Noise Annoys: ‘My songwriting is 90 per cent failure’ - Conor O’Brien on crafting new Villagers album That Golden Time and upcoming Irish tour dates

David Roy chats to Dublin indie-folk star Conor O’Brien about the new Villagers album That Golden Time, their upcoming Irish shows and his forthcoming lyric book which features lines you definitely won’t be hearing on the new record

Conor O'Brien of Villagers
Conor O'Brien is back with a new album and Irish tour (Andrew Whitton)
Hi Conor, I hear you’ve been hard at work rehearsing for the upcoming tour?

Yeah, we’ve just done about 10 days of full band rehearsals. The last day was actually more for promo stuff, as we’re going to do an hour-long RTÉ Arena special thing, but one of the guys isn’t available. So we’ve been rehearsing-in another guy, which meant lots of returning to the same songs over and over again. It’s been a lot of fun.

You’re also playing some record shop in-stores to coincide with the album release, will they be solo/acoustic performances?

I think most of them are actually going to be as a two-piece with my keyboard player, Kev, but I think a couple of them are solo for sure - like the one in Bangor [at Bending Sounds on May 18].

But I’ve sort of gotten used to that in the last little while with promo stuff. It’s been nice to strip the songs back to their skeletal origins. They’re going to be a lot of fun.

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You performed a great solo version of recent single You Lucky One on Channel 4′s ‘food and chat’ show Sunday Brunch a few weeks ago - how did that go?

It was done at 7.30am in the morning, so I was quite glad I even had a voice, to be honest. The food was really nice, though it’s a bit weird when you’re eating on live TV. I kept catching little glimpses of myself [in the studio monitors] shoving a crumpet into my mouth, so that made me a bit self-conscious.

But it was fun. Vicky McClure [from Line of Duty and This Is England] was cool, and I was really excited to be sitting right beside Felicity Montagu, who played Lynn on I’m Alan Partridge. I was quite starstruck, because I was kind of obsessed with that show, and especially her character. It was amazing.

That Golden Time will be Villagers’ sixth album, do you still get as excited about releasing a new record as in the early days?

I do, actually. I mean, in a funny way, I’m sort of appreciating it more than I used to, because when I was doing it first time round I was a little bit wet behind the ears. I was kind of hanging on for dear life, because I’m quite naturally introverted, I guess. So I was just getting used to putting on a different kind of face when I was presenting it to people.

Whereas, after doing it six times or whatever, you get a bit older and stop caring so much about the things that were causing you anxiety. Now, I’m just really kind of living in the moment with it all, which, in a strange way makes it even more exciting.

I guess also used to self-medicate a lot more. I was drinking lots and all that kind of stuff, which was numbing. So it feels good to just be fresher with it all and centre the work a lot more.

How are you feeling about That Golden Time as fans prepare to pore over it and attempt to figure out the meaning of your lyrics?

I’m really excited about it. I’m really quietly confident, to be honest: it feels like a really cohesive piece of work, if I do say so myself.

And I actually quite like the idea of people trying to figure out what it’s about. That’s one of my favourite things about art and music, that kind of slightly enigmatic thing where you [as the listener] do half the work. It’s quite an active thing, listening to good songs, I think - at least for me.

So I really worked hard at making sure [these songs] weren’t prescriptive or didactic. They’re almost like little kind of vignettes of ideas that I’ve kind of been obsessed with, or feelings or emotions. There’s just a lot going on in them at the same time.

Conor O'Brien of Villagers
Conor O'Brien (Andrew Whitton)

I think as a listener, hopefully, you can kind of apply your own life experiences to them and sort of feel them in your own way.

I’m actually gonna bring out a book later in the year of all the Villagers lyrics since the beginning. A lot of it is scribbles from my notebooks - drawings, lyrics and the like.

There’s actually a lot of leftover lyrics from these songs that were just a bit too simplistically kind of sociopolitical and just a bit crap, really.

There’s lots of failure in there, basically - that’s the main part of the whole creative thing for me. What you actually get to hear is only, like, 10 per cent of the process.

One of themes of the album seems to be negotiating the dominance of technology and marketing in modern life. Would you agree?

Yeah, transcendence is the main kind of theme of the record, I think. There’s so much bulls*** these days, so many malevolent forces online that are trying to bend you to their will, so many marketplace forces vying for your attention. As soon as you log on to your little machine that was made by child slave labour, you’re complicit.

But we’re in this kind of post-religion, secular, technocratic world where everyone thinks we’re the most enlightened we’ve ever been. So everyone is kind of screaming at each other from a place of moral purity - and it’s just complete bulls***.

Villagers - That Golden Time

I actually became obsessed with the Christian doctrine of original sin while I was writing the record. As much as it’s flawed and has the potential to cause damage, it’s kind of beautiful, because it’s sort of the antithesis of this moral purity that everyone seems to have gotten onto recently, this kind of internet age sense of ‘my tribe is correct and yours isn’t’.

CS Lewis called it chronological snobbery, where the latest civilization always believes it’s the most enlightened: we don’t even look contextually to the past about where we’ve been.

Perhaps we can learn something from people before everyone was thinking in ones and zeros, you know?

That Golden Time is released on May 10. Villagers play Tower Records in Dublin on May 10, Cool Discs in Derry on May 17, Bending Sound Records in Bangor on May 18 and Trinity College Dublin on June 29.