"I had an image in my head of a person looking out over a square and there were all these canine creatures ripping meat apart," Conor J. O'Brien — the 27-year-old centerpiece of a band he calls Villagers — says from his home in Dublin. "It was really fascinating. Whoever that character was, I wanted to take him wherever he wanted to go."
He had to be torn apart before he could be made whole. It sounds a bit biblical when you put it that way, possibly even overstated, but in the case of O'Brien, the bloody aftermath of clawed and masticated flesh is precisely how it all came to be.
Any two-bit psychoanalyst might pit that image against the demise of his old band, the Immediate, and draw some mundane conclusions about a young man afraid of going it alone without his old mates. But maybe there's something to it.
The Immediate were supposed to be that next-big-thing to come out of Ireland, nominated for awards and subject to the kind of overwrought praise the U.K. music press likes to dole out to dare bands to be as good as they've already said they are. One proper full-length (In Towers & Clouds), some lofty comparisons to that other Dublin band, and the Immediate broke up in 2007 barely a year after their debut.
"It was definitely an emotional experience," O'Brien recalls. "I had been with that band since I was 12. That's a long relationship. But I'm not going to make a big, weepy story of it. It definitely affected the way I wrote because suddenly I was on my own. When you don't have anyone else to buzz off, you kind of have to buzz off yourself. That's where these songs came from."
His debut as Villagers, Becoming a Jackal (out on Domino and just nominated in the U.K. for the prestigious Mercury Prize), began with a sketch of the aforementioned vision of flesh-eating beasts (it eventually became the album's cover art), which then became the basis for the title track — a song that stares you down and asks you point-blank just why you might be listening: "Before you take this song as truth/You should wonder what I'm taking from you."
"[As a performer] you're getting way more than they are," O'Brien says frankly, addressing the warning posed by the lyric to the listener. "Other times you're not. I think it's give and take. It's something that's so private and personal to you when you wrote it and when you bring it out there, it becomes a kind of social beast and other people own it. It blows my mind every single day."
It might be why he's called this project Villagers. He's made, out of himself, a people.
O'Brien is actually an old-fashioned craftsman, a leather-booted wanderer from another era, an unlikely sight on the horizon, a dot without an entourage. But he seems wary of taking all the credit, even if there was no one else in sight when his songs took shape. He tours with a full lineup when the budget allows it (or if it's an outdoor festival and logistics demand the full-volume version), and steadfastly claims that Villagers is indeed a band. He insists that drummer James Byrne, guitarist Tommy McLaughlin, pianist/organist Cormac Curren and bassist Danny Snow "bring their own imprint on the songs."
But, truthfully, this is a one-man thing. All claims to the contrary are merely a stop at some imaginary halfway house where O'Brien can gradually withdraw from the camaraderie he relied on in his formative years. He performs every instrument on the album (aside from the strings and horns). All of the words and music are his, as well as the abstract red-and-black-ink drawings that he made for the lyric book. Becoming a Jackal is boldly handmade in an era when music is almost never held.
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Yet, Becoming a Jackal doesn't sound much like a "singer-songwriter" debut. "Ship of Fools" is abruptly percussive, ornamented with organ pulses, ghostly backing vocals and surf guitar mixed with the locomotive picking of an acoustic. It sounds peopled, full, not just multitracked, but with personalities, plural. Even on closer "To Be Counted Among Men" — when O'Brien does seem to be truly reduced to a solitary figure, he instead sings of "Paul" and "Laurie" and ancient Athens, conjuring a whole history, assembling a timeless myth to be huddled inside the space of a four-minute song. But on "Home," he admits outright, "I don't want to take this trip alone." And as it turns out, he won't.
"A lot of the time, I look for guidance from dead people," he says, considering an otherwise straightforward question about whom he seeks for advice, touring the West Coast for the first time, on his own. "People that I've known who have died. That's probably my main guidance, at the moment. They're always there, you know? They never actually leave. You're constantly with them.
"It's like a dog," he says, returning to the canine creatures, but with a twist. "It's loyal," he adds.
Villagers perform at the Hotel Café on Tuesday, July 27, at 8 p.m.