- 15 Jan 21
To mark the third anniversary of Dolores O'Riordan's death, we're revisiting our 2018 tribute to the legendary artist. Stuart Clark recalls the highs, lows and renaissance of a remarkable career.
I could lie and say it was another Thin Lizzy in Slattery’s, Boomtown Rats in Moran’s or U2 in The Dandelion Market Damascus-style moment. But the truth is that there was nothing about our first sighting of Dolores O’Riordan and The Cranberry Saw Us, in the basement of Limerick’s Cruises Hotel, which screamed “future Irish stadium-fillers!”
Second on the bill in the 200-capacity venue to They Do It With Mirrors – who’d caused a stir locally by joining The Divine Comedy and The Frank & Walters on the Setanta Records roster – it was only their second or third gig since original singer Niall Quinn had quit and been replaced by Dolores. She spent the night looking at the floor, the ceiling, her feet – anything other than the crowd. She was clearly petrified. Add in the fact that she was wearing an Aran jumper and didn’t conform to the waifish indie girl norm and I had no reason to think that within three years they’d be selling seven million copies of their debut album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?.
I do remember thinking, however, that she had a really interesting voice. That was what also attracted the interest of Pearse Gilmore, a former rock ‘n’ roll frontman himself, who’d not long previously set up Xeric Studios in the old Shannon Foundry, on Edward Street.
Pearse, now an artist living in France, had the foresight, at that seminal stage, to put the band on a small wage over the summer of 1990. Dolores wasn’t wholly convinced that she had a future as a singer, coming up to me in the Glentworth Hotel on the night she got her Leaving Cert results and asking, “Do you think I should defer my place at the University of Limerick?” I said, “Why not give it a year and see what happens?” I was delighted a few days later when she told me she was going to stick with The Cranberries.
They spent the whole of that summer religiously writing in the morning, and recording in the afternoon. In September, half-a-dozen local hacks, including myself and Kevin Barry, the novelist who was writing at the time for the Limerick Post, were invited to Xeric for a private showcase gig. We were gobsmacked when they performed ‘Linger’, ‘Dreams’, ‘Sunday’ and three or four of the other songs that ended up on Everybody Else... – with considerable gusto. Dolores was a woman transformed. The nerves had gone, as had the puppy fat and the chunky knitwear, and her ability to sell a song was thrillingly evident.
A few months later I wrote the press release for their first cassette EP, Nothing Left At All, and received a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in return, which is one of the better day’s work I’ve done.
“I never went to a gig or had even heard of the term ‘gig’ before I joined the band,” a doe-eyed Dolores told us in her first October 1991 Hot Press interview. “‘Rock concerts’, that’s what I used to call them. I’d never seen a live band that actually wrote their own stuff. I’d seen pub bands, that was all. I played piano and took lessons for seven years. That was my kind of music.”
Asked what she used to do of an evening back home in Ballybricken, she was similarly guileless. “Oh, I’d go and play the organ in the church,” she said. “I was really into religious music, like Gregorian chant. Noel, Mike and Ferg were townies who all did the same things, went to the same places, and I was really different. I wasn’t like them. Every single guy I saw had torn jeans and Docs and they all had long hair.”
Recalling the audition that got her the gig – Dolores rocked up in a shiny pink tracksuit with a Casio keyboard under her arm and sang a Sinéad O’Connor song – she said: “I strolled in and Mike didn’t like me. He was at that age when he didn’t like people if they didn’t look cool, so I hated him because he used to be really sarcastic and I didn’t know him well enough to realise he was only messing.
“So I auditioned for them and they auditioned for me, and we got to like each other and didn’t give a shit what each other looked like. We just realised that there was talent there. I remember the audition really well. I walked in and there were 12 fellas sitting in this room and I had to sing in front of them all. It was so embarrassing.”
Dolores survived that baptism of fire and went on to become one of the biggest rock stars Ireland has ever seen. Knowing just how humble and genuine she was right from the start only makes the shocking news of the past week seem all the more heart-wrenching and desperate. It’s impossible to put into words the feeling that swept through the Irish music community, and which reverberated around the world with equal force, when the news came through on Monday, January 15th, 2018. Dolores O’Riordan has died. Impossible to believe. But there was no getting away from it. It was true. We had lost her.
Rewind. By the time Nothing Left At All and Water Circle, had winged their way to London, there was an all-out bidding war for The Cranberries’ services, which legendary A&R man Denny Cordell won on behalf of Island Records: having made millions out of U2, Chris Blackwell’s label weren’t averse to having another hip young Irish band on the roster.
Denny hooked them up with Geoff Travis, the Rough Trade boss who’d discovered The Smiths, among a plethora of other big UK indie acts. He agreed to be their manager and brought ace producer Stephen Street along for the ride. Street and the band hit it off in spectacular style. The album was a slow burner in the UK, but once it reached America, all bets were off. The Cranberries had a smash on their hands.
Everybody Else… had been in the shops for just a couple of months when in May 1993 I interviewed Dolores, sans make-up, in her pajamas and under the duvet in her room at the Clarence Hotel. Which was not, I hasten to add, a regular journalistic occurrence.
“You wouldn’t get Cher or Madonna talking to journalists if they looked like they’d just been dragged through a hedge backwards and jumped on by a herd of cows,” she noted at the time, “but I can’t be bothered with all this image nonsense. We’ve done TV shows where people have thrown tantrums and refused to go on because they’ve got a spot on their nose, which is ridiculous.
“There’s a lot of pressure on you if you’re female, to be ‘sexy’ and ‘glamorous’ – but if I’m not in the mood for plastering my face with make-up or doing my hair, I won’t bother. I’m happy enough being myself, so why pretend to be somebody else?”
Dolores admitted to being “completely knackered” that day – hence the jammies – following a sprint around the UK opening for Belly. Very soon afterwards, The Cranberries would become a far bigger attraction than the band they’d supported.
“It was wonderful getting to know someone like Tanya Donnelly, who’s been in the business since she was eighteen, experienced the various highs and lows and still loves what she’s doing,” Dolores enthused. “Her classic piece of advice to me was ‘men suck’, which, I must admit, I was relieved to hear – because it means I’m not the only person who feels that way every now and again.
“We got on brilliantly, but attitude-wise we differ enormously. She’s far more cynical and hardened towards life than I am. Her parents broke up when she was quite young and she doesn’t see much of her family, whereas I’m one of nine brothers and sisters. My Mam and dad are happily married still and whenever I go home, I’m surrounded by relations.”
Before heading out on the road with Belly, The Cranberries had nipped over to Los Angeles to shoot the ‘Linger’ video with director Melodie McDaniels, who invited one of her rock star pals onto the set.
“I nearly fainted when Michael Stipe turned up one day to see what was happening,” Dolores recounted, “and Jean Baptiste-Mondino, the guy who directed Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’, plays a part in it. We were kind of starstruck at first, but him and Michael are so down-to-earth and natural that we soon forgot they were famous.”
It’s a measure of the impression Dolores made on the REM frontman at the time that among the avalanche of celebrity tributes last week was a touching message from Michael Stipe who said: “We’re all saddened to hear the news. Dolores was a brilliant and generous spirit with a quick humour and a stunning voice.”
At that same 1993 pajama party, Dolores acknowledged the importance of Stephen Street, who was to The Cranberries what George Martin had been to The Beatles.
“I’d never heard of Stephen before we met him,” she admitted, “but when he told us he’d written the music to ‘Everyday Is Like Sunday’ and ‘Suedehead’, I started frothing at the mouth. When I was at school, I worshipped The Smiths, and suddenly to be working with a guy who knew them personally and produced their record… well, it took a while to sink in.”
Morrissey and Marr weren’t her only teenage crushes.
“Phil Lynott was a complete ride,” she cackled, “but my big pin-ups were Duran Duran. Nik Kershaw was another, and that guy out of A-Ha, Morten Harket, he was cute too.”
If all of that seems strikingly innocent, then that’s because it was. By the time Hot Press caught up with Dolores again, in January 1994, however, she was a bona fide international rock star. And this was almost nine months before the release of their biggest selling album, No Need To Argue. Whilst delighted to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Madonna, Janet Jackson and Maria Carey in the US Top 20, Dolores was also starting to experience the downside of fame.
“I can’t go near the crowd after a gig,” she rued. “Because all it takes is for three of them to notice you and they run over and start screaming, ‘Dolores, I love you. Hug me, just one hug’ and they forget I’m wrecked after a gig and just want to relax, especially if we’ve to journey overnight to the next gig. And those fans do take everything out of you, drain you in that way. You don’t want to be rude because you realise how much you mean to them individually, but they can get down on their knees and stuff, and start crying and wanting more.
“And some guys come up and claim they know you intimately because of the songs and they get all intense and scary and I have to say to the guys, ‘Hey, can you watch him?’ That can be frightening at times. There was this fella one night and I had a little skirt on, singing, and suddenly I felt this hand on my leg and I just slapped his hand and said, ‘stop’.”
They may have been taken slightly unawares by Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?’s success – had MTV USA not picked up on ‘Linger’, it’s possible that The Cranberries would have to have settled for the same cult college following as the band they were invariably compared to back then, The Sundays – but Island Records were fully primed to make No Need To Argue a gazillion-seller, with Irish interviews taking place a good two months before its release. At our Dublin pow wow, Dolores showed us the scar on her leg, which was the result of having a steel pin inserted following a serious skiing injury in France.
“It could have been pressurising if I’d let it be,” she said of her prolonged recuperation. “But you just have to get over the whole thing of ‘Oh, I’m in a band and people are waiting’ – let them bloody wait, y’know? Put yourself first and get your priorities right. It was a bit frustrating for Stephen because I couldn’t stand for long periods and I can’t really sing properly sitting down, but in the end we got this album done in the same length of time as the first one – six weeks.”
Although pleased with what they’d conjured up in Oxford, London and New York, Dolores seemed blissfully unaware that by the end of 1995 it would be residing in over 17 million record collections.
“I’m only twenty-three and the first record has done this much and if this one goes well then maybe in a couple of years I’ll be able to take a year off, ’cos you really need to take a good bit of time off,” was her somewhat evasive answer to the, “How many units is it going to shift?” question. “For now I just want to do what I’m doing and stay sane and enjoy it.”
Along with ‘Zombie’ and ‘Ode To My Family’ - “It’s just about missing the old days when you weren’t judged and you were a nobody” - one of the tracks that stood out due to its impassioned lyrics was ‘Yeats’ Grave’.
“I just always loved Yeats, him as a human,” Dolores explained. “He was so passionate and just wrote what he felt. I always found it difficult in school because I loved Yeats’ poetry but I wasn’t into analysing it. I just had my own understanding of it, me as a poet myself – a young girl who writes. I write my own lyrics and as far as I’m concerned I’m writing my own poems and verse and it might not be over-intellectual and it mightn’t be fifty pages and have big words and y’know, clauses and all that stuff in it but I’m just writing what I feel and as far as I’m concerned Yeats just wrote what he felt.”
Before starting work on No Need To Argue, Dolores had found time to get married in the small Tipperary village of Holycross to Duran Duran tour manager Don Burton. Her big day was spoiled somewhat by the scrum of media, elements of whom made disparaging remarks afterwards about the see-through nature of her wedding dress.
“I didn’t really think there would be that many press there,” she sighed. “I had an idea there would be a couple but then the Abbey and the priests were saying that they were getting an awful lot of calls – from every newspaper in Ireland basically – and we thought, ‘Shit, we’d better get some security’. But all you really want is to be an ordinary girl on your wedding day.
“It was really pathetic to me,” she continued, “because every time you’d read an article that said, ‘Oh, she’s vulgar and she’s this and she’s that’ you’d go, ‘This has to have been written by a woman and she has to be either old or fat or ugly or in some way insecure, so much so that she has to bitch about my wedding clothes’. ‘Cos I would never, ever, complain about anything another woman does. If she’s happy then leave her. I don’t understand that mentality, that whole bitchy thing.” The sartorial gripes were soon forgotten as No Need To Argue topped the charts in Australia, Austria, France, Germany and New Zealand; got to number two in Ireland, the UK, Switzerland and Holland and, perhaps most crucially, peaked at no. 6 in the USA...
The deluge of royalty cheques helped buy her a serious country pile near to her parents in Kilmallock, which was where I interviewed her for the From A Whisper To A Scream documentary series, that Hot Press originated.
Riversfield Stud was a masterclass in loadsamoney rock ‘n’ roll indulgence. First of all there were the old fellas tending the half-mile of herbaceous border leading up to the house, which looked like something out of Brideshead Revisited. Welcomed by Dolores who’d very kindly made us breakfast, we saw the stained glass window with the lyrics of ‘Zombie’ in the hallway before being ushered into the Wild West Room, which had a full-size bar with bourbon barrels on tap, and stools topped with saddles. Looking out the window you could see a stack of Harleys - more of which anon - and a wood-fired pizza oven that Dolores and Don had had flown in from Rome. Further down the drive were stables, an equine show ring and a 48-track studio with crates of Bollinger outside in case anybody got thirsty. We also spotted a couple of golf buggies that had big burly men driving them, and baseball bats under the seats. Asked about the hired muscle, Dolores confided that she was worried about two serious stalkers, and a kidnap threat that had been made. It was a stark reminder of the unwelcome attention fame brings.
The Cranberries spent 18 months on the road touring 1996’s To The Faithful Departed, which was deemed a flop by certain record company people because it ‘only’ sold six million copies. By then, the cracks were really starting to show.
“I was depressed,” she admitted a couple of years later. “I used to come off stage and drink like a hog. For the longest time I didn’t smoke, but then around about that point I started smoking like a trouper. When it first started it was great: touring, success, six million sales. It’s all exciting and everyone loves you and then it’s schizo. Tuesday, it’s wonderful. Wednesday it’s like, ‘Now, can they do better?’ It was like waking up and Christmas was over and all the decorations were gone: ‘Time to move on, next album, when are you going in recording? We have to do much, much better than the last one’.
“You can’t write about normal things because you don’t have a normal life,” she added. “When you want to go from A to B you have to have security around and there are people screaming at you all the time, so you become a bit weird and isolated and feel like you’re in a cage. Your only form of escape is the TV. You watch CNN and go, ‘Oh my God, that’s awful, I’m going to write a song about this’. You become the sad old rock star, viewing the world from a hotel room.”
Dolores could be disarmingly candid in interviews.
“We went touring To The Faithful Departed and I really started losing weight and I was miserable after seven years of recording and touring and nothing else,” she recalled. “It got dark and demonic and heavy and stuff. I was seeing things in the dark, and I kept thinking there were cameras everywhere because I was in the public eye too much. I was on the edge of schizophrenic. My husband was going, ‘There’s nothing in the room’ and I would be bawling, going, ‘Get out and turn on the light cos’ I can see somebody there with a hatchet’.”
Anxious not to be seen as “a moany hole”, she attempted to put it all in perspective.
“Rock ‘n’ roll has also been very good to me,” she said. “I’ve got lots of Harleys, which are my dream bike, although they’re a bit heavy for me and I normally stick to four-wheelers. I’ve been on the cover of Rolling Stone, sung with Pavarotti to an audience that included Princess Diana, and met Pope John Paul II... twice. I got a load of free jeans and about £20,000 for being in a Calvin Klein ad campaign. I was goofing around on Saturday Night Live with George Clooney. We were at the second Woodstock. That’s my childhood fantasies come true.”
She also let me in on a bit of a trade secret...
“You’re always best to play the sweet Colleen, if you can. You catch more flies with honey than you do with shite.”
After taking some much needed time out – one of the most important things Dolores learned as her career progressed was how to say “no” – and following the September release of Stars: The Best of 1992-2002, she found herself in a really good place.
“I’m 31 now, and I’m definitely at my happiest,” she told Hot Press in November of that year. “I’m more self-aware; I see my vulnerabilities and my weaknesses because of the mistakes I made. Not saying I’m not going to make more mistakes, because I definitely am. I’m sure I’m gonna make mistakes with my kids. I do everyday, I make stupid mistakes and my mum tells me, ‘You just stepped on his little emotions there, you did the wrong thing’, and I’m like, ‘Sorry, I’m only a learner here’.”
Reminded of the famous Philip Larkin “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad/ They don’t mean to but they do” line, she nodded. “They do. But I’m lucky to have my mum around, ‘cos she’s always there and she can point out things to me. But the love you have for your kids is so unlike any other love, it’s brilliant. I’m so glad that I did have my kids. I know it changed my career and I know that I’ll never be like the way I was in the public eye, I’ll never be that famous, I can’t tour like that now. I don’t want to. I did it, I had it. Without imperfection, there wouldn’t be any struggle, and without struggle it would be boring.”
While adamant that she was “no Holy Mary”, Dolores liked to get to mass as often as possible with the kids - not easy when you’re prime paparazzi fodder. She didn’t flinch either, when it came to expressing her views on abortion.
“I can understand people having to have abortions when they get raped or whatever,” she proffered. “In certain situations, grand, but I don’t like the idea of a baby being sucked out and thrown into a bucket squealing and crying. It’s sick. I think, as well, they shouldn’t abort foetuses after a certain amount of time because they do start moving. I had a baby so I know. It’s one of those things where I’ve always said what I thought. I could never not give a toss, y’know?”
She also spoke about child abuse - a subject graphically addressed in ‘Fee Fi Fo’, one of the standouts from 1999’s Bury The Hatchet album, which included such hard hitting couplets as: “How can you get your satisfaction from the body of a child? / You’re vile/ You’re sick.”
“It’s the worst crime you can commit,” she said unequivocally. “I think they should be castrated. People who sexually abuse children get off too easy. They get back out after a couple of weeks because, ‘Oh, he’s psychologically ill’. Which I can understand, but then people get thrown in the can for eight years for smoking dope or something. The system is weird that way. It hammers people who are doing harmless things while these perverts, these paedophiles, are shown leniency.”
While she could be serious and at times rash in her opinions, what often gets overlooked is that Dolores had a wicked sense of humour. In one interview, I asked her if she’d ever consider getting a ‘boob job’ – not one of my finer moments, I know – but it didn’t phase her one iota.
“Are you saying my tits are small?” she shotback with a grin. “I think I speak for all women who have small breasts when I say we can be beautiful too, without getting a big pair of soccer balls hanging off us. Certain men find us attractive. I’m not insecure about the fact that I’ve confirmation-size breasts. It’s part of me, and I’d feel very strange with a pair of soccer balls. Having answered that, I insist you ask the lads if they’ve considered getting their penises enlarged.”
That was Dolores: smart, funny, sassy and not afraid to put it up to you! The demons persisted nonetheless. There were solo albums – 2007’s Are You Listening and 2009’s No Baggage – which performed respectably, but The Cranberries remained her key to long-term success. Roses, the band’s first record in over a decade was recorded in 2011 and on its release in 2012, it became a Top 10 hit in Italy, France, Canada, Poland and Belgium. Her personal life was difficult, however. Dolores endured a nightmarish few years, during which she broke up with her husband Don, narrowly avoided jail following an air rage incident at Shannon Airport, and revealed how she’d been serially abused as a young girl by a family friend.
The hope was that by talking about these things, in her familiar direct and honest way, she might banish the effects permanently. And during 2017, it looked as if she might have turned a corner: in many respects, it was an extremely good year for Dolores. The Cranberries’ orchestrated Something Else greatest hits album charted on both sides of the Atlantic, and at their sell-out gig last year in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre gig in May, she looked healthier and happier than she had done in a decade.
Some of the positive momentum was lost with the cancellation of a string of tour dates. Nevertheless, a mutual friend told me that Dolores was delighted before Christmas when Eminem sampled ‘Zombie’ on his new record, Revival. It was confirmation of just how deeply The Cranberries’ music has seeped into the rock ‘n’ roll consciousness.
Along with Noel, she’d been working on a box-set of classic material; had recorded another D.A.R.K. album with her boyfriend Olé Koretsky and former Smiths man Andy Rourke and was generally looking forward to the future.
And then tragedy struck. More will emerge about the cause of her death in due course, and there’s no point in idle speculation. What we can say now is that we have lost a major Irish star, whose music was loved by millions all over the world. I liked Dolores enormously and can’t believe that she’s gone. She conquered the world and achieved all it was possible to achieve in her career. And she left an indelible mark. Ar dheis dé go raibh a anam dílis.