Why some gigs can be a curse
Villagers’ Conor O’Brien, who is in Belfast later this month, tells Matthew McCreary about how he deals with a rowdy crowd and making speeches in front of Rolf Harris
Anyone lucky enough to get their hands on a ticket to see Villagers at the Open House festival in Belfast in a few weeks would do well to mind their manners when singer Conor O’Brien takes to the stage, it seems.
The slightly-built and softly-spoken Dubliner is not one to be interrupted by chattering fans, as was demonstrated at a gig in 2009 when he demanded silence from a section of the room which had been rather more garrulous than he might have liked.
“When I’m on stage I’ll react more primally than usual, because I’m often not in the most objective place in the world, in fact I’m in a completely subjective place,” he says.
“That particular incident, emotions were high and there was a bunch of people talking at the back, so I told them to shut the f**k up. Half the audience were on my side and the other half weren’t, so it caused a bit of a ruckus in the blogging community in Dublin for a while. But I don’t care; I felt I had the right to do it on the night.
“I feel like I have protection on stage. I’m a very small man physically but when I’m on stage I feel a bit bigger than that. But that happened just the once, most of the time I’m polite!”
That perfectionism says much about the single-mindedness of O’Brien, who looks much younger than his 28 years. The impression is of a young man who won’t do anything he doesn’t want to do or hasn’t thought through thoroughly. Indeed it is that absolute sense of himself that has no doubt helped him become one of the hottest properties on the British and Irish music scenes.
As one of the founding members of hip Noughties Dublin band The Immediate, success had already seemed assured for O’Brien and his then bandmates, only for the group to split four years ago, much to the bewilderment of fans and critics alike.
“It was a good time but people don’t really know what’s going on within bands,” he explains. “From the outside it looks likes it’s all easy but inside it’s falling apart. We realised that the band we had put together in school didn’t feel as special as it initially did.
“We did all our best shows when no-one knew about us, crazy house parties, art colleges. But once there was this pressure to be a little bit slicker we just weren’t ready for that. We just wanted to be that messy art school band.”
A spell playing guitar for fellow Irish rocker Cathy Davey followed, before O’Brien founded Villagers which, despite the name, is essentially a one-man band, at least in its inception.
“It’s very different because (The Immediate) made me realise I wasn’t going to be able to form another band, in terms of writing with other people, that I had to do it all myself. I played all the instruments on the (Villagers) album and did the artwork and lyrics. Then I branched out and found a band and taught them the parts.
“Now as we tour we have become a bit more of a cohesive band but I am willing to let that go if the other guys want to do something else in the future. I want to keep it as a loose project, and make sure the songs are at the centre.”
And recognition for the project is starting to materialise, last year with a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize for the Villagers album Becoming a Jackal, and just a few weeks ago when O’Brien scooped an Ivor Novello award — one of the most prestigious in the industry — for Best Song Musically and Lyrically for the single of Becoming A Jackal.
“It was very surreal, I hate public speaking” the singer says.
“All I could see was Elton John and Jimmy Page and Rolf Harris sitting there.
“But I think it’s a damn good song and I’m very proud of it, so I think I have every right to win it.”
While the awards are no doubt welcome, they cap off what has been an incredibly busy and at times personally tough period for O’Brien, notably with the sudden death last year of his older sister Aoife, the same week that the Becoming a Jackal album was released.
“That was...tough,” he says quietly. “She had epilepsy. I was in London when I got the call, so it was pretty intense.”
The acclaim he has received for his work, not to mention the awards, has meant that the bar has been raised somewhat for the young songwriter, particularly with that tricky second album now eagerly anticipated. Although, says O’Brien, fans may be waiting a little while before anything is released.
“I’m working all the time and have managed to write quite a few songs on the road touring.
“I’ve got a bunch of songs but I don’t think it’s quite there yet. I’m not in any rush, I’m very slow as a writer and happy to be slow because I always need the songs to germinate, and then come back to them a month later. It might take a year for them to fully develop.
“Having said that, there are already a lot on the go, so it could be faster than you think!”
Villagers play the Coors Light Open House Festival, Belfast, on Saturday, June 25. See www.openhousefestival.com for details