- 16 Jun 22
With her stellar debut Time Bend And Break The Bower in the shops, rising post-punk star Sinéad O’Brien discusses working for major fashion designers, appearing on Later... With Jools Holland and supporting Duran Duran at St Anne's Park. Photos: Chloe Le Drezen.
For someone who’s alway on the move – between creative art forms, jobs and places of residence – Limerick’s Sinéad O’Brien is remarkably still in-person. Now based in London, the poet, vocalist and designer is gearing up for the release of her debut album, Time Bend And Break The Bower. In amongst the hectic schedule of single releases and promo appearances, O’Brien is noticeably calm.
“I’m kind of embracing it,” grins the singer. “We had a really hectic few days of driving between Paris and Brighton to play different gigs. At every stop, there were two interviews before and two after. At one point I was like, ‘I haven’t taken a deep breath all day’, but it’s actually fun. Interviews are about having a good conversation, not an album explainer.”
That being said, the NCAD graduate is often asked about her past work as a designer for Vivienne Westwood and Dior, rather than current endeavours. Praise for her CV is deserved, but does O’Brien wish for more up-to- date enquiries?
“There are a lot of Vivienne questions, but I obviously don’t work for her anymore,” she replies.
People are processing that type of headline while I’m in my next stage. I’ve moved on. The other day, I got a bit frustrated and said, ‘Look, I don’t agree with everything she does!’ It’s all formative isn’t it? I like talking about it to a certain extent, but some of the questions can become gimmicky, because people are fascinated by her in general. It was very everyday for me, because I had seven years of hanging out with her, so I lost that sort of mysticism.”
Did she ever feel out of her depth when she ventured from Limerick to London?
“I didn’t come from the same scene as everyone else when I worked for designers,” says Sinéad. “There were a lot of Central Saint Martins students in London. I went to Limerick School of Art for a year and then NCAD for three years. It was already a big fight to start with. I just thought, ‘I’m gonna get in, I don’t care. I don’t give a shit’. I knew I was really passionate about it. During my thesis, I discovered which designers I loved and why, so it didn’t really cross my mind.
“To be honest, I did always feel like I had to do more to get my name even on the plate of interviewees. But to me, coming from NCAD was actually such an advantage. My class was tiny, we had about 12 people and five tutors. It gave me a very solid basis. People started to understand the knowledge that we had, so when I got my foot in the door, I just kept going. The setting is very different to how you would think of fashion if you weren’t inside it. It’s more the craft and the discipline and the design. I’m not big into the idea that it’s all about the beauty of something in art. The process is just so rewarding. It’s not just aesthetics.”
That notion is heavily reflected in O’Brien’s musical style. Her work dives into mundane observations with often gritty background instrumentals, which create a mood rather than a pretty sound that aims to please. Her influences include Mark E. Smith of The Fall and Patti Smith, as well as literary icons like Samuel Beckett, WB Yeats, Flann O’Brien, Joan Didion and Albert Camus.
Sinéad’s visuals, however, emphasise her eye for unusual angles and patterns. She frequently works with director Chloé le Drezen, a master of colour theory, who helmed the video for third single ‘There Are Good Times Coming’. O’Brien compares the tune to a “restless night”, with rituals, manifestations and intentions interweaving, anchored by a mantra.
Has she always been the most creative person in the room?
“My group of friends are extremely creative so I felt like I wasn’t the odd one out,” she reflects. “Our whole gang found each other over a series of funny house parties. The girls I hung out with started going out to gigs together. That’s when I really started to feel like we understood ourselves. Those are the environments – dancefloor, gigs, nights out – where everyone takes on their own role.
“Some of my friends became musicians, but others are journalists, writers, playwrights, doctors, directors. Everyone was quite unique and had their place. It was more so in school that I was misunderstood. One time in college the teacher approached me and said, ‘Is everything okay? You seem like a ghost’. I couldn’t understand it because I felt like I was so sure of myself and my identity felt natural. That really threw me off, but I don’t give myself away to people easily.”
How did her partnership with band members Julian Hanson (guitar) and Oscar Robertson (drums) come about?
“They didn’t come as a package!” laughs Sinéad. “I did a really loose rough first performance with a friend of mine, Niall [Burns, from fellow Irish band whenyoung]. I knew I wanted to build something after that, so I was looking for someone to work with on guitar stuff. I was dancing one night, and on the dancefloor, I found Julian. My first impression was that I wanted to be friends with this guy. I didn’t know he played guitar. He was really cryptic. He wouldn’t tell me who he was or what he did or what he played, so I had no fucking clue who that guy was!
“All I knew was that we could dance together. That’s essential for any friendship, so we started hanging out. He’s an incredible guitarist, as it turns out, but it was important to be friends first. It was more about what he was bringing to the plate collaboratively. We had time to build it. At the beginning, we experimented with music privately. I’m really glad for that, because that’s what’s unique about what we’re doing. We improvise.
“Oscar was a separate meeting, but it was a total surprise as well. I was having a Sunday roast and this guy overheard me talking to my friend Siobhán about wanting a drummer. He’s like, ‘Sorry, I’ve listened to your whole conversation and this friend of mine plays drums, but he would also really get on with you.’ He gave me his number and I contacted him. He’s such a great person, so fun. I knew from the first rehearsal that we we’re gonna start making something big.”
Before this, Sinéad had accepted an invitation to appear at New Gums, a night of spoken word performances, collaboration and music at south London venue the Brixton Windmill. Working with Niall, she later met Yuki from noise-rock outfit Bo Ningen and Bill White, producer and ex-keyboard player for The Maccabees. This led to the creation of an EP in 2018, A List Of Normal Sins.
After a London show, Holly Mullineau from Goat Girl introduced Sinéad to Dan Carey, Fontaines D.C. collaborator and label boss at Speedy Wunderground Records. Later, her 2019 single ‘Taking On Time’ was pieced together as a spoken/sung track, acting as a propulsive call to arms: “I am no more a thinker than a prisoner of dreams”.
2020’s Drowning In Blessings EP gained Sinéad a larger fanbase, before 2021 singles ‘Kid Stuff’ and ‘GIRLKIND’ totally grabbed the spotlight. It’s been nonstop ever since, with her latest track ‘Multitudes’ addressing desire and creativity.
“When I’m writing, I try to go back inside me and think of all the influences that have been floating around there, whether it’s words or photographs or films or science,” explains Sinéad. “I describe the mood to the guys in the studio, but a really important part of it is that I don’t give them words. Otherwise, the arrangement sent to me afterwards would be flat. I don’t listen to music when I’m in the creative process. When I do, I think, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to listen to this drill song and see what the fuck happens to me?’
“I also didn’t really write about the pandemic itself when I was writing the album, it was more about what it pressed me into. You have a sense of rebirth and you have a whole chance to cut away the corners of your life you’re not happy with. It led me to leave the day job and fully commit to music. It’s one of those themes that I find with music or with writing: it’s never done. You can get further every time you approach the topic. It’s interesting that ‘Taking On Time’ was one of my first releases and now my album is Time Bend And Break The Bower.”
Was ‘End Of Days’ sparked by the pandemic?
“‘End Of Days’ is quite heavyweight, but I find that track really optimistic,” Sinéad reflects. “I don’t know if anyone hears the background vocals, but there’s this other voice underneath the apocalyptic imagery that says, ‘You’re doing everything right, you’re doing everything you can do’.
It’s about weighing up your judgements and your own moral compass. It’s not about the end of the world, really – it’s more like giving the power back to the individual on the choices they make.”
Another album track, ‘Holy Country’, declares: “The giants of time are turning tunes / In my devotions, I give myself over… Take me to taste / The secrets of the saints”.
“It’s specifically about my garden in Limerick,” notes Sinéad. “I don’t usually get homesick, because when I think of people or conjure up the emotional gratitude of being with my family, I feel like they’re with me. It’s important to still reach out and see them. I had this period of time where I was getting these repeated lines over and over again – like whispers from your wells. I kept thinking about my garden at home. Out of curiosity, I was looking at Ordnance Survey maps and I found holy wells in our garden from the 1800s. I called my dad and he told me there was a trail of them all around the area, and he covered it over when we were kids for safety.
“The next time I went back, I had this whole investigation. I kept writing the piece, but it’s very much about being home. I wanted it to move through me, not keep me in the past. It’s not overly nostalgic.”
Having moved out of Limerick and later Dublin at a young age, Sinéad’s restless energy has also taken her to fresh locations for inspiration.
“I was determined to fight against whatever I thought I had to battle when I was young, which is why I did internships every summer,” she says. “I never did interrailing or non-working holidays, because I wanted to make sure I had a headstart. I was in London for about three summers before I even graduated. It was the industry that brought me here, and I dipped into Paris as well for Dior. It helps that most of my friends moved to London at the same time.
“That really created a sense of another home, but there was independent time to grow. It’s a bit like when the fish gets too small for the bowl; it was a feeling of needing space and time. My brother doesn’t have that feeling. When I was about six I was asking about big cities. It’s the excitement and adrenaline, but maybe I was always going to perform.”
Speaking of performance, O’Brien recently delivered a rendition of ‘Holy Country’ on Later… with Jools Holland, a landmark goal for many acts.
“Jools Holland was a big one,” Sinéad confirms. “I called my dad 24 hours after I told him I was gonna get that gig. He was speechless. My mum said very seriously, ‘Could you tell us about the manifestations, like how are you doing them?’ It’s just about focus. It’s not just in your head, it’s all the actions and visualisations around your goal.
"I’m really being active on those fronts. I don’t just sit there wishing. Everything on my list is doable, but occasionally there’s an impossible one. Next month, we’re playing with Duran Duran in St. Anne’s Park. It’s 20,000 cap! What the heck? I used to play there when I was a kid with my Dublin cousins.”
Having spent time with the likes of John Cooper Clarke as a mentor as well as fashion icons, it seems as though Sinéad is secure around any level of fame.
“There’s loads of people I want to meet, though, but I don’t know if I’d be starstruck. When you live in London, I feel like there’s not much of a differentiation between people you’re seeing and people who are total heroes. I’d be more interested in what we’d be able to do together. It’s more about engaging with people for me. I don’t want to be anyone else except Sinéad O’Brien. I’m really happy now. I’m comfortable in whatever the hell kind of a temporary suit this is.”
Often dubbed a “post-punk poet”, O’Brien prefers “Irish nightmare”.
“I actually like reading articles about myself,” she says, “because, not to be intimidating, I love realising that a journalist has put a bit of themselves in. Often they’re an interesting person who has also put themselves on the table for discussion. Then I gain something too. I read interviews based on how they perceived the chat. I love reading, and music journalism is in a strange place right now. I come at it from a different point of view.
“It’s not about how I came across. I couldn’t really care less about that because that’s not up to me. Once I’ve said something, then it’s not mine anymore, is it?”
• Time Bend And Break The Bower is out on June 10 via Chess Club Records.
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