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Conor O'Brien, original sin not pictured, by Andrew Whitton

“HOW CAN YOU HAVE aspirational ideas about yourself and the world around you, whilst being confronted with a harsh, cold reality? The friction interested me.”

In declaring That Golden Time, his new album as Villagers, is an attempt to understand the friction between romanticism and realism, Conor O’Brien as usual wasn’t aiming low. Small ideas, like small ambitions, aren’t usually parties to his melodically heavy songs of folk and pop.

In the first part of this interview we touched on this as we circled the drain of technology rewiring our brains – and not in a good way – and raised the spectre/golden shadow of certain exponents of pastoral psychedelia, but now it’s time to knuckle down to this conundrum.

Romantic, or maybe idealistic, versus realistic, or perhaps unforgiving. Does O’Brien see them as opposites? How does he separate them in his work?

“I think making art it’s almost the opposite of separating them; I think it’s pointing out the fact that in the everyday and the mundane there is this transcendence you can find,” the Irishman says. “For me anyway, my favourite things about my favourite books or music or anything is when it makes everything glow a little bit brighter. All the things that you saw as starting to become a bit humdrum and mundane, bringing a feeling of nothingness to you, when suddenly they glow with so much potential in everything around me, it brings the world alive.

“When something has been created by someone who has spent so much time on it and care, even if it’s a really depressing piece of art, even if it’s actually quite dark, if it’s thoughtfully made and made with a deep sense of idealism to it, that we can transcend a lot of things in life, to me that’s what art is for. So that’s not separating those things at all; it’s in fact saying that it’s all together, that it’s all one.”

Not surprisingly, as someone who says “I like art that goes deep into the weeds”, O’Brien – who three years ago was melding the universe and David Hockney, a bear and Angelo Badalamenti – is not looking for provocation but isn’t running away from it in his attractively seductive songs. And it can come in unlikely circumstances where the Irish, or the Irish Catholic, in him resurfaces.

“When I was writing the album I got really into the idea of that Christian doctrine of original sin, which I used to absolutely despise when I was growing up. I always find it fascinating when certain text perseveres for thousands of years and then you have to question why. Why do these keep going and what is the efficacy of them, or what is the reason?,” says O’Brien. “I think ideas like that are almost the antithesis of this current experience of extreme levels individualism and, I guess, narcissism, self-obsessed anxiety. I really like ideas like that at the moment because they kind of bring us together.”

The return of original sin? Jeez, didn’t see that coming. Sister Ferdinand and Father Spillane, come on down! Not that my resistance deters O’Brien.

“I think it’s helpful to think that we are all tainted and there isn’t this kind of sanctimonious sense of perfection and moral purity which is tainting discourse: everyone thinks they are the most morally pure,” he says. “All of these things have really run through history and I think ideas like original sin a really interesting and kind of helpful.”

Before we get too sidetracked down a maybe-Catholics-weren’t-wholly-wrong path, O’Brien’s thoughts on individualism give us a slightly tenuous bridge to the way that this new album was recorded.

After making a very group-focused record last time in 2021’s Fever Dreams, he recorded this new album essentially solo at first, adding instruments and players such as violinist Peter Broderick, a string section discovered playing Morricone, and others, as needed later.

When the rough early versions were done by him, I wonder if he’d been tempted to leave it that way, Springsteen recording Nebraska style?

“He did that in his kitchen didn’t he? I wouldn’t be able to record in my kitchen, it’s too small, so maybe not,” O’Brien laughs. “I wasn’t tempted because quite early on I had fake strings on everything, midi strings: I was already trying to make it sound like Danny Elfman or John Williams – I had a cinematic feeling in my mind about it. I knew I was going to eventually get musicians in but actually thought I was going to bring it to my band, like the last record.”

The band never really got a look in though.

“I kept working on the demos and they sounded so good – even some of the vocals [on the album now] were scratch takes I didn’t replace – I couldn’t see myself redoing them so I started inviting classical players and people into my apartment, getting people in one by one, and just having sessions over the course of a couple of months. It wasn’t a plan; it just kept happening.”

He reveals that the vocals on You Lucky One was the early take he recorded when the song had completely different chords, but because it was in the same key and in the revised version the notes still worked, he kept the original vocals. Not that there’s anything unfinished or underdone across the album. Far from it really, in arrangements that become quite elaborate. Too much so? Ah, well that we could debate.

When listening to Behind That Curtain, I tell O’Brien, I was thinking at different points along the expanding journey, ‘what if he stopped here?’. Firstly just voice and piano; then ok maybe just with the echo on the background voice; then the backing vocals; then strings and bass. By the time the electronics and clarinet arrive near the five-minute mark it is a virtually new song, one that is such a full-bodied creature and very much a studio one, that resistance seems futile and there’s nothing I really want to take out now.

“Right up until the last couple months of recording, that section was completely different: it didn’t go into that jazz bit, it went into a very slow, long piano section with a recording of my dad, who is in his 80s, talking about him being a six-year-old in Dublin visiting his grandparents and seeing the absolute poverty they were living in with six families to one toilet kind of thing,” says O’Brien. “So I had this big section that was all about Dublin in the early 20th century and then I thought, everybody is going to skip this so I kept that for myself and replaced it with this weird jazz freak out, which I’m happy I did.”

But if this listener went on some kind of journey of acceptance with Behind That Curtain, with another song, First Responder, right from the start I thought I wouldn’t want anything removed from its instrumental overload.

“That sounds like I might have done the right job with the arrangement, cool,” he smiles. “That really came together when Donal Lunny [once of the legendary Planxty and Bothy Band] put his bouzouki on it, and that was a magic moment for me. He really brought the song alive and the chiming kind of sound, suddenly it all worked. We just did two takes and used both – I think we spent an hour recording and then went out for food and wine.

“I was watching a lot of Sergio Leone films, so anything that had an Ennio Morricone soundtrack, and had this feeling I wanted to build that song up to an uplifting  Morricone moment. I guess that’s why the strings come in, and timpani at the end – it just felt really emotional to do.”

Just before O’Brien and his emotional peaks have to go, to catch the light and warmth of this spring day in Dublin, I have a final question of character. In Money On My Mind he sings “I was trying to be someone, anyone but me”, a line that has stuck out each time I’ve played it, this final track on the album.

“That song was about what Jung would call the process of individuation, which is kind of seeing beyond the bullshit and breaking the mould. I guess growing up a little bit more. A lot of that Money On My Mind I was using as an analogy for the character in the album finally becoming the fat cat he always wanted to be and is fully ingrained in the system driven by material gain. But I want to put a twist in the end, which is the suggestion that there is another path as well, that my money is on the mind – that he is betting on the intellect to bring us through rather than money.”

What will win? What should win out of that bet on life?

“That line says ‘I was trying to be someone, anyone but me/Clinging on so tight to a sense of injury’, and that to me is the Stoicism thing. I do look back a lot of what I’ve done in my own creative life and I cringe a little bit. It’s the same thing as when you look at old photos of yourself with bad haircuts or whatever, and I’m seeing old videos of myself with bad haircuts singing words that I guess are dripping with pathos, and there’s a sense of poor little old me,” O’Brien explains. “As I’ve gotten older that stuff falls away because you start seeing a little bit more of a bigger picture and you start seeing yourself in context more.

“I think there was a little bit of that in the song: it was like I was trying to cling to a sense of injury because that was something to cling to, but with this record it’s all about not clinging to things.”

As he argues, it’s important that we don’t attach our identity to “things” too much. We should be “more free-floating”, especially these days when our identities are being bought and sold back to us by entities – human and technological – whose priorities are not ours. Are not us.

“It was also a Marcus Aurelius thing,” O’Brien adds. “From Meditations, which is one of my favourite Stoic books and one of his quotes was reject your sense of injury, and injury itself will disappear.”



That Golden Time is out now.


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