IN THE 18 months since I last talked to Conor J. O’Brien, better known as the frontman - nay the beating heart - of Irish band Villagers, it is safe to say he has experienced some seismic changes in his life.
It all stemmed from the much anticipated release of the debut Villagers album, Becoming A Jackal, in May, the record almost certainly the best of the year and a shoo-in for the Choice Music Prize, in our humble opinion. Since then? A number one record in Ireland; sell out tours of the UK, America, Canada, Europe; a Mercury Music Prize nomination many felt he was very unlucky not to win; and raved about gigs at industry showcase SXSW, plus Oxegen and Electric Picnic (we were there for both of the latter, which were jaw-dropping).
But the album was the thing. Such a sensuous, stunning record, one that inevitably saw the Dubliner compared to Elliot Smith or Conor Oberst byway of Neil Young; an album that crawls under your skin, O’Brien’s lyrical abilities literally eye-opening in scale. It is refreshing to know that he remains down to earth, pleasant and delightfully self-deprecating. Success has not gone to his head, it seems.
“I feel like we are still kind of in “it” now, whatever “it” is -weare so busy that I definitely haven’t stood back and surveyed it or anything,” Conor says simply when asked to describe the preceding year and a half since we have spoken.
“Any time I was home I was just trying to get my washing done,” laughs the diminutive Dubliner.“It is pretty much just constant moving, travelling, but we seem to be becoming a better band for it. I think the band everyone is going to see this week is maybe a different beast to the one they maybe saw a year ago, I think we have become a bit more at ease with our performance.”
He adds: “One of my favourite shows was one we did just a couple of nights ago in Norwich -it felt just as fresh as it always has, really and that is important”.
They are literally learning on the job, Villagers becoming a much more settled line-up than whence it began, the players becoming more of a fixture around the lynchpin of O’Brien. Evolution, we proffer.
“Yeah, there have been a lot of new sounds and new lines coming into the songs without any authorisation from me,” smiles O’Brien. “But I don’t mind that, I think it is almost an integral part of the live experience with this band, because otherwise you just become like a karaoke machine every night.
He laughs earnestly: “I think there is a bit more humour as well, I can be a sort of dour dude sometimes. I need to lighten up a little bit”.
When asked to pick out a highlight from the last 12 months, O’Brien reels off acouple that would have any music fan salivating; Electric Picnic, the Haldern Pop Festival in Dusseldorf where Villagers met and received advice from The National, who then watched their set.
Of the Mercury Music Prize, O’Brien is slightly more hesitant.
“It was cool,” he says unconvincingly. “It was pretty surreal, it was the same feeling I had when I was brought to the circus at nine years of age by my mother,it was like looking around at the all the colours and the elephants and tigers and lots and lots of jackals,” he laughs.
But he does not dispute the effect being nominated had on his career.
“Well yeah, right after that we did a tour of England and there was suddenly lots of people at our shows and people who knew the words, so it was definitely a big deal,” says Conor. “Even when we went to the States after that, every interview I did they would talk about the Mercury,it is a deal over there too, they know about it over there, probably because they don’t have anything similar. It definitely made a big difference in terms of people knowing about the band, which was cool.”
He says he cannot wait to see St. John’ Church, where he will perform for a Limerick audience this Friday night. Lisa Hannigan told him it was “amazing”, so he is excited. We should be too, because not only will he play tracks from his spine-tingling debut, he will also debut some new tracks forour benefit. So what is the plan after this yearending Irish tour, we wonder?
“I am playing some new songs in the shows at the moment on my own, because I haven’t had a chance to figure out the arrangements yet,” he explains, “but in January, which I have fought to keep free, I am going to return to my hovel and just write a bunch of songs, or at least finish off the little sketches which I have managed to squeeze out in various different countries. My main aim is to makesure that it isn’t an album about Travelodges, that is the only plan I have.”