GUY RAZ, host:
Four years ago, an avant-garde rock quartet from Ireland called The Immediate released its debut album to critical acclaim. The predictable comparisons followed: the next U2, they said.
(Soundbite of music)
THE IMMEDIATE (Music Group): (Singing) Funny what you find fading away...
RAZ: But just as quickly as The Immediate shot to fame, the band split apart. The Immediate's former front man is Conor O'Brien. He now performs under the name Villagers, and here's what he sounds like.
(Soundbite of song, "Becoming a Jackal")
VILLAGERS (Singer): (Singing) With no look upon my face, I was a dreamer, staring at windows. Out onto the main street, that's where the dream goes.
RAZ: Now, if you're on the lookout for the next big thing, a good place to start is Britain's Mercury Prize. That's an award handed out each year to the best Irish or British record. Conor O'Brien has just been nominated for his record "Becoming a Jackal." We're hearing the title track from it. And Conor O'Brien joins me from our studios in Southern California. Hello, and congratulations.
Mr. CONOR O'BRIEN (Musician): Hello, sir, how are you? Thank you very much.
RAZ: We're hearing "Becoming a Jackal" right now, and there's a line towards the end of this song where you seem to be talking, I think to us, to the people who are listening to the song, and you say: Before you take this song as truth...
(Soundbite of song, "Becoming a Jackal")
VILLAGERS: (Singing) You should wonder what I'm taking from you.
RAZ: Is that true? Do you sort of see songwriting as reciprocal? What do you take from the people who are hearing your music?
Mr. O'BRIEN: Well, you take a hell of a lot. When you're performing songs, there are moments in certain shows where it becomes almost therapeutic, you know? You're singing these songs to people, and you're almost using them as something. At the same time, they're using you, though, you know?
And also, the song wasn't directly about the songwriter. I think it was more a general kind of human thing, which I was exploring in all of the songwriting, which is the more kind of scavenging aspects of humans and the more kind of animalistic nature, which I was kind of obsessed with for years, and I couldn't really get it out of my system except in the form of songwriting.
RAZ: So can you describe what Villagers actually is because it's not really a band, right? I mean, it's just you.
Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah, when I named the band, I wanted to give it, like, the most anonymous kind of faceless name I could, because I kind of wanted the songs to be the central thing, which is what they continue to be, yeah.
RAZ: A lot of focus has been on your lyrics, and I want to ask you about the first track on the album, and it's called "I Saw the Dead." And it's the kind of song that just grabs you, just draws you into this record right away.
(Soundbite of song, "I Saw The Dead")
VILLAGERS: (Singing) Have you got just a minute? Are you easily mad? Let me show you the back room where I saw the dead.
RAZ: Right off the bat, you're talking to us. You're saying, have you got just a minute? And almost like you're opening up the story. And it's, you know, evocative and opaque, and it's almost impenetrable. What is this song about?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. O'BRIEN: I think it's about a few different things. I kind of wanted to write a song that dealt with life from the perspective of death rather than the other way around. I kind of wanted to see it as some sort of pact with death.
And it's kind of a song about panic attacks, as well, because I kind of used to get them quite a lot, and I wanted to figure out why that happened. There are some lyrics in the song which are about the audience laughing.
(Soundbite of song, "I Saw You Dead")
VILLAGERS: (Singing) My every mistake. And it's making my neck hurt, and I feel like a fake.
Mr. O'BRIEN: It's quite sort of self-reflexive, and it covers a lot of ground, and it's also slightly grotesque, which is something that I was just using almost as a comedic kind of getting rid of the weightiness of the whole thing.
I don't know. To me, it's kind of tough to talk about the songs a lot of time because they are very subconsciously written, and I tend to sort of feel like they write themselves, and when I'm singing them, I know what they mean, but when I'm talking about them, sometimes I don't know what they mean at all. You know, they're just sort of feelings and sounds and words and imagery and stuff, you know?
RAZ: I'm speaking with Conor O'Brien of the Irish band Villagers. His new record is called "Becoming a Jackal." Some critics have compared your song "The Pact" to something Roy Orbison might have written. Before I ask you about it, let's just hear some of that.
(Soundbite of song, "The Pact")
VILLAGERS: (Singing) I was lost in a forest, but now I'm a believer. So you be my master, I'll be your fever. Do what you did yesterday. Go on repeating...
RAZ: I think it's hard not to hear that similarity between Roy Orbison in this track. Do you hear it? Do you hear the similarity?
Mr. O'BRIEN: Well, yeah, I love Roy Orbison. So I think it seeped its way in there.
RAZ: Did you do that consciously?
Mr. O'BRIEN: No. "The Pact" was written very fast. I think I was going for sort of almost like a gospel vibe with sort of an idea of completely worshiping something or someone.
RAZ: Someone. I mean, this is a pretty upbeat song. I mean, it's unlike some of the other tracks on the record. And there's a line in here that says angels are singing words written for you.
Mr. O'BRIEN: Yeah, it is. It's a joyful song, but there's I did an interview yesterday, and someone said he thought it was the darkest song on the album, which is because he thought it was a really strange thing, the idea of a fever: you be my master, but I'll be your fever. And he was talking about the negative aspects of that. And I kind of chose that word really carefully. Fever, because I wanted to explore the power relationships between people.
And on one level, it's the most beautiful thing in the world, but there's another love song on the album, which looks at love in a completely different light.
(Soundbite of song, "The Meaning of a Ritual")
VILLAGERS: (Singing) My love is selfish, and I bet that yours is too.
Mr. O'BRIEN: I wanted to put them both on there to sort of give a full picture of whatever was ticking inside my head at the time.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RAZ: You've had this pretty incredible year. You have this record getting all this acclaim both here in the U.S. and in Europe, and then of course the Mercury Prize nomination. I read you were worried about your being nominated because you thought it might affect the way you write songs. How would that happen?
Mr. O'BRIEN: Well, to me, like, it's a real honor to be, like, nominated for prizes and a lot of stuff, but if it starts becoming like an aim in your head or whatever, then you've lost the battle. You know, you're never going to write a good song ever again because I think when you're writing music, you should be kind of completely lost in it, you know? You shouldn't even be thinking on that level. So I'm just going to be, like, grateful for it. I'm just going to go to it and have fun and everything, but I'm kind of making sure I'm going to protect my ability to continue writing to the level that I'd like to.
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: That's Conor O'Brien. He performs under the name Villagers. The debut album is out now. It's called "Becoming a Jackal." Conor, thanks so much.
Mr. O'BRIEN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
RAZ: And you can watch a solo performance of Conor's, one of our Tiny Desk Concerts. That's at our web site, nprmusic.org.
(Soundbite of song, "Home")
VILLAGERS: (Singing) You wake me when we're almost halfway, I don't want to take this trip alone because I'd never reach my home. No, I'd never reach my home. No, I'd never reach my home.
RAZ: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. We're back next weekend. Thanks for listening, and have a great week.
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