After expanding Villagers into a collaborative project for {Awayland}, Conor O’Brien returned to his solo roots to record latest LP Darling Arithmetic. Here he explains how his experiences with heartbreak, bereavement and homophobia inspired his most personal album to date.

Hi Conor, how’s New York?

Good! We’re going to do a headline show tonight, at the Union Pool in Brooklyn.

Have you got the arrangements for the new material nailed down?

I don’t know; they feel changeable. Also, these shows are just me and my harpist so we’re kind-of figuring it out as we go along, really. But yeah, it seems to be working nicely. We’ve played a handful of shows in the UK and Ireland, and the other night I played with Laura Marling in Brooklyn, so this is probably our fifth show.

On {Awayland} and Becoming A Jackal, you were a lot more ambiguous lyrically, whereas Darling Arithmetic feels a lot more direct and autobiographical.

Yeah, it’s definitely total personal. I’m writing from my own experiences, memories and emotions.

Why did you decide to open up at this stage in your career?

I’ve always been comfortable in my own personal and private life, but I’m quite a private person so I always found it a weird experience having to tell strangers and journalists about it. And it wasn’t something I was necessarily comfortable doing until I had some art that I’d made that hopefully created something beautiful out of it. So once I had that – which was this album – opening up was something I was comfortable to do.

For the first time, you deal explicitly with love and break-ups. Was there any reticence to tackle such a celebrated subject previously?

Yeah, it’s definitely the most over-used theme in popular culture, but it’s also an unending well of inspiration, and I guess I just wanted to add my two cents to the love song canon. I don’t think I avoided [those subjects] before; it was probably more to do with the fact that my ideas of love and romance are attached to a lot of baggage because it brings up feelings about the homophobia and bigotry I’ve experienced. So I wanted to make sure that, if I was going to tackle it, I was strong enough to deal with that emotionally in my writing. At this stage in my life I am, and I think I’ve made something that I wouldn’t have been able to make five years ago.

Has setting down those emotions and experiences in music helped you personally?

Oh yeah, there’s definitely a therapeutic thing going on. I think I’m comfortable enough now to admit that a lot of my writing is therapy, which I wasn’t before; I think I found the idea of writing as therapy as maybe a bit too self-indulgent. But with this album I decided to write for myself completely and, once I left the rest of the baggage behind, I realised that the deeper I went inside the more universal the songs became, which was a really lovely discovery.

Each of the songs draw on different times in my life, using different parts of my memory. And I’m not necessarily right there in one moment for one song: if I’m writing with the same emotion, then my brain might be jumping over different times in my life, all in one moment.

Presumably you’ve already dealt with – and moved on from – those experiences. Does performing the songs live dredge those feelings back up?

Yeah, it does, but in a positive way. Even if you’re writing a song about the end of a relationship or whatever, the fact that you’re spending so much time crafting it, to make something as beautiful as possible – that you can then sing every night – is almost a testament to how much that relationship or person means to you. So hopefully [the album] does honour everyone in the songs. Performing the songs is a warm thing for me: even if I go into dark places in the music, I still feel quite buzzed-up at the end of performances.

As you mentioned earlier, on ‘Little Bigot’ and ‘Hot Scary Summer’ you share your experiences with homophobia. Is this focus something that grew from ‘Occupy Your Mind’, the track you released in protest to the Sochi Olympics?

I guess ‘Occupy Your Mind’ was borne out of the fact that all I could read about at that time was the situation in Russia. Reading accounts from people who’d been attacked in Russia for being homosexual totally knocked me out, and I couldn’t not write about it.

But in terms of writing about homophobia and bigotry on this album, I just wanted to reach the stage where I could actually write a universal love album. It was important that it was an album about relationships and love, told from gay perspective, but it was also important that you could relate to it as a human, regardless of your sexual orientation. And it took me this long to be able to write like that without being too didactic. I wanted [the songs] to come from a pure emotional place, you know?

Also, being from Ireland, with the whole marriage referendum, and Panti Bliss making that speech about homophobia that went viral, all of these things fed into the indignant energy that I’ve always had when I’m writing. It released the tension and allowed the songs to breathe, and just be human songs rather than “gay songs”, I guess. (Laughs)

Have you noticed Ireland becoming more enlightened in recent years?

Yeah, it’s changing drastically now, which is beautiful to see. When I was growing up, the church in Ireland had a pretty strong hold on education and on politics, and that basically meant that I grew up feeling like I wasn’t able to be, or express, who I was. I’m lucky enough to have a very open-minded family – and a lot of people aren’t that lucky – but just in terms of being a teenager in the late 90s and early 2000s, living in Ireland wasn’t that fun if you were gay. You definitely felt like you had to hide who you were.

Having expanded Villagers into a collaborative project for {Awayland}, at what point did you decide you wanted to work on Darling Arithmetic alone?

I think the whole process took about eight months of writing and recording, and around half way through I realised that the recordings I was making were pretty intimate-sounding. And I liked the way they were imperfect and unguarded. What you can hear on this album is basically my home recordings; there’s no extra work done on them. For example, when I made the vocal recordings, I didn’t think anybody would be listening to these versions, so they’re very naked and emotional. But I couldn’t then imagine myself bringing them to a studio and then acting the emotions out again, so I just kept it all in, warts and all. There are little bird noises on the album, which I can’t get rid of because they’re on the vocal take. (Laughs)

What I really liked about making this album was that, once I decided to make it all myself, I really enjoyed all the other aspects – like recording songs and mixing, and playing all the instruments – because that informed the writing. Sometimes I’d come across the drum beat which would really suggest a different lyric or something, and all these different creative processes would feed into each other. And it would create context and weird pockets of creativity, which were a lot of fun to be immersed in.

Can you tell us more about the title track please?

It’s actually the oldest song on the album: I wrote it before {Awayland} was released but it wouldn’t have fit on that album. Also, it was a song that was way too close to home for me to sing in front of anybody, because it was about bereavement and losing someone that you love. I just didn’t feel like I wanted to share that with anybody.

I wrote the song by replacing the person’s name with “arithmetic” – something cold and mathematical – to allow me to keep some sort of distance, and so that I could immerse myself in the emotion of the rest of the song. Once I finished the song, I kept the word “arithmetic” in, because I realised it had lots of really nice metaphorical value. Arithmetic describes the basis of all mathematics, so I felt like prefixing it with “darling” suggested that it was about the basis of all your relationships, be that with your family, your friends, your loved ones or your lovers. And, really, they’re the basis of everything in your life, and you need to realise that, which is what the song, and the album, is about.

Once I wrote the rest of the songs for the album, I realised that this track had a home, finally. I realised it was the centrepiece for the album, with the rest of these songs acting as armour for, and protecting, that one song.

Is there anything that you’ve learned about yourself from making this album?

That’s a tough question. I do have a memory of being surprised by the tone of some of the songs, like, “Oh wow, I didn’t know I was gonna go there with this.” ‘No One To Blame’ is my unrequited love song, and as I wrote it I realised that I was actually singing to my teenage self; it became a song of comfort.

How much have your motivations for making music changed over the years?

I think they’re different. As I said before, I was feeding from a certain indignant energy before, and I think I was really terrified of losing that anger, because that’s what I’ve always used. Ever since I was quite young, I’ve been writing about feeling repressed, and feeling at odds with society, and that anger has given me lots of songs. But now I’ve kind-of released that energy, and this album has been a complete catharsis, it’s much more open. And that’s slightly terrifying, because I don’t really know where I’m going to get the energy for the next album.

Also, if I release another album – if I live to do it (laughs) – it will probably be from a completely different headspace because, for the first time, I don’t have any songs left, or anything from the past to put into it. I’m going to have to start from scratch, and I’m kinda excited about that.

April 2015