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The poetry and possibility of SINEAD O’BRIEN

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The lilting, spoken songs of poet-performer Sinead O’Brien are meditative in both senses of the word. Simultaneously hypnotic and pensive, to listen to O’Brien’s musical offerings is to be immersed in her malleable vocabulary of Irish inflections and swelling instrumentation (courtesy of Julian Hanson and Oscar Robertson.) With a work ethic centred around fluctuation and possibility, it’s no surprise that Sinead’s current favourite word is “liminal”, nor that her new music will be a “significant progression” from the 2020 EP Drowning in Blessings.

I’ve read that you value upheaval and dislike permanence – how have you updated to the trappings of a locked-down year?

Become an indoor traveller. I’ve picked up a ton of books, some of my friends’ favourites and I’ve gotten really into film. I actively change the visual research on my wall to keep myself stimulated and I get taken down these twists and turns as I explore new topics, artists, ideas. There’s so much to get lost in – I still don’t have enough time. I always find ways to implement change and I never let things stagnate. It’s how I take care of my mind and my creativity.

Your walls are “places to pin hopes to” – what’s on your wall now? What are those “fragments of inspiration” leading towards?

I have various things pinned up there now and I’m moving between projects, there are still some Carrera marble statues form a beautiful book my housemate owns, some film stills from Terrence Mallick’s ‘Knight of Cups’ and some fragments of lyrics. I also have some photocopies of flowers and a few things I always keep up. Polaroids of my mother, a letter from a friend and other mementos just hanging there.

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Photo: Holly Whitaker

Your lyrics conjure up some very striking mental images. Taking lyrics from your song ‘Most Modern Painting’, what would a Sinead O’Brien “site specific installation” consist of?

That’s really interesting. I would love to curate a series of my thoughts physically. It would be cool to try to embody or act out some of my lyrics, I would definitely incorporate movement into the language I feel that’s integral to my work too. I would imagine creating an environment which wouldn’t exist otherwise-furnished with the characters, objects, ideas from my world.

You tend to write lyrics first and then the music is sculpted around the words, do you have ideas or instructions for the musical composition, or is the process quite organic?

Definitely, I work quite three dimensionally so after I get the body of lyrics down, I go back to what emotions drove the piece – the imagery and tone are already there – it’s a very collaborative process with the boys; Oscar and Julian. I can talk about a pace first; we often talk about the ‘temperature’ of a piece and I talk about how it might be produced what kind of guitar sound/amp if it’s got to be hooky and singable or if it’s a landscape we are conjuring up and what kind of emotions the piece carries. There’s a great dynamic between us, I love writing together; we call it a pyramid. There are three of us but we have so many sub-connections within that set of three – so much back and forth. It’s quite a unique structure.

Many of your lyrics reference religious imagery, is this intention? Are you harking back to your childhood at a convent school?

I find religious language and imagery an interesting reference point because it’s one of the oldest languages we have – full of symbols and loaded with meaning. It’s also about moving away from that terribly austere language and self-scolding attitude which was so present in Catholicism – I subvert the religious language at times. I think it’s playful and a bit tongue in cheek too – feeling so “Goddamn blessed’.

You work at Vivienne Westwood, who is of course known for quite emotive and theatrical clothing. Does what you wear on stage influence your performance?

Yeah, I love to dress up – I get real pleasure from creating outfits and putting things together – giving a physical expression to a mood. And it’s so malleable – ever changing. You can constantly sculpt and pull and add to these exteriors in a way that isn’t permanent. It’s liberating to constantly update yourself. Sometimes I have references or a story for certain garments – pieces I’ve designed or picked up and it adds another layer of texture to a performance.

What was the last sentence you wrote in your notebook?

“A crowded room heaves with bodies,

A jet whites an unmarred sky

The last drop of piss in the bowl

And a kiss seems not impossible”

Do you have a favourite word?

Recently I have been using ‘Liminal’ a lot. It seems to take an awfully long time to say – I love when words have this sort of power, you physically need to obey their shapes and forms in order to speak them. The root ‘Limen’ is Latin for ‘threshold’; I love this image of crossing over a physical boundary – on the way from one place to another.

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Photo: Holly Whitaker

Underground Soundwave presents an ongoing series of reports on emerging and established bands with close-up Q&As, new release reviews and gig reports with a special emphasis on supporting diversity in music, women in music, independent labels and venues and the local music scene.

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