Winston Marshall (Mumford & Sons) talks Villagers’ {Awayland}

“I truly understand that I don’t understand a thing,” Conor O’Brien, of Villagers, sings in "Earthly Pleasure," a song from the band's new album...

“I truly understand that I don’t understand a thing,” Conor O’Brien, of Villagers, sings in “Earthly Pleasure,” a song from the band’s new album {Awayland}. It’s a common sentiment, but one I forget. As the self-righteous 19th century explorer Richard Francis Burton put it: “Thine ignorance of thine ignorance is thy fiercest foe.” Or, more recently, Mike Skinner of the Streets articulated it best and most simply: “All I know is that I don’t know shit.” I’m taking these quotations a little out of context. Nevertheless every now and then some music quietly comes out of nowhere and knocks me down, leaving me blinking in bewilderment. Where the fuck does it come from? How the hell did they write this? Who wrote this? And I’m reminded I don’t know shit.

As a musician and songwriter, albeit a mediocre one, I try to listen to a lot of stuff. You listen, you study, you copy, you repeat, you learn tricks, tools, you use them to develop better ideas — or in my case usually worse ideas. When you hear new music you devour it — why have they arranged it like that? What’s that melody doing? Etc. I remember having a gig with my old country/rap band (country/rap doesn’t have to be crap, by the way) in a bar underneath Brentford Football Club. I think it was 2006. First on that night was Laura Marling. Holy shitting fuck. We heard her and were mesmerized. We couldn’t believe this girl, even younger than us and had written these wonder songs, songs with such engrossing lyrics and beautiful melodies. Even more frightening was that she had bags of them that you could study for hours, believe them, understand, never understand. You could debate their meanings for ages. Music was not written to be debated about. We felt like we’d discovered a genius.

Anyway, it happened to me again when I heard Becoming a Jackal in 2010. It was Villagers’ debut album. Out of “nowhere” they came. I later learnt this “nowhere’ was in Ireland and that “they” was originally just “him”: Conor O’Brien. Now, I still don’t quite understand the band dynamic, whether it’s collaboration or otherwise, and I enjoy the mystery. The music, on the other hand, I want to understand, to “work out.”  That record, as far as I was concerned, was storytelling at its very best. I had discovered another genius. Such compelling, entrancing lyrics executed by a narrator whose voice is both incredibly firm and dangerously fragile. Debates ensued, the enigma grew. I’m an obsessed fourteen-year-old music fan all over again. AWESOME.

Then, late last year, Villagers put out a new song. Very different emotion this time: jealousy. How the fuck did he/they do it again? And better? “The Waves,” hypnotic song, hypnotic lyrics, hypnotic music video. Then came the excitement and joy at hearing the whole record {Awayland}. Those talented, mysterious bastards.

This record perhaps has more euphoric climaxes than the first. It uses more electronic sounds than the more “rootsy” debut. To be honest, I don’t want to talk about the music. I’m not a music critic, and even those guys struggle. I’m already sounding clichéd and doing the album a disservice. Sod it. There is something to be said about this music’s hypnotism. A lazy writer may call the project folky music but that’s a misleading tag. With the huge use of drums and electric guitars its closer to Arcade Fire than acoustic folk. The way the recordings are layered, looped and arranged makes it feel a lot closer to the Books than any troubadour singer-songwriter. That world of electronics and computers has always intimidated me. Villagers use them without ever being self-indulgent and, harder still, it’s thoroughly compelling, always supporting the song.

Above all, I love this band for O’Brien’s storytelling. On {Awayland} he’s a lot freer with it, sometimes surreal, even going into fantasy. Maybe his greatest trick is breaking through “the fourth wall,” something he does to a level unmatched by any other songwriter. That is, of course, in my humble opinion, but of course lest I forget… “I don’t know shit.”

I don’t understand how someone can write like this, what part of the head it comes from, what part of the… heart, uh-oh getting cheesy. I love being reminded that I don’t know anything and being completely overwhelmed by music so good. A glimpse at genius. This is music to challenge us not just emotionally — it’s for our tiny little minds too.

Winston Marshall is the guitar and banjo player for Mumford & Sons. You can follow Mumford & Sons on Twitter here.