Villagers’ Conor O’Brien: Speaking about sexuality has given my old songs new life

Villagers. Picture: Andrew Whitton

Villagers. Picture: Andrew Whitton - Credit: Archant

Ahead of his show at the Barbican, the man behind Villagers tells Alex Bellotti why he’s penned his most personal record to date.

Villagers’ Conor O’Brien wasn’t always a confident performer, but following his latest album, the Irish songwriter now has the courage to walk to the front of the stage and greet his fans.

While critics fell long ago for the sprawling acoustic-electronica of Villagers’ 2008 debut, Becoming a Jackal, and follow-up Awayland, the reaction to Darling Arithmetic has been the most emphatic yet.

Ditching versatile, poetic metaphor for a more stripped back, honest form of song-writing, the album sees O’Brien at his most emotive, and his audience have responded in kind.

“Everyone’s having a really personal reaction to these songs,” he explains ahead of his show at Barbican tomorrow, “which is really gratifying for me because it means there’s an actual shared experience happening at these shows and it’s not just an ego-led thing. There’s a social aspect to these songs which makes them come alive for me.”

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As the figurehead of Villagers amongst an otherwise fluid line up, O’Brien has always been the centre of its fans’ attention, but has rarely written directly about his own life. On Darling Arithmetic however he talks for the first time about his homosexuality – a subject which he was reluctant to address in his songs until now.

“I wasn’t able to write about it in such an obvious way,” he admits, “so I just used metaphor, which was kind of interesting because I knew exactly what I was doing but it became a sort of project for me of how I could make my experiences connect to other people’s experiences of social alienation, isolation – things that everybody experiences to some degree.

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“But this time I was just like, ‘You know what, I’m going to sing these for myself, and really put it all out there. It’s a different kind of energy, but to a certain extent, it brings the old songs alive when we play them because they have a different context now which is kind of interesting.”

Having written, recorded and produced the whole record himself back in Dublin, O’Brien returned musically to a purer folk sound. While stressing that he was never particularly influenced by Irish folk music in his youth – “I grew up listening to indie and rock music, I was just listening to Pavement all the time” – his involvement in recent events such as Ceiliuradh at the Royal Albert Hall, which celebrated the first state visit by the Irish president to the UK, has made him realise that “maybe I am somehow part of a national consciousness in a subconscious way”.

What is it though that has finally allowed him to look inside his own life for musical inspiration?

“In order for me to write I always need to be inspired by something, to find a new energy to buzz off. This time the only thing I could really find was singing about those things – relationships, love, sexuality. I guess it was the only thing that was on my mind whilst I was writing; if I hadn’t gone there, there wouldn’t be an album, there’d have been writers block because I’d have been denying a part of myself that really wanted to let it all out.

“I’m in my 30s now, I’ve got different priorities and maybe the things that maybe would stress me out now aren’t the same things that would have done so five or six years ago and vice versa. It’s just changing and growing as a person and as a writer really.”

Villagers play the Barbican tomorrow (May 1). Visit

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