Villagers heading for bright lights, big city
Ahead of the band's visit here next week, Villagers frontman Conor O'Brien tells Edwin Gilson why he's very glad to be going mainstream (because he doesn't just want to play for arty weirdos)
Conor O'Brien, the brains behind Dublin's Villagers, has clearly always been a literary fellow. Having crammed the band's 2010 debut full of finely woven tales, evident in grandly titled songs like Ship Of Promises and Set The Tigers Free, last year the pint-sized Irishman set about spinning a series of new yarns for Villagers' second album, Awayland.
O'Brien's music is generally labelled indie-folk. In truth, though, the range of instruments employed on Awayland is so vast that categorisation can be difficult, as Belfast gig-goers will find out when the band – which also comprises bassist Danny Snow, piano/organ player Cormac Curran, drummer James Byrne and guitarist Tommy McLaughlin – play Belfast's Limelight next Thursday. The record, released in January this year, features acoustic guitar, brass and electronica amongst many other elements; a list almost as diverse as the stories portrayed in O' Brien's lyrics.
The title Awayland gives more than a hint as to the frontman's intentions for the album; he wants listeners to lose themselves, to sink into the weird and wonderful world he has tirelessly conceived. The record's second track, Earthy Pleasures, tells the saga of a man who begins "naked on the toilet with a toothbrush in his mouth", only to soon find himself fighting in the War of Independence of Brazil in 1822.
This happens only through the powers of imagination, of course, but then that's the whole point of Awayland and, by extension, Villagers.
"I wanted to focus on the feelings you have when you're a child," explains O'Brien. "The wonder, the fascination, the curiosity of the world. The whole album actually came from quite a dark place, as I was dealing with bereavements, so I was trying to write my life. I didn't want to write a really depressing record, though. There's a lightness of touch, a humour that perhaps was missing from the first record. That just comes from experience I guess ... life experience."
The protagonist of Earthly Pleasures is, he says, "more of a metaphorical device than a real person. It's playing with the idea of cracking up, losing your mind a little bit. It's actually very therapeutic to create a crazy story like that; it encapsulates that complete and absolute sense of abandon."
O'Brien largely lives up to his polite, introspective media persona as he talks down the line from Cologne on the next leg of his band's European tour. He says crowd sizes at the shows have not noticeably swelled since the release of Awayland, but that's mainly "because on this tour we specifically decided to go to places we've never been to before".
For this reason, recently visited France was "cool" says the frontman: "We played loads of intimate shows, which is actually nice, as we love to be close to people. Also, lots of wine was drunk. We didn't get to go to any vineyards unfortunately. The weather was bad."
O'Brien remarks that the most important thing for Villagers is "to always feel a sense of upward momentum", and that he wants to bring his "weird little ideas and stories to bigger audiences". This leads to a pertinent question about Villagers – with two Mercury Prize nominated albums under their belt (both Awayland and debut Becoming A Jackal were up for the gong), how close are O'Brien and co to a true mainstream breakthrough? "Well I don't just want to sing for a select group of arty weirdos who think listening to us is cool," laughs the singer. "I think we're on a steady incline."
There is a perception in the indie-sphere that, with the instrumental and lyrical intricacies of Awayland, Villagers stayed true to their folk ideals; admirably, they didn't sell out in search of success. In his self-deprecating manner, though, O'Brien laughs off such a notion. "When people say that, they probably mean that we just haven't sold any records!"
What of the Mercury nominations, then? This year, Villagers were up against David Bowie, Arctic Monkeys and the eventual winner, James Blake. In spite of O'Brien having already scooped an Ivor Novello award for the song Becoming a Jackal in 2011, is it a blow to be on the shortlist twice only to leave the equally prestigious ceremony empty-handed both times?
"The second nomination took us by surprise completely; I wasn't disappointed at all not to win," reflects O' Brien. "I was actually quite relieved, as it meant I wouldn't have to make a terrible speech! Just before the announcement I was thinking, 'Oh s**t, I might need to say something', so I was desperately trying to put some words together in my head. I'm happy your man James Blake won; his was one of the most interesting albums on the list."
The nomination topped off what has been, according to O'Brien, a "big year" for Villagers. By now, though, there's no place like home for the band. "At the end of a busy year we always go back to Dublin, as we're all from there. After the last album we came back to Galway to play, which was genuinely really emotional. And the last time we played Belfast was at The Empire, which was one of our favourite shows. It's a beautiful room there."
As well as The Limelight date on Thursday, Villagers call in at Londonderry's Guildhall next Friday, and play three more Irish gigs after that. Does O'Brien feel a sense of obligation to play a string of Irish shows?
"Yeah, maybe we do," he says. "That's cool though." Then: "I'm really bad at keeping up with Irish music. I get sent loads of amazing stuff but can never remember the names."
After Christmas in Dublin, Villagers will release a single in February that O'Brien cryptically describes as, "very relevant to the moment, for reasons undisclosed here. Let's just say I think the theme of the song will make a lot of sense when it comes out".
No doubt the single will be as interesting and idiosyncratic as everything Villagers have put out up to this point. It's tempting to wonder though if O'Brien's reputation as a whimsical wonderer, a man (as Q Magazine put it) who is seemingly, "out of step, out of time and out of this world", can ever be a wearing one.
"Whenever I read reviews, whether there are positive or negative, I tend to agree with all of it," he ponders, after a pause. "If someone says something really great about my writing I think, 'Yeah, I agree with that', and I use it to bolster my ego. And then if someone says something incredibly bad, I see it as a point that I need to work on. The 'whimsical wanderer' tag, though... I don't know about that. I don't mind it, it's cool."
As long as O' Brien keeps finding the inspiration to combine touching, complex tales with intriguing musical ideas, he will surely continue his progression into a truly special songwriter. At the very least, he'll always stand out from the pack.
"With some writers today, it's like their songs are the script to the soap opera of their lives," he concludes. "I don't do that; each of my characters is different, each song has its own little world."
Eyes on the prize ... those multiple Mercury nominees
Villagers aren't the only act to have the honour of being nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize more than once ...
Bat for Lashes – Natasha Khan, the Brighton songstress behind Bat for Lashes, was up for the award for her 2007 debut Fur and Gold, and 2009 follow-up, Two Suns.
Khan is known for her visually flamboyant live shows and eclectic, psychedelic albums.
Arctic Monkeys – the Sheffield band took home the 2006 award for their now classic debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not.
A year later, their second record, Favourite Worst Nightmare, was nominated, as was their latest album, AM, this year
Laura Marling – the folk singer was nominated in 2010 and 2013, for her albums, I Speak Because I Can, and, Once I Was an Eagle, respectively
PJ Harvey is the only artist to have won the prize more than once – in 2001 and 2011
Villagers play The Limelight, Belfast, on Thursday, December 12, and the Guildhall, Londonderry on Friday, December 13. Visit www.ticketmaster.ie