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About this artist

Always restless and inventive while always true to the power and glory of songwriting and melody, Conor O’Brien has made another great leap forward with Villagers’ fourth studio album, The Art Of Pretending To Swim.

Following the exquisitely sparse, intimate aura of 2015’s Darling Arithmetic, O’Brien’s new record reconnects with the multi-faceted approach of Villagers’ 2010 album debut Becoming A Jackal and 2013’s {Awayland} while adding a new-found soulfulness, rhythmic nous and dazzling panoply of sonic detail, both analogue and digital, creating feverish moods while writing effortlessly accessible tunes. Balanced with subtle aspects and lyrical themes that embrace existential fears and hopes in this desperate, technologically-centred dystopian age, The Art Of Pretending To Swim is the most brilliantly realised Villagers album to date.

O’Brien began writing the album in 2016, after he’d toured Darling Arithmetic and released the similarly pared-back Where Have You Been All My Life?, a live-in-the-studio reimagining of Villagers songs past and present with his touring band. Given the accolades for Becoming A Jackal (Ivor Novello Award for Best Song Musically and Lyrically, shortlisted for the Mercury and Choice Music Prizes), {Awayland} (the Choice Music Prize, shortlisted for the Mercury) and Darling Arithmetic (Ivor Novello for Best Album) and the fact that his song ‘Nothing Arrived’ has been streamed on Spotify 105 million times and counting, O’Brien could have simply and comfortably retraced his steps. Instead, he worked diligently and intensely, almost single-handedly making The Art Of Pretending To Swim “in a tiny attic room, a cramped little hovel,” namely his new flat in Dublin’s city centre, having left the farmhouse in the coastal resort of Malahide that he shared for 12 years, where all Villagers albums had been made.

In his hovel, O’Brien dug deep, making notes on his lyrics sheets such as “It’s important to feel free,” “Make a cracked record” his head buried in technical manuals while crafting songs and trying out multiple arrangements to best express the album’s core themes and intense emotion. “It’s the first album I’ve gotten deeply into production and mixing,” he says, having bought an analogue desk from electronic maestro James Holden (whose album The Inheritors is a favourite of O’Brien’s). “For me, the sound and tones are so much more important than before.”

Simultaneously, O’Brien expanded what a Villagers record could sound like. “With Darling Arithmetic,” he explains, “I’d wanted loads of space, and to slow everything down. It really worked, but I felt I’d taken that earnest whisper-in-your-ear approach as far as it could go. I wanted to experiment again, to learn again, to make something more groove-based and warmer; something you can dance to”.

It’s also O’Brien’s first use of samples, from ‘What Then’ by gospel legends The Dixie Hummingbirds and soul legend Donnie Hathaway’s ‘Sugar Lee’: he also cites Alice Coltrane, Nina Simone and Pharaoh Sanders as key inspirations. “I’m an insular and over-analytical person, and those kinds of music are really good for me. They’re such a pure form of expression, it acts like an antidote.”

Also appearing on the album are Dutch flautist Maaike Van Der Linde (whose debut album O’Brien helped make as he worked on his own), synth supremo Cormac Curran, who also scored the strings for Irish classical collective The Crash Ensemble on “Hold Me Down”, Irish brass trio The Greenhorns and singer Siobhan Kane on ‘Long Time Waiting’ and Cormac ÓhAodáin adding French horn to ‘Ada’. Otherwise, these layered, shifting, often sumptuous sounds are all, incredibly, O’Brien in his hovel, mirroring layered, shifting themes that fall under the title The Art Of Pretending To Swim.

O’Brien: “It's about survival and grace and it's a collection of words I enjoy filtering the album through. I know what it means to me and I'd like you to find out what it means to you. It’s how I see life; you’re not drowning but you’re not exactly swimming either; you’re making it all up as you go along. It’s a blind faith. For me, the album is like a cycle of faith: if you listen from start to finish, and then start again, it’s almost gone full circle.”

Alongside faith – having; losing; rediscovering – O’Brien feels the songs, “act as a kind of love affair with the creative spirit. There’s interlinking themes too, like how technology has taken over our everyday lives, this sense of hurtling toward the unknown in a strange dystopian world. But these are clues on how to engage with the songs, a mood enhancer rather than an actual narrative. I know each song has a path, and the album has a path, but I can’t literally explain it – that’s why I’m singing and writing music. My head would be a messed-up place if I didn’t! These songs are little pieces of crying, or laughter, or dreams - they’re not there to be prescriptive or make a point.”

The album’s path, or cycle of faith, begins with ‘Again: “I’ve found again a place in my heart again / For God again in the form of art again.” In childhood, O’Brien was, “obsessed with God, I prayed every night that everyone I knew would stay safe,” but he turned atheist in his teenage years and twenties, then agnostic, “and now I have this strong urge to believe. Call it love, togetherness, God, whatever. But you can’t argue with faith, which is a terrifying prospect! Though there’s a lot of beauty in it too.”

Track two, lead single “A Trick Of The Light’, addresses “letting your flow, your faith, take over” before the moment, “when memories creep in and start to shatter your faith in yourself” (‘Sweet Saviour’). The fightback begins on ‘Long Time Waiting’, the album’s dizziest, grittiest cut: “I don’t need no validation from anyone at any cost / a trophy consolation for something that I never lost.”

In ‘Fool’, the protagonist unleashes, “a romantic battle-cry from the centre of a technological dystopia” before (‘Love Came With All That it Brings’) takes, “a little third-person perspective diversion. The protagonist is sick of talking about himself, though in reality these characters are aspects of his shattering sense of self.” ‘Real Go-Getter’ (Villagers in ecstatic dancefloor mode) represents, “an internal pep-talk, a mantra” (O’Brien practises Japa meditation, a discipline common to Eastern religions) before submitting to, "glassy-eyed escapism” (‘Hold Me Down’).

After this internal/external struggle, the finale is both a departure and a conclusion: the epic, serene ‘Ada’, a tribute to 19th century mathematician Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, who recognised Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine had applications beyond calculation. “There’s so much beauty in the fact Ada was first to create an algorithm, it was the beginning of that spark,” O’Brien concludes. “But algorithms have taken over our brains, so there’s so much danger in there as well.”

There is a longer (by six minutes) version of ‘Ada’, where multiple guests (including singers Lisa Hannigan and John Grant, The Staves and poet Stephen James Smith) react to the album intro ‘Again’ – an embodiment of the ‘full circle’ concept. This ‘Ada’ will appear on a ten-inch Villagers EP, likewise the sampledelic ‘This Is The Art of Pretending To Swim’ (“it was a bit too crazy to put on the album!” says O’Brien) that underlines the range of what a Villagers song can be. But right now, let’s savour The Art of Pretending to Swim, a lesson in the art of fearlessness and songwriting, and a new standard for Villagers.