The Villager who's the toast of the town . . .
Ed Power on the meteoric rise of Conor O'Brien, who's been shortlisted for the UK's prestigious Mercury Music Prize
There was another twist in the remarkable story of Villagers' singer Conor O'Brien yesterday when the band's debut album Becoming A Jackal was nominated for the UK's Mercury Music Prize.
Groomed by fashionable London label Domino, the Dun Laoghaire songwriter has seen his career rocket towards the stratosphere since his high profile turn on the BBC's Later...With Jools Holland in April.
Though its arty sensibility asks a lot of the mainstream listener, Becoming A Jackal has basked in overwhelmingly positive reviews, with critics comparing O'Brien -- Villagers is essentially a one-man project -- to everyone from Bob Dylan to Radiohead to cult American warbler Conor Oberst.
At a ceremony in London yesterday, the 27-year-old received the ultimate endorsement from the Mercury panel. It's the second year running an Irish artist has been shortlisted for the album-of-the-year prize, open to musicians from Ireland and the UK. In 2009, Lisa Hannigan's SeaSew was a surprise inclusion on the 12-strong shortlist.
Speaking to the Irish Independent before he boarded a plane to Canada to begin a North American tour yesterday, O'Brien wasn't letting the excitement go to his head.
"It's a real pleasure and a privilege to be nominated for the Mercury Prize and I'd like to extend my thanks to the people who are responsible for this.
"But I won't let it deter me from the fact that I am still learning and will always be learning," he said.
O'Brien has his work cut out if he hopes to walk away with the prestigious gong. Villagers are 10-1 outsiders, with moody London three-piece The xx and rapper Dizzee Rascal installed as 4-1 joint favourites. Other front runners include greying Brit-rocker Paul Weller, soulstress Corinne Bailey Rae and folkie Laura Marling, competing against her boyfriend Marcus Mumford and his band Mumford and Sons. A surprise omission is Damon Albarn's Gorillaz project, although there is a rumour he chose not to put the collective's latest LP, Plastic Beach, forward for consideration.
The nomination is at the end of a strange six months for O'Brien. Alongside his success, there's been heartache in his life recently too. In May, his older sister Aoife passed away suddenly, in the very same week that his album came out.
At home, O'Brien was on the receiving end of a dose of old fashioned begrudgery after he asked audience members for a bit of hush during a headline turn at October's Hard Working Class Heroes festival. The incident lit up the notoriously bitchy Irish Twitter-sphere, with O'Brien essentially accused of throwing a hissy fit.
Speaking about the incident several months later, he wasn't for turning, though.
"That was a funny show to be honest," he says. "It was the first night of a tour. The next night in Dundalk, we had the most beautiful concert in the world. People were very respectful of the quieter moments. The thing is, it's not really an average rock and roll show. If you're getting this din of noise coming back at you, there's nothing really happening. So I just kind of got frustrated. It's rare. I wasn't really used to it."
He added: "Maybe I should feel ashamed. I don't really care. You know, people who are there to see the band are there to see there band. If they're not, they should just leave. Having said that, I'm not perfect at gigs either. I was a bit on edge that day."
In the same interview he acknowledged that a great deal of his current prominence was owed to his UK record label Domino, which has famously given the world Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand. With Domino behind you, people who previously were only too happy to slam a door in your face were now returning your phone-calls, he joked.
"It's kind of a golden ticket, I guess. It's interesting -- suddenly all these people want to talk you about your songs. Purely because of all the attention. I'm not being overly cynical about it. But yeah, it's an interesting experience."
Despite his rapid rise to prominence, O'Brien is no overnight sensation. For the past three years he's paid his dues as lead guitarist in Cathy Davey's band. Prior to that he fronted hype-propelled newcomers The Immediate. Nominated for the Choice Music Prize -- Ireland's answer to the Mercury -- the group broke up just as they seemed on the brink of a mainstream breakthrough.
'We were a band that got a bit of press in Ireland," O'Brien said recently. "I'm never annoyed when The Immediate are brought up in interviews. I've done interviews in other countries and they've all mentioned The Immediate. There's always stuff about that. It's natural."
The Mercury Prize endured a great deal of criticism after the 2009 award went to lo-fi rapper Speech Debelle. In previous years, winning the Mercury has had a transformative effect on the recipient's career.
However, Debelle's moody, difficult album Speech Therapy shifted a pitiful 10,000 copies -- prompting complaints that the judges had got it badly wrong.
Then there is also the small matter of the Mercury 'curse'. While many winners have gone on to sustained success, more than a few have seen their prospects shrivel. When was the last time you heard of Gomez, Ms Dynamite or Talvin Singh? Each was a controversial Mercury winner -- and each went on to release a series of flops.
Regardless of what happens in the months ahead, one thing is for sure. Villagers will almost definitely do better than this year's jazz nomination, Kit Downes Trio. In a display of tokenism verging on parody, the judges always nominate a specialist album in a minority genre. It never wins, despite the organisers' protestations that all of the records which make the cut have an equal chance of triumphing. Expect this year to be no different.
And the nominees are...
- Dizzee Rascal -- Tongue N' Cheek (4/1)
- The xx -- xx (4/1)
- Paul Weller -- Wake Up The Nation (6/1)
- Corinne Bailey Rae -- The Sea (6/1)
- Mumford and Sons -- Sigh No More (6/1)
- Laura Marling -- I Speak Because I Can (6/1)
- Foals -- Total Life Forever (8/1)
- Wild Beasts -- Two Dancers (8/1)
- Biffy Clyro -- Only Revolutions (8/1)
- Villagers -- Becoming a Jackal (10/1)
- Kit Downes Trio -- Golden (10/1)
- I Am Kloot -- Sky at Night (10/1)