An Interview With: Sinead O'Brien
Poet Sinead O’Brien on avoiding escapism, growing up in Limerick, and singing Velvet Underground songs with John Cooper Clarke.
Words by Harley Cassidy/Photography by Lola Stephen for Issue 2 of Love Letters Zine.
Currently, Irish poet Sinead O’Brien is living in a manor in Hampstead with fifty people. Her previous headquarters have included a disused convent and a room placed on top of five garages - silence is essentially non-existent in her world. It’s probably why she looks so relaxed amongst the din as we sit in the depths of the Heavenly Social, pre-doors, a pint of Camden Hells in one hand, whilst the other, slender and ring-encrusted, rests on the concrete table between us. Sleek, black curtains of hair frame a face characterised by thoughtfulness, resilience and a striking resemblance to PJ Harvey. It’s a statement not alien to her as she knowingly smiles when I make the reference.
I ask her about her apparent disassociation with escapism as an ice breaker - Sinead exclusively likes to write about reality. “I don’t really get the urge to escape”, she shrugs. “I change my scenery quite often. I renew my routine. I try to feel change as it happens and then move. I think escapism is a bit desperate. I mean if you’re a grounded person and you’ve created your world, where do you want to go?”
This statement strikes me - hedonism is all most young people in London live for, so the notion of having no desire to escape is both unusual and impressive. It requires a steely self-assuredness, that, really thinking about it, not many people I know possess. Sinead isn’t afraid to make direct eye contact, she’s not afraid to go off on tangents that delve deep into the dankest coves of her mind; a stream of consciousness flows out of her, flitting between parley and poetry with a jovial laugh thrown in for good measure. Her escapism is her existence, which has been the most peculiar one for all 29 years that she has lived on this planet.
Growing up in Limerick, Sinead hated English at school. With a teacher that “pushed her to the edge”, she found the experience of writing stifling as opposed to liberating. “I was terrified of my teacher,” Sinead states, simply. “I felt like she had been there for a hundred years. It was like being told to look inwards on yourself at an age when you are only just coming to terms with the idea that you even have an identity.” Education was a harsh critic on Sinead’s prose; college informed her that her writing was too ‘flowery’, ordering her to dilute words and phrasing to a minimal, prescribed tone that didn’t quite work with the imagination that leapt from her pen.
So, Sinead decided to study womenswear at Dublin’s National College Of Art & Design - Ireland’s oldest art institution. “I love the rigorous disciple tailoring requires. I could see myself creating within that language,” Sinead tells me. “Just as we measure music in units called ‘songs’, clothes too are born out of (and stray from) their most basic units or ‘blocks’.” After moving to Paris to study with Galliano, Sinead adopted the celebrated hobby of people-watching. These manifestations developed into off the cuff poetry that leaned towards social observation and gave way to stark imagery.
Naturally, imagery is a heavy focal point in all of Sinead’s work; her debut EP, A List Of Normal Sins, recorded with Will White (The Maccabees) and released last year, includes lines such as, ‘in the orange wake of pollution, the city winds itself up for another revolution.’ We discuss her ‘Opera Of Sighs’ based on a hot, dry summer where the days were filled with silence. Her visions are profound and tend to stray towards landscapes and the stop gaps in everyday life, such as her native Limerick, “a grey, industrial place” where the people were “more into rugby than reading.” Like most tongue-tied towns, it’s defined by a boozer, this one called, Costello’s Tavern, which she describes as her ‘Saturday sanctuary.’
Back in London, Sinead cut her chops at The Windmill in Brixton, another sanctuary, (although some would question that description). A cubby hole of creatives which has given birth to artists as provocative and dynamic as Goat Girl, Black Midi, Fat White Family, and Shame, her first performance took place here, for a spoken word evening called ‘New Gums,’ and as Windmill legend goes, was completely off-the-cuff with just a skeleton of a structure to hold it all together. “This has become my kind of way to work with musicians”, Sinead explains. "Just enough understanding to know where we will take it but there needs to be that unknown element; space for things to take shape and develop during each performance in its own right. That’s what keeps things alive for me. I never want to feel like there’s a script, you know?”
A roving band of musicians fit into Sinead’s live performances, but are usually built around guitarist Julian Hanson, who she met on a dancefloor through “strange moves and fragmented dialogue” and Oscar Robertson on the drums. As a band, they have attracted a plethora of artists renowned for sharpness of vision and undeniable sense of style, including The Brian Jonestown Massacre and perhaps, most majestically, John Cooper Clarke. “John Cooper Clarke is just such an impressive and humble character. He came up to me after my first show supporting him and read back some of my lines which he liked and had written down”, gushes Sinead. “Julian and I spent the night singing Velvet Underground songs with John and his manager over several nightcaps after one of the shows - so much fun. He’s a very pure character and a great conversationalist. I learnt a lot from him.”
Sinead’s space is a “a wild world made up of different characters” and during our exchange, she lets slip that she works with another character; a ‘Vivienne’. When I probe her on what Vivienne, she replies, rather obviously, - ‘Westwood’. The matriarch of punk. The crimson headed renegade that CSM students would exchange all the tartan in the world to work for. Sinead shrugs it off like it’s no more than a weekend bar job at Wetherspoons. “I work hard to be grounded”, is her final statement to me.