tackling homophobia and bigotry with conor o'brien of villagers
As Villagers release their third album, we catch up with their singer and songwriter to discuss crafting heartbreak into music and lyrics.
Falling in and out of love has been the stuff of great music since the dawn of the acoustic guitar. Other people's words and experiences have made us swoon and dream about our own lovers. A song can hit the exact note of heartache when you're going through a breakup, making you think it must have been written just for you. Music may be the food of love, but what of those who are writing those soul-baring songs that reveal most intimate experiences for all to hear?
Breaking through inhibitions to reach this point, allowing a song to adapt to any circumstance, is a powerful skill, one that Conor O'Brien has mastered. He's the man behind the band Villagers, whose third album, Darling Arithmetic, is about to be released. It's a perfect soundtrack for riding out the pain of a break up and finding peace at the other end.
A far more stripped back and naked album than their two previous records (both of which were nominated for The Mercury Prize) O'Brien's honest collection of songs feels like a coming of age album while allowing him, at times, to fall to pieces. Writing the album became a form of therapy for the Irish songwriter. Tackling his personal demons and speaking openly about the difficulties that come with being in a same sex relationship, his songs consider the pressures of dealing with homophobes and bigots. Through his music, Conor, although perhaps unintentionally, offers advice and solace to young couples, be they straight, gay or otherwise.
This album is very stripped back in comparison to previous albums...
I don't know how intentional or conscious it was, but I started the album in my house. Like all the other albums, they started as demos and then, I guess after a few months, I didn't really want to re-record it in a studio. I just wanted to keep it as it is. So, the recordings you're hearing are my home demos. It was more like a gradual process, I just kind of started writing. The only intention I had at the beginning was that I wanted to write something simpler than I had ever written before. I used to try and cram loads of ideas into every song and this time I was like one idea per song and then just go with that. So then it became an album about relationships and love and I'd never really tackled that before. It kind of just happened I don't know how intentional it really was. It just kind of fell out really.
I find it hard to believe it just fell out!
Well it fell out after a period of insanely hard graft. I was working constantly. But the actual themes and the way it appeared weren't too forced. It was more like I'd add loads of stuff and then I'd take it away until the bareness of the song was as evident as possible.
Lyrically it feels like you are letting us see a deeply personal side of you. Was it difficult to expose yourself in that way?
It's definitely the first time I'd ever stopped using symbolism and metaphors as a veil of some sort. I definitely used 'me' and 'I' a lot more. It was quite exciting more than anything. I was like, 'I'm going to be really simple and clear about the way I feel right now and what ever comes out comes out.' 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 more liberating than scary, I think. It was quite a cathartic experience. There were a few teary days. I had some moments on my own where I went a little bit crazy and got a little bit of cabin fever. There were a few days where I was sobbing into my notebook.
How do you feel about performing such a personal part of you, night after night?
I did a gig recently and it was the second time we'd ever played these songs. I was really nervous at the start, but then it became a really great show. It felt like we really shared an experience with the audience. Even though it was really personal suddenly I felt like everybody else was with me and it was really beautiful.
When I think about performing the album, I'm just really excited. I definitely think that I'm going to still have moments right before the show when I'm like 'What am I doing, why do I have to get so emotional every night?' But I've got some really lovely musicians with me, as I always have, and if I'm feeling too bare or if the songs are too emotional I have the music to fall into.
The line from Hot Scary Summer, "We got good at pretending, but pretending got us good," is very poignant. Is it a kind of message to young gay couples?
I was probably taking from my own personal experience, and then I probably had a filter where I was trying to make it as universal as possible afterwards. So that line about pretending can be taken at a level of hiding your sexuality or it can also be taken on a level of pretending in a relationship, pretending a relationship is still OK. I wanted to leave enough space in the song for not only, say a young gay person, I wanted a straight person to relate to it as well.
It took me a while to figure out the balance. I had a couple of songs that were a lot more aggressive and angry. It took me ages to figure out that I needed to leave them out because it wasn't strengthening the message of the album. Or it wasn't strengthening the emotional impact of the album. It was just allowing me to get shit off my chest. Which was good but I spent half my time writing one particular song which didn't even make the album because it was too aggressive and too didactic. It wouldn't have really connected in the same way these songs do, which are purely emotional and purely humanistic. So it was a bit of a balancing act.
They lyrics in Hot Scary Summer and Little Bigot tackle big issues of homophobia and same sex relationships that are not often found in folk and indie music. Was that a scary thought process or did you even think about it?
Hot Scary Summer was really weird because I don't really sit down and think I'm going to write about this. It kind of happens in steps. When I wrote Hot Scary Summer, I was in Japan and we were asking the crew that were helping us pack our gear down how to say 'Thank you for your hard work.' [The translation sounded similar to, hot scary summer]. 'Thank you for your hard work' is the first line of the song now. It kind of reminded me of what it feels like at the end of a relationship.
My experience of relationships ending are all tied in with memories of being threatened with violence on the street. I've had very homophobic experiences. It just all started to tie in. Whenever I start to sing about the negative aspects of relationships and love, that kind of instantly came into my head. So I was like 'I can't leave this out if I'm going to be honest about this.' So it just kind of went in there.
Then Little Bigot was more addressing those people, the people who are threatening you. I just thought it would be interesting to see where I could take that. In fact, it sort of ended as a love song. It sort of says we're the same and it's ok; sort of embracing that person. I guess it was a sort of test for me. The more I talk about it now the more I realize it probably was therapy.
Which of your lyrics are you most proud of?
At the moment I'm really enjoying singing The Soul Serene. I really like the way it talks about nothing almost. There's loads of space in those words. There's a reason why it comes after Hot Scary Summer. I remember writing that song and I was trying to relay the feeling of; you're on your own suddenly, you're by the sea and there's loads of space around you and you're like, 'Whoa, where am I, who am I and what am I doing?" It's a moment of change in your life. It's a song about being at peace with that change and trying to let it in. I kind of like the line, "I go walking on the shore, wonder what I'm walking for and I find chameleon dreams in my mind". I kind of like the idea of changing colors and being ok with that and allowing those colors to change. Being at peace I guess, step into the soul serene. It's nice to have that song on the album because it's kind of like a centerpiece to the album for me because it sort of encompasses the aims of the rest of the songs in that they are all trying to find some sort of piece but then this one is about actually being there you know, being in that moment. That might be my favorite.
Text Ger Tierney
Photography Paul Phung