Sinead O’Brien: „I say yes, and then I make things happen“

Sinead O’Brien invites me to her home on a Friday night. Okay, only virtually via Zoom, but at this point, when Berlin is still in lockdown with a curfew, it’s the closest I get to socializing with someone at 9 pm in the evening- especially with someone from London. I make myself a cup of tea (pretty wild!) and we just go ahead and have a lovely chat. 

Sinead O’Brien, in case you haven’t heard of her, is an Irish poet, musician and fashion designer. As the latter she works for Vivien Westwood, and she used the last couple of years to create a fine buzz around her music, where Spoken Word meets Punk, attitude meets poetry. She did that, as she will reveal to me during the conversation, by dedicating herself to a mixture of strict routine and the freedom of letting inspiration show the way. And of course by releasing a number of singles and her 2020 EP „Drowning in Blessings“. 

Inspiration is the magic word here. We spend quite some time talking about poetry, about writing techniques and the perks of the before mentioned routine. So I actually have to say thank you to Sinead O’Brien, because she sent me back on track with my own writing. If you fancy some inspiration, read what she has to say. Oh, and don’t forget to listen to her music, it is very capturing and original. The main question here was handed over to me by a friend: Why are you so awesome, Sinead?

You look stunning!

Thank you! I actually just woke up from a nap (laughs). Because of last night. I met a couple of friends at the pub and you know, it hits you like it didn’t used to. I didn’t drink during lockdown very much. I’m not really that interested in drinking, to be honest. Just a couple sometimes. 

Isn’t it kind of a lockdown decision? You either drink nothing, or you drink more.

A lot of people drink a lot more. For me it’s like drinking too much coffee. You need to have a place to put it. In a social situation it’s okay, because it has an avenue to get out of your body and you can actually release it. Otherwise, if you’re in your house… I don’t know, it feels so wrong.

Well, I got my tea. A friend was joking with me when I told her I will speak to you at that time. She said: Will you manage to stay awake for your 3 am interview? Because that’s how it feels to me. 

3 am, I love that. I want to do a 3 am interview one day. 

But, I managed to stay awake, and I spent the evening watching your performance for SXSW.

Oh, nice. 

And it reminded me of how shocked I was when it got cancelled last year. It was one of the first major events to get cancelled due to Covid. It is such an important event for so many artists.

Yeah, exactly. I hadn’t been invited to play yet when it was cancelled. It was only just before Christmas we got invited to play, it was a very last minute thing. And then I was like: oh, I’m gonna play SXSW, but I’m not gonna go to Austin, what the… that’s what I want, I wanna go to Austin! I hope when we can, that I can go. They said it doesn’t affect the chances to go again, it even makes it more likely, so that’s good news. It was a really fun production actually. The crew were lovely, they let us listen to our mix. You felt involved. You didn’t feel like somebody’s handling it and you don’t know what’s going on. Well, I’m always like that. I always ask every question possible anyway (laughs).

You and your band looked very much at ease. I imagine it so weird to perform without an audience. 

There’s still some people, it’s the crew who’s there. The crew were so fun. I did do one live stream where there was not a single person in the room, it was all in remote rooms. And that was so weird. I think when you look at a point in a room, it’s different than when you look at a person. Your eyes, you can see it in the face. I never want to perform to a wall again (laughs). I mean, I guess it depends. When you have a nice production and there is a bit of a budget, it can be a great thing. But sometimes there is nothing and you are expected to cover everything yourself, and it’s a bit like trying to make another video from home. That’s not my preference. At the beginning of the first lockdown they were asking us to do a concert on your phone on Instagram live. And I’m like: My bedroom, it’s just all my clothes! How can it give a good feeling of a live gig? I didn’t take part in that. I was really anti (laughs). 

A friend of mine is a big fan of you and your music. I asked her if there is anything she would like to ask you and she just said: Why are you so awesome?

(laughs) Why? I am just speaking my truth. Aww, that’s so kind. 

Let me rephrase that question a bit, so that it’s easier to answer. What are the situations where you actually feel awesome yourself?

I feel really good about what I do, when I feel what I put down is sincere. That I don’t have too much work in constructing it, that it comes out and I’m able to shape it, but with light hands. And just allow something to happen. When it feels very organic. That’s the ultimate feeling. Something is coming, and I am able to get it out in the right way. Right words, right sound, right mood, right tone. And then at the very end, people understand what I was actually communicating and can tell it back to me. When there’s that clarity and that authentic process. That’s my best feeling on earth really. But it’s not every time like that. Sometimes things are hard labor, and that’s okay too. But I just believe in the daily craft, every day. Just do some of the work every day. Then more of the good stuff comes. I am not too hard on myself on the days when it doesn’t go the way I want, I think that’s really part of it. You have to be dedicated and know that there are ups and downs. If I’m writing every single day, then every fourth time I write something I’m pretty happy with. But that’s some good odds. So I’m finding the dedication through lockdown to end up sitting at my desk every morning. If I have to pull myself to go to work, which I do, still it’s worth it. But it’s a difficult thing to do. 

So you really work with routine, every day?

Oh my God yeah, I love routine. I think it’s so healthy for the brain. I’m very organized in terms of categorizing things and putting things in the right place, in order to let me be free. That’s how I find my freedom, when some structure and some skeleton is there. I like to impose some structure on myself, then I feel really free, honestly. The good thing is about routine, it’s like exercise. If everyday you’re used to going to the desk, and you’re not expecting it to be the best work every day, you’re just expecting that you go and do the thing. The fact that you believe in yourself that you are going to continue, is even something good. If I haven’t written something in a week or two weeks and I’m like ah, I really need to write something, and I expect it to be really good, that’s where I would get myself pressure. The whole point is always to get into that flow state. It’s this thing I’m always chasing. I think I spend more time in that state than not in that state now, because I know my condition. I know what I need to do to make that happen. But then… sometimes you blow the routine out of the water and then something spontaneous comes along. And that’s inspiration, too. But it doesn’t undermine the routine. Because it still puts you at the desk, in the right place to write it out when it’s coming. I think it’s kind of fool proof for me, really. And it means taking writing seriously as well. 

You answered the question more or less already, but I assume you start with words when you are writing music?

Yeah. I’ve got like a dozen notebooks for different purposes. I got one notebook that I sometimes write in when I want to purge all of my nonsense thoughts. And that’s just for that. It’s not for inspiration, it’s not for anything. It kind of gets rid of the rubbish (laughs). Really, it’s a good idea! You never have to open the pages again, you never have to read them again. It’s like detoxing. And then, mostly in the mornings, when I have my first coffee of the day, I take myself to my desk, which is a few meters away from my bed (laughs). But it feels like a different place, because it’s facing the windows and the street. I start with the date and the very first thing that comes to my mind. I don’t pre-meditate what I’m going to write in the morning. I just write something. Sometimes I need to listen to music, and sometimes I need silence, in order to feel the form of what I’m writing and try to make something to its end. I don’t stop when I’m tired or have enough. I used to, but now I will go back over it, until I get to the end of that piece. And I try to do that in one sitting. Because I found that’s when I do the pieces that are my favorite pieces. They come out, and it’s my job to shape them. 

And when does the music come in? And does the music always come in? Or are there a lot of words that just stay by themselves?

There are so many words now, I have to say the boys can’t catch up with me (laughs). That’s good, because it means I can be selective about what we take into a song. I’m more selective now than I could be before. Because I have this extra time with the morning sessions that I’m doing. There are always words, but for this project, there will always be music. I’ve read my poems before in different settings, and it just doesn’t set me on fire to read them without that context. It’s the context I really adore. With music, you get a whole other sense involved. It’s something that makes me keep interested, loving it and inspired by it. That’s what the music is with me. It’s something I can’t quite control, this force. I can conduct it, but at the same time there is some kind of danger there. Always feels very electric for me and very interesting. 

And then next step – the performance. You combine a very unique way of reciting your lyrics with an equally unique way of music and then of course your sense for fashion. What does it mean for you, putting yourself out there as a performer, especially as a woman?

That’s a huge question. Luckily I actually haven’t, as far as I can recall, had any bad experiences with being a woman in the music industry. I mean, I could say I’m not getting high up enough on a line up at a festival. That’s true. This is a problem, it’s not just particular to me, it’s particular to all women in music. I mean, the funniest thing that I’ve come across is that somebody said to me: You don’t have time to soundcheck and get dressed, so which one would you like? And I said: I’ll put my dress on, and then I’ll soundcheck, thank you! (laughs) So sometimes you have to really take control, and I can very well stand up for myself. But the festivals, that’s a real problems. And it’s happening again this year. It’s tiring! Looking at that older generation of bands high up on the festival bill, it’s exhausting. As a fresh, young, new artist, you need to be seen, you need the support and the visibility. That’s what’s going to give them a career. These other guys all have careers! It’s easy. It’s not that it’s not possible. But you always get these excuses like: there isn’t any women who are at that level. They won’t be at that level if you don’t give them the next stage. You don’t go from playing a dingy bar in Dalston to playing the main stage. I mean, I can do that (laughs). I’m actually very comfortable on bigger stages, I feel much better. It makes you act up to the role. You just know you have to fill it. I’m always quite into that. I say yes, and then I make things happen. 

Did you also sense a shift in what you’re writing about in the last year?

Yeah, definitely. Okay, the subject matter, I don’t know. I think my subject matter will always have some threads of things I’m interested in. It’s hard to have an overview on subject matter when you’re in it for a relatively short period of time. I think it would take a couple of years, until you could look back and see how they make sense together. But they definitely change, the pieces I’m writing, but that’s definitely the result of how diligently I’m going to my writing desk in the mornings. I used to write on the bus to work in the morning, on the train to work, at lunchtime I would do interviews… that has changed so much. My work has changed. I’m not going to give back those hours. I want to continue like that. At least part of the time. Any of my spare time basically is my writing time. 

Photo © Wanda Martin