“I’m using less of my head and more of my heart” – hmv.com talks to Villagers
Baring your soul and opening your heart is a normally part of the deal for a folk singer, but for Villagers mainman Conor O’Brien it’s a brand new leap of faith. We chat to him about opening up on his achingly raw new record Darling Arithmetic, going it alone without the help of his bandmates and why his song cupboard is now empty…
How long did this album take to put together?
“I think it was about the same all in all. Eight months, that’s everything, writing, recording, mixing, all of it. I usually take just under a year to get records done and this one hasn’t been any different in that regard, though it was quite a different process to get there.”
Why was the process so different?
“I was using less of my head and more of my heart. It’s a much more emotional album. It’s not trying to use as many narrative tricks, I used to be more interested in weaving fictional storylines and using characters. On this album the only character is myself. It was much more personal and more therapeutic.”
Was that something you set out to do? Or did it just happen that way?
“I didn’t really plan it, it more trickled out of me. I wrote ‘Hot Scary Summer’ while we were touring the last album and ‘Darling Arithmetic’ was actually written a couple of years ago, before the last album was even released. At that time I couldn’t see myself singing it to people, it felt too personal, but it’s got a home amongst these new songs, it feels like the centrepiece of what I’m trying to express.”
Did you get cold feet about being more personal and go back to your older methods?
“I did actually. I always find when you’re writing that if you’re not testing yourself, it’s not really worth anything. I did fall back on my old tricks and those became songs that I’ve ended up not using. They were interesting tunes, but they didn’t strengthen the album’s emotional heart.”
It’s a much rawer album, we don’t want to say there’s less going on, but it’s a lot more stripped back, was that something you set out to do?
“Whether something is conscious or not usually changes as you’re making the album. The first half always has to be subconscious because you’re feeling your way, but the second half you know what you’re doing and you end up shaping your new songs to a certain mould. Writing is about keeping your ear to the ground, letting things grow and keeping the reins at the same time.”
Did the other guys help you out?
“Not this time. A couple of them came out to the house where I was recording the album and actually played some stuff, but I ended up not using it. It was too early and I’d end up re-recording it, it was easier for me to do it all. Cormac (Curran), who plays keys in the band, actually arranged the strings for the album, but I ended up not using that either.”
That must have been an awkward conversation to have…
“I told him that I didn’t want any orchestration in the end, I’m sure that wasn’t a nice thing to hear. It means the album’s got a full, epic, orchestration treatment, so hopefully in the future we’ll be able to play some shows with an orchestra, it puts the album in a totally different light.”
Was it strange to turn your back on the other guys like that? You must want to play music with them…
“You do. My initial idea for Villagers was that it would be a changeable group, but we actually had five years with the same line-up so we really did become a band of brothers. But this album just felt like such a personal statement, I just couldn’t let it go. I got more and more entangled within the project, I needed to do it myself, I’d have trusted them with it, but I got so obsessive by the end that it was best for me to just to do it.”
You recorded in a barn right by your house right?
“Yeah, I’ve always laid down by own demos there. This time, rather than take them to a studio, I liked the idea of using them, you can hear it my voice that I’m singing in this unguarded way, I’m singing for myself, I like that’s there’s no acting, it’s me figuring the songs out.”
When did you decide on the title?
“About half-way through. I’d written it years before and it was just too personal, it’s quite a sad song, but these new songs gave it a little home. It’s a huge centrepiece, a real emotional centre, I couldn’t really call it anything else.”
Do you often go back to your earlier songs?
“I’ve always done it. I always have songs on the go, some of my songs hang around for years. That said, for the next album, I’ve pretty much used all of my old material, so it’ll be a blank canvas next time, it’s scary, but quite exciting.”
Villagers’ new album Darling Arithmetic is released on Monday (April 13th). You can pre-order it in store now.