Bono once described his idol Leonard Cohen as a craftsman; a man who writes songs the same way a carpenter constructs a door. Though the description of Cohen is apt, it could also easily apply to another artist, Bono’s fellow countryman Conor O’Brien of Villagers fame.
Speaking with O’Brien, it becomes immediately obvious that he is a man meticulously devoted to his craft. Every aspect of his music is given intense thought, and the way he openly speaks of the sometimes frustrating elements of touring paints a portrait of a man with so much care and commitment that it affects him emotionally.
We spoke to O’Brien about Where Have You Been All My Life? his new, incoming album; the particular artifice of track listing; and the very nature of love.
Joseph Earp: How are you and where in the world does our interview find you today?
Conor O’Brien: I’m in my little home studio in Dublin.
JE: Your new album, Where Have You Been All My Life? is due out early next year. How did you find the process of writing and recording the record compared to your previous albums?
CB: Well, seeing as this is an album of revisited older material, the writing process was relatively painless this time around. I would almost say that it was non-existent. We recorded this album in one day. Everything you can hear is what happened in the room. There are no overdubs. This couldn’t be more different to my previous albums.
JE: What can you tell us about the significance of the title?
CB: It’s my favourite line to sing in the The Soul Serene and it makes me feel the way I felt when we were recording this album: diving into a feeling head-first and letting it take you where it wants to go. It’s such an overbearlingly dramatic declaration of commitment. I’m a big fan of romance.
JE: In terms of how you construct your albums, do you have a picture of the record in your mind from the outset, or does it evolve more naturally over time?
CB: For this album, it evolved naturally over time. Every choice is made from a purely emotional perspective.
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JE: How do you go about ordering the songs into some kind of track listing? And, given that so many people listen to songs digitally these days, do you think the significance of a track listing has changed?
CB: Do people not listen to albums anymore? I do. I place a lot of importance on the structure of an album. There’s a theatrical significance to it. The songs are usually quite candid but the track listing is pure artifice.
JE: Would you say that your lyrics are strictly autobiographical? Have you ever written a song in the ‘voice’ of somebody who is not you?
CB: I wrote Memoir with the voice of Charlotte Gainsbourg in my head. Then she sang it beautifully for her album Stage Whisper. It’s quite liberating when you’re pretending to be somebody else, both in music and in life in general. Growing up gay, you’re forced to pretend to be someone else everyday, so you get quite good at it.
JE: Do you set time aside to write, or is it something you do in a less structured way?
CB: A little bit of both. It’s whenever I get a minute, really.
JE: Did performing live always come naturally to you?
CB: I have to force myself to go onto that stage every night. I’m quite naturally introverted so it’s going against every part of my instinct to perform. Once I’m out there doing it I have moments of ecstasy which stay with me for months and months afterwards. It’s a strange existence.
JE: When you are up on stage, how aware are you of the audience?
CB: That changes frequently, sometimes over the course of a song. A few nights ago I felt incredibly angry that somebody coughed during a particularly quiet part of the song. Then you realize how irrational you’re being and as you’re thinking about this, the song ends and said person claps and smiles, never knowing of the unspoken vitriol he inspired just seconds earlier.
Sometimes I love touring and other times it makes me feel like a dog doing tricks. It’s all good though.
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JE: What is your favourite show out of all of those you have played?
CB: I just came back from Berlin where I performed with a bunch of incredible classical players called Stargaze. It was a humbling experience.
JE: Say you’re not writing, you’re not recording, you’re not touring…What does a day in your life look like?
CB: That sounds like a very boring day.
JE: Tell me something you’ve never told an interviewer before.
CB: I love you.
Where Have You Been All My Life will be released on January 8, 2016.