Conor O'Brien now has a routine. Two albums and two Mercury nominations, the Villagers songwriter seems to know what he's doing. Writing and recording at his studio in a converted loft to the north of Dublin, the Irish artist has found a space to call his own.
“I'm usually pretty disciplined when I'm writing and recording, I tend to try and keep it to pretty stringent work hours. I wrote all the albums so far in this house,” he muses. “I guess, the only difference being that this time I didn't stop.”
Out now, 'Darling Arithmetic' is a work that is both immediately familiar and implicitly progressive. Conor has mapped out his own sound, a topographical approach which combines the poetic with the folk-infused, but the songwriting burrows ever deeper within, touching upon more and more personal matters.
“I guess I went into it just wanting to make something without using too much of my head,” he says. “I did that with the last album and it was quite cerebral, the whole process. However this time I wanted to just feel the songs out and then the consequence of that was writing about personal stuff.”
“Getting quite introverted in the writing process and going places that I hadn't really gone before in my writing,” he says. “It was more of a by-product, I guess, of just wanting to use a bit more of my heart in the writing.”
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Working alone, 'Darling Arithmetic' represents a very solitary journey for the Irish artist. “It was quite an emotional experience writing this album,” he admits, “and I think a lot of it felt very cathartic and you can't really get that without putting yourself through pretty intense, gruelling periods of work.”
At points, the songwriter grew obsessive about the sounds, about the minute imperfections he would hear. “There were a couple of songs,” he admits, “which I thought I'd recorded really well, but I just didn't like tiny little aspects about how I'd positioned the microphone and that led to me re-recording the whole thing.”
“Sometimes the songs would be written on a lyrical level, but sometimes – even at the mixing stage – if I realise something else was jumping out I might go back and change a little bit of music. I really enjoy that, though,” he grins, “there's something really satisfying in the obsessive nature of that kind of work.”
Curiously, it seems that the success of Villagers has been used to obtain Conor's independence. Able to work at home in his studio, the songwriter built up banks of tapes, afforded the space to explore each idea in full. “I live with a bunch of housemates, so if I'm finishing something people would walk in and out. They usually say nice things but you can tell by the tone of their voice whether they mean it or not,” the singer laughs.
“I try not to send it to too many people who are involved in the band, early on, because everybody has different opinions. And none of it would really matter, anyway, because I kind of feel like I'm on my own little path when I'm writing.”
'Darling Arithmetic' certainly treads its own path. At times explicitly personal, many of the record's most heart-rending moments come directly from the singer's own life, his own experiences. Dominated by love and relationships, though, the material will no doubt echo with each individual listener.
“I suppose when you're writing you're always taking it from yourself, to a certain degree, regardless of how you're dressing it up. I guess with this album I just stripped those particular layers away and I used 'I' and 'me' a lot more and wrote what I felt without any extra baggage or weight. I didn't feel the need to make any universal statement this time, I just kind of decided to let myself feel the songs out as I wanted to. Weirdly enough, they became some of the most universal songs I've written. Which was a nice, strange, discovery to make.”
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...they became some of the most universal songs I've written.
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Running the gamut of emotions, 'Darling Arithmetic' can often dwell on darker spheres: 'Everything I Am Yours', for example, finds the songwriter projecting a quite intense sense of solitude, while 'Hot Scary Summer' is directed at “all the pretty young homophobes looking out for a fight”.
“That's from my experience of bigotry and homophobia and the hatred directed towards me whilst I'm in the moment of expressing my love for somebody else,” he explains. “That's obviously going to build a lot of resentment towards society, and anger, so when I was writing that song I guess I was writing about certain negative aspects of romantic love. I couldn't really leave it out; it would have felt like I was self-editing for the wrong reasons if I left it out.”
These continual themes of love, relationships and they inform personal identity, weren't intended. Rather, the material began to form its own patterns, to fuse into its own structure.
“I remember towards the end of the writing process realising that there was almost the possibility of attaching an adjective to each song,” he says. “One of them would be the unconditional song, the other would be the unrequited song. I realised as I kept writing that I could almost treat it as a project, go through each of the different spheres of love, relationships. I don't know if I started out as consciously as that. It maybe just made itself evident more than anything, really.”
Locking himself away to work on the material, Conor O'Brien now faces the tricky task of making his music public, playing shows and opening up to his audience. Forced to speak about songs which owe a debt to his own life and experiences, the introversion of 'Darling Arithmetic' is now out there, exposed for all to see.
“I do lock myself away when I'm writing, and I'm usually so embedded in the process that any sort of inference doesn't effect the writing at all,” he says. “So those kinds of things, they bring more people to your music, they give you an audience and I'd be a liar to say I didn't want that.”
“I don't know if I write for that. It definitely doesn't sound like I've been writing for commercial success, to a certain degree, on this album,” he muses, before adding with a wry chuckle: “But oh well!”
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'Darling Arithmetic' is out now.
Catch Villagers at the following shows:
21 Leeds City Varieties
23 Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms
24 Cardiff The Gate
26 Nottingham Glee Club
27 Edinburgh Pleasance Theatre
28 Glasgow Oran Mor
1 London Barbican
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