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By Alex Kealy
Who are Villagers? It’s a difficult question to pose. For one thing, when faced with the sole figure of Conor O’Brien and his duct-taped guitar, the plurality becomes awkward. Should we ask, who is Villagers? Or even, what is Villagers? When I ask him, O’Brien isn’t keen to pin the name to a hard and fast definition; he claims it was a word picked purely as a linkage point for the songs he had created, an umbrella term for the project or album itself. “There’s no big meaning behind it. I wanted to give it a really anonymous name,” he says, “Maybe it doesn’t even describe the people in the band – maybe it describes the people in the songs, the characters.”
So – it’s an artist? It’s a band? The questions keep coming. “Creatively, in terms of the writing, it’s a solo thing, but the guys in the band also had a part in the album,” O’Brien explains, listing the technical contributions made by his bandmates in terms of recording and string arrangements, which he admits he couldn’t do himself; “I can’t dot minims and all that stuff.”
Whether band, artist or abstract concept, the hype surrounding Villagers right now is not to be ignored; the debut album, Becoming a Jackal, host to a populace of fleeting characters, was shortlisted for this year’s Mercury prize. “I wasn’t expecting it. I felt honoured. When you put a lot of work and effort into something, it’s difficult to see it from someone else’s point of view. It’s good to know that people you don’t know are digging it.” When pushed to describe his work, O’Brien insists that Becoming a Jackal is a pop record, “but not in a Sugababes kind of way. There’s some hooks in there.” Intriguing, suspenseful and lyric-based, the songs enthral and surprise in a way that you wouldn’t expect from pop, and yet leave you humming the choruses on the bus.
The album’s theme, O’Brien tells me, is one of change and mutation, in an almost animalistic sense – although, he hastens to add, none of this was a conscious design. The songs themselves went through a process of evolution; ‘Pieces’, for example, beginning as a stripped-back acoustic song in which the stark lyrics dominate, and ending on the finished album as a “doo-woppy” re-imagining of itself.
This is reflected in the Home Sessions, to be found on Youtube, in which the songs can be seen in their acoustic, stand-alone glory, a sharp contrast to the vast complexity of the album. When it comes to performing, he gives his songs the freedom to exist in multiple forms – when performing solo for one of the first times (supporting Tracy Chapman on her recent European tour), he thought, “I can make this something a bit more loose – the songs can be presented in any way I want them to be.”
Watching O’Brien perform at the O2 Academy on the 6th October, there is a strong sense of this organic creation; he revels in the songs as though it were the first time he had ever sung them, giving experimental yelps and shuffling from instrument to instrument. “I like mixing it up,” he admits, denying any preference for any particular style of performance. “I’ll do a few solo songs, and then get the band out. You have to do something to keep it interesting. Do the other thing.”
Endlessly shifting, O’Brien evolves with his music on stage. Such variety is not for everyone, but the excitement of watching a song that you thought you knew being reinvented before your eyes is undeniable. Rather than hacking out the same old material, a genuine creativity resonates in the performance – a side effect of O’Brien’s restless nature. “I’m never satisfied,” he sighs, when asked why he prefers to keep his audience on their toes. “I’m a grumpy bastard.” Grumpy as he may call it, his habit of breaking the habit is what makes him one of the most exciting artists today; he keeps it interesting, and he does the other thing. “Who knows,” he says, “maybe the next album will be dubstep”. And I’m not entirely sure he’s joking.