Previous to forming Villagers, O'Brien was a member of the fondly regarded The Immediate, who released just the one album, and who were tipped to break through until their sudden split in 2007. After a spell with Cathy Davey's band as guitarist, O'Brien set about forming Villagers, only his second ever 'band', making their debut at the tail-end of 2008, and enjoying early comparisons to Bright Eyes and Sparklehorse, his music often being described as sparse and eerie, while lyrically his dark thoughts were yet deeply humanistic, and universal, communing the autobiographical with story telling narrative.
Although Villagers is ostensibly a band, O'Brien often makes the music all by himself. Darling Arithmetic was written, recorded, produced and mixed by Conor at his own home studio. He even played all the instruments. It proved to be his most intimate, soul-baring album, that spoke of his experiences of heartbreak and break-ups, as well as his sexuality, an issue that became a huge matter in Ireland last year, as the general population were confronted by a momentous referendum question, about whether or not to vote to legalize marriage equality for its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens. With this looming question, and thanks to meeting and talking with the now openly gay songwriter John Grant, O'Brien's writing approach for Darling Arithmetic became much more direct and personal: "… I'm going to be really simple and clear about the way I feel right now and what ever comes out comes out," he has said. "And then what came out was stuff that I've experienced in my life with relationships and love or lack of love and all these things that I hadn't really allowed myself to sing about before. It was quite a cathartic experience."
In a way, Darling Arithmetic became a sort of soundtrack for the Irish marriage referendum, O'Brien's understated style a welcome antidote to the confrontational and sloganeering methods of someone like Bono.
Now that the Irish have overwhelmingly voted Yes, and with O'Brien feeling more confident in his sexuality, he's moved on. Inspired by recent events he decided to re-visit his back catalogue, and re-record a batch of songs, live, and all in just one day. The result is Where Have You Been All My LIfe?
Recorded on one July day at London's RAK Studio with Richard Woodcraft and Villagers live engineer Ber Quinn, 18 songs were quickly recorded, and 12 were chosen for the new album. These recordings are all first or second takes, with the emphasis being on unadorned immediacy wherever possible.
The unique nature of these arrangements is due in no small part to the musicians in the room at the time of recording: Cormac Curran on grand piano and analogue synthesizer, Danny Snow on double bass, Mali Llywelyn on harp, mellotron and vocals, and Gwion Llewelyn on drums, flugelhorn and vocals. The result is a lush, harmony-laden and vibrant document of a time and a place, with particularly memorable performances of songs such as memoir, Everything I Am Yours, Hot Scary Summer, and a fine interpretation of Glen Campbell's classic, Wichita Lineman.
Below, Conor O'Brien took time out to answer some questions about the new album, his writing processes and the Irish referendum, and its impact on himself.
Can you explain why you wanted to do this kind of album? What was the inspiration and reasoning behind it?
I like the idea of a recording being a document of where the songs are on a particular day, rather than a blueprint or something solid and unalterable. I'd never really explored that and it seemed like the perfect time to do it.
How did you choose what songs you wanted to cover? Was there any theme or otherwise guiding your decisions?
I think it was an emotional process more than anything. There wasn't much rational thinking involved if I remember correctly (which I probably don't).
Is ‘re-imagined’ the right word to describe these recordings?
Yes, I like that word, thanks.
I understand the album was recorded in a live setting, in one day. Can you talk us through your decision to do it this way, and how it differed from your normal way of doing things. Was it a challenge?
It was definitely a challenge, which is reason enough really. We planned on getting 18 songs on tape before the end of the day, and we succeeded. It was a really satisfying thing to do from a musician's perspective. When you leave yourself no option of doing overdubs or re-takes, there's an element of "fight or flight" that kicks in. It's interesting. I like the way I sing on these recordings because I can hear myself letting go of everything and focusing in on absolute commitment to the song.
There seems to be a strong movement towards recording as much as possible live, in a relatively naturalistic setting. Would you agree, and does this make for more ‘honest’ music?
Really? I would argue that the opposite is true. There's definitely been a movement towards making recordings that sound like they're live cuts. I think there's an app for that now.
Is the track Memoir the first time you have recorded this yourself?
No, it was b-side to 'The Waves' a couple of years ago, but this is the first time I recorded it with a group.
Did you specifically write Memoir for Charlotte Gainsbourg? How did this come about?
Someone from her record label saw me playing a show in Paris and asked me if I'd like to write a song for her. I'd already written the first two verses of Memoir but I'd never known where to take it. When I imagined her voice singing it, the song suddenly wrote itself. It was so weird.
And Wichita Lineman? Why this song?
It's just such a beautiful song. It's one of my favourites.
When listening to your back catalogue did you find yourself disappointed with anything, therefore giving impetus to wanting to re-record anything in particular?
No, I'm proud of everything I've made so far. I don't listen to most of it and I can't identify with a lot of the choices I made, but it's all just a document of where my head was at at the time. They feel like photo albums to me. Embarrassing sometimes but ultimately worth keeping. If a song sounds unfocused to me, I know that it's because I was feeling unfocused at the time. If it sounds dishonest, it's because I was exploring dishonesty. It's all worthwhile because I know for a fact that it was all written out of love.
Why the title of the album?
It's such a dramatic declaration of commitment and that's what the session as a whole meant to me; diving into a feeling head-first and letting it take you where it wants to go. It's dangerous and naïve but most journeys are if they're of any worth.
With Darling Arithmetic, your writing became more personal. And less use of metaphors and symbolism? I’m sure there a number of factors behind that, but could it also have been put down to a heightened confidence, and desire to speak from the heart, as it were?
It's the only thing that was fuelling the fire so I had no choice. I don't necessarily feel like I'm in the driving seat when I'm making music or writing words. I had a lot of ghosts to deal with, mostly relating to love or lack thereof as well as the constant low level hum of bigotry which I've experienced since birth. I've been screamed at and chased down the street for kissing my lover but the experiences that hurt the most are often far more subtle and embedded than that.
For many, The big news this year was the Irish becoming the first country in the world to legalise marriage equality via popular vote. What did you think the result would be? And has there been any improvement in terms of less homophobia or bigotry, etc?
I was quietly confident that it was going to be a Yes until about two days before the vote. I'm actually starting to well up thinking about it. We had two sold out shows in Dublin right before the vote. I felt like my head was about to explode. You're forced into a situation where you actually have to stand for something. Ultimately, that's a very good position to be in except for the fact that I'm not that kind of person. I'm just not. I'm a introvert through and through. I really had to force myself to go out on stage each night and I'm so glad I did. It's a different country now. It still feels impossible for me to hold my boyfriend's hand in public but at least now I know that that's my problem rather than theirs.
For the tour what will your live set up be?
We've got keyboards, harp, flugelhorn, double bass, acoustic guitar, and lots of three part harmonies.
Can I ask you how you go about writing songs; is it lyrics or music first. Many re-drafts?
It's always different. I've never really had a system. I change things quite often and sit on ideas for long periods of time until they eventually become worthy of an audience.
What are you reading at the moment, and is it good!?
I'm devouring "Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives From Wilde to Almodóvar" by Colm Tóibín. I like it very much.
Apart from touring, what is the plan for the year ahead? Any new music being worked on, or other projects?
I've just built myself a little studio and I'm beginning to make little experimental pieces of music. I can't seem to write anything except titles at the moment. I just keep writing disconnected sentences that sound like song titles. It's very strange. Besides that I'm bringing the group on tour again throughout late January and all of February. I'm starting to have some ideas.
Read our review of their new album here: brightonsfinest.com/html/index.php/12-music/1148-villagers-where-have-you-been-all-my-life
Where Have You
Been All My Life
Becoming a Jackal
Occupy Your Mind