Villagers on 'Totally Wild' Belfast

The Ivor Novello-winning frontman Conor J O’Brien talks new material and a whirlwind year

Over the past year, it has been impossible to ignore acclaimed Irish act, Villagers. Between relentless touring, television appearances and award ceremonies, Dun Laoghaire frontman Conor J O’Brien has surely never been so busy.

Catching up with him in Belfast’s musical Mecca, the Oh Yeah Centre, I ask O’Brien how he is coping with the added media attention, and whether he is finding time to write songs for the follow-up to 2010 album, Becoming a Jackal.

'I’ve done more interviews this year than I’ve done in my whole life,' he admits, sheepishly. 'When you write, to a certain extent you’re trying to protect your enjoyment of the whole process. So when you’re doing interviews and talking about it over and over again, you have to remember that’s not why you’re here, you’re here to write music and write songs.

'A lot of the time I’m going back and forth in my head, telling myself, "This is what I have to do right now, but what I do best is the other thing." It’s cool though, and it’s nice to have attention for the songs and of course it helps the audience to grow.'

Polite and softly spoken, O’Brien admits he is much more comfortable when performing his songs rather than giving interviews. However, he is extremely enthusiastic, especially when talking about music. When I mention Villagers’ latest tour with indie behemoths Elbow, O’Brien’s face lights up.

'It was just amazing, one of our favourite tours so far as a band. When you’re the support band you haven’t won over everyone in the audience from the start. They probably haven’t even heard of you yet! So you get that initial thrill again, which you don’t get at your own headline shows. And the fact that we were doing that in rooms with 15,000 people was mindblowing. Also the audience was so varied and so willing to listen, it just made it a complete joy to play in front of them every night.'

It isn’t the first time Villagers have been on the bill alongside an act of this magnitude – they have also toured with Bell X1, Tindersticks and Tracy Chapman to name but a few. O’Brien is quick to his favourite. 'Definitely Neil Young,' he declares. 'It wasn’t a tour, just one show, but it was incredible. It was also when we were just starting out as a band and we couldn’t quite work out why we were there!'

The latest in O’Brien’s string of accolades has been receiving an Ivor Novello for Villagers track, 'Becoming a Jackal'. This comes hot on the heels of being nominated for a Choice Music Prize for the album of the same name, as well as a Mercury Prize. Does O’Brien how much stock in awards ceremonies like this? Are they are a positive aspect of the music business?

'It’s nice to be given a prize, and the big thing for me is the fact that is helps get more of an audience for an artist’s songs. But, on the other hand, you have to be careful that you’re not writing the next batch of songs in order to try and win another prize. You’ve got to have a sort of closed view as an artist, where you’re thankful for it, but that’s it. It’s amazing, but you just have to enjoy the day and then forget about it.'

Understandably, the follow-up to Becoming a Jackal is highly anticipated. O’Brien has been trying out some of the new songs live.

'Yeah, we’re doing a couple of songs. One of them is called ‘Grateful Song’ and it’s definitely one of my favourites so far, it’s really rocking the band! I’ve done two demos of it so far, and the first one was just ridiculously Leonard Cohen-esque. I mean, I like Leonard Cohen but this was just too much.

'Instead I tried to write it with a view to the band really feeling like they could rock it live, and now we’ve turned it into this epic lighters in the air moment. Or iPhones in the air these days, I suppose.'

Another song penned by O’Brien which is generating a lot of buzz is one he originally wrote for Charlotte Gainsbourg. 'I was playing a showcase in Paris which Charlotte’s label managers were attending,' he explains. 'They approached me afterwards and asked would I like to write a song for Charlotte.

I said that I would love to, but I was in the middle of lots of touring. In fact, I went to the States straight after the show. But I managed to get some time and holed myself up in the States for a couple of nights and did it.

'It was kind of liberating because I wasn’t going to be the singer and it let me inhabit a different space in the writing and it freed me up a little. But when I sent it to her I was like, "hold on a minute, I really like this!" So now we’re going to steal it back! We’ve started playing it in our live shows.'

Villagers are no strangers to playing to Northern Irish audiences, and returned to Belfast at the end of June to play alongside Fleet Foxes and The Low Anthem as part of the Open House Festival. O’Brien has a particular fondness for Belfast audiences.

'Belfast audiences are definitely the most enthusiastic,' he comments, grinning. 'The last Open House Festival we did had one of the craziest audiences we’ve ever had, in a good way. They were really up for it, then suspiciously quiet for the quiet songs, then really up for it again. It was wild, totally wild!'