Sinead O’Brien on “Time Bend and Break the Bower” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, May 23rd, 2024  

Sinead O’Brien on “Time Bend and Break the Bower”

Manifesting Myths

Jun 10, 2022 Web Exclusive Photography by James Loveday (for Under the Radar) Bookmark and Share

Irish poet, performer, and musician Sinead O’Brien seems to thrive on being her own agent of change. You get the sense of a restless spirit, of one questing for knowledge, embracing new experiences, and searching for deeper meaning. And it’s probably that tension that led to her taking a leap of faith and moving away from her day job as a senior designer for Vivienne Westwood after gravitating toward music and poetry.

“At quite a young age I had a list of seemingly impossible missions,” O’Brien explains. “I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m going to go to art school,’ and then I said, ‘Okay I’m going to do fashion.’ And then I found out the big fashion houses only accept students from St Martin’s College [University of the Arts London] so I’m going to have to find a way in. I’m a big fan of manifesting. Like if you think something and then say it out loud, you’re already on the pathway of working towards making that a reality.”

She began writing after completing a degree in womenswear design and moving to Paris, where she interned for John Galliano. “Previously, I’d often take lots of photos as a means to document my experiences,” O’Brien explains, “but in Paris, I just felt like writing them down instead. At that point, it wasn’t writing poetry, it was just writing in notebooks whilst at cafes as a functional thing. It was more to amuse friends initially, to record some of the strange things I’d witnessed. There was always a bit of humor in there.” But when O’Brien moved to London, she continued the routine of setting aside time to write her observations down. “I’d go to cafes with a notebook and just write. Then later I’d read them to friends, like before we’d be going to see a gig.” It was then that O’Brien noticed that when reading her observations out loud, a certain rhythm was coming through. “To be quite honest, I hadn’t really studied the poets since school, but I certainly noticed a stylistic shift when I came back to London.”

Whilst working for Vivian Westwood, she continued to write and found her training in design very useful. She was also an avid music fan and had friends who were in bands, so combining her powerful words with music seemed like a natural progression. “Design gave me a discipline—I was used to working with mood boards to map out my ideas. I’d studied classical piano when I was younger, but I guess as a visual thinker, the first time I went into a studio, it helped me explain what I wanted to achieve with my music. I’m still learning lots about the technical side. In fact, in the studio, I probably ask way too many questions. I’m like that annoying kid to who people eventually respond, ‘Oh just go and ask your dad,’” she laughs.

Her music was described as “post punk Sprechgesang” by the music press, with O’Brien often referred to as being part of the London Windmill music venue scene. Whilst she doesn’t reject any of these assertions, she doesn’t find this sort of pigeonholing particularly interesting or exciting. “I understand the psychology of labels for journalists and I totally get the use of genres in record stores and Spotify, but as an artist, it’s not really for me to get into it. I suppose I prefer writers who try to come at things from new angles. I mean, what does post punk even mean? Just everything that came after punk? Whilst Vivian Westwood was pivotal in helping me shape my identity, I don’t think there’s too much of the ’70s in me. I guess labels can be a bit reductive. Perhaps people should look at the artists who have been associated with the Windmill and who work with [producer] Dan Carey like Black Country, New Road; black midi; Squid; and myself and look at the differences rather than the similarities.” As for being part of a scene, O’Brien, whilst always happy to meet and collaborate with artists (“I love a good conversation,” she laughs), she doesn’t particularly feel part of any new movement. “Believe it or not, I’m actually not at the Windmill every Friday night. There are many people who I’ve been connected to in various articles I’ve actually never even met!”

When O’Brien set about working on her debut album Time Bend and Break the Bower alongside her musical collaborators—guitarist Julian Hanson and drummer Oscar Robertson—her process involved the discipline of routine, combined with the freedom of being open to her creative muse. “I find writing in the morning when you’re still not quite your rational self helpful—you’re probably closer to your dream-like state than later in the day,” she reasons. “So I’d sit down with a specific pen and I tend to write in capitals, which all helps with the flow and tempo and I see what develops. The rhythm is something that comes very early on, and the more I write, the more it becomes apparent. It’s kind of intuitive because I know the intention behind the words. Like, is it emotional? Is it sarcastic? Does it need repetition?”

It’s certainly an album full of power and grace, and O’Brien’s words, like prophetic incantations, are driven by Hanson’s and Robinsons’ powerful playing. It’s visceral and gritty, replete with mythical apocalyptic landscapes and religious allegories, but there is beauty, with ruminations on nature, love, identity, and decay. However, O’Brien didn’t initially have an overarching theme in mind.

“I’m a really structured rational person in relation to how I work. But with music you have to trust your instincts,” she explains, “and that does mean placing a lot of trust in yourself. I mean I could have written 20 demos which bore no relation to each other. But when you’re writing, recurring themes ‌emerge, things I’ve ruminated on in life such as the passage of time, and my ‌identity and perhaps the most surprising elements that came up were memories of home, my sense of place and Irishness and the stories I grew up with. This allowed me to explore the current state of the world, but through the lens of myth and legend, from the tales my grandparents told me.” Each song on the album is fizzing with ideas, and there’s a deftness and subtlety employed by O’Brien, which can convey a variety of atmospheres amongst often surprising tonal shifts. “Sometimes you can go in soft, you don’t always have to put your pedal to the floor,” she laughs.

Take the apocalyptic “End of Days,” for example, which mines the aforementioned myths and legends of her childhood but given a contemporary twist. “Ah yes so in that song I take elements of an old legend,” O’Brien explains. “There’s a race of people who live in the land of eternal youth called Tír na nÓg, a place that knows no sorrow and where nobody ever ages. They live across the ocean, but if they leave, they begin to age and decay. So these little snippets rose up and provided sparks of inspiration. I also went to see a dance show by Rambert Co. in Saddlers Wells Theatre, which featured the difficult birth of a child who was to be an oracle that was born into this tribe. When it arrived, it was grotesque, and it was revealed that it was a product of the times. And that really hit me, what’s born now is a product of the times. I had this image of a bird-like creature, its wings covered in oil and pollution from the oceans set against a kind of Samuel Beckett landscape, a barren beach strewn with people rocking back and forth. They are waiting for a final judgement and then they find out that you are your own judge. You decide if you think you did right or wrong throughout your life. From there I zoomed all the way back to the present with the realization I can choose the right path now to avoid ending up on that beach on judgement day. So yes,” she laughs, “it’s fair to say there’s a lot going on in that song. But honestly, I loved the entire process of writing the album. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more content or more like me.”

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