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Villagers: Eerie Folk By Way Of Ireland

Four years ago, Irish singer-songwriter Conor O'Brien released a critically acclaimed album with his band, The Immediate. The group received comparisons to U2, and although it became well-known in Ireland and England, The Immediate broke up before it was able to reach a wider audience. Its former frontman is now receiving praise again -- this time for Villagers' debut album, Becoming a Jackal, which was recently nominated for Britain's Mercury Prize.

Villagers is essentially a one-man band. O'Brien wrote all the songs and played all the instruments, aside from French horn and strings, and he says it was only after he'd written and recorded the demos that he came up with a band name.

"I wanted to give [the band] the most anonymous, faceless name I could," O'Brien tells Guy Raz, host of NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. "I wanted the songs to be the central thing, which is what they continue to be."

As Villagers, O'Brien has toured both solo and with a band. He says it's a rewarding surprise to see songs grow and change as the tour progresses.

"[Playing live] is the most exciting part of the process for me, because I'm so close to the songs when I'm writing them and I'm precious about them," he says. "But once the guys have learned all the parts I've written, I'm happy for them to take it to their own place."

Protecting His Art

"I Saw the Dead" is the first track on Becoming a Jackal. Although it was the last song written, O'Brien says he wrote it specifically to open the album and tried to capture an essence of "slightly grotesque," with lyrics such as, "We will be thankful and we will be fed / You take the torso and I'll take the head."

"I wanted to write a song about life from the perspective of death," he says, "rather than the other way around."

The cover for Becoming a Jackal features the drawing that inspired the song of the same name. The album's liner notes include more drawings by O'Brien.

"That's where the whole album began, really, and that eventually became the album," he says. "Then it also became a song somewhere along the way."

O'Brien says he's grateful and honored for his recent Mercury Prize nomination, but worries that it might affect the way he writes songs.

"When you're writing music or creating art, you should be kind of completely lost in it," he says. "You shouldn't even be thinking [about prizes]. I'm just going to be grateful ... but I'm going to protect my ability to continue writing to the level I'd like to."

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