Monday, 25 February 2013


Despite earning a Mercury Prize nomination and winning an Ivor Novello award, the aftermath of Villagers acclaimed debut Becoming A Jackal was a truly dark time for Conor O'Brien. Dealing with personal loss amidst a three year tour, the most promising Irish songwriter of a generation was left burnt out, detached and unsure of his future in music.

Just a month after the release of Villagers' first record, O'Brien suffered the tragic loss of his sister. With the band's obligation to their promotional duties, the tour continued, but under a cloud.

“It kind of meant that the whole touring thing was completely... I was very detached the whole time. I wasn't very aware of anything that was going on. I wasn't really thinking about it in any sort of importance light at all. It put a lot of stuff in perspective and made me realise that a lot of the things that I was clutching to were kind of pointless and ridiculous” O'Brien says.

The band signed off on their extensive tour with a triumphant homecoming performance at Marley Park in the summer of 2011. Although they then seemed at the peak of their powers, an exhausted O'Brien was now finding it difficult to pick up his pen and unsure of what lay ahead for Villagers.

“Before we had even gotten a record deal we had toured Ireland for a year. On top of that was all the touring that happened since we got the deal so it was quite a long time to play the same songs. We were kind of self destructing a little bit at the end and not being very healthy”.

By the end of the tour O'Brien was struggling to perform songs such as The Meaning Of The Ritual night after night with the material's sense of purpose intact. With the ennui towards his old work setting in and finding himself unable to write new songs, Villagers were at something of a crossroads.

“We're singing that song now and it feels really good and I sort of remember why I wrote it. I think when you're singing a song you have to have a memory of how you felt and the reason you wrote the words. I'd sort of lost that from all the touring. Sometimes I think I needed to feel negative towards the first songs in order to write the new things. Maybe that was part of the process, to not feel good about those songs”.

Although he was still struggling with writers' block, O'Brien was aware of the expectations surrounding Villagers and set about working on a follow-up.

“I couldn't write any songs so I was like 'OK, I better just start making something'. I had a little bit of money for the first time so I got a synthesiser and a sampler and then I just learned to make them work together. I was listening to techno music quite a lot. I was trying to explore music which was the opposite of the music I was influenced by on the first album, just to see where that would take me. There was something I liked about beats and rhythms. There was something I liked about the repetition of it, losing yourself in it. I thought maybe it would be an instrumental album for a while and then I wrote lyrics and I ruined it” he laughs.

The resulting album, {Awayland} dismisses all fears that O'Brien would stumble on his sophomore effort. An ambitious and adventurous record, it casts off the solemn restraint of Becoming A Jackal with its swirling sonic textures, lyrics both playful and ponderous and thundering orchestral swells.

O'Brien approached the new record in almost the opposite manner he had taken on his debut

“Yeah it was very different. I didn't have very many notes and I didn't have any raw material. I'd only had a few songs which I wrote on tour, which were very quiet, intimate folky songs. But I didn't feel like I wanted to make a quiet, intimate, folky album. I didn't really want to go there. So I just started experimenting.

“It was kind of backwards from the first album. It was the opposite direction because the first time I had lots of notes and words and I had a theme and everything. It was kind of academic, I was fitting it all to the theme. Whereas this one was like groping in the dark”.

It's a different Conor O'Brien this time around. Where themes of mortality coloured every corner of Jackal, the death of his sister prompted him to take a different approach in this record.

“It informed the way I wrote in the sense that I wanted their to be more light in the songs. It made me feel a little bit self indulgent with some of the words that I had written for Jackal.

It made me feel like I didn't want to go down that path anymore and do something else and just make people dance really. It made the album lighter than it would have been because I realised the importance of music and how it can uplift and make you feel good”.

Despite it's troubled origins {Awayland} is an uplifting triumph of an album. Deservedly reaching Number 1 in its first week, the record seems certain to replicate and maybe even surpass the success of it's predecessor.

A steady progression of what Villagers had built on their debut, the experimental electronic soundscapes make their presence known, but compliment rather than skew the familiar melodic folk heart. The evolution of their sound is something we can expect to continue on future Villagers albums with O'Brien keen not to retread his own footsteps.

“I think it would have been really boring to make the same album again. It was more out of just trying to keep it exciting. There was a lot of learning involved. We had to learn how to do a lot of things like program beats and fingerpick and all of these things that we couldn't do before. I think that's almost the point of making something, it's almost a product of your progress”.

As the band prepares to set out on the road again O'Brien is unabashedly positive despite the troubled nature of their previous tour.

“We're sort of hitting the ground running a little bit more this time. We were already a year into it at this stage last time. Now the songs are so fresh that I can't imagine being bored of them in a year”.

What's most commendable about Villagers is their unrelenting desire to better themselves. Despite the endless flow of plaudits and awards, O'Brien never rests on his laurels, but strives to create better than he has done before. It's a quality that recalls the first impression Villagers gave us, that they might just be a very special talent.     

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