Rhian Daly 14/09/2010
Conor O'Brien is sat next to me on a picnic bench, a look of genuine surprise spread across his face. We're both squinting in the early evening sun, the Thames rolling sedately along behind us as I tell him what his debut album Becoming a Jackal means to me. Born and bred in Dublin (Dun Laoghaire, to be precise), perhaps it's quite obvious that the record will serve as a reminder of my time travelling across his home country; the long coach journeys through endless grey November fields interjected with nights spent by rivers and in abandoned candlelit apartments, listening to tales about the devil and the Dublin Mountains. It's more than just the fact that he's from that same place, though. It's that extra sparkle that the songs have, the little something you can't quite explain that resonates with the sparse landscapes and almost traditional storytelling.
“Oh really?! Wow, that's cool”, he enthuses before speaking about how his Irish roots have affected his music. “I think everything has a part in what you do. But I don't really know to what degree and how specifically it does [affect it]. I think it's a really sort of complicated thing. There's a couple of things on the album which I retrieved from childhood memories. I figured out recently, in school we were taught a lot of old Irish folk tales which are all about transformation, changing from a person to an animal and that sort of stuff. Someone asked me about that recently and I was like “Ah yeah, fuck. My album sort of talks about that as well!” So it probably does on a sub-conscious level.”
These days, Conor is the main man in the soon to be Mercury nominated Villagers, a project very much his own after his previous band The Immediate split. Sometime guitar player for fellow Irish songwriter Cathy Davey, he's seen plenty of musical action since he first started writing “silly songs that no one will ever hear” aged 12. Of playing with Cathy, he says “She's an amazing songwriter and seeing someone writing songs from a different perspective - I would never write the way she does and she would say the same about me as well - I'd never been able to encounter that at such close quarters and stuff. And also playing with new people, playing with her band on tour, it was basically just like being a sponge, watching everyone and taking it all up.” He pauses before smiling and adding “And then when you play a show, you squeeze yourself out.”
That's the thing about Conor. Instantly likeable and easy to get along with, he'll talk to anyone who approaches him as though they really matter. Later, as we walk into the Southbank Centre, a woman approaches him and tells him she's not been this excited about a band since The Libertines or Antony and The Johnsons. It's touching to hear, and even more touching to see the reaction - a slight reddening of the cheeks, the near trademark “Wow!” emerging from his lips as he thanks her for being so kind.
Back on the picnic bench and he's telling me about how the record was made, how whenever he had time he'd be “recording and writing, and then reworking songs, doing different versions, playing different instruments on them and trying different things.” Spending so much time labouriously working things out at the demo stage made it easier when it finally came to putting the record together as a whole though.
“By the time we got round to actually recording the album it had kind of all been worked out and it was basically my friend Tommy, we recorded it in his home studio. He brought a couple of ideas but mainly things like what microphones to use to get a particular drum sound, y'know, engineering things. Cormac [Curran, keyboards] arranged the strings on the album because I can't read music or anything, so he wrote the string arrangements and we both went through it together. So there was a bit of collaboration as well but for the most part it was all worked out in the demo stage.”
Do you prefer to be in control of everything yourself, I ask as Conor's previously concentrated gaze wavers, his hands conspicuously moving to cover his face, pupils fixed on something in the distance. “Yeah I think so, I think I sort of... I mean, I was in a band before this which was more collaborative and I think it was quite a big deal to...”, he recollects himself offering the explanation “I just saw someone I didn't want to meet” with an hushed aside that sounds more like it was meant to stay in his head than be put out for me to hear, “I hate that guy.”
I ask the obvious question and he's just about to answer before he remembers the dictaphone in the centre of the table. “Oh no, no, no! He's just a dude from Dublin. I'm going to put [my hoodie] back on. He must be coming to the show. But anyway... what was I talking about?!”
Liking being in control, I remind him. “Oh yeah, well the thing about it was when I was in the band, The Immediate, we grew up together, writing together so it was very natural to collaborate but then, when they split up, I was like there's no way I'm going to start collaborating with someone because it would just be forced. I've never met anyone who I feel any sort of creative connection with really, musically.” Backtracking slightly, he reconsiders, “Well, on certain levels I have but not to the point where I can actually sit in the same room with them and actually conceive a song with them from the very beginning. So I just kind of disappeared... I was on tour with Cathy Davey after the Immediate split up and anytime we had free time... I pretty much had to save money first of all so I didn't really go out very much and second of all, to write and record. So I just stayed in. It was a very solo, solitary, loner kind of experience writing this album. But it was worth it.”
That said, it seems as though he could have carried on on his own, recreating the solitary experience of writing on stage but instead he rounded up enough people to form a backing band. “Playing in a band is one of the most exciting things for me to do,” he explains. “I love playing solo, I love the intimacy you can have but sometimes I really miss the excitement of the band when I'm playing solo.”
Having started Villagers (so christened because “I didn't really know who was going to play in the band and I just thought Villagers because it's such a faceless, anonymous name.”) back in 2008, 2010 was the year when suddenly the pace started to pick up. A solo slot on Later... With Jools Holland introduced him to the nation as someone to keep an eye on whilst also providing a catalyst for comparisons to one Conor Oberst.
“Ever since people have been comparing me to him though everyone's been asking how I feel about it. I don't mind, it's cool. I quite like him. I like loads of different music. I vaguely look like a slightly chubbier version of him, probably about two foot smaller than him. I play an acoustic guitar... whatever, y'know.”
Do you see any similarities between the two of you musically?
“Hm, I don't know, I can only go by what I read and people say it's like a voice thing. I'm not sure. I think maybe he's slightly more jagged and I'm slightly more round voiced,” he suggests before throwing the American Conor a challenge. “I do a lot more falsetto stuff. I've never heard him do that. There we go, Conor Oberst. Try that on your next record.”
Showing his sparkling wit in response to the next question (who does influence his music), he immediately replies with the Bright Eyes man's name before laughing and giving his serious answer. “No, musically speaking? Loads of stuff. When we were recording this album, I was personally listening to a lot of Nina Simone. I know the album doesn't sound anything like Nina Simone but that's what I was getting energy from, I loved it. We were listening to a lot of Neil Young, which helped us with the simplicity of the arrangements. A lot of Dylan, I love Dylan.”
That evening, Conor will take to the stage by himself at the Southbank Centre as part of Richard Thompson's Meltdown festival curation. “Totally excited” to have been picked to play, Conor's looking forward to playing such a beautiful venue, describing his earlier soundcheck as “it felt like the sound was coming back gold, lush” before admitting that “Shows can be really unpredictable. You do a soundcheck in the most beautiful venue and think it's going to be the best show ever and then you just won't feel it on the night. And then you can play in the shittiest place and it can be the best gig you've ever played. A lot of the times it'll depend on the people at the show.”
It's nearly time for him to go prepare for his performance so we begin to wrap it up, briefly discussing his non-stop schedule for the rest of the year (he's worried about not finding time to write; “I've not really had the time to finish songs. I've got loads of little ideas and then I have to go somewhere, it's like “Arrrgh, no! My baby!”) and knocking Justin Bieber off the top of the Irish album charts. “That was really exciting. That was cool. I wasn't really expecting it. [It] was probably the happiest day of my life,” he remarks as we move from the picnic bench to the foyer. His adoring fan comes and goes as Conor jokes about heading off to do his neck exercises pre-show.
Before he goes, he shares one last thing. “I really like playing big places and filling the whole room with intimate secrets.” That's just what he goes on to do half an hour later, to a crowd who sit in total, enthralled silence, and no doubt what he'll continue to do for the rest of the year and beyond.