Sinead O Brien is a little outraged. She’s just found out that the cafe where she’s suggested for our interview has been labelled on Google Maps as “cosy”. It is, it turns out, her least favourite word and emotion. If you’ve heard anything by the Irish singer/songwriter/poet so far, you would recognise that sentiment. She regularly shuns safety and familiarity, chasing after the beautiful unknown and all the uncertainty that comes with it in her complex work.
“I don’t like the idea of being settled,” she tells NME. “I find it very hard to imagine permanence in any way, and I can’t really get to grips with why. I have a deep need to keep myself alert, and to make sure I’m seeing all the time. I always have to find these ways of uprooting myself and disturbing my life path.”
This mission statement comes bursting out on propulsive recent single ‘Taking On Time’, released via lauded indie label Speedy Wunderground as part of their singles series. “Order and chaos have stained my name,” she speaks over a rollocking, surging wave of guitars and drums before laying out her mantra: “Possessed by ideas, now I take on time.” See recent singles singles ‘A Thing Called Joy’ and ‘Limbo’, which are further proof of her pulverising vocal performances.
Despite this constant need for upheaval – she’s moved across London at least five times in the last year – O Brien says she “adores” routine, and that influenced the slithering ‘Limbo’. “It’s about the mind-numbing in-between of the everyday,” she explains. “I can’t find any change or any difference or any progress, and it can be really hard to deal with these really banal states. I find it really heavy and really challenging. I don’t want to be comfortable – I want to be shaken.”
When she moved to London after a time studying in Paris and meeting guitarist and collaborator Julian Hanson and drummer Oscar Robertson, the idea of putting music to her diary entries became a reality. While Sinead’s vocals sit front-and-centre, and remain the focal point throughout, she writes none of the music. It matches her tone, however. Take ‘A Thing Called Joy’, where surging guitars rise with her most impassioned rants, but also withdraw when required, allowing the quieter musings to be heard.
“I’m really thankful that we’re there, but I wouldn’t know how to create it from scratch. A lot of it is down to the connections you have with people, and that’s why I’m really precious about the people that I work with. You can’t overly direct the whole thing – it has to be a natural feeling between the group.”
Though O Brien’s lyrics often sound like poetry, and started as undefined scribblings in a notebook, she’s rarely performed them live without music. It was only when she was asked to perform spoken-word in support of John Cooper Clarke on tour that she took the plunge solo. “The words are always supposed to be at the front and on the top, but it’s nothing without the scenery of music,” she explains. “Somebody said after [one of the John Cooper Clarke shows] that they could hear music in it, which was brilliant, because of course I could hear the music when I was doing it, too.”
Entering 2020 with new music in her back pocket, Sinead O Brien continues elude familiarity. “It’s like I’m chasing myself around in circles – nothing is changing so I’m going to have to do it myself. I’m going to have to shake the ground on which I’m standing. I think I’m going to be forever chasing,” she says. The slight smile that involuntarily pops up as the singer finishes the sentence seems to suggest that she’s absolutely fine with that.