Villagers: ‘I squealed like a schoolgirl when I met Damon Albarn’

Ivor Novello nominee Conor O’Brien on his heroes and being ‘too weird’ to have hits.

Villagers singer Conor O'Brien
Villagers people Conor O'Brien's collective are up for a second Ivor Novello Award. Image Picture Andrew Whitten

There’s something about Villagers’ emotional music that really appeals to fellow musicians.

Although Irish singer Conor O’Brien’s collective haven’t transferred to the mainstream, Villagers’ albums Becoming A Jackal and {Awayland} were nominated for the Mercury Prize.

And now, having won an Ivor Novello Award in 2011 for Becoming A Jackal’s title track, O’Brien is nominated for his second Ivor at next month’s awards, this time for a full album. Last year’s Darling Arithmetic is up against Jamie xx’s In Color and Gaz Coombes’ Matador for the Best Album prize.

“I’m making a record which I want people to dance to”

The Dubliner seems entirely unfussed at his below-the-radar reputation, telling Loaded: “I’m too weird to have hits. I’ve never had a huge level of success, but I feel lucky to have music as a job. I’m happy with my status – things could be a lot worse!”

On Darling Arithmetic, O’Brien says he tried to “stop my songs going into bizarre places”, admitting that went against his natural tendencies. The move worked, with the album being his most moving yet.

But his next move is likely to really surprise fans of Villagers’ emotional balladry familiar from their three albums and recent acoustic reinterpretations set Where Have You Been All My Life.

“I’m making a record which I want people to dance to,” he smiles. “There are a lot of grooves and propulsive rhythms. But if you listen closely, the lyrics are still really depressing…”

That at least will be familiar to fans of O’Brien’s sadness, even though he’s understandably jocular talking to Loaded shortly after his Ivor Novello nomination is announced.

The 32-year-old admits he still freaks out when he meets his heroes, laughing: “I become a little schoolgirl when I meet musicians I admire. I was starstruck when I met Damon Albarn in Berlin recently, especially because he was with Ray Cokes from MTV’s Most Wanted.

“I copied a lot of Damon’s songwriting ideas when I was 16, but I told Damon that and he was cool. He’s really nice.”

O’Brien reveals he still copies other musicians’ ideas, admitting one song for his upcoming album is directly influenced by a track from Caribou’s 2010 album Swim.

“Can Loaded please tell Bjork I want to work with her?”

“I want to see how far I can get with producing the new record myself,” he says. “Production is what I’m getting off on at the moment. But I might get someone else in – Adrian Utley from Portishead is one of my favourite producers. I love his synths and textures, and the work he did on Perfume Genius’ last album was superb.

“And if he’s not around, can Loaded please tell Bjork I want to work with her?”

Revealing that he’s begun producing friends’ bands at his home studio in Dublin “whenever I’m feeling lonely in there”, the impressively bearded O’Brien also might become a songwriter for other people.

“I’ve got a couple of happy songs I should give to somebody,” he says. “Whenever I write a happy song, I think ‘Ugh! God, I could never sing that!’

“Sadness has much more depth to it when you’re trying to write. You use your whole being to say what you’re feeling. If you’re happy, you’re too busy just being happy to write.”

Long may O’Brien’s sadness continue.

The Ivor Novello Awards are at London’s Grosvenor House Hotel on May 19. Villagers’ album Where Have You Been All My Life? is out now.

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Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn

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