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November 2020
Feature

Sinead O'Brien: "I couldn't ignore the feeling that I had from writing"

Post-punk poetry at its finest, Sinead O’Brien is the latest in a long line of best new things to come out of Ireland.
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Published: 3:01 pm, April 21, 2020Words: Tyler Damara Kelly. Photos: Zac Mahrouche.
Sinead O'Brien: "I couldn't ignore the feeling that I had from writing"

There are some people in the world who have an insistent urge to reach for something more in their lives, which often develops into their ability to never be settled – so much that they can make a home for themselves wherever they go. Sinead O'Brien is one of these people who has it ingrained in themselves to be nomadic.

Part of this could be down to feeling like she needed to escape the tiny confines of Limerick, Ireland, where she was enlisted in a convent school; and part of it could just be that the transient nature she has come to possess is spawned from a conscious decision. "I had this feeling of wanting to get out and go somewhere bigger when I was a teenager." After meeting her core group of friends and still feeling some discomfort within their world, they chose to be the change that they wanted to see and began seeking out places that could serve as a conduit for their self-expression. "We decided to make it our own in a way, and needed to find these places and take them over. So, we found this old pub, and we started to inhabit it at the weekends and form a club, a group, and then eventually a bigger gang."

Observing the way certain people can make you feel, and how they impact your life, is something that is vital to Sinead. One of the most influential people in harnessing her creativity was her art teacher who left nunhood at the very end of Sinead's last year at the school. "She was the one who encouraged me to go to art school. She'd say, 'look I'm going to help you out and do your portfolio now' – kind of in secret because, you know, in that school they'd be handing out leaflets for Food Science and all of these ridiculous things that I had no interest in. She helped me get this thing together, and I got quite ambitious having this secret thing that I was gonna do."

It goes hand in hand that rebellion spawns secrecy, and secrecy spawns the ability for creativity to flow. "I visited New York with my dad – it was a very last-minute holiday – I think he had a business trip and he decided to take me along, and I was just overwhelmed! My senses were just exploding when I came back. We had this exam, and I just wrote all about New York; a completely emotional release and I just got slammed for it. Like, it was crushing. But I didn't care because I knew that I couldn't ignore the feeling that I had from writing it or the feeling the writing gave me," recalls Sinead of the moment she first realised that writing held importance for her.

After a period of time working in Paris, Sinead found herself in London with that familiar old itch that needed to be scratched, and subsequently went through a phase of saying yes to everything. In perfect symbiosis, this was the catalyst for where she finds herself today. "The first performance I did was a 'yes', and it was like, I just said yes, so I was putting a spike into the ground and then had to drag myself towards it which I didn't know how I was going to do, or why I was doing it, or what I was doing. I just got the things together I needed, I chose the pieces I wanted to do and then grabbed my closest friend who played guitar and told him what he'd be doing."

She continues, "I mean, that was really good for me. I'm quite introverted, so I can say no more easily than I can say yes. That's changed now – that's kind of behaviour rather than personality type, I think." It is always difficult to gauge someone's personality by the way they present themselves to the world, but Sinead isn't someone that you would instantly take to be introverted. As she says herself, she feels good in most spaces because she loves "seeking out these different spaces and trying to inhabit them how I feel on the day – you're bringing relevance to this context."

"I write like a child with pencil, and I write like Oscar Wilde with a pen. It's ridiculous"
Sinead O'Brien

From sharing stages with the likes of John Cooper Clarke and Brian Jonestown Massacre to headlining tiny shows in basements and dive bars around London, Sinead has been thriving in the unpredictability of life, chuckling as she reflects on the process of it all. "It was kind of a jump from zero to there, so I got this taste of – first of all I was like 'what the hell is a rider!? I'm being asked what I want?' It was kind of ridiculous. Since then, you play these tiny places, and it's all mixed up. The order is mixed up, and I love that chaos, there's no linear path. You don't just play bigger venues eventually – it's a bit like hopscotch. You play everything at the same time."

Sinead is used to dragging herself towards the impossible, and cites it as one of her methods of existence. Despite finding it near-on impossible to balance herself between being a musician and working at Vivienne Westwood; there's a surprising amount of control that she has over it all. "I need a contrast to how the rest of my life is going. When everything is quite relaxed, then I need excitement or something less predictable… I feel like I need the most empty and the most blank space I can have, you know? I'm not interested in cosy or anything like that for a living space. I want it to be completely clean because it becomes so full of images – even if they're not on the wall – they're in my room because I can see them, hear them, feel them."

Despite the overwhelming amount of ideas that may jump out to Sinead in her creative process, it's important that there is also a manner of passivity in realising these things. Understanding what they are, and allowing them to exist on their terms was at the heart of her intent in the upcoming EP. "We treated it like an album without saying the word album – even though it's an EP in the sense that it's a really closely connected body of work. They're not four separate things, they're very much a stream; they belong together." That being said, it does take a little hindsight for the finished body of work to make sense.

'Taking On Time' is referenced multiple times in this instance as something that became a subconscious revelation. "These fragments and these things come out in their own particular order and then it's my job to order them again. They make their own pictures like something is revealed afterwards." Most notably, the lyrics 'moving towards the world.' Sinead continues, "I feel like that, but I didn't know exactly why I was saying that at the time. I guess it's more like a revelation of the self or feeling more like the self than before… Yeah, I was quite surprised to see that written because I knew what I meant, but I didn't know that it meant that."

Another thing that has been revealed to Sinead over the years is how the tools that you use to express yourself take form as a kind of extension to your persona. She incredulously explains that she feels most like a writer when using a pen. "I mean this is so weird, but I write like a child with pencil, and I write like Oscar Wilde with a pen. It's ridiculous, the difference! It looks like a letter, you know, it's so elegant and fluid and lends itself to the movement that you want to keep writing it, and then next thing a pencil is like a child's scrawl – it looks like writing with the wrong hand." It's something she explores in the song 'Strangers In Danger' by asking herself, "what way are you trying to achieve what you're achieving with the tools that you're using?"

Sometimes being distracted by the little things, is means of comfort in a vastly chaotic existence but Sinead often finds herself thinking about the bigger questions in order to try and ground herself. In her lyrics, she offers everyday solutions to these critical observations, as a way to deal with the weight of them. "I mean big questions like; who am I? Where am I? When will I be me? When will I be fully-formed? Will I ever feel resolute? You know, questions that are too big to even write down, and when I say embarrassing – it would almost make you blush to even pose those questions so you never wanna pose such direct questions – it's too revealing."

As her music captures the raw spirit of the CBGB's and Max's Kansas City creativity hub, who would be a part of Sinead's inner circle? The response requires no thought whatsoever. "It's like I've been waiting forever to say this, it's like a list of friends! Some of them are not yet my friends by the way…" Almost as a means of protest, with Whenyoung, Fontaines DC, Do Nothing, and Girl Band at her side Sinead intends to "change the sound of soccer, so it's not like all these men with different voices [chanting in a way which shows] that no-one has practised doing a chorus together." Putting on a small festival in a soccer stadium offers a kind of symmetry to her modus operandi of inhabiting spaces and making them her own. While only currently declaring that she is taking on time, it won't be long before Sinead O'Brien is taking on the world.

Taken from the April issue of Dork, out now - order your copy below.

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