On August 23rd I ventured to Winterthur to attend the last night of Winterthurer Musikfestwochen, which hosted a brilliant folk night with Villagers, Fink and Ben Howard. In the afternoon before the concert I had the chance to meet Irish singer Conor O’Brien aka Villagers and have a friendly chat with him which started around his new album Darling Arithmetic and finished talking about Gaelic and Welsh thank you words. Thank you to Cristina Vega from Irascible Music for organizing the interview and to Villagers for taking the time to answer my questions 🙂
The Liberation: Your third album Darling Arithmetic came out in April 2015 and if I’m not mistaken it was written, produced and recorded in your own house. Was it difficult to do this?
- Villagers: Well, some of it was difficult. I was using the same kind of set up that I’ve always used since I was very young so I was using this little demo 16 track recorder so I kind of knew this like the back of my hand. If I wanted to do something I would just do tk tk tk tk tk cuz I’ve done it for ten fifteen years. But making it sound like something that was releasable and like which people could hear was a new thing for me so that was a little bit tougher cuz I was really focusing on production and I was trying to write lyrics but then I was also thinking about the way the snare drums sounded or the way you know the backing vocals sounded all these different things. But I really enjoyed it you know I like using different parts of my brain and sort of create something up of a whole rather then just focusing on one thing.
The Liberation: Ok. And since you were alone did it take you more time than usual?
- Villagers: I don’t know, ’cause I think this time I kind of mixed the writing period and the demo period with the recording period. So I can’t really tell how long it took because there was no point where I went into the studio or anything I just kind of built the songs myself and recorded them and eventually they sounded good enough for people to hear you know. So I don’t think it took any longer I just think it was a very different sort of process.
The Liberation: How has the album been received so far?
- Villagers: Really nice yeah. Warm audiences. I’ve had lots of things like letters I’ve had more kind of personal touch, people telling me how much it means personally. It’s been a very kind of emotional reaction for me yeah it’s been great, I really liked it.
The Liberation: Cool! Your two previous albums were nominated for the Mercury Prize. What are your feelings about this? Do you expect Darling Arithmetic to be shortlisted?
- Villagers: I don’t know if I’ll expect it, it’s not good, I’ll probably be setting myself up for disappointment you know. I don’t know I never thought the first two were going to be you know
The Liberation: Ok
- Villagers: So I won’t sort of use that as something to aim towards you know. I’m just gonna keep making music and whatever kind of accolades that people throw out is really enjoyable, and fun and glamorous. But yeah I won’t expect it I’ll just keep being creative and singing songs.
The Liberation: OK, yeah. And how does your songwriting process work?
- Villagers: Ehm it’s very difficult cause I don’t really have a system, which is a problem but it’s also a good thing as well cause I feel like I usually have like an idea or a feeling about something and then I’ll start playing at that and trying to twist it and looking at it from every angle and turn it upside down and figure out “Why am I going there? Why are the emotions coming from that place?” sometimes it’s just too over unlyrical and sometimes I let that go and just relax and go with it. And sometimes both of those things are wrong sometimes both of them are right. And I can never retell how to write the next song because the same thing never works twice you know.
The Liberation: Ok, yeah.
- Villagers: So it’s always a confusing and exciting journey and trip for me, I’m always a bit lost but every now and again something exciting comes out of it and that’s the sound.
The Liberation: And do you usually write the lyrics or the music first?
- Villagers: Erm, like sometimes I have something that I’ll sit down on the guitar and I’ll sing something with the words and the music. And it’d be like two sentences and I’d be like “Uh I like the way that feels” and then I might build some words around that but that’s come out with the music. That word, sentence comes out with the music. So it kinda comes out together and then I sort of focus on the words on their own and then I focus on the music. Then I change the words depending on where the music is going and then I change the music depending on where the words are going. It’s backwards and forwards sort of.
The Liberation: Ok yeah. That’s interesting! Ireland is a country which has a very strong music culture. Do you think this is what pushed you to do music?
- Villagers: Maybe yeah. I mean I didn’t grow up very deep in the Irish music culture I grew up more listening to indie and rock music. It’s only when I got a bit older that I started listening to more folk music and some Irish music. But I think you do feel it in the air you know. Like when you grow up in Dublin you walk around the streets and there’s music everywhere. I suppose it’s natural but I almost take it for granted. I wouldn’t even know the difference until I start travelling and saw cities where you won’t have that in the streets. So probably yeah.
The Liberation: OK. Do you think there are any Irish influences in your music? You said that at the beginning you were listening more to indie rock but later on…
- Villagers: Again I think there probably is but I don’t know if I’m consciously getting influenced by Irish music. Maybe there’s certain types of storytelling that I’ve sort of taken on board a little bit. When I was growing up I heard bands like Planxty and Christy Moore and all these people and I was quite interested in the way they could kind of put a story across in music. But then I’d go and listen to you know, whatever was at the time, you know like Blur or something, different bands you know (laughs), I was sort of mixing it all up in my head yeah.
The Liberation: Yeah. And you’re signed to Domino Records which is an English Label.
- Villagers: Yeah.
The Liberation: To which also Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand are signed. Does this influence in any way the music you make?
- Villagers: I think they’re a good label for me in terms that they don’t try and get involved too much creatively and they just kind of trust that I’ll always do my job and work hard and make my music and then they just sell it for me you know. I suppose that maybe if I was in a bigger label or like a more mainstream label they might get more involved and try to shape the songs and stuff which I probably wouldn’t like at all, I wouldn’t enjoy it. Yeah probably in the sense that I feel free to create my own music and I know they’ll put it out in the future and I’ll be able to tour and stuff it should be cool.
The Liberation: That’s cool yeah! Do you feel any sort of pressure because it’s a prestigious indie label?
- Villagers: Ehm not really. I mean when I was growing up I was really into Domino cuz they had Pavement and they had Clinic, all these bands that I used to listen to and Domino had them. This was before Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys. So I was really into them when they were smaller even, they weren’t big at all. So I always had a dream of imagining if I was on their record label and then later on they just came to shows, so that was cool. Ehm what was the question sorry? (laughs)
The Liberation: Oh yeah if you felt any sort of pressure in being signed to Domino Records
- Villagers: No, no pressure. No, no. That’s probably the main thing I like about them, very little pressure.
The Liberation: Ok, that’s important!
- Villagers: Yeah
The Liberation: And what are your projects for the future?
- Villagers: It’s difficult to say. I’ve started making music again but it’s very different, hugely different to this music. I’m not even sure if I’ll be able to put this name “Villagers” on to it cuz it’s not even in the same genre kind of thing it’s a completely different thing. I won’t get into it too much, I want it to be a surprise later on. But it involves learning lots and lots of new techniques and new ways of approaching music making and things like that. Which is exciting for me cuz I think I’ve tested this particular type of songwriting to the limit now. You know, this album in particular was very personal, very emotional and very conversational and stuff. So I think I can’t use that part of my brain anymore I have to try and do something different.
The Liberation: Yeah, I get that. What does putting your emotions into your music allow for you?
- Villagers: It allows for like a kind of ehm, I don’t know. It’s like I’m addicted to something. (laughs) I don’t know, when I’m on stage I tend to get lost in a bit of a dreamworld, I feel like if the music is… there are a lot of things I usually have to get off my chest, these things which I feel like you can’t say in everyday life when you’re in the bus or in the train or whatever. I use music to kind of feel those emotions. I guess that’s why I use my falsetto quite a lot, like high voice. I kinda like the idea of putting forward something that ‘s a little bit…
[An annoying wasp is flying in front and around Villagers]
- Villagers: Ew I hat wasps. (laughs)
The Liberation: (laughs)
- Villagers: Something that’s a little bit, like what’s the word? Sorry. Open, no not open. Fragile. I like expressing a sort of fragility. Cause usually everyday you have to put that on the front, in your everyday life. I think music is somewhere where you can really open yourself a bit more yeah.
The Liberation: It’s great! Just out of curiosity, do you speak Gaelic? [I must have mispronounced it…]
- Villagers: No, no I’m terrible I’m sorry.
The Liberation: Oh no worries (laughs), it’s just that I like it
- Villagers: You can teach me some! (laughs)
The Liberation: Oh, I should teach you? (laughs)
- Villagers: Yeah you teach me! (laughs)
The Liberation: I just know a few words! (laughs)
- Villagers: Oh you said Gaelic? Aaah I thought you said Gallic like in St Gallen, I thought there was a special brand of Swiss German I was like…
The Liberation: Oh no!
- Villagers: Oh ok no, no no. Gaelic. Yeah I do a little bit.
The Liberation: Ok
- Villagers: I can say things like “ta me go mae” ,… yeah a little bit just a touch. But you stop learning it, you learn it for twelve years and then you’ve forgotten it.
The Liberation: Ah ok. So you’ve never written a song in Gaelic?
- Villagers: Never no never. I’ve thought about it but I feel I’m not really good. I’d have to work hard to remember my school linguistics.
The Liberation: Cause I think the language has really an amazing sound!
- Villagers: Do you think so?
The Liberation: Yeah
- Villagers: cool
The Liberation: I think it’s really fascinating!
- Villagers: that’s cool, interesting.
The Liberation: It’s really cool, yeah.
- Villagers: Well we’ve got two musicians in my band and they are Welsh, they’re from Wales and they speak Welsh. It’s another Celtic kind of language.
The Liberation: Yeah, yeah.
- Villagers: So their first language is Welsh whereas in Ireland we’ve kind of lost Gaelic more than Wales has lost Welsh. They haven’t really lost their language, they’re loosing it a bit but… So they’re inspiring me to try and learn a bit more Irish again but at the moment I’m trying to learn Welsh off them. It’s not working, it’s too hard.
The Liberation: It must be hard. It’s really completely different from English.
- Villagers: Yeah, so different. It’s very beautiful though. It’s really an interesting language. Diolch that’s all I can say.
The Liberation: What does it mean?
- Villagers: “Thank you”. “Diolch”. And “Thank you very much” is “Diolch yn fawr”!
The Liberation: Diolch. So Diolch! Diolch. Diolch yn fawr! So I’m done. Thank you very much!
- Villagers: Oh, thank you. Diolch yn fawr!