There's a new Villager in town. In the corner of a hotel bar in Dublin, Conor O'Brien is talking about his new album, Darling Arithmetic. He's done this waltz before – both with debut album Becoming A Jackal and the follow-up, Awayland – but this dance is different in a number of ways.
The way O'Brien tells it, Darling Arithmetic is the accidental Villagers album. The songs were recorded as demos, with the plan to bring them to the studio to be embellished by the band. Instead of following that plan, the singer went with the drafts.
“All the songs were recorded and mixed at home on this little 16-track recorder I bought when I was 19. All the performances on the album are performances I did without thinking anyone was going to hear them, which is interesting to me.
"Awayland was about cramming 20 ideas into every song, which was really exciting. Here, though, I wanted something more intimate and simple. I wanted one idea for each song and to let the listener fill in the rest. I wanted to keep the space."
What's in that space are O'Brien's most personal and fascinating songs to date, prompted by an interesting moodboard of influences. He talks about taking encouragement from Bob Dylan's Blood On the Tracks and Elvis Costello's Blood & Chocolate, getting inspired by "the beautiful space and pure emotion" of The Flamingos and Roberta Flack, and experiencing the power and craft of simple love songs at a Martha Reeves and the Vandellas show.
The new songs are delicate and tender, with the words leading the way amid the softest of musical touches. O’Brien has always displayed fine penwork when observing scenes and situations, but this time he’s in the thick of the action.
“I’m a bit older and I’ve more to write about. I think if I tried to write this album five years ago, I wouldn’t have had enough life experience to write about from the first person. I feel now that I can say ‘me’ or ‘I’ instead of ‘jackal’.”
The confidence to do this has much to do with some musical encounters in the last two years. One was when O’Brien played at the Ceiliúradh show in London during President Michael D Higgins’s state visit to the UK last year. He was soundchecking to what he thought was an empty Royal Albert Hall when he saw a person staring intently at him from the middle of the room.
"It was Elvis Costello and I was like 'wow'. When I was 15 or 16, I got a tape of Punch the Clock in Blackrock market and I remember hearing Shipbuilding and falling in love with that tune. When I heard I was asked to sing on that song at the Royal Albert Hall, it was mindblowing. Afterwards, he came up to me and said he really liked the chord change in My Lighthouse. All I could do was gush, 'I bought your album when I was a teenager and, and, and!' Those things mean a lot.
“That show was quite influential on this album too. I was very aware of this incredible, grandiose event, this big cultural event, and I just walked out on my own with my guitar and sang my song.”
In April 2013, O'Brien performed at Other Voices in London with John Grant. "I was insanely full of emotion when I sang Glacier with John. I loved that song so much and it meant so much to me, him singing to his former self saying it would be Okay. I had a certain level of excitement before I went onstage but when I finished and came offstage, I had a new energy in me that I never had when I was singing my own songs. That made me think that I should really write about this sort of stuff."
“This sort of stuff” signifies love, sexuality and everything that comes with them.
Kiss and run
“I had lots of experiences growing up of being threatened with violence, being shouted at for being gay and getting chased down the street for kissing someone. I’d never written about homophobia or sexuality before because I never felt comfortable. I felt comfortable in my own personal life, but when it came to talking to people I don’t know about it, I just shut it away a bit. For me, as a writer, if I wasn’t writing about it, why would I be talking about it?”
Even though the songs are informed by his own experiences, he wanted to make the record as universal as possible.
“It’s not a news story: ‘Man is gay.’ I don’t want that to be the main focus. I wanted the album to be a human love album because everyone in the world feels those emotions at some stage. I really wanted to make sure that anyone who was listening could relate to the songs. I didn’t want to cut anyone off or make it seem as if I was only singing to my younger self.
“A universal love album, that’s what it is.”
He describes himself as having been “frustrated” as a writer in the past. “I was letting experiences get to me and that frustrated me. It made me more introverted than I would have been if I didn’t have any issues with society and sexuality and that really annoyed me. It still does. I still have times when I can’t be around people or talk to people. I have nervous issues about talking in public which are definitely related. There’s a lot to be angry about, even now, because you’re confronted with ideas of how to present yourself.
“Even getting the taxi in to do this interview. The guy was like, ‘Oh, you’re in a band, that must be great, a different lady in every city.’ So do I say ‘no, I’m gay’ or play along? You have to study every single person and how to read them.
"All of that fed the indignant energy that fed into my music. If you look at many of the early songs, and even going back to [his previous band] The Immediate, you can hear the closeted nature of things. That line, 'if you've ever locked up a feeling', in Stop and Remember. Then I got Pete [Toomey] to sing it and I played drums."
What comes next for O'Brien is taking Darling Arithmetic to the masses. He says he's currently "figuring out the live band" and talks about bringing harp and flugelhorn into the mix. "It's definitely not a rock show," he insists.
O’Brien enjoyed touring the previous albums with the band, but a change was necessary. “I kind of realised I was not a rock star,” he says. “We had the most incredible time and hopefully will again in the future, but I wanted to do something different this time. Our peak when it came to the folk-rock show was probably Glastonbury during the tour. We rocked it, a hell of a show.
“But I don’t have that in me at the moment. I want to use the shows to feel – and I know this sounds wanky – at peace every night. I don’t want to be as jittery and feel I have to prove myself.”
O’Brien didn’t always feel comfortable with many of those big festival stages he previously found himself on. “The festival circuit is weird. I don’t write from the same perspective as a lot of the other bands on those bills, not that I’m putting myself above them. But some of the songs you know are written to make an audience of that size connect and jump around. When I write, I tend to write and then at the end go ‘how do I make this song work in that setting?’ There’s always an issue for me to push the songs on a more showbizzy level.
“I’ve always had that tension with those shows. We’ve a certain amount of songs which work, but there’s always a bit in the middle where it almost feels like a poetry reading. I have no idea how we’re going to do festivals on this tour. I’d say we’ll play smaller tents or play daytime slots.
“Some of those festival shows, though, we killed it. I remember being really physical onstage at those gigs and it was a lot of fun. But there was always a dip in the middle. I remember we frontloaded the set at Longitude with the hits, the well-known songs, and towards the end, I did a couple of solo songs. People started to talk and I went ‘fuck, no one’s listening to the words, what else do we have?’ We did a couple of rockers at the end to save things. At the end I said, ‘Thanks so much, everyone, have a great festival, sorry for the boring bit in the middle.’ ”
Doing the math
He giggles at that memory as he prepares to go and do some more interviews. He'll be talking about Darling Arithmetic for quite some time to come this year. He'll also grow accustomed to hearing the new Villager take flight.
"I heard That Day on the radio recently and did not recognise the voice at all," he says. "It was like someone else singing. I feel like a different writer and singer now. I was sort of worried about losing some of that friction you get from not being able to say what you want to say because that's what fed my creativity up to now, but I've found a new energy with this album. Right now, I want to make simpler music, music which does one thing and one thing only."
Darling Arithmetic is out on April 10th on Domino. Villagers play Dublin’s Olympia on May 20th and 21st, Cork’s Opera House (May 23rd), Limerick’s Big Top (May 24th) and Belfast’s Mandela Hall (May 25th)