- 24 Aug 21
As Villagers return with their fifth studio album, Fever Dreams, Conor O’Brien sits down to talk spirituality, jazz, escapism, The Third Policeman, and early career advice from Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien.
In an age of 24-hour news cycles of misery, clickbait and here-today-gone-tomorrow headlines, Villagers’ Conor O’Brien has presented himself with a unique mission: to remind us of the vastness of life, love and the universe – beyond the scope of the internet – with an album that revels unapologetically in madness.
Fever Dreams – spilling over with lush, ambitious instrumentation and daring jazz elements – is just as brilliantly bizarre as the title implies. It’s also one of the most mesmerisingly original projects to come out of Ireland in years, showcasing Conor’s absolute refusal to settle as an artist – even with two Mercury nominations, an Ivor Novello award and a Choice Music Prize under his belt.
He was aware he was taking risks with the songs on Fever Dreams, he tells me – but the main thing on his mind was: “How much fun can we have here?”
“Especially with songs like ‘Restless Endeavour’, and things that were just jams,” he resumes. “That’s a little bit more like jumping into the void, because you’re not really giving it a structure from the very beginning. You’re hoping that the structure will form as you’re playing the music. That was definitely a little freaky, but fun. And it was new – for Villagers, anyway.”
The word ‘jazz’ alone can be enough to strike fear in many a pop or rock fan – envisioning 15-minute-long sax solos and similar stereotypes of over-intellectualised music. But by dipping into the greats from both the boundary-pushing avant-garde and sophisticated swing, Conor has found plenty of solid inspiration. Ashram Tapes, a new website launched over lockdown, devoted to the work of jazz legend Alice Coltrane, proved particularly impactful.
“It has recordings of her Ashram stuff – where she was building a Hindu community on the West Coast of America, as an African-American woman,” Conor explains. “Brilliantly, beautifully bizarre. It blew my mind. She was mixing Oberheim synthesisers with chants and drums – and it was really something that inspired my imagination when I was making this album.
“I’ve also been on a big Duke Ellington buzz for the past few years,” he adds. “I love the discipline in it – how he mixed jazz with a more classical approach, and really focused deeply on the arrangements. He would change arrangements as his career went on, but they would always be extremely disciplined. I’d get really into that kind of thing as well.”
Although inspiration clearly wasn’t lacking, translating these various sounds and ideas onto a record ultimately turned into a race against time, as lockdown loomed.
“We had about four band sessions for this album overall, towards the end of 2019 and then at the start of 2020,” Conor recalls. “The last day we had booked in was literally the first day of lockdown.
“So we were kind of covering our mouths as we were finishing stuff!” he laughs. “And then running home with all the files. But it really changed my lockdown experience, because I had all that to get my teeth into.”
The kind of escapism explored on Fever Dreams soon took on a whole new meaning.
“It became something even more meaningful to me,” he says. “Songs like ‘Song In Seven’ – and all of them to some extent – have this dream-like quality, of trying to escape psychological things more so than physical places. Trying to keep your mind as open as possible in the internet age – which is quite difficult.”
In challenging the listener to step into a world outside the boundaries of the internet, Conor is attempting “to connect to bigger things” – encouraging us to see ourselves “as part of the Milky Way, and the universe,” he says with a smile.
“And to try and see these current trends in our digitally-addled brains as just trends,” he resumes. “We have to remember that there’s a whole wealth of art, literature and thinking that has happened before this. We have that on tap as well. All that stuff was swimming around in my head.
“I don’t know if I necessarily went into this thinking, ‘I’m going to write an album about escapism.’ But that was just the result. Even if I’m writing a song about love, or simple themes, I alway want to try and add a messiness to it. That’s what life is. A lot of stuff now is just trying to simplify and brand itself.”
Indeed, at certain moments, Fever Dreams is downright delirious – capturing what many of us are feeling, in an increasingly strange world.
“I wanted to inject that deliriousness into everything,” he nods. “Because that’s how I felt, just looking out at everything that was happening in the world. I was allowing that to seep into the art a bit, but still trying to create something positive and uplifting.”
His inspiration for exploring the more bizarre side of life also came from the surreal humour of Flann O’Brien.
“I read The Third Policeman just before I wrote the song ‘Fever Dreams’,” Conor notes. “I was very late coming to him – I’d only ever read passages. But I was also getting into that modernist, surrealism thing through Federico García Lorca, who’s a Spanish poet and playwright. I was getting into that idea of injecting a bit more of a surrealist bent into the art.
“Then I read Flann O’Brien and it really connected with that stuff. With The Third Policeman especially, you could just feel a constant sense of invention and reinvention – constantly refreshing his ideas of what he was creating. That’s really inspiring if you make art yourself, to read something like that.”
In recent months, Conor has been disrupting the monotonous flow of our social media feeds with his The First Day Book Club – sharing some of his favourite pieces of writing with fans.
“Psychologically, it was a really nice thing to do – putting literature out there on social media,” he grins. “Especially literature that was written before the internet existed, because that’s always good to go to. There was a use of language and an articulacy which isn’t always there now. A lot of the stuff that gets pushed at the moment is very short-lived.
“Dylan always said he loved listening to old music, because there’s so much more of it than new music!” he laughs. “It’s the same thing with books. There’s a lot more old books than new books…”
Of course, another way to tap into the wider universe is by simply looking up. The constellations proved particularly significant, with repeated references to the seven stars of Ursa Major, also known as The Great Bear.
“The number seven just kept appearing in my life, for some reason,” Conor reflects. “One day I was playing a song backstage, just before we were going to play with John Grant at the Galway Arts Festival. I’m terrible at maths, so I didn’t know I was playing in a 7/8 time signature. Danny, my bass player – who’s a bit of a jazzer – said, ‘Oh, you’re writing a song in 7!’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s the number seven again!’
“Then we found ourselves swimming after a show in Vlieland, a Dutch island,” he continues. “Brendan in the band looked up and said, ‘There’s the main seven stars of Ursa Major.’ I felt like I was connecting to the universe with these crazy synergies. So Ursa Major made its way into ‘Song In Seven’. And weirdly, the first image Paul Phillips came back with when we were doing the artwork, was the bear image.”
Would Conor consider himself spiritual?
“Yeah – I like that word and I like spiritual music,” he muses. “I think spirituality and having a focus in life is good. Having a life outside of your phone screen is good. I don’t have a problem with religion – though I do have a problem with dogmatic ideologies, and all the stuff that follows religion.
“But the idea of having some sort of faith is not something I would ever have a problem with. I don’t know if I could pin down what my faith is yet – and I don’t know if I ever will. But I do like the idea of finding synchronicities in your life and clinging to them for a while.”
Given the deeply thoughtful manner with which he approaches his work, it’s important for Conor to strike the balance between isolation and collaboration when it comes to his music.
“With this album, I figured out that what I like the best is having that time alone with the music, and getting really deep into it – but then bringing it back to a group of people,” he explains. “Each time we had a band session, I would take all the stuff home, and I’d refine certain parts of it. Then we’d bring it all back in. It was a constant back and forth.
“But those moments spent alone are sacred to me,” he adds. “Time becomes something different. It’s something I’m addicted to in a weird way.”
“Jess added so much,” Conor enthuses. “She only came over one day. We had a really long lunch and chats – and we only recorded for about two hours. But the stuff she got down in that few hours added so much to the music. Her voice is phenomenal. I almost had too much choice in the mix.
“And Rachael Lavelle’s addition was so brilliant,” he continues. “We did that over email, because of lockdown. Every time I got a new email from her, my dopamine hit just went up. It’s mad, she’s only got one song out so far. There’s so much ahead of her – it’s so exciting.”
Five Villagers albums in, Conor now occupies a unique position within Irish music – where he’s witnessing a whole new generation, including many artists directly influenced by him, rising up and finding major success on these shores and beyond.
His duet with CMAT, which featured as part of the televised VISION At Vicar St series, was particularly powerful – given that she once ran a Villagers fan account.
“We played the song once backstage, and instantly she was harmonising perfectly,” Conor says of the collaboration. “Her voice is just incredible.
“There’s so much talent – I feel like a grandad, looking at it all now!” he adds. “I’m 10 or 15 years older than all these people who are putting out really accomplished albums. It’s amazing. And I’m looking up to them as well. You have to constantly be pushing your creative boundaries, and learning from other people. When I heard Rachael Lavelle’s track, ‘Perpetual Party’, I was like, ‘What is this weird, Lynchian,Twin Peaks-y, strange art?’ And then I saw her play it live, and that was brilliant as well. That was a moment for me, where I could feel her influencing me. It always goes both ways with that stuff.”
He also credits Dundalk folk group/stout aficionados The Mary Wallopers for keeping him sane during lockdown with their lauded live-streamed gigs.
“They actually got me through some of those weeks – just knowing they’d be on,” Conor says. “It was brilliant. So funny, and so good as well. There’s just so much going on.”
Although there’s plenty to be inspired by among the current crop of talent, Conor also had his fair share of role models when he was starting out in his career.
“Bell X1 took us under their wing early on, and gave us loads of shows,” he remembers. “Watching them every night was really instructional – also for realising you can be super sound, even when you’re playing really big venues. They were just so nice to us. As were Elbow when we toured with them.
“And very early on, Ed from Radiohead came to a couple of shows,” he continues. “I met him, and he gave me lots of advice. He basically just told me, ‘All we did was work for 20 years. We never stopped working. Do that!’ I was like, ‘Alright! That was my plan anyway!’ The main thing I got back then, from any of the people that I met who had some level of success, was that they were always humble. That was quite a cool thing.”
In more recent years, Conor has been doing some further reflection about his own career – specifically how he tours.
“I’m quite conflicted about the idea of spending the rest of my life touring, purely on an ecological level,” he tells me. “I don’t know if that sounds ridiculous. But I’ve been getting more and more into reading about climate change – as everyone is. So I’m looking at options. There are companies who are starting to form for that kind of thing, so you can offset your carbon – which I’m looking into now. I’m thinking about how that might work for Villagers.”
For now, Conor is ecstatic about the prospect of returning to the stage: “I’m raring to go,” he smiles, quickly dismissing any fears of re-entry anxiety.
“I don’t really feel anxiety about shows, at all,” he reveals. “It’s weird. I actually am a bit of a high-anxiety person in general, but when it comes to singing in front of people, something about it relaxes me. If I had to make speeches in front of people, I probably would have a bit of anxiety – I’d just be tongue-tied.”
Lockdown has also given Conor the chance to start thinking about Fever Dreams’ follow-up – kicking off work on the project a few months ago...
“I was writing lots of weird little negative songs,” he laughs. “I don’t know what they are! I don’t really know what I want to do with that, but maybe it will serve as the beginnings of something else. All this stuff always gets layered, and goes into lots of different places.
“But the main focus now is getting gig-ready,” he adds. “I can feel the creative push of the band already trying to move the songs from Fever Dreams on a little bit more, which is very exciting. We’ll have a lot of that to play with, when we’re touring.”
• Fever Dreams is out now.
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