by / April 8th, 2015 /

Villagers

“Yeah… I don’t know why I said that. I kind of disagree with that. I think I sort of am. I go through phases, I suppose…”

Conor O’Brien is backtracking over something he said in an interview two years ago. Something plainly at odds with the person sitting before me, politely sipping bad coffee and regularly dropping a decidedly goofy “huh-huh-huh” giggle into the conversation. “I’m not a people person,” the boyish wonder of Irish indie folk had told The Telegraph’s Neil McCormick back then.

“Now see here,” I complain. “I’ve met you a few times and you seem perfectly lovely.”

Watery blue puddles crease in the areas where his eyes should be. More “huh-huh”s precede a bashful frown. “I think I was in a weird place when I did that interview.” It probably was a bit weird being Conor J O’Brien then. The 29-year-old was about to release {Awayland}, his second LP under the moniker Villagers. It seemed that after years of Ireland producing also-rans, nearly-men and bridesmaids, a white-hot hope had sprung from this island, fully formed from the ashes of The Immediate and equipped with a songbook that could thud into ears like an arrow hitting a tree. Awards, nominations, sold-out shows and superlatives were being laid at his Domino-managed feet. Hozier is now “a thing”, but you can’t help but think that O’Brien’s ascension, the way his music demanded to be taken seriously by critics far beyond these plamasach shores, somehow lit a torch for the Wicklow crooner.

And all this the result of burrowing away for long spells to tinker and tailor his music without interference from “people”. He’s still at it but seems to have struck a balance between the solitude that creativity sometimes insists on and the need for human temperatures. “I think when I’m working I can’t help but go into a bubble of ‘I know that I’m on a particular journey creatively and I’m going to see it through and I don’t really have an outside’. And then other times I feel really weak about that and I get writer’s block and I just think, ‘what am I even doing, what is this? This is a bizarre way to live. I should get a job.’”

Anyone who’s already heard Darling Arithmetic will know that he really shouldn’t. Villagers’ third LP is a wondrous thing, an edible collection of earthy ruminations on love that feels as if it’s been handed directly to you on a cassette by O’Brien himself. Gone are the tremulous mutations of Becoming A Jackal or {Awayland}’s slick horizon scans. At 31, he’s looking in the mirror a bit less, I offer.

“Totally. Yeah. Except for the hair!” he guffaws. “I mean, I wouldn’t have been able to write this album five years ago when I wrote …Jackal. I didn’t have as much life experience. I was relying more on my imagination to make things whereas I had loads of raw material this time around in my life. Every time I do an album, it takes about a year of my life away from me socially and otherwise, so it’s important that I take different journeys each time or else I’d go mad. If I tried to make a super-epic {Awayland}-type album again I wouldn’t have enjoyed it and nothing interesting would have come from it. So I decided to go more inward, I guess. Use less the head and go more the heart.”

Here, O’Brien slowly discovered, he wasn’t afraid to write “really direct songs from the first person”. Like Kavanagh, he ended up being able to locate the universal in the particular, crafting songs that anyone – “straight, gay, of any sort of personality differences” – could relate to. He remembers coming off stage in London one night having provided backing vocals for one of his favourite artists. “I have to write songs like this,” O’Brien recalls saying to himself the moment he alighted. The song was called ‘Glacier’, and the artist was of course John Grant.

“I asked if I could do that one because it meant so much,” he gushes about Grant’s stirring torch song. “There was so much untapped stuff that, well, I’d been tapping, but in a different way. On the earlier Villagers albums, the lyrics are quite closeted… about the experience of hiding yourself and not being comfortable with a society that does reject you every single day and makes you feel castigated and different. And I think for this album I was afraid of losing that, because when I wrote those albums I was feeding off this indignant energy, this anger, this idea of not quite being able to be who you are. I was, in my private life, but I wasn’t comfortable talking to cameras or journalists about it. Because I’ve had experiences myself of being threatened with violence.”

Really? “Oh yeah. Growing up in Ireland in the nineties as a gay teenager was not fun.”

He is nodding towards the “pretty young homophobes” in ‘Hot Scary Summer’, a swaying diary extract on Darling Arithmetic that recalls a public display of affection attracting the wrong kind of attention. “I was like, ‘I’m in my thirties now and I don’t really care anymore.’ And it was interesting to write from that place. But there was a fear of ‘what’s my new energy going to be? How am I going to feel the need to write? Where’s the tension? So it felt like a gamble writing this album, really new and fresh but also a bit terrifying on that level.”

He agrees that Irish society’s changing attitude to same-sex couples in the last few years has been encouraging. Good riddance to those days when a national treasure like Conor O’Brien felt “isolated” and unable to talk about who he simply was. “Oh it’s hugely different. Hugely different. It was only legal to be me or practice being me when I was 12 or 13, which is a strange thing to say. The Panti speech, the ‘noble call’ and stuff, that was happening while I was writing this album and I was like, ‘this is cool, it feels like a collective thing, it feels natural.’”

We chat away. He coolly champions the things he loves such as Girl Band, Roberta Flack, Luke Abbott, The Gloaming and Bonnie Prince Billy. When I tell him his white facepaint stunt the night he won the Choice Music Prize made him look like the Grim Reaper in Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey, he cackles aloud (“not one person ever mentioned it to me all night!”).

But an image lingers after we part ways, that of the “indoorsy” boy eager to show off his drawings to anyone new to gain acceptance. A boy who remained indoors, “being quite unhealthy, not getting enough sun” but found new tools to project with. Strings, skins and keys.

Then came people into the life of the man who once said he was “not a people person”. Collaborators to the man who still swears he is “terrible at collaborating”. The Immediate (David Hedderman supplies the artwork for Darling Arithmetic). Cathy Davey. His Villager bandmates. Richie Egan. Elvis Costello. John Grant. And so on.

The ingredients to Conor O’Brien may sound like a conundrum. But sometimes the best things do.

Darling Arithmetic is released on Friday.

Follow Hilary A White @HAWhiteK