In our dreams, nothing seems impossible. They can be strangely comforting, yet challenging at the same time. The unexpected, sometimes most unusual things take place. Stepping into this dreamy world, we overcome our fears, develop skills we thought we didn’t have and face irrational scenarios that are preposterous to common to sense and nature. Logic works in mysterious ways. Every experience is potentially meaningful if you allow yourself to embrace it – even after waking up, eventually. And if you’re looking for a proper soundtrack to explore that territory, here it comes. Over the course of the ten new songs, Villagers‘ Fever Dreams combines multi-layered songwriting and a profound sensibility with the occasional moments of levity and beautifully embedded jazz and soul influences. Despite the feverish, sonic impulses, Villagers’ latest creative journey does not lead to a place of delirium, but ultimately to a state of reflectiveness, euphoria and sincerity that stimulates the listener’s imagination. On his fifth studio album to date, Conor J. O’Brien’s songwriting feels wondrous and effortless – all while revealing a quite eclectic nature lying underneath. Looking cheerful and rested, despite working through a long daily to-do list leading up to the album release, Conor radiates excitement about Fever Dreams – and deservedly so – while we dive into our conversation.
Do you see any similarity in the process of dreaming and making this album? With our dreams we don’t have any real control and a lot of things are happening on a subconscious level like in a fever dream.
Definitely. I think it is like a mixture of listening to the subconscious and trying to stay open and then it is also a bit more like lucid dreaming when you realise that you are inside the dream and you can actually make a decision. I felt a lot of that this time, too. We were getting together with the band every couple of weeks and just developing the songs really naturally in that kind of subconscious way, but then sometimes you would have breakthroughs and you realise – oh my god, we can do this now! It was so much fun. It was myself and four of the guys and we were all just having fun with the half-finished ideas. I think it is a bit of both – it is that kind of subconscious thing, but then you are also buzzing on the fact that you can do whatever you want to do and the process of the excitement is what you are now hearing.
Science always keeps telling us that dreams are a form of a message to the conscious mind and they help us to prepare for and cope with the unexpected. How do you cope with the unexpected – do you embrace it?
I think you have to embrace it. You have to have faith in the possibilities of what might come to you. I guess we are always putting order on stuff in order to survive in the world and sometimes you realise that you don’t have to do that and there are certain levels of meaning and reality which you can occasionally open yourself up to. Like in Song in Seven that was kind of about that – experiencing a deeper connection to everything around you and sort of realising that your perception is coloured by so many different culturally positioned things and sometimes occasionally you have little eureka moments where you can break through that and maybe see a similar thing that you saw when you were like a newborn baby.
I think sometimes the creative act can be that. It can be connecting to something that might by shared between all of us and might be something that is slightly beyond all these patterns of meaning and algorithms that we have created.
Aspirations for the future
Which fever dream of yours would you like to see become a reality?
I don’t really remember my dreams, but I think I would like to see us progress a bit more in terms of this new kind of tribalism that we are seeing in the internet and the way people are shouting at each other and not being very articulate and not really listening to opposing view points. We are only at the very beginning of this internet age and I guess a dream or an aspiration I would have is that we are going to develop a little bit more past this monetarily driven obsession with branding ourselves and not really allowing free flows of thoughts and having an articulate, considered and nuanced discussion. That is something I have been reading and thinking about a lot. That is kind of an aspiration in my brain for the human race.
How likely do you think this is going to happen? Having a meaningful discussion on the internet is really difficult these days.
I guess with COVID we have all been living on our screens so much and it can start to feel like it is the real world as well, but it really isn’t. And it is all driven by capitalism so I think we have to be careful that we are not letting our thought processes be driven by monetary aims. It might be happening a bit too much at the moment. I think in fifty years time people are going to look back at this time with the internet the same way we look back at the 1950s. We will be laughing a bit at how primitive we were and the way we used technology. At the moment, the narrative is that we are so far ahead with this, but I think it is only the beginning and there is still a lot of work to do in terms of taking into account all the messiness of the human experience and being mindful of that when it comes to information in the world of technology. There is a lot of strange things going on in the general discourse, I think.
Like what for example?
I have gotten obsessed right now with returning to old TV shows – things where people would just really articulately argue with each other, but really respectfully. In the days of podcasts and stuff it is all about getting together with somebody who is on the same side as you with an issue and then just talk about why the other side is so stupid, you know? Whereas, in the middle of the 20th century, when television was starting it was all about getting people into a room and respectfully debating about things and I think that is more interesting because it pushes everyone – including the audience. The audience starts living inside both sides, both brains, and we are all helping each other develop as a species.
A few years ago, I was lucky to hear an early demo version of Circles In The Firing Line. Back then, a very beautiful, and simple piano driven song. Can you describe how it evolved to such an eclectic piece and the surprising sonic explosion happening in its final moments?
I think a lot of the song was already done for The Art of Pretending to Swim, but it didn’t really fit for this album so then I just found it again for this album and thought, this is perfect. The aesthetic, the arrangement and everything would fit really well into this because first of all, the lyrics are singing about stuff that I’m reading in books at the moment. Thematically, it was something that I have gone even deeper into which is what we just talked about – following ideologies rather than really allowing yourself to think about the complications of the world in a nuanced way. The ending of the song, it just happened (laughs).
It was really cathartic to scream ‘they are fucking up my favourite dream’ over and over again.
Can you elaborate a bit more on the meaning of this particular line?
They are fucking up my favourite dream – it is kind of meant to be a double meaning. It is kind of meant to be from the perspective of the character in the song who might be caught up with ideological bias or something and who is screaming about someone having an opposite opinion. Or – it might also be a songwriter, the all-knowing eye, saying like these idiots are fucking up my favourite dream which is peace, love and understanding. The reason it is meant to be double meaning is because the term being in the firing line in English it actually means if you are in the firing line, it means you are under attack. A firing line is actually a row of people with guns. Literally, if you are in the firing line, then you are the one shooting. The song is kind of about being under attack, but also attacking – it is a two-way kind of thing and usually both things are connected in many ways.
The more I know, the more I care
The line the more I know, the more I care appears in various songs on Fever Dreams. Is it supposed to work like a reaffirmation or mantra? What is your favourite way of soaking up information and knowing more and more?
During the lockdown it was reading for me. Lot’s and lot’s of reading. I just felt freedom from that. The more I know, the more I care – it was the original album title. It was pretty much the album title for the majority of the creation of the album. As an album title, it wouldn’t have worked because out of context it sounds a bit sentimental, but it did repeat itself in a couple of the songs. Yes, it is kind of like a mantra or an incantation. Something that I would say in the music. It is talking about a choice that I have had to make and I think a lot of people would have to make because you can be quite overwhelmed the more and more information comes to you, especially these days and that can go either way.
I think you have to make a decision, regardless of what you are taking in and how overwhelming it all is, you have to make that decision that you still want to learn more and more about the world and that will make you care more and more about it. That is what this line is really all about. It is what the album is about – like trying to really go deeper and trying to take in all aspects of everything.
Like what John Keats would call negative capability – holding opposing viewpoints in your head and then allowing these viewpoints to nourish you and to bolster your creativity rather than make that contradiction to destroy your ability to critically think or to reach after a fact or reason or anything. I think that is what this line is about as well.
The level of (not) caring
Is there such a thing as caring too much in your opinion?
Personally for me as a rule, I have decided that I want to keep learning forever and trying to stay humble and trying to maintain my curiosity and trying to develop my intellect and my ability to think critically and really see what is important and try to maintain a positivity and openness. Those are all things which require work and I think that work is something good to turn up to every day. I love making music.
Hand on heart, is there anything you wish you would care more about, but ultimately you don’t?
I don’t care about football and sometimes I feel left out (laughs). When the European Championship was going on and everyone was on the streets in Dublin, I thought I would love to care about this. I could hear everyone in Dublin screaming when Italy beat England as if we were Italy. I was just like…I don’t care, but I wish I did. It looked like a lot of fun (laughs).
If you find it in your heart
I know you have been reading some of Maya Angelou’s work. One of my favourite quotes from her body of work is – ‘if you find it in your heart to care for somebody else, you will have succeeded’. Is that something we should all strive for as human beings?
Oh yeah, definitely. That idea of unconditional love is strange to me because it usually is referenced purely in terms of partners or family members, but I think if you develop yourself enough, you can kind of have it for everyone in a weird way. It can be your starting point, even towards your sworn enemies. It can still be your starting point and you can really see yourself in them. So much language today is based on trying to differentiate each other – ourselves from other people or other groups. Even language which is couched in a progressive mold. At the moment, we have this thing where it is all about differentiating groups of people and I don’t think that is very helpful because I think it is driven by money again, driven by the internet and algorithms. What Maya Angelou said there reminds me of that.
It is so much more developed and progressive in a true sense from the starting point to think how much am I similar to this other person regardless of our differences, ideological standpoints, race, sex – anything.
Maya Angelou is a writer that has always displayed that and I like that kind of writing which is focusing more on the ties that bind us and then using that as a starting point – even in critical writing. Even stuff which might be trying to argue against someone else’s viewpoint. You can tell when the writer has a highly developed sense of human compassion and I think Maya Angelou had that. Her writing is amazing.
Keeping it loose
Looking back at our last conversation for The Art of Pretending to Swim, you said you were getting a lot more into the production process – to quote you back then – ‘technology was flirting with creativity’. With Fever Dreams, what would you say were you flirting with in particular this time around?
The band. Trying to keep it looser this time. A lot of the technology stuff was given to Brendan (Jenkinson) in the band. He was really instrumental and it was his studio where we recorded most of the stuff in Dublin. He was just so good at very quickly organizing stuff in the studio so that we could get as much out of it creatively as possible. I didn’t want to try to pin down the ideas too early. I wanted to just let them free flow for a while so that stuff would happen and surprise us as a group of people. That was cool. Then when the lockdown happened, I had so much of that stuff to play with – all the audio files – that I was just working with musicians remotely and again trying not to dictate too much.
True role in life
On the title track Fever Dreams, there is a sample of a quote by Linda Perhacs. The last line says ‘and then I knew, my true role was love’ which is quite a profound thing to say if you really mean it. Do you feel like you have found your true role in life?
That is a great question. But it is such a big one (laughs). I feel lucky to have found something that I really deeply enjoy and that I’m able to do a lot, but I can’t say that I will be like this or that in ten or twenty years.
Instead of thinking that I found a true role, I would prefer to think of it like staying open to possibilities of change.
The only reason I got into making music was because I was open to the idea of not going down that avenue of 9 to 5 like working in a bank or whatever. The possibilities of music to me was like wow, I could really do that if I work, work, work. I think I would like to maintain that idea. Since I have started reading more again I have written the odd bits of essays or prose and I think I could be doing something a bit different for a while in the future, but I don’t know what it is yet.
I also think it is very important to just work really hard. That is my main thing. I have been asked in the past what advice would you give to young artists and I don’t really feel able to answer that question because everyone’s journey is very different, especially when it comes to creativity. But there is one thread which is:
You really have to dedicate your life to it. You really have to live inside of your work. If you don’t and if it doesn’t work out for you, you kind of have to blame yourself a bit as well. You can’t just do it as a side job or whatever. You really have to work.
The concept of time
With live music basically having come to a full stop over the past few months, do you feel like time moves slower without live music in it?
Yeah, but I don’t know if it feels slower just because of that. Everything got stretched and time took on a new meaning in the last year and a half. I guess when you go on tour, that is when I will really notice the difference because that is what really messes with your idea of time when you are traveling and in a new place every day. I quite enjoyed aspects of the lockdown with making the album. I had some days which felt like months and some which felt like a second.
A lot of the album is trying to play with time and place and a lot of the songs are trying to express sensations rather than themes or narratives. It is more like a sensory album so I guess that will mix with the weird time experience. It definitely became a very refined album because there was nothing happening.
The brilliant Fever Dreams is out now on Domino Records.