Interview: Exploring the Creative Mind of Sinead O Brien

Thursday, June 18, 2020
Photo by Nicholas O’Donnell

Limerick-grown and London-based artist and performer Sinead O Brien is never afraid of a challenge. By day, she’s an accomplished fashion designer at Vivienne Westwood’s design house and then at night, she’s enchanting audiences with her electric and all-consuming blend of spoken word poetry and music. Along with mastering the art of fashion and music, she’s also an experienced dancer and writer.

Before the pandemic, O Brien would challenge herself by facing unfamiliar situations and living environments — including a convent, Dublin for art school, and living in a mansion with fifty others among some of the places that she has found herself living in. But now, her feet are firmly on the ground and she’s found a new sense of comfort in staying at home in London.

Though moving around is something that she still values, she doesn’t always need to be away to feel inspired — she's discovered other ways of doing this at home. “It doesn’t necessarily need to be my environment anymore. I can find it in different ways now and lockdown has really challenged me. Those same adventures and situations aren't presenting themselves, so I’ve become an indoor traveller.”

Without making her usual daily commute to and from work, she’s also found a new routine. “I’m used to getting up and rushing off. It takes me an hour and a half to get to work every morning and I’ve used that time previously for answering all of my music emails and to jot down ideas for the day. That first hour in the morning is so creative for me, so is the last hour before I sleep.”

She’s also spent more time writing during lockdown ⁠— not only lyrics but also other forms of writing too. “I’ve started writing and reading much more,” said O Brien on the last few months. “Every morning I have different notebooks. I have a dream notebook, I’ve got my work-in-progress notebooks and I’ve got my laptop with my non-fiction section open. I just top up all these up during that hour and see what comes.”

O Brien embraced many different forms of creativity when she was growing up, but creative writing wasn’t particularly something she did a lot of. When she was growing up, she was mainly drawn to the performing arts, including drama, musicals and dance. “My parents had to drive me to all these different classes and clubs many nights of the week or on the weekend.” Even now as an adult, dance classes and lessons are something that she finds stimulating.

“I still do dance classes when I’m not busy or on tour. I think seeing yourself progress and having a teacher there is kind of an important thing. I feel like as you get older, you maybe in some sense miss that authority ⁠— that figure who can mark your progress and share that back with you. It’s quite a childish thing, but I really do enjoy that aspect of class activities.”

Often, these various art forms, like dance, will subconsciously influence the music that she’s working on. “I was working on choreography with a friend for a video, just some loose choreography. When I was reading the list of instructions I had written when I got home, I suddenly recorded it. I then shared it with Julian [Hanson] and it became a track idea.”

On the creative writing front, O Brien recently had a piece of writing published in The London Magazine, which is the UK’s oldest literary periodical. She’s also previously had literary work published by the London Review of Books. Despite much of her writing outside of music not having a format reminiscent of traditional song lyrics, diving into these other forms, including essay writing and other non-fiction formats, has also influenced her immensely.

“I’m going quite deeply into my writing lately, treating it like a different form of writing with personal essays or non-fiction. They’re quite pure and they have no lyrical sense yet. I’m finding that really rich because I would never get the chance to go so deeply as I am right now. I think it’s feeding my music all the more, and the deeper I go into any of these different forms, it bounces back tenfold.”

It wasn’t until after O Brien finished schooling that she became drawn to writing as a form of self-expression, especially poetry — she was appealed to the way her words allowed her to speak louder than ever before. “After education is when I started to find my own voice. I didn’t feel like it was such a loud voice before when I was at school. It really came to me afterwards and maybe as a reaction to that.”

Today, poetry continues to be a contested literary form that’s either loved or loathed. O Brien notes that people shouldn't be afraid of poetry as there are no mistakes that can be made when attempting it without experience or formal education.

“You have to be brave. Don’t be afraid to speak. There are no mistakes. People can maybe be afraid of putting things out in public, but I think you can learn a lot and the connections that you will make and the conversations that you will spark up will enrich you. It’s important to just get out there and be brave, I think above all else.”

Music, another substantial creative output in her life, is a collaborative process and she works with her band, including Julian Hanson and Oscar Robertson, closely to bring her ideas, lyrics, inspiration and early arrangements to life. “It’s extremely collaborative,” says O Brien. “In the beginning, I think everybody was in their element and it takes time to find where you can overlap and how much input everyone wants and needs, or what’s the ideal balance. We’re lucky in the sense that nobody is offended in the band when there are suggestions or changes.”

Along with her band, she has frequently collaborated with Speedy Wunderground’s Dan Carey, who produced singles such as ‘Taking On Time’ (which was released as 7-inch single under the label in 2019), ‘Roman Ruins’, and ‘Fall With Me’. O Brien and her band instantly felt a creative connection with Carey when they first met with him. “He just got me like no one else, musically. He got the band, and he got our setup.” By lunchtime during their first meeting at his studio, they had wrapped up ‘Taking On Time’. Carey’s notable twenty-four-hour deadline for tracks works hand-in-hand with the way O Brien likes to approach music. “I’m not about perfect, I’m about catching the feeling. That’s my priority.”

After an impressive run of singles, O Brien is set to unveil her highly anticipated EP Drowning In Blessings, which was produced by Carey and will be released via Chess Club Records. The official release date of the EP is yet to be revealed, but you can expect to hear it in its entirety within the next few months.

Just like everything else she does, it’s important to not rush something that doesn’t feel ready, this includes the EP. “I never rush anything. I'm working constantly and I'm quite quick, and I've been producing a lot recently, but I never rush anything. I adhere to deadlines, but I absolutely wouldn't rush something out if it's not how I wanted it or if the quality wasn't quite right. I'm really happy to share work in progress, but a release is different. I just would never compromise it. I always want to stick to my reason for creating. There's just no point in compromising that. It's not quantity over quality. People deserve to get that valuable content as well.”

The music community has often referred to her as a ‘post-punk poet’, however, genre isn't something that she often thinks about when working on music. “It’s a description that has come from outside," she says on labels. “It's very hard to describe what you're doing yourself. I don't think it's even necessary. I'm not so keen to put descriptive adjectives on it because it feels limiting.” She will continue to approach making music without genre in mind, though the ‘post-punk’ label doesn’t overly bother her — especially when post-punk is about speaking up and making one's voice heard.

“It's a very energy-charged kind of movement that we're seeing at the moment. I think it's just people being fueled to speak up and have their voices heard like never before. I think people are feeling a sense of urgency to speak for several different reasons. Collectively, it's about coming together.”

Written by Amy Smolcic 

Listen to 'Roman Ruins' below:

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