Alongside nine singles and an EP, the Dublin-based band led by singer and songwriter Conor O’Brien have released three studio albums – two of which, Becoming a Jackal and were nominated for the Mercury Prize.
This month sees the arrival of a fourth, called Where Have You Been All My Life?, in which O’Brien and his touring band Cormac Curran (keyboards), Danny Snow (double bass), Mali Llywelyn (harp, mellotron) and Gwion Llewelyn (drums) revisit songs from his previous three albums.
O’Brien says the inspiration for the record came from “being on tour and realising that the tunes were all at a unique place arrangement-wise and they meant something different to me because of that”.
One day last July the band rattled through 18 songs at RAK Studios in north-west London; a dozen made it on to the finished record.
Being able to look at songs he’d written several years ago from a different standpoint also interested him.
“There was a sense with some of the tunes that I thought the depth of the lyrics might have been lost in the original arrangements,” he says. “For instance there’s a song called That Day and when we did that first time there was pressure to turn it into a single and make it the radio thing that sold the album and I always thought it was kind of lost in translation so I wanted to bring it back to the way I actually wrote it and put it out there. I much prefer that version.”
O’Brien says the speed the band worked at was partly practical. “It was a really expensive studio,” he says of a recording facility once favoured by the likes of David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Pink Floyd and Adele. “We kind of had to do it all in a day then we spent the next day mixing it.”
But he adds: “I think I wouldn’t have chosen to do that kind of project unless I had loads of faith in the musicians which I was with, so I think it was more of a testament to their musical prowess and us as a touring unit at the time.”
The album ends with a cover of the 60s hit Wichita Lineman. O’Brien says he’s a fan of its author Jimmy Webb. “That song is my favourite of his. Since I was very young I remember being obsessed with it and it being very much a dreamscape for me. I remember starting to learn how to write lyrics and that being inspirational because it has some very concise lines in it which you’re not quite sure what they mean literally but you know what they mean emotionally to you and you can fit your own experiences around it.”
As to whether this album feels like the closing of one chapter of his career or the opening of another, O’Brien reflects: “At the time it just felt like having a really nice day with an amazing bunch of musicians but now that I can hear it it does feel like a summation of the last five years of songwriting for me. I haven’t really written anything since then in a similar way to Darling Arithmetic [his acoustic third album]. I’ve been experimenting more with different ways of making music, going back into the electronics again.”
Between and Darling Arithmetic O’Brien publically came out as gay. He acknowledges the greater openness of his songwriting reflected the fact that he felt more at ease talking about his sexuality in public.
“I’m very much a natural introvert, I’m not a very social person so for me it was always strange,” he says. “I’d always come out in my private life but if there was a stranger in front of me with microphones and cameras I always retreated back into my shell, so it took me a bit of time to get used to that and just be open about stuff.
“I guess the arrangements of the songs and the lyrics of Darling Arithmetic were very much something that I had to do. It wasn’t that I really wanted to, it was just that there was no spark from any other creative part of me other than talking about homophobia and the experiences that I had with bigotry which I finally got out of my system.”
Having long fuelled his writing from a sense of indignation, O’Brien admits he’s “a bit worried now because I’m going to have to reinvent where I get my energy from”.
“I always wanted to write about that experience of feeling on the fringes of society and not being able to be yourself,” he says, but adds: “There’s still a lot of stuff to do. Even since the [same-sex] Marriage Act in Ireland, that was one of the most amazing, emotional days of my life, but I can still feel the 40 per cent of people who voted ‘no’ to that when I walk around and try to hold my boyfriend’s hand, there’s still a lot of work to do. It’s something you can always feed off to some degree.”
His next musical project will be electronic. “I’ve started playing with synthesisers in a much more obsessive manner than I ever did before, which is quite exciting to me,” he says. “I’m reading manuals all the time instead of writing songs which is quite worrying but I think it’s for the greater good. I’m going to spend the next few weeks after coming back from the tour experimenting and see what I can get out of textures and sounds.
“I was reading a manual yesterday,” he adds, “and it was telling me about LFOs and arpeggios then right in the middle it says ‘There’s so many things you can do, just make sure you see your friends and family at some stage’. My manual’s my friend now,” he laughs.
Villagers play at Brudenell Social Club on February 3. For details visit http://www.brudenellsocialclub.co.uk/whats-on/villagers2/