Conor O'Brien: 'I had experiences of being chased down a street for holding hands with somebody'

Conor O'Brien: 'I had experiences of being chased down a street for holding hands with somebody'

credit: Rich Gilligan

Villagers' mainman talks ahead of his upcoming EIF gig about growing up gay in Ireland and the tide of change that's transforming his home country

If you want to get ahead – or at least write a hazy, nostalgic sun-dappled pop gem – get a flugelhorn. It worked for Villagers mainman Conor O'Brien, who lavished his latest single 'Summer's Song' with a chorus of six flugelhorns, but says he is still getting to grips with playing his new favourite instrument.

'You sort of feel like a child again when you are naively bashing away at something,' he says, 'and that feeling of summertime in childhood was what I was trying to evoke, that feeling of it being a beautiful season, but also the wistfulness and the vague melancholy of it being a passing thing.

'I'm an uncle now and I was just on a very rare family holiday with three generations in France and my six-year-old niece was constantly singing "Summer's Song" back to me, so mission accomplished for me there.'

O'Brien, who has been recording his soft indie folk incantations as Villagers since 2008, jokes that most of his songs are actually about autumn or winter but it's hard not to invite comparison between the gentle contented ache of 'Summer's Song' and the darker lament of 'Hot Scary Summer' from his 2015 album, Darling Arithmetic.

That song first sprang from the simple desire to thank Villagers' Japanese crew for their hard work. The appropriate term in Japanese – otsukaresama – sounds not unlike 'hot, scary summer' and from this evocative springboard, O'Brien explicitly addressed for the first time in song his experiences as a young gay man growing up in Ireland as the country reckoned with the long shadow of sexual repression, control and abuse which runs through its history.

Conor O'Brien: 'I had experiences of being chased down a street for holding hands with somebody'

credit: Rich Gilligan
'The education system in Ireland went hand in hand with the church and my generation caught the end of that,' says O'Brien, who is now in his mid-thirties, 'so I saw the beginnings of the general secularisation of our education system, but I also had older brothers and sisters who were beaten by priests.

'I grew up during a changing tide but I had experiences of being chased down a street for holding hands with somebody, so that song was a very cathartic experience for me. I think it might have been attached to there being something in the air in Ireland. The timing of releasing that album and that song was so magic. We played big Dublin shows two days before the marriage equality referendum, the whole thing felt like there was this energy in the air.'

O'Brien, who describes himself as 'kind of a weirdo', says he is just as likely to be inspired by fantastical themes – or, indeed, flugelhorns – in his writing as by developments at home but when this hot, crazy summer of festivals – including a Leith Theatre show as part of the International Festival's contemporary music strand – is over, he'll be content to return to Dublin.

'I remember being a teenager and thinking "I can't wait to get out of this place",' he says of the Irish capital. 'It's not like we're suddenly this perfect society but I feel a lot more comfortable existing here now.'

Villagers, Leith Theatre, 15 Aug, 8pm, £25.

Villagers

The musical project of Dublin singer/songwriter Conor O’Brien, Villagers first came to prominence with the release of their debut album Becoming a Jackal which was shortlisted for the 2010 Mercury Prize, the Choice Music Prize and awarded an Ivor Novello for 'Best Song Musically & Lyrically' for the title track.

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