Villagers talks faith, technology and new album ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’

Interview Villagers talks faith, technology and new album ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’

We’re also sharing Conor O’Brien’s visceral new video for ‘Fool’.

Villagers - aka Ireland’s Conor O’Brien - is releasing his fourth album ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ next month via Domino. After sharing the record’s blissful first preview ‘A Trick Of The Light’, Conor has now revealed second track ‘Fool’, a concise, taut pop song that meditates on technology.

In line with the new track and video, we gave Conor a ring to discuss the new album, faith, the changing cultural landscape of Ireland and more. You can read the full interview below the new video.

“‘Fool’ is a weird one,” Conor tells us of the new track, ”because it came from a much more sprawling set of notes. I have this very strong memory of just sitting on the floor with about ten pages of notes in front of me, and they all had varyingly successful little diatribes about how technology is connected to our ideas of faith in life.

“I thought it was going to be this twelve-minute sprawling folk piece,” he continues. ”I had all these visions for it to be this epic masterpiece, and by the end of the week, it turned into this really concise pop song, which was really surprising to me. It’s a romantic battlecry; a scream in the middle of a technology-centred dystopia, trying to find some sort of romance while someone in front of you is just staring at their phone.

The track comes alongside a visceral, kinda gruesome video directed by Bob Gallagher, depicting romantic love in the era of technology. “When we went in to direct the video,” Conor explains, ”Bob said he went into the restaurant and asked permission to film there, and the guy who owns the place said ‘What’s the video about?’ and Bob said ‘Well it’s kind of about addiction to technology and phones’, and apparently the guy was like ‘I see it every day! It’s a virus! It’s changing everything! People aren’t talking to each other any more!’ so then he was totally happy with us using his restaurant, because we were pushing the message!”

Watch the brilliant ‘Fool’ video and read our interview with Villagers below the jump.

You’re back with new album ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ - did it come together quite easily?

I find making music quite a comfortable experience, but you’ve just gotta let it happen. With this album, it was slightly reactionary, given that I’d toured [2015 LP] ‘Darling Arithmetic’ and brought out another album [live record ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’] during that touring, and both of those albums were quite sparse and confessional, and I think I’d really done that to death. So the beginning of this one was a reaction to that, and trying to get back to enjoying arranging things, and making things as exciting as possible in a textural way, using a different part of my brain and testing myself again.

There’s been a lot of change in Ireland recently, largely around the Repeal vote - did you feel that seeping into the record?

I suppose when I was writing [the album], it wasn’t in the news that much - it became more prominent after the album was done. But the Repeal vote is quite indicative of a general cultural change that’s been happening for the last ten years in Ireland, which is a movement away from the Church, and towards a more socially progressive society, and the equality referendum and many other positive things have happened, and you can definitely feel it in the air. And with having moved to Dublin, you just have to walk out of the door and you really feel it on the streets.

It’s an interesting point around a movement away from the Church in Ireland at the moment, as a lot of the new album focuses around you rediscovering your faith.

For me, when I was very young, I was quite obsessed with the idea of God. I used to pray all the time. Then when you get a bit older, you get cynical, and life happens, and you realise how scummy organised religion is. For me, I’m in my mid-30s now, and you’ve got to take what you can get when it comes to spirituality, and you have to realise that you can’t denigrate anyone else’s faith, or their idea of what God is, or even if they want to use the word God. It’s all about how that animates you in the world, and if it allows you to be a more open, loving person and allows you to embrace the world around you more. For me, that’s what faith is, and I like the idea of reclaiming that word from organised religion, and using it as my own personal way of animating myself.

Was there a point where you realised that you could live as a socially progressive person and also have your own faith, as often the two don’t go hand in hand?

To me, it’s an issue of words. I find God to be a really interesting word, and I like using it sometimes. I like thinking about the grander scheme of things and not having to put it in a more academic way. Some things are just inexplicable, and that’s okay, and that’s where art comes from, and that’s where you can explore these things, and all words are just compromises anyway, so you might as well use whatever is at your behest.

And are you confident in writing songs that don’t hold answers as such, and pose questions instead?

I think that’s probably all I’m able to do! I’m a bit of a space cadet. If you ask any of my friends, they’ll know that I’m just a bit of a dorky guy. I’ve been doing this since I was 12, and I think it’s something that I’ve become quite good at, but perhaps it means that I wasn’t able to focus on other aspects of my brain development. I don’t really write songs that are meant to be prescriptive - for me, they’re just little pieces of dreams, and sometimes they touch upon these really interesting subconscious things that perhaps other people have been thinking of as well.

Hearing the lyrics on the new album, it seems like faith ties together a lot of the lyrical themes together - did the record flow quite quickly around this topic?

Yeah, and it surprised me quite a lot. It was just from listening to lots of gospel music, which was the antidote to my own overthinking brain. I guess because I have so much experience in touring now, I’m aware that there’s music that I still haven’t made yet which catches a groove in a way that I’ve never done before, and I was really focused on holding onto grooves this time and making music that was a bit more life-affirming in an instantly gratifying way, rather than something you have to dig a little bit at before you can fully enjoy it.

“With having moved to Dublin, you just have to walk out of the door and you really feel it on the streets.”

Speaking of gospel music, there’s a really distinctive gospel tint to [album track] ‘Love Came With All That It Brings’ - what spurred on the creation of that one?

I use a sample from a song by a band called The Dixie Hummingbirds on that one. I’d been listening to Mahalia Jackson - she’s basically the queen of gospel, and she had this beautiful song called ‘What Then?’, and I started Googling as many versions of that song as I could find, and then this amazing version by The Dixie Hummingbirds came up, and I just found this loop which really got me going, and it just became part of the song.

Ideas of technology seem to permeate a lot of the album too - is it something that’s been on your mind a lot?

Yeah. In fact I was talking to my sister about it the other day, and she’s got a three year-old child, and I see how he’s already gravitating towards the phone, and I think we’re only at the beginning of understanding how to deal with this new power that we’ve got technologically, and it’s really affecting our brains. During the process of writing this record, I realised that I’d basically stopped reading books. I was just checking stuff all the time. In January this year, I went away, brought loads of books and just put my phone away and made myself start reading again, and the way your brain starts reactivating itself and holding larger amounts of knowledge for longer periods of time is quite amazingly, but also terrifying. People are thinking in soundbites at the moment, and it’s a weird one. It’s changing everything.

Do you find yourself getting more reflective now you’re a decade into your career and on album four?

I mean, the last ten years has been a real trip. I’ve met so many people. It’s definitely changed me quite drastically. When I started the whole journey, I just wanted to get the fuck out of Ireland to be honest. I wasn’t really very happy here, but now I actually love coming back home. It’s a very different kind of atmosphere. I was just really unhappy growing up. I was happy in terms of my own personal life and family life, but in terms of everything outside of that, I didn’t speak in school at all, and only had a very small group of friends, and I didn’t feel very welcome as an adolescent growing up, and discovering my sexuality, and I didn’t feel welcome. I felt very much like an outsider, so I just focused on my art and making my own little world.

Do you still feel comfortable in your skin under the Villagers moniker?

Totally. I quite like the way there’s a name. To me, it’s the name of the project. It doesn’t feel like a band name or a solo artist name - Villagers could represent the various characters in my music, or could represent the certain aspects of myself which I’m exposing, or could represent the people on stage when you come and see us live. It’s just a project name for me. I’m totally happy with that. There’s a nice progression, and now that I’m starting to get a body of work together, I can see the journey that I’ve taken and it’s kinda cool.

When you were starting out, did you consider giving the project a name to be a way of giving yourself a safety blanket of sorts, and distancing your music from your own name?

I probably did, yeah. In the beginning, I had a very different energy when I was on stage, and I was very uncomfortable with telling people that I don’t know about my sexuality. I was still very in my own world, and a lot of my music came from a very indignant, extremely angry place, which had been built up by years of homophobia, and years of not feeling comfortable within myself, and I kind of created a narrative. Maybe it was a self-protection thing. It’s probably a question for my therapist!

‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ is out 21st September via Domino.

Villagers tours the UK and Europe across October and November.

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