Conor O’Brien: ‘It's almost impossible to exist here economically’
Villagers’ main man on homophobia, returning to Dublin and his new album
Conor O’Brien: “It is so much nicer to walk around Dublin these days, especially compared to 10 or 15 years ago, when I was regularly shouted at, chased down the street, or threatened”
Conor O’Brien is a true-blue romantic. For a recent wedding proposal in Dublin’s oldest wine bar, La Cave off Grafton Street, the Dún Laoghaire singer hired a Mexican mariachi band. However, the object of his affections was so distracted that they viewed his proposition through the lens of their smartphone.
This isn’t entirely true, but it is the premise of a brilliant, prescient, and slightly gruesome video for Fool, the second video from the new Villagers album to be directed by Bob Gallagher, a highly acclaimed cinematographer who has made videos for Girl Band, Soak, Youth Mass and several other contemporary Irish acts. Fool reflects on our dystopian present and how humanity is enslaved in a 21st-century bubble, a theme underlying the fourth Villagers album, The Art of Pretending to Swim.
“I stopped reading books for about two years because I couldn’t stop checking my phone,” O’Brien laments. “When we went to La Cave to shoot the video, Bob pitched the idea to the owners. They wanted to know exactly what it was all about before they gave us permission. Bob told them it was a first-person perspective on a date where a guy can’t stop looking at his phone, even though someone is trying to propose to him. The French guy in La Cave said, ‘I see that every single day. It’s like a virus destroying everything. Please, make your video here.’ ”
I forced myself to put my phone down and start reading again. It felt so refreshing that my brain was active and engaging again
In a day and age when many of us are choosing to go smartphone free, or do a digital detox, O’Brien also felt he had to cut down on his tech dependency. “I realised while making this record that part of my brain which can hold on to large pieces of information and follow narratives was diminishing and starting to die because I was constantly getting little dopamine hits from my phone all the time,” he says. “I forced myself to put my phone down and start reading again. I read a massive amount in a few of weeks. It felt so refreshing that my brain was active and engaging again. This really fuelled the writing process.”
Sonically and thematically, The Art of Pretending to Swim is arguably O’Brien’s most fully realised album yet. It closes with Ada, a song about a 19th-century mathematician and early computer programmer named Ada Lovelace, who also happened to be Lord Byron’s daughter.
“I only heard about her through a comic book about her life,” O’Brien says. “She worked on the famous ‘Analytical Machine’ with Charles Babbage, which was the prototype computer that initially just did simple maths. Her concepts and contributions are the origin and basis of all these algorithms that we use every single day. Their omnipresence is both a wonderful and terrifying prospect all at the same time.”
O’Brien merged this idea with the sentiment of Bob Dylan’s gospel period song You Gotta Serve Somebody, from Slow Train Coming. The infinite loop of technology and endless repetition is echoed in a longer version of Ada, which will appear on a de-luxe version of the album. O’Brien’s peers and friends John Grant and Lisa Hannigan sing the words of the opening song on the album, Again, which also mentions the word “God”, another theme of The Art of Pretending to Swim.
On the album’s lead single, A Trick of the Light, O’Brien sings in the chorus: “And if I see a sign in the sky tonight / No one’s gonna tell me it’s a trick of the light / May never come but I’m willing to wait / What can I say? I’m a man of the faith.”
“I guess I am just trying to reclaim the word ‘God’ from all the ugly places it has gone,” he muses. “When I was a child, I was very holy and completely obsessed with God. I used to pray every night until I was about 12. I’d name everyone I knew and pray for their safety and wellbeing. Cynicism kicked in when I was a teenager, and of course, we had everything that happened with the Catholic Church. This album is addressing all this and saying it’s okay to have benevolent thoughts and use the word ‘God’ to help you connect with the world. It is not an ugly thing just because it’s been appropriated and abused by this horrible patriarchal system.”
To ask the Gay Byrne Meaning of Life question, does Conor O’Brien believe in any supreme being, or a higher power of some form? “The closest I come is agnosticism,” he answers. “I almost feel like it is a dead-end question. Creativity is extremely mystical and exciting. I feel something happens in the creative process and it makes me feel good to attribute that to something I’ll never understand. It’s hard to talk about it, so that’s why I communicate through music.”
On O’Brien’s last studio album in 2015, Darling Arithmetic, O’Brien addressed homophobia on the tracks Hot Scary Summer and Little Bigot. For O’Brien it was his first very confessional album. Darling Arithmetic won an Ivor Novello award for best album, and chimed with so many people’s personal trials and tribulations, and of course, the marriage equality referendum. On its lead single, Courage, O’Brien sang: “It took a little time to be honest. It took a little time to be me.”
“A woman in England came up to me and told me that her 17-year old son had come out to her four months beforehand,” O’Brien recalls. “Initially, she didn’t react to the news very well. She spent the next few months walking her dog with Darling Arithmetic constantly on her headphones, which she claimed greatly sped up the process of making peace with him. She was in floods of tears and gave me such a lovely letter. There have been a lot of teary moments at the merchandise desk and loads of coming-out stories. I’ve noticed that a lot of people approach me for a chat who don’t feel particularly comfortable with the gay scene. Even though they’ve come out, they feel they haven’t got a home yet, simply because they’re very shy and don’t feel they fit in anywhere, and I can very much identify with that.”
On Saturday, May 24th, 2015, O’Brien played a show at Cork Opera House, on the momentous day news broke that Ireland had emphatically endorsed the 34th amendment to the constitution. “I couldn’t sleep on the Friday night at all,” O’Brien recalls. “I was banging the melatonin into me, because I knew the show could be really important and very emotional. I couldn’t stop checking Twitter all night. I was actually quietly crying in my bunk on the tour bus as the band slept. It was one of those magic days. There was such an amazing energy and euphoria in the air. After the show, we chatted to everyone for hours. It was such a lovely night. It felt like a massive party and a huge release of tension that had been building for decades.”
O’Brien, originally from Dún Laoghaire, recently stopped sharing a house in Malahide and moved to his own apartment in central Dublin with a small attic studio, where he obsessively worked on The Art of Pretending to Swim.
“I absolutely love coming back home after a tour, even though sometimes it can be almost impossible to exist here economically,” O’Brien says. “Socially it is so much nicer to walk around Dublin these days, especially compared to 10 or 15 years ago, when I was regularly shouted at, chased down the street, or threatened. There was so much more hostility back then. I’m a sensitive sort of boy, so that stuff stayed with me, but it’s so much better now. You can feel it in the air. Although I visited Madrid for the very first time recently. Oh my God, it’s magic.”
I’m in my mid-30s and lucky enough to be able to afford to live in Dublin in the present-day madness. The same cannot be said for 95 per cent of my friends
Despite Ireland softening its intolerant and homophobic attitudes, O’Brien sees a country that still has a lot of work to do. “I’m very lucky,” he reflects. “I’m in my mid-30s and lucky enough to be able to afford to live in Dublin in the present-day madness. The same cannot be said for 95 per cent of my friends, many of whom are creative people, who are constantly working and breaking their backs to get by. The current mood is pretty right-on when it comes to social issues, and that is the hot ticket that Leo Varadker is riding on. The focus now must be economic. There are 10,000 people homeless. We need to start fixing this broken rental system, because it is simply not working. I’ve a friend moving back home from Berlin who is an incredibly prolific artist and works all the time, but he has to stay with me for a while while he figures things out.”
In addition to acts of quiet, low-key activism, such as canvassing for marriage equality with David O’Doherty and The Mighty Stef, or performing a benefit in Dún Laoghaire’s Pavilion Theatre that helped fund the reopening of the Maritime Museum in his hometown, O’Brien also supported the Apollo House campaign in Christmas 2016.
“I’m actually quite an insular person, but I will of course play at something like that,” he says. “At Apollo House, I was really watching from the sidelines, observing Glen Hansard doing his thing. He is brilliant at it, but I know that isn’t my personality type. I cannot galvanise people in that same way, but I want to give my support. I’m more of a space cadet who disappears for days on end making strange little noises, but I try and make an effort to connect with the world.”
He finds the social awareness of many contemporary Irish artists inspiring, heartening and life-affirming. “There is so much going on with Irish hip-hop,” he enthuses. “I feel like there are a lot of young artists having what Asian Dub Foundation call a “conscious party”. These people are creating very energetic and exciting music, but there is also so much going on with the words. They’re really talking to their peers and addressing the social issues of the day. I’m constantly amazed about how much great music that is around right now.”
O’Brien observes a new-found sense of quiet confidence and determination in the Irish scene. “I love the Dublin band Fontaines DC so much,” he says. “When I speak to people about 10 years younger than me, I feel like they really know who they are. There are so many kids being creative on their own terms and really going for it, which is the much healthier by-product of the internet age. When I was in my early 20s, I was still trying to find my feet big time.”
Tour and festival
Another long tour beckons in support of The Art of Pretending to Swim, which includes appearances at Other Voices in Ballina and will see O’Brien curate his own day at the forthcoming Metropolis festival in the RDS.
”I’m still in the throes of trying to be a promoter, which is not the least stressful thing I’ve ever done,” he laughs. “I think I’ve thrown about 400 names into the hat at this stage. Most of them are not around, but we’re really getting there and there will be a few very exciting people playing. I want the day to have a nice arc to it. We’ve 10 days of rehearsals coming up and a few ideas up our sleeves that may be quite surprising to anyone who has come to a Villagers show over the last 10 years. It’s going to be a big party and a lot of fun.”
After four albums under his belt, O’Brien’s career is entering an exciting new phase. He remains the only Irish artist to be signed to Domino Records, one of the most revered labels in the world and home to Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys.
“I’m unbelievably lucky and I’m extremely grateful,” O’Brien says. “I spend all my time working, so I really should take a year out at some point, or even just head to Madrid or Granada for a few months. Personally, I feel that this and my last album really is my best work to date. I think those records are much more focused. I feel like I’m finally getting somewhere after 10 years. I can see all the mistakes I’ve made much more clearly with the benefit of hindsight, but I’ll never, ever stop learning.”
The Art of Learning to Swim is out on September 21st. Villagers play Rough Trade East, London, September 25th; Other Voices, Ballina, 28th; Metropolis, Dublin, October 27th; Empire Music Hall, Belfast, December 10th; Dolan’s, Limerick, December 12th; Black Box, Galway, December 13th