Conor O’Brien of Villagers: ‘We’re living through a bit of an unenlightened age’

The songwriter on new album That Golden Time, his life as a ‘solo traveller’ and why he loves touring despite his introversion

Villagers: Conor O’Brien: 'I think I’m quite obsessive with the way I structure my stuff.' Photograph: Andrew Whitton

Conor O’Brien doesn’t take up much space, not even in an elevator, yet his intellect is as broad as it is long. He is a voracious reader, he has the gift of the gab, and in the past 15 years he has released a sequence of Villagers albums that has brought him multiple plaudits. These include two Ivor Novello awards – in 2011, for best song musically and lyrically, for Becoming a Jackal; and in 2016, for best album, for Darling Arithmetic – and two Mercury Prize nominations, in 2010, for Becoming a Jackal, and in 2013, for Awayland. O’Brien is also the only Irish musician to have had each of his five studio works nominated as Choice Music Prize Irish album of the year. His new collection, That Golden Time, released last month, is certain to be the sixth.

Not that O’Brien is interested in such peripheral matters. He is back in Dublin after media duties in Germany, a country where he gets to “talk about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and all their crazy existential philosophers”. Northern Europe has taken to Villagers – “Holland, Belgium ... And Germany has something of an obsession with Irish music, which obviously goes back to the days of Planxty, The Dubliners and all that stuff, back in the day.

“Obviously, I don’t really do that music, but I think I’m quite obsessive with the way I structure my stuff. That connects with the obsessive weirdos in the Villagers audience and people who like the music because it’s heavily worked on and, I suppose, emotionally gratifying for them.”

The words “obsessive” and “obsessed” crop up regularly in the conversation. He agrees that his work is more than merely a labour of love, that it’s a compulsion requiring a meticulously executed result. He talks about the way making music takes over his life, and how most of the time it’s uncomfortable because he feels that he’s failing, but that fear of failure spurs him to keep trying. He quickly corrects himself. “Actually, it’s more like failing as often as you can. Most of what you’re hearing when you hear a Villagers record is 10 per cent of the full work – you’re not hearing 90 per cent of the shite that has been thrown away.”


Making music, he adds, allows him to uncover what’s going on in his head. Such exploring, he says, is addictive. Does he occasionally wonder what it would be like if he didn’t fixate on things so much? “I would be a disaster. I’m terrible at most other things in life ... I’m not a very good waiter – I found that out the hard way.” Could he change a flat tyre? Impressively, he knows that 1.6mm is the legal minimum depth for a tyre tread. “I’m a good driver.” He says that he isn’t “your average DIY guy”, but beyond that he’s admitting little.

Villagers: That Golden Time review – Conor O’Brien delivers his most striking album yetOpens in new window ]

He’s happy to disclose that preparing for his current tour, which includes a gig at Trinity College Dublin this month, has involved revisiting his back catalogue. “The last couple of weeks we’ve done about 10 days of rehearsals, and we’re reintroducing old Villagers songs as far back as from the first album,” he says, referring to Becoming a Jackal. “Through that, I’m finding connections with them again. We didn’t play them for years because I didn’t feel I was authentically able to sing them, but now I can, which is interesting and fun. Perhaps there’s some sort of full-circle thing going on at the moment in my creative endeavours.”

With the last two Villagers albums, The Art of Pretending to Swim, from 2018, and Fever Dreams, from 2021, O’Brien says he wanted to make music to fill venues. “I was obsessed with learning the flugelhorn and the trumpet and listening to lots of big-band stuff. I was, like, fuck the acoustic guitar, let’s just make groovy library music or cinematic soundscapes and all the rest. But with the new album I sensed there was something stewing inside of me that would create much more interesting narrative-based songs with a bare-bones approach to the arrangements, or something a bit more transparent for the listener to explore. By transparent, I mean that you can actually hear the song and the words rather than all the whistles and bells on top of it.”

Does he regard simplification as crucial for grabbing the attention? “I am a fan of concise pieces of art. I love when someone has spent a lot of time creating something of clarity, but you can also present little puzzles and complicated or nuanced feelings in a three-minute pop song for it to still have a sense of clarity. I love music that works on a simple, base level yet, if you wanted to dig deeper, there is more to find. On That Golden Time there’s definitely a lot more you could find, a lot of little secret pockets in the lyrics.”

O’Brien is quick to emphasise that he doesn’t give these matters too much thought. He writes the songs, he enjoys making music and that’s about it, although he admits he writes to learn – about himself, among other areas. “I write to reflect what I’m reading, what I’m seeing, the people I’m meeting, the ideologies I’m encountering. It’s a bit of a self-defence mechanism for me, because in this internet age we’re living through there are so many trapdoors, a lot of malevolent forces trying to bend you to their will and cause division amongst people.”

He talks about the disorientation people are feeling by willingly, constantly exposing themselves to “all the lights and the screens. We’re living through a bit of an unenlightened age, and I found myself exploring that cloudy grey area we all live in and look at every day. As soon as you post something about something online, be it sanctimonious or ethical – or anything – you’re doing it on a machine that was made by child labour in the Congo ... We’re all complicit, and through music and art I find interesting ways to explore how complicit I am.”

O’Brien admits that he has always been a “solo traveller”. He relates a story about shutting the door on his schoolmates, ignoring their pleas to come outside and play football. “I really need my alone time to recharge,” he says. But he is also a big fan of touring. He knows this doesn’t necessarily go with being an introvert. “It must be something to do with my psychology, but the structure of touring really helps me. Even though I’m around people constantly, socialising all the time, I love the structure of it – having to be at the venue for a certain time to do the soundcheck and so on. And then, of course, you have that moment every evening where you’re just connecting with the art you spend years trying to make.” His eyes open wide just thinking about it. “That’s magic, and something I really live for.”

Too much touring can be the opposite of magic, but O’Brien says he’s now good with schlepping from country to country, gig to gig, dressing room to dressing room, hotel to hotel. He admits that occasionally hitting the self-destruct button became a problem. “That’s all gone now. I haven’t touched ... I don’t do any of that, and it feels great. I’m enjoying living in the present and just being in my body, and understanding my place in the physical world. It’s a nice feeling to shift gear a bit.” He is learning about new ways to intoxicate himself, he says, but is wary of outlining exactly how, “because it’s so boring when people start talking about that”.

We change the subject, back to the time he stopped leaving his house to play soccer with his friends. Does he occasionally look back at the 12- or 13-year-old and think about who he was then? “In a strange way, I think that’s who you are,” he says. “I feel like he’s always within.”

Villagers play Trinity College Dublin on Saturday, June 29th, with an Irish tour in December. That Golden Time is on Domino Records