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

For some listeners in his native Ireland, Conor O'Brien's new album as Villagers has become a soundtrack for the country's referendum on marriage equality.
Andrew Whitton
Courtesy of the artist
For some listeners in his native Ireland, Conor O'Brien's new album as Villagers has become a soundtrack for the country's referendum on marriage equality.

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Daley