London-based Limerick post- punk poet and singer/ songwriter Sinead O’Brien told David Hennessy about her debut album, ‘manifesting’ her appearance on Jools Holland and being mentored by Vivienne Westwood.
London-based Limerick poet and singer Sinead O’Brien releases her debut album Time Bend And Break The Bower this week.
Championed by Jack Saunders at BBC Radio 1 as well as Steve Lamacq and Amy Lamé at BBC Radio 6 Music, Sinead has also been endorsed by titles such as Rolling Stone, DIY, Dazed, NME and The Guardian to name a few.
Sunday Times Culture say Sinead is “a singular and visceral talent”, while NME said: “Quite simply, O’Brien is a hell of a performer”.
The Irish World caught up with Sinead recently the day after her London listening party, her first chance to play some of the album tracks for an audience.
Sinead told The Irish World: “It feels very different to an EP. An EP is such a casual affair. This is a marriage. It is so committed.
“It’s also like having a child.
“You have to prioritize it.”
Sinead was recently featured on Later with Jools Holland, something she describes as ‘very surreal’.
“I had said to my dad before that, ‘Dad, I’m gonna do Jools Holland’.
“He didn’t laugh but he kind of said, ‘Yeah, that will be lovely’.
“And then 24 hours later, we got an email. We got it.
“I called him and said, ‘Dad, I actually got it’.
“I was manifesting. I was hoping. I was wanting, wanting, wanting it so, so much.
“I love the show and I just can’t thank him enough really.
“He was really great. He came right up to me, and he listened to our soundcheck, he chose the song that we performed, he actually wanted that song.
“It couldn’t have been better really and we’ve had other great opportunities since that, Glastonbury came as a result of that.”
Another performer on the bill of the same programme was former Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher, did she get to hang out with him? “Yeah, he actually came up to me straight after the show and he had a straw in his mouth or something. I don’t know what he was doing. And he just went, ‘That was bloody good, wasn’t it?’
“And I was like, ‘Thank you, I love your set too’.
“Yeah, I’m glad he liked it.
“What a funny situation.”
The track Jools wanted was Sinead’s track Holy Country. It is one of the tracks on the album that hint at religious symbolism but Sinead reveals, “I was never religious to be honest.
“It’s been pretty casual in my family. We could or could not go to church if we wanted when we were kids.
“So we did go because we used to like seeing friends from school in their outfits on the weekend.
“That was my reason that I used to go to the church. I wanted to see what everyone was wearing on Sunday and then it kind of fizzled out.”
The lyrics of GIRLKIND, the album’s lead single released last November, say, ‘Statues come to stop’ referring to the moving statues phenomenon in Ireland in the 1980s.
“That was just a fascinating movement to me when I heard about that, that the whole country were believing statues are walking around in the night time.
“And when I talk to my mum about it she says, ‘Yeah, Sinead, that’s when the statues…’
“And I said, ‘Mum, you just said, ‘When the statues used to walk around’. You didn’t say, ‘It’s when people thought..’ you said, ‘It’s when they did walk around’, like it’s a fact.
“And she said, ‘Yeah, that was the moving statue phenomenon’.
“And I was like, ‘You did it again, you believe that happened, like it’s a fact’.
“They used to actually leave doors open of churches so the statues could go back in. It’s just mad.
“When I was researching it, it was written up as if it was a movement that happened.
“Then there’s this crazy documentary where there was a priest and they’re asking him, ‘How many sightings have been confirmed?’ And he’s like, ‘There has not been a single confirmed sighting’, but then he’s saying it did happen.
“It didn’t even need to be confirmed for it to be true.”
Sinead has just released the infectious Like Culture, a dance-y track inspired by her own nights in Costello’s in Limerick.
“It was kind of recounting those memories of sticky red carpets, the lights, the dance floors, all of that stuff.
“It also had a lot of more complex stuff, about having to deal with tragedy when you’re young and how the dance floor and the nightclubs and that whole scene was where we had to deal with it at the time because it’s like a clumsy coming of age thing.
“You don’t know how to communicate or where to communicate, or you don’t even know you need to talk, but it ends up spilling- Spilling being the operative word because everything is madness and it does end up spilling out.
“And they become these cleansing experiences, cathartic because of the physical bonding of the group, it’s like a pride of lions. Something animal about it.
“There’s the gushing and people end up crying at the end of the night and all of these different trails off of what was happening.
“But I think the important overarching message is that through the wars of youth, and however long that goes on, finding oneself, the dance and if you want to call it music or dance or whatever, is the saving.”
Another track on the album, Spare for my Size, Me, is Sinead’s take on the fable of the fisherman and the little fish.
“So the story goes that he goes out fishing, he catches a fish and the fish screams, ‘Spare me for my size’. He’s saying, ‘Spare me because I’ll be bigger and if you come back again, you’ll get a bigger fish’.
“So he’s obviously trying to escape.
“And the boy says, ‘No, a fish now is worth more than the promise of something that may never come back’.
“And I just thought that was like a disgusting lesson.
“I was like, ‘No, that’s not right. I’m gonna rewrite this fable’.
“It’s ancient and outdated and I’m gonna make the music really modern, and people can dance to this story about a fish.
“And it’s not about a fish anymore. Clearly, it’s about me.
“The message is belief in the growth or the promise that something holds.
“That’s what I believe in. So that’s what that song is about.”
Sinead supported Duran Duran at St Anne’s Park in Dublin this weekend. And as she says she also plays Glastonbury later this month. She has also announced her UK, Ireland and European tours for September and October 2022 including a date at London’s Lafayette.
“I know,” she says before the Duran Duran gig and almost in disbelief herself. “It gets quite colossal. It goes from Glastonbury to Duran Duran.
“I can’t believe that. I can’t wait as well.
“I used to play in that park with my cousin. And I just remember thinking, ‘These trees must be the biggest trees in the world.”
Born in Dublin, Sinead’s family would move to Corbally when she was young.
Her love of words and music were both evident early on.
Sinead and her friend would excuse themselves from class to ‘investigate’ corridors of the school less travelled and make up stories about nuns and priests in the convent school.
Was it mitching? “It was mitching. Yeah, so me and my friend invented the photography committee. We just invented it so that we could go on adventures.
“So we used to say, ‘Hey, we have to leave the class now because we’ve got to do photography committee’.
“I had a really good camera and we did take photographs but really we were going to the attic because there were all of these old documents.
“There were photographs from retreats and pictures of the nuns and we were just making stories, and there’s all these amazing old books and corridors that were cordoned off.
“We got trapped behind the principal’s office in a corridor because we were investigating those rooms. I remember half the day we had to stay silent crouched down just reading these things.
“So that was inventing stories about nuns and priests.
“My mum was like, ‘Who’s going to read this? And stop bringing home old flash lamps and suitcases from the convent’.
“My mum played piano since she was a kid so I played classical piano.
“I remember the day I asked her. I was five years old and I asked her in the car driving home after school. I said, ‘I want to do piano lessons’.
“I remember asking it as if she wouldn’t say yes and I was daring myself to do something that was impossible or something.
“And she said yes.
“And then I thought in my head, ‘Oh, God. I’m gonna have to do it now’.”
She may call herself a poet now but Sinead did not really connect with poetry in school but this had much to do with how rigidly it was taught.
“Yeah, the English curriculum was a bit- Honestly, I’d love to have a go at that.
“Wouldn’t it be great if in the academic curriculum they invited in people who are writing books and writing poems and music from now to give input into some of the material?
“It would be so cool.
“I don’t know what kids in secondary school are supposed to find inspiring about dissecting Eavan Boland’s work in this tunnel vision where the outcome is in the book.
“I mean I didn’t find that inspiring.
“I thought, ‘You’re telling me this is a code which I can never crack’.
“I loved dissecting the poems in my own time and thinking, ‘The poet did not mean that, I think they meant this’.
“But there seemed to be no room for that.
“And that might have just been my teacher and my class or whatever.”
After studying Fashion Design in Dublin, Sinead would work at Dior in Paris for five months before she arrived in London in 2014.
“I had been in London every summer since my second year in college interning anyway so I actually felt at home in London very quickly.
“So it was the obvious option for me to come here.
“It’s like home away from home.”
She would work in design for Vivienne Westwood. What was it like working with her? “That was brilliant, really quite formative. It was seven years so I went in a bit of a kid really.
“She’s a tough one. She likes strong characters but you don’t have to be strong in the sense of being loud or bullish or anything.
“She likes a bit of fight and I believe in myself and I believe in what I’m saying so I think we quite quickly kind of gelled and understood each other and respected each other.
“She mentored me every day and taught me everything.
“It reminds me of when painters in the Renaissance used to have a protege or an apprentice.
“It was like that.
“It was passing on skills and knowledge.
“So she would be like, ‘Show me your ideas for the designs’.
“So I present them and then she’d say, ‘Okay, that one would work but how did you come to that? Is that good for sales or are you doing that because it’s a piece of art? And I want to know why’.
“So she never wanted to do stuff that was good to sell. She wanted to make art.
“But I actually had to do both.
“And I wouldn’t agree with everything with Vivienne. We would have little kind of fights. It was really good. She liked it.”
It was here in London that Sinead and her friends would get together on Friday nights to catch up, share music and Sinead would read her latest poetry.
It was a friend’s invitation to appear at New Gums, a night of spoken word performances and music at the Brixton Windmill that set Sinead on her current path. It came at a time when- much like the Danny Wallace book or the Jim Carrey film based on it- she was saying yes to everything.
Did she need that push to perform her stuff? “It wasn’t even like a push.
“It was a friend starting a night and I, in order to support her- She was also supporting me, I didn’t realize it at the time- I was like, ‘Of course I’m gonna do it’ to fill up her programming that night.
“So I just said yes, because I had been reading my notebooks with my friends when they were playing guitar and hanging out.
“So I thought it would be like that, casual.
“It was at The Windmill in Brixton. That’s like a living room, ‘I can do it it will be fine’.
“I just said that. And I never thought about it again and just did it. And I didn’t get nervous.
“I think that was a crucial moment, because I didn’t get nervous.
“I never really get nervous (performing).
“I don’t know why because there’s other things that make me nervous.
“But that never did.
“Probably because I did actually want to talk about what I was working on.
“I was genuinely like, ‘Oh, I’d love to share this and see what people feel about it’.
“It comes from a genuine place.
“I do feel like I have a purpose with it.
“So it’s not like I have to question, ‘Does it feel okay to perform this?’
“I think that’s why I don’t get nervous as such.
“I didn’t pursue music, you end up exactly where you need to be if you’re following your instinct and I’m led so much by my intuition and my instinct so that’s why I said yes to that performance. I did feel like performing so I said yes.
“And then I felt like it a lot more than I thought I did.”
In 2018 she would release her debut EP A List Of Normal Sins.
The well known performance poet John Cooper Clarke invited her to support him on his spoken word tour.
“He really went out of his way to be welcoming. He and his manager took such good care of us.
“After the gigs there would be sing songs, shots of whiskey, telling me stories about Mark E Smith and The Fall.
“He had stories about Vivienne as well, which I did not need to hear.
“I was like, ‘That’s my grandma. Stop it’.
“Yeah, that was actually amazing.”
Sinead joined FEARS, Aislinn Logan, Martina Evans and Joy Crookes for the embassy’s St. Brigid’s Day celebrations last year.
“That was great.
“I found it quite funny because during lockdown, I got stuck here and I wasn’t able to go home for Christmas.
“I called the embassy and told them I was stranded in London. Obviously I work here and I live here so I wasn’t really stranded.
“It was a bit of a false claim.
“And they were like, ‘No, we can’t do anything. You’re an Irish citizen but you live in London’.
“But anyway, I had that encounter with them where I was trying to blag my way home and then the next thing I got invited there to do a St Brigid’s performance.
“It’s just funny.”
The album Time Bend and Break the Bower is out now.
The single Like Culture is out now.
For more information, click here.