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Nine Songs

Taking in the synthesizer experiments of an ex-Beatle and falling in love with OK Computer, Conor O’Brien tells Cal Byrne about the songs that inspire his songwriting.

19 October 2018, 08:00 | Words by Cal Byrne

And not just any old delivery, it’s a copy of his fourth album, The Art of Pretending to Swim. At first I assume he’s joking, surely artists don’t have to wait to listen to their own work, especially as Villagers’ latest record had already been out for a week? But O’Brien assures me that this is in fact the case.

“It just got lost somewhere so I’m, you know, waiting for it.”

Waiting is a common narrative for O’Brien. It was the central tenet behind ‘Nothing Arrived’ from 2013’s {Awayland} and is revisited on The Art of Pretending to Swim in the form of a person who is simply waiting for their life to happen for them.

Rather than life mirroring art, O’Brien isn’t a person who sits still. His obsession with pushing boundaries and making art for art’s sake runs through the songs that inspire his songwriting. The Villagers’ frontman has embodied a DIY spirit throughout his career, writing, recording and producing all of their output from his home in Dublin. And he also likes to cook, “Mainly lentil-based curries and bad Mexican food” he tells me.

Over the course of discussing his pivotal songs we cover dancing, how to deal with dickheads and a love of melancholy music, but the main thing that sticks out for O’Brien in songcraft is a sensitivity for creativity and an appreciation of the freedom artists create to make great art.

“Temporary Secretary” by Paul McCartney

“I love most of that album McCartney II. The first four tracks in particular are amazing, but ‘Temporary Secretary’ is one of those songs that I’d listen to quite often and it would instantly fire me up and make me feel creative.

“It kind of sounds like he doesn’t give a shit and that he’s having loads of fun. The lyrics are ridiculous! But there’s also little subtle things in the mix, like the synth line that keeps coming up and down by a few decibels at some moments and there’s little glitchy parts where it sounds like its breaking up and stuff. It’s just really playful and fun.

“It sounds like someone writing without any sense of what’s expected of them and there’s a real freedom to it. Also, he wrote and recorded it in his house and he played pretty much all the instruments, which is kind of what I do! So it was kind of cool to hear that.”

“Make Me Yours” by Ann Peebles

“I was listening to ‘Make Me Yours’ all the time whilst I was writing The Art of Pretending to Swim, it was kind of like my cooking music that I would dance around the kitchen to. I love the production, I love the sound of the guitar and there’s just a real longing in her voice, which I love.

“Ann Peebles comes from that Hi Records, Memphis thing and the sound of those records is something that inspires me when I’m producing and trying to make music. The song ‘I Can't Stand the Rain’ is where I first heard her, I think I remember hearing it in a clothes shop called The Eager Beaver, which is one of those second-hand places around Temple Bar in Dublin. I remember hearing “I Can’t Stand the Rain” and I was like ‘Who the fuck is that?’ Also, she’s kind of less well-known than she should be, so I thought it’d be nice to put her in here.”

“Is My Presence in the Room Enough For You?” by Brigid Mae Power

“For me, this particular song is a good distillation of what Brigid Mae Power does really well. She kind of expresses an internal voice - you’re hearing something that isn’t being said in the room, but it’s being said inside of her.

“‘Is My Presence in the Room Enough For You?’ is one of those songs where there’s a real serenity to it, but if you look deeper into the words she’s basically saying ‘Stop being a dick!’ to somebody. I think it’s such a beautiful way to deal with it. It’s treating something that could be dealt with in a violent way with peace, with a graceful peace and keeping your head held high, and you can hear that so beautifully expressed through her voice and the music.

“That whole album The Two Worlds is amazing, it brings you into her world completely. ‘Serenity’ is definitely the word with her.”

“Pass Through the Fire” by James Holden & The Animal Spirits

“I’ve always really liked James Holden but I think with this latest album The Animal Spirits he’s really taken it to a whole new level. With the addition of live drums, a full band and a mixture of insane modular synth skills with a spiritual jazz connection, it’s mind blowing.

“‘Pass Through The Fire’ really reminds me of an album called A Rainbow in Curved Air by Terry Riley, which is one of my favourite albums, it’s an album I always put on whenever we have to drive insane distances. The song quickly brings you to a completely different place and then halfway through it just explodes into this - I don’t know if you’d call it a riff - but it’s like a really powerful storm of synthesizers, it’s really incredible. I feel like I’m flying throughout that whole album.

“I actually got the desk that I used to record this album from James Holden. I was looking for a desk and literally the day I started looking he tweeted saying he was selling the desk that he mixed The Inheritors on, and I fucking love that album. So I just tweeted back and bought it off him.”

“Let Down” by Radiohead

“If you’re talking about how much it affected my writing when I was growing up, then ‘Let Down’ is probably the most quintessential song for me. I was 14 when OK Computer came out and the first show I ever went to was Radiohead doing OK Computer, so every show I saw after that was pretty much a let down!

“I have a very strong memory from the summer of 1997 of being so obsessed with that album when it came out, feeling that they were my band and that they represented me fully. I spent weeks in the shed out the back of my parents’ house learning every part of it and then I got a surprise from my older brother of tickets to see the show.

“’Let Down’ is one that didn’t click with me for a while, but the more I got into the album the more it grew on me and it eventually almost became my favourite track. There’s so much to unpack with it - there’s the polyrhythmic thing of the two guitars playing against the bass and drums, then you’ve got these lyrics which are about transcending the urban physical environment that you’re in and then it just takes off at one stage. It’s one the most beautiful pieces of music.”

“andata' by Ryuichi Sakamoto

“This is one of the best openings to an album ever, it’s devastatingly sad. The first time I heard ‘andata’ I just couldn’t believe it. You know when you hear a piece of music and you get this feeling of déjà vu, as if it’s always existed? Well, that’s what I felt when I first heard this. I had to immediately go back to it and press play again.

“It reminded me of the same feeling I got when I first heard ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ by Arvo Pärt, which is also one of my favourite pieces of music. It’s like a sacred piece of music - which both of those tracks are - this sacred music that you’d imagine being played at a funeral, which makes everyone feel a sense of peace as well as this internal joy. Even though it’s extremely melancholy, it’s got this epicness to it.

“It doesn’t do anything too experimental musically, although it does texturally, but the melody is really beautiful. With the melody you can kind of tell where it’s going, but by the end he’s taken it into this other space and you feel like you’ve been changed a bit, which is the aim of any composition really.”

“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday (Live at the Philharmonic Auditorium, 1945)

“It’s the context of how this song is being performed that makes this version of ‘Strange Fruit’ so special for me.

“You can hear Billie Holiday unapologetically clearing her throat into the microphone, which is almost like part of the performance. You can hear people chatting at the start and when she sings the first part about ‘trees bear a strange fruit’ at the start you can hear this sort of awkward laughter. It’s as if people are shocked at the metaphor that’s unfolding before them and it’s incredibly powerful, because the context is part of the recording.

“She sings it really beautifully as well and there’s sort of a crack in her voice that definitely adds to this performance, because it becomes part of the broken nature of the song and the subject matter. Having said that, I love the studio version as well, but this version might not be as well-known as that one, so it’d be nice for people to hear it.”

“All the Flowers” by Bibio

“I could have chosen any track from the album Ambivalence Avenue but ‘All the Flowers’ is just awesome. I love the way Bibio’s music is so free and it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to fit into any particular genre, it’s just doing exactly what he feels like.

“He’s one of those artists that I find inspiring to listen to because it reminds me that sometimes I find myself getting too caught up in what I should be doing, than rather just what I want to do. That’s what music and art is for; you know, just exploring stuff. There’s always a vast well of stuff to explore as long as you free your mind up a little bit and Bibio is someone who reminds me of that when I listen to his music.

“I love tracks that leave you guessing and with ‘All the Flowers’ you get the sense that you’ve peeked into a relationship or something, but you’ve only got the half of it. It’s like hearing a conversation on a bus, but then you’ve got to get off the bus, that’s what I feel about this track. Which is life I guess - you’re only getting half the picture, half the time and that’s what this whole album represents.”

“‘Mary” by Big Thief

“Big Thief are one of those bands where it’s easy to kind of brush over them sometimes, because they have some slightly heavier tracks which sound like an indie guitar band, but then they have these really beautiful intimate songs like ‘Mary’ as well.

“There’s a couple more on their first album Masterpiece, there’s one called ‘Paul’ which is completely mind-blowing. When I saw them live in Whelan’s in Dublin I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Adrianne Lenker’s voice is phenomenal and the words, it’s the way she brings you on this journey and the way the words come so fast when she changes the rhythm of the words in the bridge and chorus.

“The music swells so slowly as a reaction to her quickly articulated words and there’s something extremely powerful about it. And like the Bibio track, you get a feeling that you’re getting a snippet of something or the abstracted view of that thing, of some sort of relationship. You’re not quite sure what it was but you totally get the feeling from it. I just love it. It’s so tender and it sounds like a memory, ‘Mary’ reminds me of memory.”

The Art of Pretending to Swim is out now on Domino Records
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