Artist Spotlight: Sinead O’Brien

    Sinead O’Brien is an Irish poet, songwriter, and performer who was born in Dublin before her family moved to Limerick, where she lived until she returned to the capital to study fashion design. She went on to work for seven years at Vivienne Westwood, where she became a senior women’s wear designer, before leaving her day job to focus on developing her passion for music, language, and performance. Although something about her creative drive will always remain precious and unknowable, she approaches her current work with the same rigorousness and multi-disciplinarity that was previously required of her – but on her own terms, and towards a different, less quantifiable goal.

    Her debut album, Time Bend and Break the Bower – out Friday – sees her reuniting with producer Dan Carey, who worked on her 2020’s arresting Drowning in Blessings EP, and musical collaborators Julian Hanson and Oscar Robertson to create a restless, disorientingly immersive collection that expands her avenues of communication. Sonically, the LP utilizes the kind of propulsive and often dynamic post-punk that’s been in vogue for a while, but the unconventional rhythms and unique allure of her writing – anchored in realism as much as it breaks from the ordinary – set her apart. Her thoughts often take on an abstract form but untangle and build into something startlingly direct, hooks that effortlessly get stuck in your mind: “I have a soft fascination with these things,” she declares on ‘Holy Country’, “The giants of time are turning tunes.” There’s an undeniable urgency there, but it’s not the kind you can put a limit to.

    We caught up with Sinead O’Brien for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her creative process, writing as a form of running, the making of her debut album, and more.

    Your identity as an artist isn’t just limited to music – in addition to being a poet and performer, your work also incorporates elements of fashion and different kinds of art. When did you realize that it wasn’t just music or writing or visuals that you were drawn to, but the way they could be merged together? Was your interest in the intersection of those art forms something that grew over time?

    Yeah, I think it almost came the other way around. I had a fashion design job and career because I did that in school and was very determined on that pathway. So I was already doing that, and I was just going to keep following that until I found what I was wanting to do. I was in that job for seven years, and I think along the way, it started to feel like I needed more outlets that were kind of my own personal things that I could put my name to. It’s quite different working under somebody else’s name. There’s something about that that did suit me, but something that didn’t, because you lose your voice in that. Which is a funny way to put it, but you know what I mean. I didn’t think so consciously about it, I just was starting to write a lot in my spare time and I was treating it kind of more than a hobby – more like a focus. I was privately and secretly almost working nighttimes, writing, writing, writing.

    And then when I started to perform and then build up a band and build up some songs and record, the intersection was already there. It formed on that landscape where everything was there at the same time. Because I was performing and I could take an outfit from work and I was wearing it, and then the research from the design process was in my mind so the song has some of this in it. Things just kept building in that way, but it becomes more like a way to work – it doesn’t matter where I’m physically situated. If I’m not in a design office, if I am – I still work in that way now.

    At home, I usually have a mood board with all my images, and I treat every writing process like a project, and it has visual elements as much as then it becomes sonic. I don’t know if it seems weird or if everybody does it like that, I don’t really know with writing. Maybe some people will have a lot of words on their wall, but I have a lot of visuals, no words on my wall, ever. All the words are in my – I’ve got on my desk about six notebooks right here: I’ve got this one, which I’ll write something I don’t care about so I don’t have to edit it; this one for tiny sentences or words; this one for the long poems. And then there’s one for dreams, there’s a journal. There’s just tons of different things constantly open. And then comes the hard part, when I have to filter through.

    Before that design job, when was the first time you remember feeling a strong need to channel whatever it is you’re channeling through art?

    The first story I remember – when I was a kid, of course, I was writing as well, but the first story I remember writing in a more serious way in school was when my dad brought me to New York. I was just tagging along a business trip with him, and I came back and we had an exam and I wrote an essay. And I kind of ignored the brief. [laughs] I just wrote this essay that gave me the most insane feeling. I felt so inspired by remembering the place and the energy it gave me. It was like I was getting more adrenaline from the essay than having been there, and that was tapping into how to use a memory and actually expand the memory so that it’s not just a photograph, it’s like a 3D experience, and bring it right into the current moment. And I did not get even get good marks in that essay, but I knew it was the best thing I’ve ever written at that point.

    And then I started to treat it differently, my English class. I was like, I know that now I have something I want to – I want to write, but it doesn’t suit this curriculum or whatever. Even when I went to art school and I was studying fashion design, I did my thesis – I treated that so seriously, and I got the best marks in the whole school. And I just knew that I loved the academic side of things as well, even though I was then going really into my design career. So I think there’s a little bit of that still there. When I’m researching a topic, I still study it in a way as if I’m going to be doing something academic with it.

    When you were writing that essay, how much do you think it had to with place and recapturing the memory of New York?

    Yeah, the memory of New York was so big, it didn’t fit into my language at the time. My photographs didn’t feel how it felt when I looked at them. It was like I found the way to bring it into another expression that felt just as big or bigger than the experience of it. You know that feeling, though, sometimes it can still happen – you’re recalling an event and it’s falling flat, whether it’s not the right language or whether it’s not the right form, and then other times you really hit on something. And often for me, that’s through writing. For some people that will be photography, they can really catch something that’s almost hyper-focus in their medium, and it takes you there. There’s also some fantasy in all of that, what I’ve just said, because it’s not really a very realistic approach. It’s more than that. It’s definitely tapping into the imagination and possibility and potential and what something could be as well, which I’m really interested in.

    For you, was this big city and maybe even America in general tied to this idea of possibility and dreams?

    Yeah, I always wanted to visit bigger cities, even when I was really small. I was always asking if we could go to Dublin, the capital, or when we went to London, and then New York was a totally elevated sense of what a big city could be – the biggest. And finally going there, I was on the precipice, I was just becoming a teenager, I think I was 11, maybe 12. I felt like, people here actually are actors, and they have careers in all of these performative different fields. So it was like a really quick dip into something very far-fetched, and then come back and go to your English class and get told off for imagining everything.

    That makes me think of a specific song on the album, ‘Like Culture’. I read that it originated as a poem that you wrote when you were 17, and it was about coming together through dance. Obviously, its resonance is amplified in the present moment, but can you talk about what, at the time, urged you to write it? When you look back on this moment in your life, does it feel significantly different?

    Yeah, it’s actually not a poem I wrote when I was 17, it’s memories from when I was 17. The poem I wrote in 2017 to start with, and it was called ‘Limerick Slightly With You’, and it’s about the dance halls and nightclub. It’s like a clumsy coming of age or coming together and finding your peers and finding yourself – all of this stuff, and how messy it is in some ways. That everything can only be dealt with here because you don’t know yet how to communicate in a more sophisticated way. And I just wanted to lay that out and be in that messiness a bit. And then on the other side of that, there’s this almost urgent voice, and this is a voice that was always in my head, like, “What have you got to give?” Like, “What are you gonna do? What’s your voice like? Who are you in this sea of [laughs] unconscious dancing people?” Sometimes, getting lost in those moments, I kind of would almost get outside of myself and have these moments… It’s kind of hard to paint exactly what it was like. But it’s a bit more like a film than anything, and you can probably see what I mean if you’re having your own memories and flashbacks of that.

    But yeah, half of it was written now as well. So it was started with that poem from 2017, and then the memories from being 16, 17, 20, all of those put together. But it’s in a very specific setting. So, the nightclub, in my mind, is the nightclub where I used to go, where I first went in Limerick, called Costloo’s. And it’s something like an institution – everybody in Limerick knows that place. It was just so particular, you know, the DJs would play certain people’s songs and the smoking area had like a cage so you felt like animals, and it was, again, messy, and really quite extreme. I feel like it really should be in a film. It’s quite extraordinary and hard to explain. I swear one night I went there and somebody had a lampshade on their head. [laughs] I don’t know, that’s maybe half-invented, but I swear, if I asked my friend she will have the same memory.

    Working through those years and those memories, did you feel it was almost strange revisiting it now that you could maybe say that you’ve found your voice?

    It’s kind of a montage of all of the various timestamps, in a way. Now, there’s like this desperate urge to just leave all of the complaining back in 2019 and just try to have a good life and take off all of the edges that are not necessary, cut the things out that aren’t fulfilling any of your needs. I think some of that is in there too, that real desire for passion – to live passionately and emotionally, for once, finally.

    And I would say curiously as well, but we’ll return to that. I wanted to ask you about specifically about the process – when you’re you’re assembling a song, how much space do you feel like there needs to be between the initial stream of words and the song that they comes to form? At which point do you feel like they kind of meet?

    I can take the words to start with music quite quickly – the only thing I need is that I have a piece that has a decent form, and that just means I need to revisit it about two or three times after I initially write it, in separate sittings, so I’m not still caught up in the rhythm of it and adding. Because sometimes if I sit down to edit and I’m still feeling like writing, I will just continue the same piece that can really go on. [laughs] There isn’t like a timeline actually with it, it’s not that it needs to wait a week or half a year, nothing like that. The faster, the better. I don’t think things get better with my work sitting around. I am quite intent on putting things as fresh as possible to the music and finding the right music, and then into the studio. It moves quite swiftly. I mean, it’s never more than a couple of months apart that I’m going into the studio, so I think I have a good rhythm with that now. And I always book things in so that I have stuff to aim for, so then I am naturally crafting things and everything is at a different stage. So I will have some pieces I’m writing, some pieces that have ideas for music, some pieces that have music, and some pieces that we’re rehearsing with music. You know, like a production line, almost a little factory.

    I feel like in a strange and almost vulnerable way, you dive into the creative process throughout the album in a way that I find really interesting. On the song ‘The Rarest Kind’, you compare it to chasing a thought, and it’s only completed once the “running has come to an end.” Is this kind of stillness at the end similar to the stillness you sing about in ‘Girlkind’?

    No. I think in ‘Girlkind’, the stillness is a staleness that I’m looking to avoid. It’s something I can see, I can forecast. That was kind of like an imposed stop in a process. But in ‘The Rarest Kind’, it’s more, you’re right, chasing and kind of following the idea and the work and finding the worth in it and the reason for going at it and the labour about it. There’s just rarely any stillness at all, I think, with the process. It’s like there’s always some parts moving. But even in that one, I feel like there’s a bit of stillness of the mind, almost, when an idea is found. Maybe that’s the most still place I can expect, actually. Because you stop searching for a second, and that’s calm.

    There’s a lot of movement, too, in your music – it’s very driving. Did you at any point feel like it was necessary, but also challenging, to allow for moments of quiet or stillness?

    I actually had quite a few. I had the two poems, the beginning and end of the album, and I had ‘Multitudes’ and a couple of other things as well as options. So I actually had a lot that balanced with more active or more driving kind of songs. But also, I think within those there’s like a temperature range or an altitude range, because it goes as far as ‘Like Culture’ or ‘Spare For My Size, Me’, but it comes down all the way to, say, the beginning of ‘Girlkind’ or the beginning of ‘End of Days’, and works itself up and out. But I really wanted those moments – it wasn’t even thinking about how an album should be. I really wanted those moments of a bit more reflection. It’s quite emotional – you can’t hear that kind of stuff if it’s covered up. So when there’s a song like that or words like that, it would be a pit to bury it. For those particular songs, I knew we had to have sprinkles of shimmery things, soft, padded things, ambient things.

    I love, on ‘The Rarest Kind’, Julian was thinking it sounded like we needed a grandfather clock at the very beginning. So we made sounds with a tape machine kind of sounding like a bell tolling you in, I really love that. It came from him just counting me in, and we kept thinking, always about counting and waiting and starting and stopping. [laughs] So it was nice, small things like that that also make it on the record. We were both crying at the end of that take of ‘The Rarest Kind’.

    Time as a concept plays an important role on the album as well. Why do you think it became a theme in your exploration of identity and the artistic process?

    Yeah, I think there’s lots of answers. There’s a couple of things that I suppose are personal reasons why. The fact that I come at everything through the back door – I had a design career and I’m a senior designer in Vivienne Westwood, then all of a sudden I swap. Like, why is it in that order? I’m thinking about time and thinking why I don’t do things in a conventional way and what that means. And then another thing I’m thinking, my mom has a psychology background and she’s quite philosophical as well when it comes to it. So I feel like that kind of talk or exploration at home is very normal, getting deep into these kind of topics and exploring them. It’s definitely always been there in the back of my mind.

    But also, a bit more casually, if I can say, it’s just one way to interact with my experience – in relation to time, you could do it in relation to, like, your physical identity or your visual identity – pick any topic and keep working in relation to that, and you would get somewhere. Like doing a series of paintings in relation to a theme – the more you work more specifically, I think, you can get deeper.

    To go back to that metaphor of running, and maybe there’s no real answer to this or it’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but when do you feel like the running begins?

    Oh, before I was born. [laughs]

    I mean, every time you get into the writing process, is there a clear starting point where the inspiration strikes?

    I don’t know, I don’t see a clear start and stop, because I find there’s a delay between the input – what I read, what I seem what I watch, what I think – there’s a delay between that and what comes out. It’s not the next day. It can be a couple of months later, or it can be several weeks later, or it can be something more immediate. But I think the most racing feeling I get is when I’m at my desk and I’m in this flow state and I forget what I’m doing. I forget totally. I don’t have a concept of time. [laughs] That’s funny, it’s like I’m free. I don’t remember why I’m doing it, so there’s no idea about songs. Honestly, that does not come into my head when I’m writing in the mornings, I’m just able to keep going at this quite measured metre – however fast I write, that’s just the continuum. Yeah, the rush is inside of me. It might be quite close to the flow feeling if I describe the running feeling, because it’s not an avoidant behaviour. It’s like a running on – you’re running on top of the idea. As it’s coming, you’re getting fed in and you keep absorbing it and you keep welcoming it.

    I sometimes get the sense that spoken word on its own can feel quite insular and introspective, but setting it to music can make it feel more like a conversation and multi-dimensional. I’m curious if that’s what the music-making process feels like for you.

    That’s a really nice observation. I totally know what you mean, because I’ve been to so many nights where there were was spoken word and I actually didn’t really identify so much with it, and I didn’t see myself as part of that. Because there was people on iPhones reading lists of stuff they wrote in the tube, and it seems to not really want to let people into it. It was quite a strange phenomenon – interesting socially, if you think about, this is a thing and lots of people are doing it. But even the process of working with musicians, for me that’s a crucial step. I don’t want my work to be really in isolation. I absolutely love working with people.

    And I do think it opens at all once it starts getting set to music, because it broadens everything out. It’s like you stretch everything and knit them in together. And by the nature of having to incorporate other elements, you make compensations together, and you let somebody sing or the guitar sing, whatever, in its moment. And then the vocal has its moment, then the drums are entirely supportive the whole time and then sometimes really lifting everything. Yeah, I don’t I don’t see how it would make sense, it would seem more one-dimensional. And anyway, I’m not really that much into poetry circles or readings. I’m interested in this line of, it’s in the context of music, but it’s still, like – if you would see my activities every day, it looks like I’m doing what a writer would do, but then all of a sudden I’m doing what a musician does.

    Do you feel like because of how lyric-based your music is, that it’s sometimes more vulnerable to bring other people into your vision?

    There’s nothing I would write that I would be uncomfortable with sharing. I actually really don’t know why it’s not scary to share that stuff. Because there’s definitely like lots of me there – there’s other people too. I think I’m just okay with all of that so I don’t find it vulnerable. And it’s not all about me either, it’s very observational, and I tap into things other than my own life, like imagined scenarios or tropes. I have to say it doesn’t really feel like that, and especially because my musical collaborators, Julian and Oscar, are friends of mine for a while now. At the very beginning, I was even embarrassed to sing out of tune in front of them. I mean, they’re like brothers now. [laughs] It’s trust, isn’t it?

    In the context of a full-length album, did your approach change significantly with your collaborators and also with your producer, Dan Carey, who you worked with on the EP before? Did you have more conversations going in, and did the conversation feel different?

    Honestly, not really. The things that changed the most is the amount of time spent with everybody. It was like we had been building in towards this, and we knew our zones to work within. So, like, we knew it takes us a day or two to set up the studio with Dan to get the sounds that we all want, we know it takes a couple of weeks of writing in the studio before we get there to make sure they’re in the right shape. We knew all of these things, which is so useful, from the previous project. So honestly, nobody thought about it too differently. The only thing was I kind of was super focused on it, I did leave my day job. But apart from that and getting more actual time in the day, I didn’t change my approach. Which is good, because it didn’t need to have any pressure. It was quite natural. It was just like, “Okay, let’s go again, and stepping it up a bit and spreading it out now.” It was time to show all of what can happen.

    You said before that the songs and the album as a whole reveals itself more over time, but is there something about the process specifically that has become more apparent to you looking back now?

    I thought about that the other day, if I was fully aware of what was happening at the time or not. I think in a way, how I work when I’m focused, I just have blinkers, like a horse. I still function, I still do my emails and all that crap [laughs], I just don’t think too much about what I’m doing. I knew it was an album, I knew I wanted to bring a lot of songs in the studio and then narrow it down. But I think I liked the process. I loved that there was a deadline. I’ve been on a deadline for seven years at Vivienne Westwood, you can imagine, there was never not a deadline, so I was running on “urgent” every day for seven years So this actually felt a little bit less uptight than that, it felt like it’s on my deadline. I can say what’s good enough, and I can make the final call. So that was my first ownership of my time. If you see it like that, it was actually like a relief. It was like, “This is right. This is exactly how it has to be.”

    I went to Ireland a couple of weeks ago to do a few demos on my own just in the house by the sea, just to keep writing. And I slipped back in so easily to the process. I feel like if somebody said, “We need to have an album ready in two months,” I would know how to do that now, and it’s not scary. I know what to do and I have my process, I understand my process. And of course, always feeding myself inspiration and images and books and films and going out and having fun with people. I’ll never stop doing the things I love because they’re the things that actually are feeding all of the creation. It’s a bit harder, say, during the pandemic, I feel like different stuff arose then. I actually used that time for development – I did writing exercises, I wrote some different kinds of essays, I practiced different equipment for my live set and I rehearsed loads. But I think you have to take advantage of all of the media and the range of inspiration that you have access to when life is normal like this, so that at any moment, you’re ready, you’re writing. It’s coming out – it’s going in and it’s going out, constantly.

    I wanted to bring up one of my favourite lines from the album, from ‘Girlkind’: “I have not lost all of my want/ I possess the curiousness.” This idea of wanting comes back on the final track as well, almost like a ghost. But my question is more related to the idea of curiousness: What helps you hold on to that curiosity And do you feel like the word curiousness has a different weight to it?

    Well, I think I have the curiosity, it’s not that I have to hold it. But to keep it – because I often think about staying curious, and the people who you meet in life who are way older but seem youthful, it’s because they have a curiousness, isn’t it? It’s not always a childishness, it’s often a curiousness. Asking questions – for example, in the studio, I know my place in the studio, I know what I’m doing, I understand very much what I want and I can voice it with language, but I’m not an engineer so I don’t have the technical vocabulary that probably the majority of people in the studio when I’m recording do. So in that situation, I have two options: I can stay in my corner and let that happen and occur and pay no attention, or I can ask all the questions until I understand in my way what’s going on so that I have access to it the next time. And I feel like that’s the way in which curiousness brings you more – brings you in the group as well, and it brings you more knowledge. It seems like it’s only positive, really, being curious.

    “I have not lost all of my want.” I think that was quite a direct line. When I was working the full-time design job, having that constant deadline for so many years, I kept thinking, “Guys, not every day can be urgent. Like, come on. Somebody’s messing up here.” You can’t live on urgent every day. If everything is operating on that level, what if something really is extra, and how can you measure that? You’re losing the sense. So I felt like even though it can take all of your energy, because I have this thing, which is my writing and it’s my thing I’ve developing in private and crafting and holding preciously – that’s my where my want is. I have that, and that’s my avenue. Whenever I say curiousness, I get an image of a vortex, because it’s like it can lead anywhere. I don’t really know what shape it is, but it’s like this enmeshed thing that, you either know it or you don’t.

    It’s kind of a reminder to yourself – “I possess the curiousness” – like, no matter what environment you’re in, it’s something that’s within you. Whereas the yearning is something that you kind of have to keep cultivating and trying to understand what it is. The curiousness is maybe something more innate.

    Exactly. That’s why the vortex makes sense, because it doesn’t look like anything specific until it manifests. Because it’s just a way of being, if you’re curious, isn’t it? And that’s why it can’t have an image attached to it yet.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Sinead O’Brien’s Time Bend and Break the Bower is out June 10 via Chess Club Records.

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