Sometimes, a melody or some lyrics keep finding their way back to us, moving our inner world whenever we listen to them so we hold them dear to our hearts. With three studio albums in his pocket, Conor O‘Brien, alias VILLAGERS, has done exactly that. Creating a little cosmos of its own from which he lets his songs emerge with a great deal of sensitivity and immediacy. Reflections so carefully thought out and imagery being woven into a complex catalogue of songs over the years. His last album Darling Arithmetic hasn‘t even been out for a year yet and we are already treated with a new release. Where Have You Been All My Life? is a collection of pieces that sees O‘Brien clearly thinking outside the box when it comes to reimagining his own songwriting.
It certainly would have been a lot easier to release a standard collection of songs if O‘Brien had only wanted to look back at his career. Instead, the Irish singer-songwriter pulls himself far away from doing such an ordinary thing. Or just recording one of his many live shows that he has played last year. In the summer of 2015, after weeks of touring with a new band line-up, he went to London with his bandmates to capture the spirit and energy of it all at the well-known RAK Studios. Being in town for his collaboration with the STARGAZE ensemble as part of the Orchestral Long Weekender in Berlin late last year, we talked with the Mercury Prize nominated songwriter about his recent release and the experience of working with Stargaze once again.
It was a masterful reunion with one important reason behind it all driving O‘Brien to work with the conductor André de Ridder and his team again as he explains: ‘With Stargaze, there is a real life and energy and love of music. They kind of manage to marry that through perfectionism that comes in the classical world with a soul and love of music.’ In the past, VILLAGERS‘ experiences with classically trained musicians have not always had the same high quality. Technically? Yes. Emotionally? Not quite. While recording his debut Becoming A Jackal Conor O‘Brien recalls a slightly less special bond with his fellow musicians: ‘They were very nice people and they were playing perfectly, but it wasn’t with emotion. They definitely gave us the take, but that is not the body of someone who actually really wants a song to be the best it could be.’
Growing up, the Villagers singer fell in love with film scores first before he was exposed to a wider range of classical composers: ‘I loved all of John Williams‘ compositions. It was the closest I ever came to listening to classical music, but later I found an avenue into it via Steve Reich. Then I started going back listening to Mahler etc.’
‘Classical music interests me, but I have got a pop brain!’
Further on, he admits: ‘I don’t have the capacity to ever be in that classical world. It is something you have to be trained for. I think I prefer the pop modes of expression more. I like it when stuff is short and to the point.’
To the point – that is exactly what he had to be himself when he recorded his most recent album Where Have You Been All My Life? because the clocks were ticking mercilessly on the walls of RAK Studios. Recording an incredible amount of 18 songs in only a day, the band had all reason to feel dizzy at the end of the session. However, they managed to capture the essence of their recent tour in first or second takes. Conor O‘Brien proudly remembers the day and its pitfalls: ‘Our engineer Richard Woodcraft, who has worked with RADIOHEAD among others, was really impressed and it was cool for our egos to hear that. It was very tough for us to do it though. We had really set ourselves a task. We had to dive right into it. In this kind of situation, your fight or flight syndrome kicks in. You know you only have time to do one take. It is a challenge. Sometimes, when you are in a studio, you can get too mixed up in specifics. You don’t see the bigger picture.’
The live approach played a significant role during the recording session. Explaining the impulse to do it this way and not any other, the blue-eyed songwriter passionately paraphrases Dylan: ‘I like seeing this album as that kind of BOB DYLAN way of looking at it. Seeing recordings as just a document of where the song is on that day. That is what this album is about.’ As in many of O‘Brien‘s songs, the longing after someone or something echoes from the album‘s title, but the question ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ also implies a sense of belonging and certainty, eventually.
Taken from the song The Soul Serene it is quite a statement. In Conor O‘Brien‘s view even an overbearing one: ‘It is such an overbearing statement. It is very dramatic, but it is almost completely committing to somebody or something. You are saying ‘You are everything that I need right now’. I felt this feeling of overbearing committment throughout the day and something taking over completely. The recording was controlled by the songs and the situation that day.’ For the live shows as well as the recording, the songs were reimagined in a beautiful way that ultimately brings them closer together than ever before.
Expressing the changing landscape of your inner world
Older material blending in so well with the intimate songs off the latest VILLAGERS studio album Darling Arithmetic that gives this new record a very pleasant and naturally cohesive feeling. In terms of the new arrangements, the overall changes seemed to be almost inevitable: ‘Some of the songs have different great lyrical meanings now, especially from the first album. A lot of them were about hiding your true self. I knew what I was doing at that time and I was using that energy. I wanted to write about what that felt like. Deep within me, embedded, was this constant fear of people finding you out from the age of zero. For me, that was something worthwhile exploring. Now, it is kind of nice to revisit these songs’, says the reflective singer-songwriter.
‘Sometimes you have to rearrange your own songs because you don’t recognize the person who wrote them.’
The talk of turning his own songs upside down and trying out new arrangements raises the question if O‘Brien considers his music to have some kind of core that might be immune to these kind of changes and their revitalizing character. Pondering for a moment, the man behind VILLAGERS comes up with conclusive view on this issue: ‘The core of some of the songs might be the chord structure, but then you look at a song like ‘Set The Tigers Free’ and it doesn’t have the same chords as the original at all. It is completely new. The core is an ever-changing thing depending on where the song and the impulse to write it came from I guess. Maybe the core is the reason you wrote it rather than something you can pin down.’
With an honourable attitude like this, the Irish singer-songwriter most likely has everyone‘s blessing to cover the famous Wichita Lineman and include the classic in his own collection of songs on Where Have You Been All My Life? A tune, he has been holding dear to his own heart for a long time as he admits:
‘I remember hearing this song when I was little. It was just this magical thing that I felt connected to from a very young age. That song opened up a lot of possibilities for me in songwriting because I remember I felt really inspired by this line – ‘And I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time’ – it holds so much within it. It is only a few words, but I think that kind of writing is really masterful and something to work towards if you are trying to learn your craftwork. There is a sensitivity in it and sort of a frailty which is appealing to me. That is a very nice thing to explore in music – frailty and leaving it wide open emotionally.’
One thing that quickly becomes clear when talking to the VILLAGERS mastermind and recalling his work up to today is the fact that he will not be slowing down any time soon or suddenly adapt to any existing idea about himself as an artist: ‘That is something that would quickly become very stale for me, especially because you have a lot of experiences in your life. If you are not expressing the changing landscape of your inner world then you are not really doing music a service. When you are lucky enough to be able to write and perform music, you kind of have a responsibility to work really hard constantly developing that and making sure that it doesn’t ever get stale or you are living off past glories’, O‘Brien assures us.