- 15 Oct 19
Ahead of her upcoming Irish tour with whenyoung, post-punk poet Sinead O’Brien discusses growing up in Limerick, partying with John Cooper Clarke and signing with indie label Chess Club Records. Photo: Zac Mahrouche.
She may be one of the most exciting Irish exports in recent memory, but that doesn’t mean Sinead O’Brien gets to slack off on the nine-to-five. Catching a precious spare moment to chat during her lunch break, the Limerick-born, London-based artist somehow doesn’t sound the least bit frazzled. In fact, she’s still on a high after a stellar set at Electric Picnic’s Salty Dog stage.
“It was actually my first ever gig in Ireland, and it was better than I could have ever imagined,” she enthuses. “There was this whole feeling at Electric Picnic this year, where Irish artists were starting to take over the line-up. I’d never really seen that before, to that extent.”
Packing grace and grit in equal measure, Sinead has already built up a formidable reputation for her unique blend of spoken word delivery and post-punk principles – something she certainly never envisioned herself pursuing as a convent school student in Limerick.
“I always had an interest in English, but I had some pretty tough teachers,” she explains. “The way poetry was taught in school didn’t interest me at that point. It was all about learning the poems off by heart. The fact that we were supposed to be analysing the poet’s intention kind of disgusted me, too. To me, it was up to everyone to find their own interpretation.
“When it comes to the word ‘poetry’, people get so uptight,” she laughs. “I’m quite loose with the word – I’m definitely not calling myself an academic. But I don’t think anyone should be afraid to use their words, because there’s no better way to express yourself.”
Despite this early discouragement, there was no burying Sinead’s creative streak.
“Me and my best friend Aoife would go around Limerick, exploring and making up these different narratives,” she recalls. “We’d written some funny things about the convent school that we went to – inventing fiction about the priests and nuns. That was the earliest writing I can think of. It was in college that I started writing more, initially in an academic way.”
Her studies in NCAD led to a career in womenswear design, and an opportunity to travel the world. While living in Paris and London, she began exploring poetry.
“I would read out bits of my writing when we were having parties,” she says. “Then a friend was putting on a night in Brixton, and she asked me perform at it. I was going through this phase called ‘Yes Girls’ – a movement I invented where I had to say yes to everything. So I said yes, and obviously the thought was terrifying, but when I was doing it, I wasn’t nervous. After the first one I was hooked. Performing something that’s been private is a nice feeling in itself, but I also found a reason for why I was doing it – the connection I was making with people became a really big thing for me.”
From there, Sinead found herself sharing a stage with legendary punk-poet John Cooper Clarke.
“He’s wild,” she laughs. “Being Irish, I’m quite polite, especially when I get to meet these big personalities. So I was giving him all the space in the world, but no – he wanted to bring us back to hotel and buy us drinks – and chat and sing with us the whole night. It was the most brilliant, inclusive experience ever. It showed me that someone at the top of their game can still be so generous.”
Following the success of ‘Taking On Time’, released on Fontaines D.C. producer Dan Carey’s Speedy Wunderground label, Sinead signed with Chess Club Records, a label that has launched the careers of some of the UK’s biggest acts. Her debut single with Chess Club, ‘A Thing You Call Joy’, is set to feature on a 10” vinyl release later this year.
“I’m on this border between spoken word and singing, and people seem to be confused and intrigued by that,” she muses. “Me too! But this is the only way I know how to do it. This is starting point, but it’s definitely not the end point. With me, it’s all about development.”
• 'A Thing You Call Joy' is out now. Sinead O’Brien joins whenyoung on their upcoming Irish tour (November 7-10).