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Villagers Keep The Fever Dream Alive

Bandleader Conor O’Brien talks tour, technology, and coming out.

by Brendan Lee

On the surface, Irish singer-songwriter Conor O’Brien leads a seemingly simplistic life from his homebase in Dublin but a deeper dive reveals that his day-to-day life is actually the opposite. O’Brien, the founding member and frontperson of indie-folk band Villagers, is cumbersomely busy. On the heels of Villagers’ fifth album, Fever Dream, he’s busy getting ready for the flurry of festivals and tour dates that will follow soon. When we catch up with him for a video call at the tail end of a sweaty, interview-filled afternoon, it’s just another day for O’Brien. Yet, for a man engulfed by his work, the Irish songwriter is in high spirits.

“A day in the life for me is: wake up and look at my to-do list, do all the things on the to-do list, and then try and get some dinner, and maybe try and go for a walk or something,” O’Brien says with a laugh. “It’s all to do with Villagers right now, and it’s crazy. After this, I’m going to run out and frolic in the sun by the canal.”

Villagers was founded in 2008 by O’Brien and is now rounded out by a band of five people. They have released four full-length albums in eight years, all critically and commercially successful with three of them even topping the Irish charts. Early on, Villagers drew comparisons to introspective indie folk bands like Bright Eyes, the low-key romantic folk project led by Conor Oberst. Soon enough, though, Villagers stood for themselves thanks to O’Brien’s haunting, sincere lyricism and the band’s restricted, autumnal sound. Villagers have been nominated twice for the Mercury Prize, which crowns the best album release each year in the UK and Ireland. Each of the band’s releases has also been short-listed for the Choice Music Award — an award for the best Irish album of the year. {Awayland}, their curiously-titled second full-length, won the award in 2013.

With all the albums and accolades in his back pocket, one might expect O’Brien to be a bragging, big-talking rockstar. But when asked to describe himself, he paints an unostentatious picture. “I see myself as quite introverted most of the time, but not all of the time. I’ve got a small group of friends, which I’m happy with,” he explains. “I’ve got a weird mixture of slightly messy dreaminess, but I’m also very disciplined within that. I think that’s why I’ve managed to do this as a job for the last ten years. Because once I get on an idea that is based on my strange, flimsy, artsy, weird brain, then I actually can’t do anything until it’s seen through.”

However, this musical obsession was no overnight sensation. For O’Brien, it all started with a guitar and the limitlessness that comes with undiscovered melodies. “I remember at the age of 12, once I started learning a few chords on the guitar, I was kind of like, ‘This is all I’m going to do, I’m just going to do this now.’ I was so happy,” he says with a smile. “I found what I was gonna do.”

Although a handful of songs from each Villagers album would fit nicely on the radio, that’s not what the band’s about. There’s a seeking quality to their music, which lives in the unpredictability of songs rooted in truth, dreams, and raw emotion. Looking back at the band’s growth, O’Brien reflects: “The first couple of Villagers albums were kind of fantastical, quite layered, dense. Sort of almost like they’re from a fantasy film from the 80s or 90s. And then the third album I was writing about sexuality.”

Villagers released Darling Arithmetic, their third album, in April 2015. Just about that time, a marriage equality referendum took place in Ireland. Coincidentally, O’Brien had recently come out publicly as gay. “I had to do all these interviews, and some of the interviewers were like, ‘So, you’ve come out.’ And I was just like, ‘I’ve never really been in,’” he laughs. “I’ve just written an album about love, and it just so happens that it might be gay love.”

Villagers’ new album, Fever Dream, is a euphoric swan dive into the deep end of some churning, magical pool. It’s a collection of indie folk songs with poignancy to the lyrics and a surprising enormity to the instrumentation that invites listeners to slip into vivid daydreams. Like a fanciful fever dream, the album treads a delirious, non-linear drift that ebbs in and out of the expected and less-than. “When I was a kid, I used to have lucid dreams. I have specific memories of waking up and going: ‘Wow, I fucking flew there!’ I had that same feeling making this record. Just closing your eyes and getting lost in this creation that you’re making,” he says.

In a Guinness-induced Twitter AMA, O’Brien described the new album as “careful jubilation.” When asked to unpack that a little further, he says: “I did want to make ecstatic and euphoric music. I wanted to make it with the spirit of all the long-form literature that I’m reading right now — the spirit of writing that happened before the internet existed,” he explains. “I still wanted the messiness of life in there.”

As the late afternoon light filters in through the window behind O’Brien, there’s a definitive excitement in the air, a sentiment that recalls the sequence of flocking butterflies lifting off as one stands atop a precipice. This kind of excitement is what O’Brien lives for, and he is surprisingly hopeful for an introvert when he imagines the precarious future through the looking glass. “I’d like to see us looking back at the era that we’re in now as a very primitive, internet era. I don’t think technology per se is the problem. I just think it’s the way our late capitalist society has used that technology,” he says. “And I think that open-mindedness isn’t going in the right direction with the way we’re interacting on the screens and stuff. For me, it’s art, and books, and music, and all that stuff, I think that’ll save the world.”

And with that, O’Brien is free to turn away from his life of screens and meticulous over-planning, to frolic to his heart’s desire in the last bit of sun the day has to offer. As he goes for his late afternoon walk and grabs a bite from a local eatery or something of the like, there’s no doubt the make-believe, tranquil sounds of Villagers will still occupy a little space in his thoughts. Just past the boundary of O’Brien’s conscious mind, the songs always play.