Interview: Sinead O’Brien
Our Music Director, Michael, caught up with Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O’Brien after her set at the British Music Embassy in Austin, TX during SXSW 2022 ahead of the release of her new album, Time Bend and Break The Bower, on June 10! Listen to the interview and read a full transcription of their conversation below:
Michael Coby: How have you been enjoying SXSW so far?
Sinead O’Brien: It’s been absolute chaos, in the best sense possible. I haven’t really stopped since we landed – I just wanted to dive into it and get my bearings. Yeah, I feel like I live here now [laughs]. It’s a really high energy place.
Michael: For sure. What have been some of the highlights of your week?
Sinead: I saw Faux Real last night and I have to say that’s definitely a highlight. And they’re also brilliant people, really funny – I can’t look at their expressions without pissing myself. They’re really, really, really good. I saw them, saw a couple of bands, but mainly just being in Austin and wandering around the place and coming upon stuff you don’t know – yeah, the energy of this festival is quite unique, I think.
Michael: You were active with the Speedy Wunderground label back in 2018-2019, around the same time as a lot of the current wave of post-punk bands, like black midi, Black Country, New Road, and Squid – what was it like being part of that scene?
Sinead: In a way, London is quite small musically. So a lot of those bands play in South London – the Brixton Windmill is one of those institutions where everybody gathers, and Dan [Carey] is of course at the center of that. I don’t know if our music is necessarily close to that kind of stuff, but it’s really great to be anchored in with all of these bands with Dan being the common thread. I love their music and everything, so it’s great. Speedy is a club, it’s a gang – I have my tote bag with me as well, always. All the Speedy releases are great to watch out for and discover who’s coming up in London. They’re always quite surprising as well, I love it – they take some left turns and do something quite unexpected. It’s definitely a label to look to for surprises – it’s exciting.
Michael: I know there’s a lot of influence between the bands in the Brixton Windmill scene. When I listen to bands like Shame and Squid, I hear a lot of the influence they have on each other. Do you feel that any of that influence has seeped into your music in a way?
Sinead: I would say it’s more like the energy of what it’s like living in London. In my mind, that would be the most common thread between all of these bands. You have to remember as well that quite a lot of them are mostly male projects, and my band is a female led project – I think that naturally has a different energy anyway, which is important. But I think the way London is, and some of the influences that we all share will be fragments of what actually hits you as “they must know each other”, but we don’t actually all know each other either. There’s crossover, like maybe a common producer between them. But all of that stuff is really cool, because with music, something goes on the radio and the next thing, instantly someone has it in their mind and doesn’t even know. So I quite like thinking about that as well. There’s influence without intention sometimes.
Michael: Yeah, I know post-punk is pretty big in London right now. Do you consider yourself post-punk?
Sinead: Definitely not. To be honest, I don’t even know what that means. I’m baffled by that because it’s almost like saying “after the after the after of that” – it doesn’t have much description. I think it’s interesting to try and group things in order to understand what’s going on – that’s what categorizing stuff is for. But it can also reduce the dynamic of what everything is. It can close down too much. Each band that we might group into that are their own forces within themselves, within their own worlds. So I don’t get that really. But I’m happy to be associated with people making good music. Labels and descriptions are always something I’m quite interested in talking about. I have lengthy conversations with friends about this often, because the artist is the worst person to describe their own work. You put the entire idea into the work, and then, as an afterthought, label it with tags. It goes against the grain of creating. It’s someone else’s job, so I’ll let someone else do that. [laughs]
Michael: It’s an interesting thing to consider, the artist’s intention versus the public perception of his ideas.
Sinead: Well, you have to let people say what they want to say, too. I’m never going to shut down an idea or description because it’s all interesting to me. I like the variety of hearing a lot of different things as opposed to having a tag on me. I move quite fast.
Michael: So you’re also a fashion designer, is that right?
Sinead: I am, I still am. I stepped away from my full time job in order to work on music, but I’m always working on clothes. It’s a real passion of mine, design. I studied it in college and it’s something that fits in really naturally with music. It’s not just about having an eye for things that are nice or whatever. I actually get a lot of pleasure from curating things or organizing things in creative ways. Maybe you can put it in the same realm as exhibitions, or imagine someone curating an art exhibition. That’s kind of how it is with clothes, you have these little templates in your mind of how things go together.
Michael: Do you design the outfits that you wear on stage?
Sinead: Yeah, I’ve been wearing stuff that I’ve designed for years. My wardrobe is a lot of the stuff that I worked on at Vivienne Westwood, so I still have all of those things. But I love charity shops and vintage shops, or even swapping stuff with friends. I haven’t bought anything new in a long time, it’s not how I operate. I prefer to think of a creative solution that doesn’t keep throwing stuff in a landfill.
Michael: Do you feel that having that eye for fashion gives you greater creative control over how you present yourself onstage?
Sinead: Yeah, but having that background and passion and knowledge means that when we’re doing creative things like videos or photoshoots, I’m not handing over this whole thing to someone else. I’m curating it from the bottom up. I love collaborating with people, finding somebody amazing who’s really outstanding or the best stylist I can picture, and working with them. That way I can fuse my taste and my ideas with their skills and their experiences, and be the better for it. I love that. Yeah, clothes make a big difference to how you are onstage. I love dresses, I love suits, I love the whole spectrum of what I could possibly wear. There’s nothing that’s ruled out for me – I like showing skin, I like covering up, I like it all. Being onstage in something that I’ve chosen can change the gig for me a lot. Sometimes if it’s too sweet or more feminine than I feel that day, I compensate and change who I am in order to break through that feeling or fight up against it. It’s another layer of something to work with.
Michael: Who are some of your musical influences?
Sinead: For the last record, I was listening to Gun Club, Throbbing Gristle, Lou Reed. I listened to quite a lot of acoustic stuff, like Leonard Cohen. I always liked Leonard Cohen, but it’s like if you tried to take coffee out of your diet and go down to green tea, and eventually to no caffeine. I was trying to remove all of the heaviness. I like so many different kinds of music, but that’s why I was listening to Leonard Cohen. I thought, “this is like a forest – this is how a forest feels”. It’s really natural, really organic, it’s taking away all of the weight. Just raw, brilliant songwriting. So I think that was healthy for me to study. There are a few things on the album that have a bit of a different dynamic. I think it’s really nice to explore your full spectrum. Sometimes you’re better off underplaying it and leaving room for the other thing that needs a thousand percent. I listened to Actress as well, but I didn’t really listen to any music right before I wrote it.
Michael: Is there a greater emphasis on subtlety in the music you’re writing now?
Sinead: I mean, it still ended up quite like a punch in the face at the end of the day. The album is quite dynamic, there are different tones on there. It’s not just one thing; there’s a song where me and Julian [Hanson] did a take and we were both basically crying. There are raw things on there that we didn’t plan. But I didn’t really listen to albums while writing. That just gets me into a loop.
Michael: What do you want people to take away from your music?
Sinead: I think it’s important that the idea of poetry shifts now. Rap music fits into a category that’s on par with any other type of music. Poetry in music is a bit lost in some ways. I would really be satisfied if people thought “oh, poetry doesn’t have to be about studying at Oxford”. That’s so far away from how I interpret poetry. I think it’s accessible. It’s your first method of communication – speaking, writing. So, think of it in a different way so that it’s modern, contemporary, malleable – it’s the thing that moves fastest in culture, spoken language. That’s incredible to me. So if you think about writing and lyrics in that way, that’s what I would love.
Michael: Thank you so much for talking with us, it’s been amazing. Do you want to plug the album?
Sinead: My album Time Bend and Break the Bower is out on June 10 on Chess Club Records.
Michael: Awesome, thank you so much Sinead!
Sinead: Thank you!