“I thought Radiohead were aliens…”
Conor O’Brien, the singer and songwriter at the heart of Ireland’s very excellent Villagers, recently realised he uses his songs as therapy. He will take a thought, an idea, a phrase and then spend a huge amount of time building a reason for that thought, that idea, that phrase to live on in someone else’s life. “The songs are like broken fragments,” he says. “They’re aspects of my personality, but they’re not diary entries – that’s boring.”
“I was feeling quite cynical about everything,” Conor laughs. “I tend to binge-write. I’ve not written a song for months now as I’ve been so involved in this record. I write when the pattern takes me. You’re constantly in fear of never writing another song. But that’s normal!”
Just to be clear, is that you, “Naked on the toilet with a toothbrush in his mouth”?
Ha! That’s someone cracking up, having a breakdown and I’ve experienced that – been on the verge of it every now and again. I had a vision of someone else’s face when I was writing that line. That song is quite theatrical.
So, unlike the person in the song, you never actually traveled back in time?
OK, what was the first music you were ever aware of?
Music in films. I saw An American Tail and I remember singing the melody for a long time after that. I was obsessed with it and I was only three or four. Then there was The Jungle Book and all the Spielberg movies with John Williams’ music. They were slightly schmaltzy pieces but with these great string arrangements.
What was the first music that was all yours?
Beck’s Mellow Gold – I bought it on cassette. I’d heard Loser and I thought it was just preposterous, so raw and smart. Plus it head bad language, which made it cool. I heard The Kink’ Lola when I was 8 or 9 and, again, it was the rawness of the chords, but Lola had this amazing melody and structure. It felt like heaven listening to it over and over again. Later I saw Green Day on TV when I was about 12 and they were fantastic. Basket Case was a great song.
What five records made you who you are?
OK Computer. Obvious choice, but Radiohead was my first gig when I was 14 – my brother took me. I’d literally spent the last few weeks in a shed learning every part of every song then they played this outdoor gig in Dublin to 38000 people and it really was the greatest experience of my life. It was insane, I thought they were aliens. Radiohead turned me onto books and art and they still have that hold. (‘Head guitarist) Ed (O’Brien) came to a show once and sent me some nice emails.
Did you meet him?
Yeah – and I acted like a total, ridiculous fanboy! It might have been through Radiohead I found Elvis Costello. I bought his album Blood And Chocolate when I was about 16 and that’s all I listened to for so long. Then there’s Blood On The Tracks was one of the first Dylan albums I got, his songs were so raw and strange, but so beautiful. And Portishead! Dummy was a huge deal for me, as was their second record. The one I’m listening to right now is Floating Into The Night by Julee Cruise. It’s so strong in its resolve, it charts the feeling of a relationship, from the early beauty to the breaking down and crumbling. Everything is so warm and comforting, then it just falls apart…
Who has your ear at the moment?
I’m listening to a lot of Harry Nilsson, but for new stuff I’m loving Monolake, they create this great textural music, it’s not meant to carry any meaning, it just sounds amazing on headphones.
Does the perfect song exist?
If it does it was probably written by Cole Porter. If you had to choose one of his songs I’d say Miss Otis Regrets. It’s about the absolute emotional destruction of someone, but you only very slowly discover all that – it’s masterful. Especially when Ella Fitzgerald sings it.
How would you describe your music to a maiden aunt at a family party?
Hmmm, how old is she?
Oh, wow. Well, I suppose I’d tell her I’m a musician and she’d say, ‘What do you play?’ And I’d tell her I play a lot of instruments, but mainly acoustic guitar. ‘Like that Bobby Dylan?’ she’d ask and I say, yes. I wouldn’t attempt to get into any sub-genres with her!
What life lessons has being a professional music taught you?
I think I’ve become less precious, less serious. When you’re constantly on the move – singing to new people every night – you learn the absolutely arbitrary nature of everything. You become quite fickle as you can run away from everything. These days I’m a road dog, I’m only at home when I’m travelling.
Finally – crucially – what’s your favourite noise.
A baby laughing? Maybe I’m getting broody. I love natural sounds manipulated by man, so maybe the sound of a baby laughing run through a FX unit…