Photography: Rich Gilligan

There’s a serenity about VILLAGERS. A meditative state of calmness, softly bound in lapping waves of melody and observant lyricism. This is confined to the exterior; Conor O’Brien’s creative vessel combusts internally.

Cut through the delicate outer edges, finely constructed, and you come face to face with a musical project built on the deepest honesty. A project comfortable in its acceptance that honesty is not always fixed, often short-lived and capable of unravelling in the face of new discovery. With a desire to self-document at the height of feeling, it’s unsurprising O’Brien often no longer recognises the confessor or all of the confessions colouring his early
musical palette.

Over the course of three studio albums, Villagers has congregated around traditional folk instrumentation, experimented with electronic influences and mastered the control of atmosphere through sparse arrangements lined with emotive sentiment. O’Brien’s latest effort, The Art Of Pretending To Swim, is no less confessional than previous efforts. There’s simply a sense of weightlessness to its compilation; a happiness in understanding confusion that the album’s title eludes to.

Ahead of a Liverpool show next month, we pick up on this theme when we begin our phone conversation. It’s fitting that the mystique of serenity is instantly washed away as Elliot Ryder catches O’Brien wired and breathless; his thoughts still plugged into tour rehearsals which, he informs us, concluded seconds before Ireland’s dialling code was punched into the phone.

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I just wanted to start by touching on the name of your new record, The Art Of Pretending To Swim: is this a metaphor for how you currently perceive your position as a songwriter and musician?Initially it was the name of a song that I was trying to write, but I never actually wrote it. I was trying to write it all the way through the making of the album, however parts of it kept breaking off to form the other songs. In a way, the DNA of that song is scattered throughout the whole album. It seemed fitting I should name the album after it, even if it wasn’t written. For me, though, it was a feeling-based title. It exemplifies the way I see life; you’re not
swimming but you’re equally not drowning. You’re just kind of making it up, you know? The album is trying to say that the sensation is absolutely terrifying, but also rather beautiful. I’ve always found interviews quite difficult because I don’t over-think what I’m writing about when it comes to writing a song. Words are not always prescriptive. In a way I see them as little diagrams of my feelings. All of these feelings that are talked about in hindsight might be true, but I just haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe after a few years of touring the album I’ll
have a better understanding.

Personally, it evokes a sense of self-depreciation, in that you feel your art is a pretence despite the emotive connection it draws from the listener. Is it rather you’re telling us there’s a sense of catharsis in coming to understand you can never explicitly fulfil life’s expectations?
I’m constantly on the verge of feeling like I have no idea what I’m doing. There’s a lot of, ‘Fuck, what even is this, I don’t know what to do’. But, eventually, if I keep hacking away and working at it, my records document something that was in my soul at that time. And I can always see that looking back. Knowing this gives me something to hold on to when I feel like I’ve lost track in the creative process. I have faith in that cycle of creativity. Even if you
are just 100 per cent floating, you have to have faith, you have to have faith in that moment you feel like nothing is coming because that’s all part of the process. It’s a matter of growing to become OK with that, and it’s the same feeling that filters into your life.

You’ve said previously that you don’t listen to your early records, choosing to only give them life through your live shows. Do you think this is due to the confessional strain they carry and, if so, have you consciously attempted to write songs that aren’t so rigidly signposting your emotions at the time of writing?
I’m definitely proud of everything I’ve ever produced, but at times I listen back and I don’t feel as though I recognise the person who wrote some of the tracks. Even down to my voice. I heard a recording of my voice from eight years ago and it really sounds like someone different. The words I’m using and the tone of my voice, even the method I’m using to sing is different. Therefore, you sometimes don’t feel real singing some of those tunes. There are a couple of tunes people shout for at gigs and I just can’t play them; it wouldn’t be a good performance. Nothing would be happening in the room. All you’d be getting is somebody acting out a pantomime version of something that was initially heartfelt and real.

“The song is always finished off by the listener, and I think that’s really beautiful”

Keeping with playing live, do ever feel that your writing is diluted by having to perform so often, in the sense that the painter or poet can simply offer their creation for interpretation and step aside in the moments after?
It’s something that has crept into my mind when writing. However, it’s something to ignore as much as possible, I think. I tend to take anything I say about my music or my songs quite lightly. It is pure feeling based. It’s never put together with the ramifications already in mind. In the beginning, having to talk about my music and justify it really got to me. It made me start overthinking the process because I was worrying over how I would justify it once put together. For me that’s the death of creativity. Although it might sound clichéd, the song is always finished off by the listener, and I think that’s a really beautiful quality of music. It’s true. Quite often the reason I’m writing music is because I have a feeling inside of me that cannot be adequately expressed through discussion, so I put it to tones, run it through sequences, rhythms and build something up that is a little bit more articulate that anything I
can normally say. Sadly, I don’t really have the gift of speech writing, or whatever.

One theme that stands out on the album is your interpretation of faith. Seeing the Stand For Truth silent protests that took place alongside the Pope’s mass in Dublin, do you think your questioning of faith is one that is growing more prevalent in Ireland?
Ireland has changed dramatically in the last 20 years and it is still is changing. Personally, I really enjoy using words like God and faith in my music, because I feel like I’m reclaiming them from the organised religion I was part of as a child, when I started to build up quite negative connotations. When I was very young, the Church was still very prevalent in society and in the education system. It was pretty rotten. For me, the word God can be about
anything that animates you: it could be a person, an object, or even yourself. It really can be anything. All words are compromises anyway, so I enjoy using the likes of God and faith on my own terms. It’s liberating.

Finally, I just wanted to quickly touch on your Liverpool date. As a port city, similar to Dublin, we’re always facing outwards towards Ireland. Do you think being an outward- facing person enables a better, introspective understanding as a musician?
I think there’s no point in trying to love someone unless you can love yourself, and the same can be said in the opposite direction. I think it’s something you have to keep in mind as an artist otherwise you’ll find yourself travelling too deep into the small box that is your own world. You have to keep your eyes open, ears open, and feed back into whatever you’re putting onto the page and singing to audiences. It’s all a sort of necessary energy.

 

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Villagers play Arts Club on 25th October. The Art Of Pretending To Swim is out now via Domino Recordings.

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