Becoming the Jackal

For this 26-year-old, 2010 has been a pretty massive year. Conor O’Brien is perhaps best known for his breath-taking performance on Jools Holland. Following the success of his much acclaimed debut Becoming a Jackal, this was the moment Villagers broke big. Since then O’Brien, best known his uniquely quiet and artistic folk. O’Brein, described by the Mercury panel as a songwriter “of great charm and mystery”, has been catapulted through the hype-machine. Since then Villagers have embarked on four American tours, and this interview was given at one the last dates of their sold-out tour of England.

_So, 2010, has been massive for you guys,’ Jackal’s’ taken off worldwide hasn’t it?_

Yeah, we’ll be off to Australia after this! That’ll be the furthest we’ve ever gone, which will be amazing, and I’ve been in America for like, four tours this year!

_Has the success of Becoming a Jackal been difficult?_

Right now I’m missing the recording-writing part because we’ve been touring so much.

_Why is that? Do you find the live atmosphere restricting for the type of music you play?_

I like it quiet but I don’t want to be Nazi about it, trying to tell people what to do. People can shout a little bit as well, but for certain songs the impact is a lot stronger when there’s complete silence. I use silence a lot in live shows because it’s a very strong thing.

_But that can get ruined at festivals, you had a bit of a controversial falling out with an audience once didn’t you?_

Yeah, I told them to “Shut the fuck up”. It happened in Ireland. It was a silly thing to do. It was at this really cool festival called Working Class Heroes. It’s like a showcase festival that happens in Dublin. Those things are notoriously loud and brash and everyone’s there to get drunk, and that’s what everyone was there to do that night.
We were trying out some new things that night and I was getting frustrated and became a little spoiled teenager and told everyone to “Shut the fuck up”. But this stuff happens. I’ve become a little bit more self-aware or comfortable in my own skin in the last six months or so.

_So have you found the transition of Jackal to the live environment a little awkward?_

I think the first shows were a little bit awkward. We were getting our shit together. So it was quite loose in that way. But I kinda want to keep it that way. I don’t want it to ever feel settled or complete or finished or anything. I want it to be something that can live and breathe on the stage and let the songs change and grow as they see fit.
But when I finally got the album done I really felt proud. I wanted to sing it to people., so that’s what we’re doing now.

Do you think you’ve learnt from the live experience, taking Jackal into the full band setting?
Now, we’re a complete 100 percent touring band. This five-piece group are quite dedicated to playing the song every night. Since then I can hear some songs on the album that would have benefited from a live recording, a bit of a looser sound. So I think I’ve learnt a little bit from I haven’t decided yet. I really enjoyed recording all the instruments on the first album Becoming a Jackal. We’ll see I guess!

_So there’s a follow-up in the works?_

Yeah. I’m writing all the time. I don’t know when it will be. It could take a year, it could take five years, I don’t really care. As long as it’s

_Are you hoping for the same kind of success with your follow up, maybe to win the Mercury next time?_

No, I don’t have an aim to win any prizes. I mean the last time it was big news! It’s nice to hear you’re up for a prize, but, I just want to make sure it’s something that I write for the right reasons. I’m a bit of a creature of habit. Right now I’m in this particular habit (touring) my mind is in this particular routine. In January, I’ll be going back to my little hovel and close all the doors and write a bunch of new songs, I’m gonna be in that particular routine. That’ll be just as exciting.

_So if it’s about creating these songs, rather than say the Mercuries, or the live buzz, which songs gave you the most satisfaction as an artist?_

I really like ‘Jackal’ [the song]. I think it’s my favourite single from the album. I wouldn’t really call it my favourite song on the album, though. ‘Set the Tigers Free’ might be one of my favourite songs. It’s a bit more understated, subtle, atmospheric.
Is that what you look for as a musician then, above all else?

I mean with that song, ‘Set the Tigers Free’, It started out as a tacky old country song and then I gradually morphed it into this dark brooding thing through hours and hours of fucking hard graft. So I was quite proud of it when I finished. When you’re proud of something you kind of think of it as your baby, I guess that’s why.

_So was the Mercury Nomination, and the publicity built up around Jackal was a bit of a double-edged sword then?_

Yeah, in some ways, I think now they all see a very small man who looks slightly boyish and has a ridiculous haircut and sings in an open way, which perhaps gives a sense of empathy, which might warm their cockles a little bit. But it’s all a lie. [laughs]
They don’t know that. I think they see an acoustic guitar and they see folk music. I play an acoustic guitar because it was the first instrument that I picked up when I wrote the songs. I wasn’t trying to make folk music or anything.

_It’s been suggested that your songwriting has a dark complexity, especially in the lyrics?_

I don’t come to writing with any intentions. I just try and get to the place where I’m so relaxed and at peace, that whatever comes out will come out.
I think now they all see a very small man who looks slightly boyish and has a ridiculous haircut will come out.

_How is it that you see Villagers then?_

I dunno, man. It’s very hard to define it. It’s something you just don’t do when you’re trying to write songs. It’s always the opposite of trying to define what you do. You’re always trying to run away from it. I think when you’re writing songs you have to use them as a suppository for stuff that you don’t get a chance to talk about or express in everyday life. I think that’s what songs are for.

_Does the name have anything to do with the way you approach the music then?_

Well , with Jackal, I had all the songs and I was like “I don’t even have a band” but I wanted to give this a name since I knew I was going to get a band. So I thought of the most anonymous, faceless name I could think of and something that wouldn’t tie the songs down to any particular genre or anything. I want to be able to write different albums with completely different settings and different types of arrangements and stuff. So I thought of the name ‘Villagers’ without the definite article, as it’s kinda faceless, mysterious, so it kinda suits y’know?

_So where do you see Villagers heading in the future?_

We’re going to finish this tour in the UK, and then we’re going straight into an Irish tour and that takes us straight up to Christmas. Our last two shows are in this beautiful venue in Dublin called Vicar Street. It’s probably my favourite venue. It’s 1000 capacity or something. We’re doing two nights in a row and they’re both sold out. It’s very exciting. It’s my favourite.
After that, in January, I’m gonna take the month off from touring. Just get a bunch of stuff written, draw a bunch of drawings.

_So the focus isn’t really on Villagers then? You’ve got a couple of projects to be working on?_

I’m planning on doing a bunch of artwork or something, and I guess I’m just gonna write some songs and I’m sure they’re going to find their way into Villagers. I wrote a bunch more songs as well which didn’t make it to the album, so maybe they’ll make it onto the next


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