Villagers

Biography

A sense of curiosity and wonder shoots through the layers of Villagers' new album {Awayland} like radiant lightning. It provides illumination and starkness, a clash palpable on a song like 'Earthly Pleasure', with its furious percussion and splintered-sounding guitars, or 'Grateful Song' which begins delicately, tentatively, before building up to a release of howls. This howl is present, but tempered on 'In a Newfound Land You Are Free' - a different kind of lullaby sung to a "newborn child", the child that is all of us, with the song, heavy with regret, containing a promise not to "betray" the child's "gentle repose", it is a song full of rich conflation, as all of {Awayland} is.
"I tried to write everything from the perspective of a newborn baby; given the gift of language, what would he or she say? For a while I thought the record would be called Birth, and the album cover is an image of a little boy looking out to sea, but I think that the album is about reclaiming that sense of curiosity and wonder which we have when we are children and we often lose over the years," says Conor J.O'Brien.
"I felt like I needed to flip on its head the idea of what music is for myself, if I was going to continue making it, and I didn't know that I would. After two years of touring I recognised the cycle, so I sat down and thought about that, and I started feeling like the worst writer in the world. I felt like I was lying to people - there is no way you can sing "my love is selfish" a hundred times in a year and it continue to feel pure and true - it seemed somehow performative. I started writing on the acoustic guitar and it sounded terrible, so I began to make musical landscapes, and listened to lots of widescreen instrumental music like Lalo Schifrin, David Axelrod and Jean-Claude Vannier and lots of krautrock and funk music - there is something about the repetition of rhythms that really hit me - 'Passing a Message' came from one of those soundscapes, as lots of the songs did. The lyrics were very much secondary in creation of this album; they were a servant to the music. I think they benefit from this.
Yet the language O'Brien uses retains its poetic reach - on 'Nothing Arrived' he sings "Savanna scatters and the seabird sings / So why should we fear what travel brings? / What were we hoping to get out of this? / Some kind of momentary bliss? / I waited for Something, and Something died / So I waited for Nothing, and Nothing arrived / It's our dearest ally, it's our closest friend / It's our darkest blackout, it's our final end". This paradoxical way of living and seeing is something O'Brien continues to explore, and while there is a simplicity of language, he imbues it with a poetic clarity, a willingness to sing what cannot perhaps be spoken. "For me, 'Nothing Arrived' is a joyful song, but it is presented in a downbeat manner. I felt like I wanted to write something that was secular yet spiritual, because I've been gravitating gradually towards both of those things in my general outlook on life, I guess".
This spiritual curiousity ("And we've got to keep the wheels in motion / And we've gotta get the kids before they grow / God forbid they retain their sense of wonder" he sings on the jangly, satirical 'Judgement Call') permeates the whole record, breathing through every note, containing an even greater searching quality than Villagers first record Becoming a Jackal. This is partly because, unlike the previous album, the collection of musicians; O'Brien, Cormac Curran, Danny Snow, James Byrne, and Tommy McLaughlin had a greater sense of collaboration on this record, a record which swells with each listening.
"We had toured together so much that it felt completely natural to record the album together. I sent them my finished demos, so they all learnt the parts initially, but after that we all went to Tommy's place and kicked the songs around a little bit. It felt really good. The first record is a strong album, but with this record, I can feel how much it has benefited from the band being involved. Cormac's orchestral arrangements really came to the forefront this time round as well. The whole trip was exciting, and very obsessive. I suppose that's why it is coming out two and a half years later."
In these two and a half years, O'Brien has been nominated for a Mercury Prize, won an Ivor Novello Award, shared the stage with artists like Neil Young, Tindersticks and Fleet Foxes, and contributed to A Harbour of Songs, a record and project curated by The Unthanks pianist, producer and arranger Adrian McNally - which is the most natural of projects for O'Brien, growing up, as he did, in the coastal town of Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, with the nautical world as a natural touchstone of inspiration and imagery. It has always been there, but on this record emerges through the deep tones of the piano on 'The Bell', which register like a submarine foraging through azure coloured waters, or through the spare beauty of 'My Lighthouse', with the harmonies as a soothing response to the "violent moonlight" O'Brien sings of.
'The Waves', a coda of sorts to 'My Lighthouse' with its driving beats and lush soundscapes, brings to mind that rhythmic, constant lope of nature. The song is as epic as the sea and just as mysterious; folding in beautiful "invented words", talk of "well-insulated dignitaries screaming of / the memory of a human love" into an electronic musical landscape that takes in brass and driving beats, immersing you through its traveling nature. And yet, while O'Brien continues his search for a "rounder, more deep" feel to render nature true, 'The Waves' filters an appreciation of electronic music to reach its own understanding.
"I felt like I was reintroduced to electronic music in the last year and a half. When I was a teenager I was obsessed with artists like Aphex Twin, Portishead, ADF, Tricky and Björk - she was a huge influence when I was growing up and I listened to all of that alongside guitar-based music, I guess. Then I got much more into songwriting in the traditional sense and still am, but a night out dancing in Berlin inspired me to listen exclusively to techno for a couple of months - Plastikman, Drexciya, that early Detroit sound. I liked that aesthetic for a while. Then I heard Nosaj Thing and through him Flying Lotus and Caribou - just music which is really imaginative and forward thinking. Then I moved onto more minimal ambient/glitchy stuff like Oval and Monolake. It just really appealed to me. I think I was attracted to being emotionally gratified by something that was less about the expression of the individual ego, and more about the textural sensation of having a collective experience."
There is definitely a different kind of movement on {Awayland}, perhaps borne out of the necessary stillness after relentless touring and traveling, an exploration of what O'Brien felt was most important, yet not immediately obvious. Trees, birds, the sea - all recurring images in O'Brien's work that provide a kind of metaphor for living and dying, that sense of soaring otherness, with his own understanding gaining greater depth with this record, buoyed by his acute sense and interest in the natural world - its beauty and instability.
"When I was writing the album, it was around the time of the Tohoku earthquake in Japan, and was some of the most terrifying footage I have ever seen. Beyond the absolute powerlessness and sadness you feel when you see something like that, it also serves as a reminder that we are not as important as we sometimes think we are. But when you say an absolute truth like that and tackle ideas of scales of importance, then its opposite must also true; you come full circle. I have been reading a bit of Carl Sagan's writings on the evolution of human intelligence. He condenses history of the universe into one day, so he takes billions of years, and puts them into a calendar year - on the 24th of December the dinosaurs appear, with humans appearing at 10:30pm on December 31st. It is an amazing way to look at it, because it starkly shows that we have only been on this planet for such a small amount of time, and when you are writing it is a very helpful and inspiring thing to keep in mind. I wish I had a scientific mind but I really don't, so I write songs instead".
O'Brien's songs become the lighthouse he sings of; a way to navigate, using a deeply philosophical impulse to uncover truths. "I am singing the things I am not able to say, yet I think that my favourite song on the album is the one with no words - '{Awayland}', because it is the purest thing I have ever written". Indeed, it possesses a beautiful echo that emerges as if from the sea; '{Awayland}' like a lost, sad, mermaid - lost, but full of wonder.
"I always end up writing with an imaginary person in mind, and they always end up being the most pummelled one. 'Grateful Song' is about going through tough times; though you might be at your lowest, you really can take a lot out of that - in fact, they can be the most fulfilling moments in the great scheme of things, if you're strong enough to stay off the crutches".
This heavy weight is tempered by a record that is as possessed with a playful joy as it is with devastation, with layers of surprising instrumentation that include more full-sounding string arrangements and dreamy, shapeshifting percussion; as well as a filtering of disparate influences - the quiet elegance of Nick Drake, and the sensuality of Curtis Mayfield. It is, as Kurt Vonnegut might have put it "intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd" (Slaughterhouse-Five, Chapter 6)- life, in other words.
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