Award winning Conor J O’Brien of The Villagers.

It takes a Villager...

TOWN HALL Award winning Irish band to play Cavan Arts Festival on Sunday

Old Man Yells At Cloud”. It’s a Simpsons meme. A newspaper headline conveying how the cantankerous elderly get irate over small things. Like Zoom. The video conferencing platform which has proved to be a tremendous boon for the communications industry.

Unless you are a crotchety old man. You know the type; can’t get their camera to work, or their microphone.

The curmudgeon in question is very much at odds with the serene music of Villagers. Since their emergence in 2008 Conor J O’Brien’s creation has produced six studio albums of sublime perfection. Mercury, Choice award nominations aside, not to mention the Ivor Novella gong for best Album, the legacy of Villagers is the joyous beauty of their performances; either as Conor on his own or with the remarkable musicians with which he surrounds himself.

The opportunity to speak to this maestro should infuse the soul of the interviewer with the tranquillity inherent in Villagers music. Alas no.

The opening exchange with Conor J O’Brien goes a bit like this: “I can hear you, can you hear me?”

At the other end of the Zoom link it’s 10am on Tuesday in the Netherlands. The brief video exchange showed the fresh faced Glenageary man looking perplexed as I stammer through my introduction.

After a short back and forth the singer suggests I ring him directly. I could not be happier.

“I don’t really know why Zoom is a thing,” he says down the other end of a reassuring telephone line. If I was not already in thrall to this man I now am.

Conor is speaking to The Anglo-Celt because he’s including Cavan Arts Festival as part of his European tour: “We’ve just been playing loads of shows. Someone emailed us and asked us to play Cavan. We’ve never done a full band Cavan show and it really appealed to me. The guys in the band, the brass players, The Greenhorns are all Cavan lads. It’s not much of a trip for them, we’re saving train fair,” he jokes.

He lists off some of the gigs completed; Genk, Amsterdam, with Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Oslo and Cologne to come: “We’re finally doing this run, which was cancelled in January. It feels really good. It’s nice to be back out on the road after all this time.”

Conor J O’Brien is looking forward to bringing The Villagers to Cavan Arts Festival this weekend.

That “back on the road” is a familiar theme of conversations with performers. Fever Dreams, Villagers’ latest offering and the most collaborative work in years, gestated in that period of human history when we shut up shop.

“We recorded the full band sessions leading up to the lockdown,” O’Brien tells. “We got everything done on the very last day of freedom, basically right before the very first lockdown. Actually the very first day of lockdown was our final studio day booked. I managed to sneak in a bunch of work just before we weren’t allowed to get together again.

“I have a little home studio in an attic room. I worked away on the files. I started working remotely with people, including The Greenhorns Cavan brass section. We just basically added to what was done pre-lockdown and I wrote some more songs. Finishing Fever Dreams was my saviour in lockdown.”

Villagers’ lyrics suggest a certain introspection and self awareness. Self imposed isolation is one thing, but what happens to a creative person when it’s dictated: “I was gonna’ do it anyway. I was pretty much going to lock myself away. Not for that long, but definitely for a few weeks. I’ve always been very good at long periods of isolation and solitude. I live to make ideas concrete. Having creative ideas and seeing them through to fruition; from sheer obsessional work. Lockdown kind of worked for that, but after a few months I was sick of it.”

The attention to detail implicit in such an obsession is apparent in his work. Some of his lyrical observations are like miniature plays with theme and mood set to music.

Creating such delicacies comes at a cost: “It’s definitely a funny one. It can be both extremely exhilarating, and extremely frustrating. Psychologically it affects me because I give myself these tasks with music. While I’m in a particular song, I’m really inside of it for however long it takes to write it. If it’s not going well, it can affect my everyday life. It can affect how I interact with people. If it’s going really well I’m the greatest person in the world to be around. It definitely infuses in my life and my personality. That goes both ways into the song and the song can shift and change, but I really do live inside of them as I’m writing them. That’s both a curse and a beautiful revelation as well.”

Being cerebral about music is all very well, but it’s in performance that music lives. Moving the song to the real world is the birthing process: “The reward is the process. I think you can fall into a trap of trying to see an end game to the process of making music. Currently I’m swimming in that joy of presenting the songs to people and it’s a really positive part of the whole process. Amsterdam two nights ago - I’m still buzzing from it. It felt like every single song we played was connecting with the audience. It’s a huge cliche to say, but it was one of those shows where everyone celebrated music. That’s definitely one of the big parts of this, but when I’m making the music, I try not to kind of focus on an end point.”

Balancing the introvert creator with the extrovert performer is an unusual alchemy: “I don’t know why I do it. I’m definitely not the usual personality type that fronts a band on stage. I have to push myself to do it, but I really, really live off it. That’s the thing. I love it, you know, but I kinda hate it as well. It’s a hilarious, weird, strange dance.”

Bringing that weird strange dance to Townhall is something Conor says he’s looking forward to: “It’s gonna be one of the biggest versions of Villagers. We’ve got the full brass section, The Greenhorns. We’re gonna be really tight ‘cause we’ve toured a lot. It’s gonna be a dynamic show. There’s moments where it’s pure soulful kind of rock and roll, but then there’s very intimate moments as well. Just come along for the journey, it’s quite a trip for the mind and the soul and the heart.”

It’s the sort of show that may soothe a cranky old man.

Villagers perform in Townhall Cavan on Sunday, May 22, show starts 8pm. Tickets cost €32.50 (+50c booking) available from Ticketsolve or the Festival website.