Sinead O’Brien interview: ‘There’s no limits for me with this. I want it all’

The Limerick native says her new album is a good, eclectic entry point for listeners who may know nothing about her

For someone who has been routinely hailed as the “punk-poet voice of her generation” and other such outlandish designations, Sinead O’Brien is remarkably ... normal. Not that you’d guess it, if you’d seen the Limerick native performing live — where she bends, folds, whips, snaps and prowls the stage in a half-confrontational, half-devotional manner.

Today, via a Zoom call from the bedroom of her London home, however, O’Brien is serene. It’s a few days after her debut on Later with ... Jools Holland, where she turned in a composed and commanding performance. O’Brien’s invite on to the show came off the back of a series of impressive, cerebral EPs and singles that have showcased her distinctive musical and visual aesthetic and led to the aforementioned designations. Her songs — which read like poetry set to music, which is essentially what they are — are given both heft and flair by her bandmates and co-songwriters, guitarist Julian Hanson and drummer Oscar Roberts.

“I didn’t get to see it until it was live, so I was sitting at the edge of my seat watching it back,” she laughs. “It was really surreal. I watched Jools Holland with my parents all the time, and I particularly remember the Amy Winehouse performance. The feeling of seeing something new on that show really ignited something in me so it’s always been a landmark, a milestone for me.”

Growing up in Limerick, she says there was never any huge ambition to perform. Music was important, but doing it as a career — even as her best friend Aoife Power of indie band whenyoung showed ambition to do so — was never a prospect. The pair used to “sneak into” gigs at Limerick venue Dolan’s before they were 18, where she ultimately found her tribe.

“I wouldn’t say that I was the kind of teenager who was reading all the classic poets — not at all,” she laughs. “There’s a lot of stuff I showed interest in. It was like throwing paint at a wall. I was even serious about surfing at one point; I did life-saving, I played hockey, I was into exercise and yoga, and I was big into spirituality and reiki when I was a teenager. But music: that was the core. That was how I formed my group of friends. We all bonded over music and going to Dolan’s in Limerick, and Costello’s, and The Wicked Chicken and all of these places.

I was writing these quite rhythmic pieces, and I started to get a feel for them

“I loved English, but unfortunately I didn’t really connect with the system and the way it was taught. I used to hate those people at school who had no flair for language, but could play the game. So I almost went against it. I’m still the same in a game of Scrabble; I won’t sacrifice a good word for a high score,” she adds, laughing. “I stick by that.”

Attending poetry readings in the city hosted by her French teacher, she said, perhaps retrospectively had a subconscious impact on nudging her towards the creative arts, although not in the way you might expect. After studying fashion design at NCAD, she moved to Paris to briefly intern at Dior, arriving just as John Galliano was making his controversial exit. She later moved to London to work for Vivienne Westwood, where she worked as senior womenswear designer for seven years, departing the role only last year. Yet even while her career in fashion was flourishing, her love of literature and poetry continued to play a role. She would write in cafes on Saturday mornings, she says, and during her break times in a bid to “carve out a space in the week which is private and just for me, and something that was nothing to do with my work under somebody else’s company”.

“I was in my own world,” she nods, adding that the casual beginnings of her music career, alongside her day job, was a “blessing” as it took away any pressure. “And whatever was coming out — it was some unconscious writing, some automatic stuff, some journaling, some diary — eventually, I started to find that mostly, I was writing these quite rhythmic pieces, and I started to get a feel for them. And then naturally, the next thing is to read them out loud when friends asked me to share. It naturally led there, but it always had music, in my ear.”

It’s now more about the word ‘potential’; I feel my potential and I want to strive for it

Very early on, her distinctive vocal style, intellectual lyrics, strong visual aesthetic and the often dramatic, theatrical nature of her post-punk soundtrack drew parallels with the obvious: Patti Smith, Lou Reed, a multitude of artists from that same 1970s New York boho scene. She has also been regularly compared to the likes of John Cooper Clarke (with whom she has toured) and The Fall’s Mark E Smith. She shrugs off the heavy weight of such observations.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” she eventually says. “I think sometimes aesthetically, people quickly make connections, but ... I mean, someone said something the other day about Yoko Ono and I never really knew much of her work, so I checked it out yesterday. The way that she was creating poems on top of atonal music to start out with, before she got working with John — I thought that was interesting. I like those references, because then that leads me somewhere and I feel oh, I can actually take something from that. So it works both ways. I mean, ultimately I wanna carve my own name out, but you can never stop people from referencing things, that’s how culture grows. But I don’t find it uncomfortable.”

Unsurprisingly, she is similarly insouciant about where things might take her next. She has already come so far in just a few years, what might the future bring?

She smiles warmly. “It’s now more about the word ‘potential’; I feel my potential and I want to strive for it. There’s nothing I can’t try out. Why not, y’know? I’m really not afraid to do something that could be ‘weird’, and then skip over and do something different again. It’s an unconscious choice that I made since the beginning. I think it can be a good idea to take guitar music somewhere different for this era, and that’s also something that I wanna do with this band because Julian’s an incredible guitarist, but we’re not doing Arctic Monkeys-style stuff.

“The guitar is a versatile instrument. You hear people saying ‘guitar music is dead’ all the time, but that’s like saying the voice is dead — I mean, c’mon. It’s a tool, a paintbrush at the very most. You have to put in the imagination.”

If nothing else, she says, the album is a good, eclectic entry point for listeners who may know nothing about her. But there is so much more to be done, with her sights set on America and other territories outside Europe, where she has already built a fan base.

“I’d love the chance to go to Asia. There’s no limits for me with this. I want it all. I. Want. It. All,” she repeats, laughing. “I hope that doesn’t sound greedy; it’s just ... why not?”

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Time Bend and Break the Bower is released on June 10th.

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes about music and the arts for The Irish Times