Having provided us with one of 2015’s finest records in ‘Darling Arithmetic’, it goes without saying that I’m very excited to see Villagers again, when they perform in Vancouver next week, at the Commodore Ballroom with Paul Weller (Tuesday, September 29th).
It is Conor O’ Brien & Company’s second visit here this year, following their wonderful and absorbing show with Calexico back on July 12th. It provides a perfect opportunity/excuse to share an interview done with Conor, prior to the last show.
Originally published by the Vancouver Observer on July 2nd – not long after Ireland’s Marriage Equality vote passed – here it is:
Few, if any, recent Irish act commands as much respect as Villagers, the musical project of Dubliner Conor O’Brien.
Released by indie powerhouse Domino, Darling Arithmetic is a more stripped back affair to the two previous records, both of which were nominated for The Mercury Music Prize; it is Villagers’ most personal album yet. Recorded over eight months last year, with O’Brien putting in eight-hour days, at a barn by his home in Dublin, it is an intimate experience as O’Brien bares his soul on its nine songs.
“It just kind of evolved” that way, O’ Brien says. “I just started writing and tried to let it take me where it did. As it became more personnel and intimate, I realized that was the way it was going, so I was sort of conscious about finishing it of like that. It evolved and then became a conscious thing, and moved into a kind of little project for me to make.”
The fruits of this seclusion are breathtaking, as we’re treated to a delicate and tender, universal album of love and humanity. Previously shy about expressing his sexuality in his music, O’Brien has embraced it on Villagers’ third album.
Amid the softest of musical touches, O’ Brien tackles some of his personal demons, speaking openly about the difficulties that arise with being a gay man in Ireland, and having to deal with “homophobes” and “bigots.”
Previously uncomfortable with discussing his sexuality outside of his personal life, O’ Brien offers candid insight behind change of heart.
“I guess, looking at it objectively, growing up in our country (Ireland), I was 10 years of age when it was made legal to actually be me. I have felt the implications of that since I was born. You learn very quickly not to show people who you are really and how to hide. It’s just something I had to deal with, like most the gay people growing up.”
“When I came to my coming-out journey I guess, a lot people don’t have to come out to potentially hundreds of thousands of people at one time, so it took a little while. I was always writing about it but in a more oblique way, I was using my experiences of it to express more universal themes and this time around I just got a little bit more specific”.”
Fittingly, the album’s release coincided with the run up to Ireland’s Marriage Equality referendum, in which the Irish electorate delivered a resounding ‘Yes’ vote to equality. The result wasn’t always a sure thing, something that played on O’ Brien’s mind. “A few days before the vote I was saying my friends that we couldn’t get too excited as there was a huge possibility that it would be a No. If you look back at the divorce referendum, everyone thought it would be a landslide yes but in the end, it was passed by half a per cent or something. I just had that in my head. I’m really aware that I surround myself with very liberal thinking types and artsy folk, and you can think that’s the world, when it really isn’t.”
The referendum campaign itself provided contrasting experiences for O’ Brien and many others but “the fact the no side didn’t have an argument made it a little easier. It’s a bit funny to be walking around and seeing posters calling into question your ability to be a parent or to have a family.
“I remember thinking that if the referendum hadn’t been won, we’d won anyway to a certain degree, because imagine being 15 or 16 growing up in Ireland, where there’s this huge debate going on, it destroyed any of the invisibility. If I was 15 or 16 now, I’d be out to everybody I know. It changed the landscape by just having the referendum.”
The positivity outweighed and overwhelmed the negative for him though, all the people walking around with ‘Yes’ badges was “mind-blowing,” he said.
“You’re walking down the street and you realise how many people have them on, they were basically saying I’ve no problem with you as a human being,” he said.
Whatever fears or misgivings he had about the result were allayed when the referendum was passed by a resounding 62.07 per cent, making history in the process as the Irish electorate became the first to endorse gay marriage by plebiscite.
As one would expect, this monumental change has meant a great deal to him personally.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever been proud, of Ireland, which is really sad thing to say because there’s always been many reasons to be proud of your country. I didn’t feel like I had been granted access to that side until now”. Adding “I was always very nihilistic and cynical and wouldn’t allow myself to have any nationalistic feelings. I didn’t think I was accepted but now I feel I can travel the world and feel proud to be Irish.”
The next few months will be busy for Villagers. They are hitting the studio to record an album, comprised of songs which make up their current live set, before hitting the gig trail across Europe, North America and Vancouver.
It’s evident, from both Darling Arithmetic and hearing him speak about topics from which he has previously shied away, that O’Brien has developed a new-found confidence. There’s been no better time to see Villagers perform live.