Interview: Sinead O’Brien — “I’m obsessed thinking about my experience of time”
Sinead O’Brienspeaks about her own past with the starry-eyed longing of someone dreaming about her future. In conversation, you can’t help but hang on her lips as she passionately exults into the many ideas circling her brain. Her words are underpinned by a deep, intoxicating wish to escape from the mundane and platitudinous. It’s safe to say that the experience of time — and timelessness — is scrambled on her fantastic debut LP Time Bend And Break The Bower, an album that teeters at razor’s edge of poetry and music. O’Brien’s evocative wordplay doesn’t cater to easy sentiment, but carves out new adventurous rifts of feeling.
Enchanted within the sonic forays of her co-collaborators Oscar Robertson (drums) and Julian Hanson (guitars and effects), O’Brien’s thespian instincts breathe and propel like living organisms, fluidly taking the shape of the very spaces she performs. Often lumped in with contemporaries within the post-punk realm, her music feels like it reaches even further beyond, more spiritually tapped into the primordial ooze that satiated artists such as The Velvet Underground, The Gluons and no wave-excursionists DNA.
‘Polymathic’ is one word to describe O’Brien: next to being a musician and performing artist, an author and a fashion designer (working with none other than the legendary Vivienne Westwood by day), her interests branch out far afield.
Within just 40 minutes of Zoom time, O’Brien manages to cram a book’s worth of incandescent, high-wired thought.
Besides the live dates up ahead, what’s on your plate right now?
I’m doing rehearsals for the album now, for the live show. We have an album party on Wednesday — it’s more like a press event but there are some fans coming to for an early listening session. A week before the album comes out properly. We’re rehearsing everything for that, and then we have the instore tour next week. It’s really focussed, five record stores in the UK we’re stopping by, playing the album there and signing a bunch of records as well.
‘Rehearsals’ implies that you’re capturing something. But also heard in interviews you aim to play the room a little bit, make every show a different experience. So how does that work?
Rehearsals are there to get the body memory that makes you comfortable in a strange environment. To be able to have that sense of trust that the lyrics are all in there — that I have 40 minutes’ worth of lyrics in my body, so I won’t need to worry about the words. I knew that by the time I finished rehearsing. So it kind of gives you a bit of freedom to see how the atmosphere is.
I mean, I’ve played in a library and I’ve also played in dive bars. I played in a cathedral! I played really different kinds of venues. You adjust the set for each venue, definitely, but I feel you can also feel the tone of the room. It’s not just about playing to what’s there, it’s also recognising if it looks too static, I’m not happy with that. You see if you can push it a little bit further. And if people want to come on board and gather energy with you, gather momentum. I find that really fun when you can all change the room together. It’s weird, it’s like it can come from nowhere- the combined form of playing live music to new people.
It does seem like your work is more process-driven over any notion of finality, so it makes sense. On the new album, are there songs actually informed by these kinds of moments?
There’s one track called “Like Culture”; I suppose it’s not about the audience per se, but in my mind, that track definitely looks like those types of moments. It’s informed by, not a narration of, those moments. On “Like Culture” the word ‘dance’ becomes like this instruction. That’s a little bit like what happens in those kinds of moments. Something is happening in the audience, and then I kind of enhance it, command it into further interaction. Or further investigation.
People who have heard the album so far have noticed that song, because I often ask people to dance at the gig. Or I notice people dancing; to me that’s one of the ultimate compliments, because I kind of can’t believe at the end you could be dancing to what is essentially a poem. It takes it to a new space, where two things can coexist and aren’t mutually exclusive. It doesn’t matter whether they’re hearing the subs or the bass or the drums. In another moment, it’s a lyric and they’re dancing. I don’t know; it’s all coming together in a way I’m surprised and happy about!
It’s cool that your own song can trigger situations beyond your control. Some big arena pop songs are tailor-made to invoke very telegraphed interactions, like singalongs or clapping. It’s cool to make music that provokes so many different types of reactions.
Maybe it’s because I’m not willing to give into one specific genre; I’m certainly not, because I’ve got so many things I want to explore. I want that freedom, so I’m constantly pushing to create room for that so I can do what I want to do creatively. That doesn’t have one sound or one outcome. If people want to be able to follow the project, it’s the lyrics and the music as well — that’s what it is to follow. Then the sounds are almost incidental at the end. It can go anywhere. If you’re going to be a fan of that kind of work it’s because you’ve gotten into it, or around it; you’ve understood and engaged with the words in some deeper ways.
I’m starting to realise this: anybody who likes my words is someone who has already engaged. It needs that, because it’s so lyric-focussed. It means there’s been some form of two-way interaction. I really like that, because that’s how I engage with work as well. It’s how I find meaningful work; whether it’s film, it’s painting or music; I tend to dive in on a deep level, find some understanding of the person who is making it. It’s a cool thing — maybe not a by-product — but definitely a secondary thing. When you learn a bit more about the artist and their history, it brings you further into their work so much more doesn’t it? When you start to get some background.
It’s funny you say ‘understanding’: my intrigue with your music is because of my failure to understand, despite the binaries of written language. It’s like being dropped into a dark forest, and feeling your way through the language. You’re not holding the listener’s hand either, your lyrics have an impressionistic quality. There’s a newness to it, a welcome confusion.
I don’t feel it as a confusion. It’s kind of like a whirlwind maybe. It’s quite sensory. I agree with you that it’s not like holding the listener’s hand. This, again, is down to my natural way of writing, this is really how it comes out at the table every morning. It’s not like I codify everything. It’s an honest approach to how I write. The songs begin as poems, and then they elaborate and expand onto music. There isn’t one thing I’m trying to say. It’s not easy to pin a three-word description on the album.
I wouldn’t want it to be easy to describe in that way. It’s not going to be fully rounded up by an explanation. Maybe seeing it as something that contains chapters that are interrelated — but deal with different things thematically — is helpful, because every track has a purpose, a temperature, a tone, a place on the album emotionally. Each one serves its own purpose. When I dive in, I tend to elaborate on specific songs or lyrics. It will give a lot more insight if we go specific instead of all-encompassing. Because there isn’t going to be an all-encompassing explanation.
The final song “Go Again”, you name specific places you’ve been, places of personal meaning. It feels more candid than the other tracks somehow.
First of all, I like the title as a final piece as well; in the piece there are all these place names I mention — where I was born, where I grew up — I mean, I didn’t grow up in Dublin, I grew up in Limerick, but I was born in Dublin and I went to college there again. All of these places came back into my mind a lot lately. And almost like treading over old ground; this can be with an idea or an experience. With places, even physically, because there’s new things to be found. Another time is a different time, and I feel like I’m a new chapter.
It’s a strange thing because a new idea to me is to tread on ground that I walked on before, but almost in a new body and a new head. Like there has been — maybe gradually — some sort of seismic shift between then and now. I get it whenever I go home to Limerick for Christmas, I really feel I can feel who I am now against the backdrop of who I was. And I love finding that space — that distance of what’s still there and what has changed. Connected to my child-self in these places in Dublin, which I’m a bit further from. I don’t have such a close relationship with those places anymore. It’s not just specific to going back to Dublin: It’s revisiting places, ideas, thoughts. Maybe it’s a reaction against the idea that everything has been done. I’m never willing to say that. I would always “Go Again”.
I read “Like Culture’ goes back lyrically when you were 17, so these songs can span quite some years.
This has been confusing somehow. I didn’t start writing “Like Culture” from when I was 17. It came from memories at age 17. I started writing it in 2017. I supposed the age in Ireland before you can go out to nightclubs and drink alcohol or whatever. So it’s on that verge where everything is still happening in secret. That’s kind of crucial. I started writing this poem called “Limerick slightly with you” when I moved away from home.
In 2017 I went back to that memory. It’s like how you remember a dream and start to write it down. You don’t know anymore what’s reality and what you’re embellishing. And who you’re even embellishing it for. I was doing that purposefully. I was getting the memory and really furnishing what’s in that memory, that setting of the night clubs I grew in. I can tell you the whole interior!
The other verses — the ‘dance’ parts — those were written now as I recorded … which I injected into it. Maybe it’s all the gaps I filled then all the way up to now, and the thing that seems to fill up that space, when I feel that development for me happens, is in that setting. It is the words of youth, it carries through and it never really stops. And on the dance floor is an important place. I wanted to write a song specifically about that. I wanted the feeling to be a bit messy. A bit like ‘let the chaos happen’ We’re desperate to feel alive again, we want life! energy! I wanted to go deeper into that, and I didn’t want to clean it up in the end.
At 17, you were already keen on documenting things?
Yeah, I was very keen on finding things. I always felt like ‘Is this it!? That can’t be it! I have to go on adventures and secret trips. Find things!’ I would go on to Dublin to see a play with my friend and not tell my parents, or hundreds of gigs I wasn’t supposed to go to! We went to parties in the forest, we used to run away from the police and hide away in the daffodils. Really fun adventures. I never got on the wrong side of it somehow, it was always with an intent of curiosity and adventuring. I was writing (at 17) but I was also a lot in my imagination.
Did you imagine the future a lot at that age, or were you more caught up in the moment?
I followed that instinct definitely; I went to art school not knowing what I would specialise in. I loved the idea of going in and trying out all of the disciplines. I was into photography, I was into a lot of gig photography back then. I was into film, I was really into music. But I never considered being in a band. I was more into classical music. I loved English; I never thought I’d be a journalist, but I knew I wanted to write about psychology. At one point I even wanted to become a doctor. I used to watch surgery until 3am.
My mother was really amazing at helping me make a decision about what I would do. In the end it came down to art and creative things versus something like English or psychology. She kind of said: ‘ok, this is your reality, imagine, if you’re only doing psychology now, and you leave behind art stuff and don’t do it in the evening. Practice now as if you’re just doing that’; and I didn’t last three days! I was like ‘That’s not happening!’ Then I tried it the other way around, and I put more time in my portfolio. But I didn’t feel like I had to decide anything; I went with what felt right in the broader scale, and narrowed it down asI went along. I had work experience as a veterinarian as well, anaesthetics for cats, and surgery. I thought I could easily do that, but I didn’t need to.
That’s kind of a doozy when you have such an insane range of interests. Do you feel every pursuit or idea needs to be utilised into something tangible? Or are you comfortable letting go of ideas?
I let go. I mean, I have to. I write every day, I honestly have about 40 notebooks now and I can’t possibly use everything. I go with what’s the most exciting thing I’m working on at the moment, when I’m working on a new song. I can’t possibly turn everything I do into something useful. But I feel everything has a use and you just have to trust that. All the stuff you’re watching, reading and listening to is going in; there is no need to obsess over it. And everything that comes out has a purpose.
Maybe I have four pieces I didn’t use and the fifth one is of a standard — or on a topic of new interest. And that’s the one I feel like using. But yes, I am happy to let things go. Right now I don’t feel like I’m trying to do 40 jobs. I feel very focussed. Within music there is variety; I’m able to bring in a few things I really love in this one reality. But I’m not splitting myself into a dozen directions. I wouldn’t really want to; It doesn’t feel very good to me. I’m very thorough with what I’m working on, so not everything has to be seen through to the very end. It’s not about quitting, it’s about focussing, I think.
It’s a prismatic thing where you consume stuff, it gets filtered through you and something comes out. Some artists express their concern of exposing themselves too much to outside influences. They feel they could lose a bit of their own authenticity. So are you specific in setting conditions where the writing is fertile?
My writing was squashed in and around my day job; so I wrote on the double decker bus on my way to work for seven years. So I didn’t have a lot of time, space or privacy. I wrote at lunchtime. I wrote at midnight. Literally whenever I could. During weekends I obviously was given a lot more time. I had to deal with it not being on my schedule. yeah, I can definitely write in any setting; in public, in cafés, or on an airplane — I love writing on airplanes and trains! But additionally I will also write in private as well. It’s very flexible. It doesn’t feel precious like ‘I have to be away from everyone’. I’ve never had that luxury of going away for weeks. I actually can’t disappear for weeks. I’m really pleased with the flexibility because it allows me to weave it in and around everything!
But it was interesting what you said about listening to music or influences. I try all sorts of approaches, but actually rather than narrowing down what I listen to, I open it up a lot. I love listening to lots of current music; a bit of pop music, drill or rap. I listen to old music too. For me it doesn’t directly go in because the way I write is so nuanced; I have to write the music with the voice, because of the words. So it’s not really a danger for me.
Obviously everything you do influences you but I think it’s almost the same as what art I would see, or what film I would see. Or who I’m hanging out with. Everything. Even your energy. I mean I spent so much time at work on myself about my energy. That’s more important than what music I’m listening to.
I reckon Oscar and Julian feeding off your words is a factor too. Did that ever influence the direction of a particular piece?
I think on “The Rarest Kind” actually… well, there’s loads of examples! Actually, to be honest, on every single track, we do the arrangements as a separate process. So when we’re arranging we think ‘Oh, but we need to have another four bars there because of the lyrics. I mean, it’s all arranged with the lyrics. But on “The Rarest Kind”, Julian had this idea of a grandfather clock to chime in on this different type of track on the album.It gets put through a tape machine in the studio and then distorted. The guitar is quite metallic and shimmery during the second half of “The Rarest Kind”, where there’s all this imagery about ‘mining for ideas’. On a most basic level you could say it’s supposed to be more heavy and gritty or lighter and shimmery — giving space for the words — or if it’s reinforcing the words.
But Julian’s extremely sensitive; he’s hearing all the words, not just going ahead and playing the guitar. Those sections on “Multitudes” where it says “annihilation on my tail” there’s a real change in musical direction, and vocally as well. I recorded that at the front of the window at the shop of the studio, I stepped away from the microphone, belting it out. We layered that; the time signatures in those pieces are syncopated, but everyone had to be extremely tight. And then the violin on top. So that music was completely sculpted around that change, because the words wanted that.
Indeed, “Multitudes” turns quite sinister once that line happens.
I feel very close to “Multitudes. That whole song is about creativity and desire. Nurturing and protecting and trying to get into the flow state. It is all about creativity really. The annihilation — the self-annihilation — that comes in to stab into those moments. Whether it’s distracting thoughts — or rational thinking… so boring! And email, ugh! And it makes me so angry! It’s not a person, it’s not even a thing! It’s just because this space is so delicate, so fragile. It’s almost impossible to even explain.
It’s like you have a child and you can bear that anything is touching it. You want this soft space around it so there’s no possible way of disruption. And then when the disruption cones, it’s really ground-shaking and disturbing. And it feels like everything is in jeopardy. I know that sounds incredibly dramatic. Annihilation can mean a different thing: sometimes there’s a time limit, sometimes it’s a deadline, sometimes it’s a person chasing my tail. Sometimes it’s another part of me, my mind split in half. Trying to be rational and knowing I have other stuff to do. It can be a very mundane interruption, or a real interruption.
The idea of timelessness seems to be a golden thread on this album. You hear it a lot in music; artists cut a record during a certain phase, and the songs are forever bound to that phase. Your music seems to be irreverent towards that whole thing, almost created to still be sung by your future self. Sometimes your lyrics feel purposed more towards manifesting something new over channeling a thought, a memory or an emotion.
I love how you noticed that. But it’s not about making it good for how many years time; because I think it’s okay when something speaks of the moment. I think that’s really valuable in and of itself. But I’m obsessed thinking about my experience of time. I’m absolutely fixated on it. But I feel every time I think about it, write about it or talk about it, it has a different sound. This goes back to treading over the same ground; I don’t need to hop or jump or have drastic changes in order to develop.
I enjoy revising with new information or new knowledge… so, when I think about time, naturally — but also ironically — it would almost taste different coming back to it. I’m quite interested in throwing things up ahead into the future, trying to be predictive of stuff you’re doing or what could happen or where things are going. I wonder how that influences you. It’s like you are anchoring into a different timezone, and maybe that’s your direction now. I think it’s a useful exercise in any case.
I read you once had a prolonged period of saying yes to everything coming your way. It’s using art to change your reality, if only briefly, to set something new in motion. Has that been a key to quote unquote success?
I get bored quickly, and I don’t like that feeling. I sometimes even let myself get bored so I can come up with new ideas when I get down to the level of not being overstimulated. It’s what happens when I go on holidays; I get really bored and then everything rushes in. Then it’s like holding your breath. I was bored, I hadn’t been writing properly then; I started new jobs and moved to London; it was like I didn’t really have a big outlet yet. Something needed to move. It was a great way of inviting weird new opportunities. That is how I said ‘yes’ to doing a performance, and that led me to pursuing it. So yes, opening it all up! I got into really weird situations from that as well. I did a photoshoot in a water bath just last week because I said yes. And I don’t even know why!