Music

Villagers new album is sum kind of wonderful

Dublin band Villagers return to Belfast this month after releasing album Darling Arithmetic. Frontman Conor O'Brien spoke to Brian Campbell about being cod-interviewed by a comic, loving Bjork and writing about being gay for the first time

Conor O’Brien of Villagers

CONOR O’Brien has been doing the usual round of press and TV as he promotes the new Villagers album and his upcoming Irish tour. And one interview he won’t forget any time soon is the one conducted by comic David O’Doherty.

In a mock-serious exchange, which can be viewed online, O’Doherty asks O’Brien whether his band often gets mixed up with YMCA and In the Navy hit merchants Village People. He gets the singer-songwriter to read out some jokes, times him running 100 metres in a park and then – to O’Brien’s obvious surprise – O’Doherty strips off after asking O’Brien to draw a sketch of him.

“He didn’t tell me that that was going to happen,” laughs O’Brien now. “I was a fan of his before and now we’re mates. I was asked by the record label to do an interview, so I thought that would be a way of making it funny. The label liked it but they made me do a real interview too.”

O’Doherty played the Mandela Hall in Belfast last year and Villagers (O’Brien and his four-piece band) play there on May 25 as part of an Irish tour.

“I love the Mandela. When I was in The Immediate we supported The Magic Numbers and I think I did something else with Villagers there,” says O’Brien. “It’s a cool-shaped room and it’s a cool size. It’ll be our biggest headlining show in Belfast yet, so it’s really exciting. The last time I played there was with John Grant last year, when I got to sing with him.”

That was a show at which Sinead O’Connor was also meant to be a special guest, but Grant revealed on the night that she couldn’t join them because “her kidney stones are on the move”.

“Yeah, she was ill,” recalls O’Brien. “She actually checked herself out of hospital to do the Dublin gig the night before but then she was in agony so she couldn’t come up to Belfast. I was a little scared about meeting her but she was really sweet. And it was quite cool with the three of us on stage; it felt really powerful.”

O'Brien maintains that Belfast is one of his favourite places to play. “It’s always a mixture of people who are really listening and then they’re also really giving back. So when a song ends you get all this applause and people shouting. It makes the gig feel alive. There’s no boring staid reverence. I can’t wait for that gig.”

Villagers are touring their excellent new album Darling Arithmetic, the follow-up to Becoming A Jackal (2010) and 2013’s {Awayland}. It’s a slow-burning but stunning album that moves away from the beats and experimentalism of {Awayland}, with songs stripped back to the core and with O’Brien writing lyrics about being gay for the first time.

On Hot Scary Summer he sings about `all the pretty young homophobes looking out for a fight’ and on Courage he sings, `It took a little time to be honest / It took a little time to be me’.

“I made an effort this time to make stuff which you could really feel in your gut the first time you hear it; rather than have to think about it too much or try and decode it,” he says. "I wanted to make music that was quite clear and simple. Courage kind of lays it all bare and introduces the themes of the album and it sort of sets you up for the rest of the songs.

“The songs are about a few people. A lot of the songs are break-up songs so I was making an effort to make them honour that person.”

The album was all written and recorded at the house in Malahide that O’Brien shares. “There’s a barn outside the house and that’s where I recorded. We talked about going to a studio, but as I kept doing the demos I thought they sounded nice and imperfect and homely and thought if I was to re-record them I would have been kind of acting them out.

“It all took about eight months. I had a couple of songs already. Darling Arithmetic was written a couple of years ago and Hot Scary Summer was written when we were in Japan touring the last album.”

There are some real stunners on the album, including Everything I Am Is Yours, The Soul Serene, the gorgeous Dawning on Me and the album closer So Naïve.

“So Naïve started as the poppiest song on the album but then I stripped it back completely and turned it into this stream-of-consciousness thing. Everyone involved in the business side of the band was like `You’ve just got rid of the single’,” he laughs.

“But I think the words ring true to the initial emotion that I had and I think I was trying to dress it up too much when I first wrote it. I recorded that at about 4am after a `Eureka’ moment. I was lying in bed and thought `I know how to record it now’ and I ran out to the barn and did it in one take.”

In March, O’Brien did a gig in New York and also opened for Laura Marling, who he’s a fan of. He’s also a big fan of Bjork and Blur, both of whom have released new albums and who Villagers got to share a festival bill with in Berlin in 2013.

“Bjork was amazing at that festival; I danced my ass off. I was obsessed with her when I was growing up and she’s still making amazing stuff,” says O’Brien. “And I love Blur. I sang every song back to them in Berlin.”

And as David O’Doherty used to support Dublin singer-songwriter David Kitt on tour, would O’Brien consider enlisting DO’D as his warm-up act at some stage? “I hadn’t thought about it, but that’s a good idea. He’s so funny and then you’d get to chill and listen to music after. That might just work.”

:: Villagers play the Mandela Hall in Belfast on Monday May 25 at 8pm, with support from Ciaran Lavery. Darling Arithmetic is out now on Domino.

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