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The Rise Of Songwriter Conor O'Brien, An Accidental Advocate

Oct 27, 2015
Originally published on October 28, 2015 3:04 pm

Same-sex marriage has been very much in the news lately, with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing it and a Kentucky clerk's much-publicized refusal to abide by that ruling. Earlier this year, the traditionally Catholic nation of Ireland became the first country in the world to vote to legalize marriage equality for its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens.

Dublin-based singer and songwriter Conor O'Brien, who records under the name Villagers, has become a voice in Ireland's equality movement almost by accident. His most recent album — released, coincidentally, a month before the Irish vote — was attended by his own coming-out as a gay man. But to hear him tell it, his relationship to music remains all about creative release.

"The main thing that always spurred me on to make music is the love of melody," O'Brien says. "It's a very, kind of, obvious reason to be a musician. But regardless of what the themes are I'm thinking of, or what the lyrical content is for me, it's always just trying to make something beautiful."

O'Brien's journey from musician to spokesman began in a very traditional pop-rock band called The Immediate. Roisin Dwyer is just one of the many Irish music journalists who adored the group.

"There was so much going on in the songs," Dwyer says. "It was guitar pop, but it was more. I remember everyone was crushed when they broke up. And it was reported, you know, 'All of the band will remain in music, with solo plans to be announced soon.' Wow, if only we knew what was coming."

What came was O'Brien's new project, Villagers, which grew to be incredibly successful, scoring three No. 1 albums in Ireland. The band's 2010 debut, Becoming a Jackal, was nominated for the Mercury Prize — and, O'Brien says, contains some coded relections on his personal life.

"I guess you can hear the old albums now and sort of read them differently, because what I was writing about is sexuality — and repressed sexuality," he says. "But at the time I was doing it, I was very aware of that as well. I was using the feelings I had of growing up gay in Ireland, that kind of indignant energy and anger, to express less specific things — like, things that perhaps any listener could feel on a more existential level."

Lust, frustration and secrets were hallmarks of his new music, and they resonated. O'Brien's ability to create songs that universally connect has won him praise from seasoned musical polyglots such as Elvis Costello.

"When I think of Conor, I think of a — confidential is the wrong word — I would say confiding voice," Costello says. "Yet, when he opens his voice, it's a voice that you listen to singing immediately clear — and now, singing all the more intimately, truthfully."

One big signpost on O'Brien's journey was when he performed with the critically acclaimed, openly gay, openly HIV-positive American singer and songwriter John Grant, who is 14 years his senior.

"I think I was just surprised that he was so young, and that he sounded so wise. It's taken me forever to get to anyplace where I feel somewhat comfortable," Grant says. "I know the pain of not being able to create because you can't access yourself. The important part was to keep on trying, because I knew it would be possible to let go. With his latest record, he has been able to access himself in a way that he might not yet have been able to."

Witnessing Grant's self-revealing approach to music inspired O'Brien to move out of his own comfort zone and address things head-on in his latest release, Darling Arithmetic — recorded entirely in his home, with the songwriter playing all the instruments.

"Throughout the whole creation of the album," O'Brien says, "I was trying to suppress any sort of bitterness or leftover negativity from homophobic experiences that I've had — from the general low-level hum of bigotry that I've experienced since I was born."

For some, the new album became a sort of soundtrack for the Irish marriage referendum. O'Brien's understated style of advocacy seems to have captured the mood of the country, according to Irish Independent journalist Eamon Sweeney.

"It's the opposite to, let's say, the Bono approach of, 'Here's a bit of a lecture on Third World debt or aid or whatever the social issue of the day is,'" Sweeney says. "Conor just does it in this totally unassuming, completely natural, completely organic way. To my mind, at least, it just makes it all the more convincing."

O'Brien sees his situation more as a matter of good timing. "I have found, in my life, there's lots of times when my own personal journey might sync up with something that's happening on a wider societal level, and maybe is tapping into the way things were going in Ireland," he says. "And I was expressing that in my own sort-of personal way. I don't want to overthink it."

For him, singing it is enough. And there's more where that came from: O'Brien has already announced the next Villagers album, Where Have You Been All My Life?, out Jan. 8.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's hear the man who became known as the musical voice of gay rights in Ireland. His name is Conor O'Brien. He's based in Dublin. And he released an album just before Ireland voted on marriage equality this year. The album grew popular just as the vote passed. And it also marked Conor O'Brien's coming out as gay. Now the album is for sale in the United States. And it is in this country that the artist spoke with reporter Mark Daley.

MARK DALEY, BYLINE: A busy Seattle pub might be a rather odd place to encounter a modern-day Irish revolutionary. But then again, Conor O'Brien didn't set out to be one.

CONOR O'BRIEN: The main thing that's always spurred me on to make music is the love of melody. I mean, it's a very kind of obvious reason to be a musician. But it's - regardless of what the themes are that I'm thinking over, what the lyrical content is, for me it's always just trying to make something beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAVES")

VILLAGERS: (Singing) Look at the sky. Look at the trees. Man, it's all the same to me. Look at the cars. Look at the birds and all of these invented words. One body's dying breath is another's birth. What are you running from? What are you running from?

DALEY: O'Brien's journey from musician to spokesman began in a very traditional pop rock band called The Immediate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOP AND REMEMBER")

THE IMMEDIATE: (Singing) And if you've ever had a head-on collision that you didn't feel, you know what I mean. If you were born an enemy of tradition with no clear release, you know what I mean.

ROISIN DWYER: There was so much going on in the songs. It was guitar pop, but it was more.

DALEY: Roisin Dwyer is just one of the Irish music journalists who adored the group.

DWYER: I remember everyone was crushed when they broke up. And it was reported, you know, all the band will remain in music with solo plans to be announced soon. Wow, if only we knew what was coming.

DALEY: For Conor O'Brien's new band, Villagers, what came was three number-one albums in Ireland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BECOMING A JACKAL")

VILLAGERS: (Singing) I was a dreamer staring out windows, out onto the main street because that's where the dream goes.

O'BRIEN: I guess you can sort of hear the old albums now and sort of read them differently because you can sort of hear that a lot of what I was writing about was sexuality and repressed sexuality. But at the time I was doing it, I sort of - I was very aware of that as well. So I think I was using the feelings that I had of growing up gay in Ireland as sort of a kind of indignant kind of energy and that kind of anger. And I was filtering it and using it to kind of express less specific things, things that perhaps any listener could feel on a more kind of existential level.

DALEY: Loss, frustration, and keeping secrets - O'Brien's ability to create songs that universally connect has won him praise from such seasoned musical polyglots as Elvis Costello.

ELVIS COSTELLO: When I think of Conor, I think of a very - I don't think confidential is the right word - I would say confiding voice. Yet, when he opens his mouth, it's a voice that you listen to, immediately clear and singing now all the more intimately truthfully.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAWNING ON ME")

VILLAGERS: (Singing) I've been awake for so long now, just can't get to sleep. You've been tugging at my eyelids. You've been dawning on me. And there's a light coming through the window, but all I can see is the light of your love. You've been dawning on me.

DALEY: One signpost on O'Brien's journey was a performance with critically acclaimed, openly gay, openly HIV-positive American singer and songwriter John Grant, who's 14 years his senior.

JOHN GRANT: I think I was just surprised that he was so young and that he sounded so wise. It's taken me forever to get to any place where I could maybe say that I feel somewhat comfortable. And he's got it all. I think maybe what's happening is that, you know, with his latest record, he has been able to access himself in a way that he might not yet have been able to.

DALEY: Grant's courage in bringing his whole self to his music inspired O'Brien to move out of his comfort zone and address issues head on in his latest release, still under the name Villagers but recorded entirely in his home with O'Brien playing only instruments.

O'BRIEN: Throughout the whole creation of the album, I was trying to suppress any sort of bitterness or leftover negativity from homophobic experiences that I've had and from the general low-level home of bigotry that I've experienced since I was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOT SCARY SUMMER")

VILLAGERS: (Singing) Remember kissing on the cobblestone in the heat of the night. And all the pretty young homophobes looking out for a fight. You got good at pretending. Then pretending got us good. You've always been up against it. But now it's sad to see we're up against each other in this hot, scary summer.

DALEY: The album "Darling Arithmetic" became a sort of soundtrack for the Irish marriage referendum. And O'Brien's understated style of advocacy seems to have captured the mood of the country, says journalist Eamon Sweeney of the Irish Independent.

EAMON SWEENEY: It's the opposite, I suppose, to let's say the Bono approach of here's a bit of lecture on Third World debt or AIDS or whatever the social issue of the day is. Conor just does it in this totally unassuming, completely natural, completely organic way that, to my mind at least, it just makes it all the more convincing.

O'BRIEN: I've found in my life there's lots of times when my own personal journey might sync up with something that's happening on a wider societal level. And I don't know; maybe I was tapping into the way things were going and the feelings of that. And I was expressing that in my own sort of personal way. I don't want to overthink it, you know?

DALEY: For Conor O'Brien, singing it is enough. For NPR News, I'm Mark Daley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO NAIVE")

VILLAGERS: (Singing) I believe that I'm part of something bigger. So naive, but I guess I've got it figured. Through these little eyes, I see the world, every woman and man... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.