"People can often take a song to heart in a completely different way..."

On Monday Villagers, led by Irish songwriter Conor O'Brien, released the follow up to 2010's 'Becoming A Jackal'. The debut was an expertly crafted record, with enough menace behind his charm to win over critics who grew weary of folks often earthy, earnest reputation. 

'{Awayland}' makes no attempt to shy away from what made its predecessor so successful, but it takes a similar blueprint and does adventurous things with it. O'Brien's intimate vocals are still intimate, but they break out of their comfort zone amid fizzy beats, throbbing pulses of synth sound and even reverberating bongo drums. It's an ambitious record, but naturally so, instead of something that could have felt catapulted beyond its means.

Clash rang up Conor O'Brien to discuss how the album came together, including overcoming the intimidating success of 'Becoming A Jackal', the bands plans for the year ahead and why the instrumental title track is O'Brien's favourite.

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Hi Conor. Where are you?
I'm in a park in Malahide in Dublin. There are children playing, and I can see two paths leading off into different directions.

Isn't it a bit cold to be sitting on a bench in the park?
No, it's quite sunny and clear. I'd say it's actually getting kind of warm. While it's only a week into 2013, would you say you're having a good year so far? I've been a bit sick so you could say I've spent most of the year cooped up inside. I haven't done much yet in 2013 but next week we start rehearsing for when we go on tour.

Tell us about '{Awayland}' - it sounds like quite a natural follow-up to 'Becoming A Jackal'.
Yeah, I suppose it is. We were experimenting with different sounds, and doing things we had never done before, and there's a couple of tracks that have quite unusual instruments on them. I took the album to the band and liked the idea of having it played out live. It was tough to put it together, and make sense of things, but looking back at the finished piece of work, it has a lot of scope.

What was tough to put together?
Judging by the sounds and the themes, it's a very strong album. I was thinking more this time around. When I wrote 'Becoming A Jackal', nobody knew who I was, I was writing for myself, it was a project, and took all the time I needed. But after [the Ivor Novello] I felt like I couldn't understand the praise and where it fitted in with things. It was surreal.

That sounds like Imposter Syndrome.
Does it? I've never heard of that!

It's a psychological thing where people struggle to come to justify or appreciate their achievements. It's like they can't put praise relating to themselves into any context. You feel like an imposter.
Yeah, I mean that's how it felt following up the first record, like I had some people say amazing things about it. With 'Becoming A Jackal' I would read reviews of the album where incredibly talented writers have written about my songs and what they mean. And I would read them thinking 'this is amazing', but I'd have to look up half the words they said in a dictionary. I kept thinking 'how did they come up with that from listening to my record?'

Did people misinterpret the album?
Some did. People would say things about the songs, or the ideas, and it's not what I was trying to say when I wrote this song. People can often take a song to heart in a completely different way.

I suppose that also happened on in a similar way when Frank Ocean updated his Tumblr before releasing 'Chanel Orange'. It gave people a very fixed idea of what the album was trying to say, and it became hard to move past that.
Yeah, lyrics can lead people away, and people can take different things from what you're saying. There's a song on Awayland – the title track, actually, that has no lyrics at all. It's actually my favourite song on the record, I think it sums up the emotions and the ideas that make the album. But more importantly it has that solitary element, and it's harder to misinterpret. It is what it is. There's no lyrics, and it takes place among everything else. The first half of the album is strong, and loud, and quite quick and there needed to be this moment of pause somewhere, before the second half of the album.

Where did the album come together?
In a load of places, really. I had loads of things from the last album like odd lyrics or song ideas that rattled around. I wrote a lot on the road, too, and some of the production is definitely influenced by travelling. The track 'Earthly Pleasures' - I had the chorus for about a year and a half, but wasn't sure what to do with it, and while I put the album together it fitted in with that electronic sound and the trippy vibe. There's bongos and electronic elements to some of the tracks. I suppose the environments come across, subconsciously. I wanted an album which was able to sustain those moments when you're in a new place or travelling the world. That open-mindedness and awe.

Would you say it's a happy album? 'Becoming A Jackal' was characterised as being quite maudlin.
I'd say it's far away from the first album. I think it's got a lot of grand ideas, and it's very uplifting, really.

Are you doing festival appearances this summer?
Yes, we're hoping to do that. We're touring the UK first, and then we're in America at some point, too. Actually, I need to go and get some new clothes for the trip. It's hot out there, no coats. Maybe I'll get some wifebeaters, or something! (laughs)

Words by Chris Mandle

Photo Credit: Dolf Patijn

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'{Awayland}' is out now.


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