfhood in order to stay sane, thus normalizing it and losing sight of the sheer level of outrage we should, by rights, be feeling on a daily basis.
These songs give the impression you’ve had your fair share of experience with the ups and downs of relationships. Were you trying to impart any particular wisdom on this record?
I definitely don’t feel “wise,” but I think the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said it best: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” I like that quote.
I love every song on the album, but “Courage” and “Hot Scary Summer” have a particular haunting beauty to me.
“Courage” is pretty self explanatory I think. “I took a little lover but then we parted”. What else can I say about it? I suppose my favorite line to sing is: “Courage: the sweet relief of knowing nothing comes for free.” It’s about allowing the lines on your face to settle into your skin and to become friends with them.
“Hot Scary Summer” is a little time traveling tune about reflection at the end of a relationship. It’s a song of honour. There’s a theme developing here, as you can see.
Given that you recorded the album by yourself at home, how do the songs change with a band, in a live context?
We’re currently on tour so the songs are in the process of developing into different creatures. The most obvious way they change is that there is a different set of instruments in the live show, so the songs are being arranged in a new light. It’s very exciting.