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The Only Gay in the Villagers
Gay Times

The Only Gay in the Villagers

Posted Tuesday, 11 August 2015   |   10272 views   |   Men's Interest   |   Comments (0) ...that we know of, anyway. Villagers is the musical brainchild of Irish indie-folkster Conor O’Brien, with a changing band of musicians helping him out for the past seven years.

After being nominated for the Mercury Music Prize twice, and winning a prestigious Ivor Novello award for songwriting, Villagers’ third album Darling Arithmetic – released this year – saw Conor confront his sexuality head-on in his songs for the very first time. And just in time for his country’s referendum, too...

Sometimes the planets really do align when it comes to interviews. We’re sat in a chapel at London’s historic Royal Chelsea Hospital with Villagers, aka Conor O’Brien. In the distance, we can hear gay pop icon Rufus Wainwright sound checking. And in just a few hours, the pair will take to the stage in these iconic surroundings and play to the thousands of fans braving the summer rain with a spellbinding pair of sets.

The chapel is a significant location in light of recent events. Conor’s home country of Ireland has just made history by becoming the first to vote en masse in favour of same-sex marriage. It’s something he’s immensely proud of, given the country’s history of Catholicism and repression by the church.
“It was amazing, wasn’t it?” Conor beams, after we literally pull up a pew to start the interview. He confesses to being jet lagged, as he and his band have just landed in the UK after a major tour of the US west coast, but he has an undeniable charm that’s hard not to get swept up in.

“I was walking around the town I grew up in during the lead-up to the referendum, and lots of people had huge Yes badges on them. It was basically affirming that they had no problem with me. It was electric, and there were lots of tears. It overwhelmed me, that the country voted yes. It erased so many feelings I had growing up in Ireland. The fact that people were coming over on planes just to vote – it was like we were taking our country back. It was real change.”
He puts extra emphasis on the word ‘change’ – which ends up being an overarching theme in our interview with Conor. This year, with his seminal new album Darling Arithmetic, Conor made a change and wrote candidly about his sexuality for the first time – whether it’s on the album’s opener Courage, which tackles issues of self-acceptance and wearing your heart on your sleeve, or tracks like Little Bigot and Hot Scary Summer, referencing Conor’s own experiences with homophobia and his utopian dream of people just loving one another for who they are.

But this isn’t a ‘coming out’ album, as such. Nor is this a ‘coming out’ interview. While living proudly as a gay man for years, it’s just the first time Conor has peeled back the curtain and let his sexuality filter into his songwriting in such an obvious way.

“I was scared I’d overwrite,” Conor tells us, when explaining his decision to bring homosexuality into his songs. “When I was writing about homophobes and stuff, I was scared it might make people feel like they were being left out of the album, if it’s not something they’ve experienced before. I wanted the words to have a universal meaning. Like, there’s a line in Hot Scary Summer when it says, ‘We got good at pretending, and then pretending got us good.’ I wrote that because I knew that it could be applied for any relationship – gay or straight – OR that it could be about hiding your sexuality.”

We admit it’s a line we can relate back to different times in our lives; times when we haven’t been completely comfortable expressing affection with a significant other in certain public environments.
“I still get that!” Conor agrees. “I still do it a lot when I’m in Dublin, even now when I’m 100% out, I’m still like, ‘Stop holding my hand!’ I just get really awkward, it’s still left in me a little bit, you know? It runs deep.”
We know.
“When I was younger as a teenager,” he continues, “I’d try and test the limits of what I could get away with in public with my sexuality, and I’d be kicked back in. Well, not literally kicked, but I’d be chased down streets or given odd looks.

“I’m from a country where it took until I was ten-years-old for it to actually became legal for me to be me, which is a weird thing to say in the 21st century. When I was younger I was academic, I looked up to my teachers and my elders, but when they’d tell me things like it wasn’t right to be gay – it hurt me to my core. But after time I just thought, ‘Fuck this, I’m going to make some beautiful art from this.’”
And make some beautiful art he did. But another change with Darling Arithmetic saw Conor strip back the layered soundscapes he became known for on his first two albums – 2010’s Becoming a Jackal and 2013’s {Awayland} – instead approaching his third effort with just an acoustic guitar and a makeshift recording rig he’s had since he was 16-years-old.

“I thought I was recording the demos for the album,” he explains, “but I realised the sounds were so nice and sort of intimate, with the little quivers in my voice and the noises of birds in the background. It kind of documented the time I spent in the house I live in, just making these emotionally-diverging songs. The whole process instantly made me feel less guarded. For me, it was really therapeutic.”
We confess to Conor that after being Villagers fans for years, and working in gay media, it ashamedly took us by surprise to learn that he was gay while listening to Darling Arithmetic. It’s met with a reassuring chuckle.

“I think it make sense if you read the lyrics!” Conor says with a wry smile, referencing back to his first two albums. “I was expressing it already, just not explicitly. But I knew I wanted to get at least a couple of albums out of it!”

Rufus has stopped sound checking at this point, and strolls into the chapel to take a look at the breathtaking architecture of the building for himself. Talk quickly turns to role models – Rufus being one we share with Conor from our formative years. 

“I’m very aware of myself now I’m in my 30s,” he tells us, “and I’m very comfortable, but I do get a sense that I’m the older generation now, and I should be passing on a little bit of wisdom. When I was growing up, Ian McKellen was such a big thing for me. I remember watching him on Have I Got News For You and thinking, wow, this guy has so much gravitas – I remember being obsessed with him and having cutouts about him from all the papers.”

We point out that for many young kids struggling with sexuality and gender issues, Darling Arithmetic might be a first point of call. It’s something Conor never anticipated, but has already seem come to fruition.

“I got a couple of really beautiful letters on this tour, and one was from a mother who was finding it hard to accept that her son was gay. But they both listened to the album together and she said it helped her come to terms with it.”

And as an artist, Conor tells us he can’t ask for much more from his work than that.
We talk further about Darling Arithmetic and his new live set-up. “I’m two albums in now, I need a harp,” he laughs, “and a flugelhorn!” And there’s also talk about the future. “I want to do something a bit more glamorous. I want colour and something less jagged and cold. Maybe I’ll do a Kylie-inspired pop album,” he jokes again. But he tells us a story about a trip back to his home country around the time of the referendum which stuck with us.

“I was at a wedding in Ireland the other day,” he starts, “and a priest drunkenly came out to me and told me he had a boyfriend. I was like, this is crazy. It’s so scary to think what might’ve happened if people had voted no. If the public would’ve told us we didn’t belong.”

But like we said

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