Sinead O’Brien: The Post-Punk Poet

To the layman, music and poetry appear similar. A song merely a poem with a backing track; a vehicle through which to demonstrate lyrical prowess and grasp of rhyme and rhythm. They are both similarly open for abuse – a drunk teen with an out of tune guitar at a party is surely as dangerous as an ill-prepared slam poet. However, it is rare that the same level of lyrical skill is required in music as it is to poetry. Very few take the opportunity to expound upon themes in the same way as are evocatively fleshed out in the best poetry. Of course there are always those exceptions to the rule. If there was ever an artist who, in a genre bending fusion of spoken word and post-punk guitars, combined the two art forms, then it surely is Sinead O’Brien. This is a challenge which she doesn’t take lightly, attesting: “I will be working my entire life to find the right words for my ideas on certain themes you know, and that’ll be my life’s work.”

O’Brien is regularly compared to the punk poet John Cooper Clarke, with whom she has performed. He, like O’Brien, blurs the lines between performance artist and musician. Those with an enthusiasm for alliteration might term her the ‘post-punk poet’, but there is distinctly more to O’Brien than this. As far as she is concerned, comparisons are clichéd, “Maybe we should look a bit further beyond that – and get ready for what’s next. I move fast!”

She surely does move fast, having recently released ‘Kid Stuff’, the follow up to 2020’s Drowning in Blessings EP and 2019’s ‘Taking On Time’. This is impressive considering the intervening pandemic. The forced break granted O’Brien that precious commodity of time, time to work on new music and material, “I devoured the hours – pen in hand.” Her most recent single sees a reunion with Speedy Wunderground’s eccentric Dan Carey. Whilst other artists have reported on his kooky techniques (flying amplifiers and the like), Carey captured O’Brien as a performer in a different way. Recognising the collaborative backbone that is the interaction between O’Brien and members Julian Hanson and Oscar Robertson, Carey challenged them to, “Imagine that we weren’t a band. Not just three people. It made sense to change the scene a bit.”

Lyrical craft is at the forefront of O’Brien’s style, evident from her first single ‘Taking On Time’. It is a pensive piece and a call to arms against the relentless ticking of time and a song which explores O’Brien’s perception of her position in the world. It is clear that this eagerness for self-reflection is a constant: “I’m always positioning myself in the world when I write – I’ll never be done with that. It gives me perspective on who I am. It’s how I learn and see growth.” This does beg the question, where is O’Brien now? The answer is a vision of productivity, “A private space at the moment. reading, writing, working on new material and reflecting. It’s a sacred place.”

This is perhaps why O’Brien is so prolific, an incredibly expressive performer and unbound from using simply music as a medium for this expression. Notably an example of her short fiction was recently published in London Magazine: “I am exploring different forms with my writing and sometimes find I can shape-shift but there are other times when something comes out just as it meant to and is solid as a rock – not a poem or song but something else so I pay attention to that and try to find the right context for those too.”

Of course, Sinead O’Brien will always be spatially tied to her hometown of Limerick, a place conveniently named after its own poem structure. There is a certain weight of expectation that comes with being a lyricist from a centre of such literary history. These Irish writers are a consistent inspiration: “I love reading Irish writers and poets, some of my favourites who I return to time and time again are Beckett, Heaney, Yeats, Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Brendan Behan. There are certain themes which unify writers throughout time, which will always be fascinating and will never be ‘complete’ in a way because though they are universal experiences they are never identical. It’s important not to write off a topic or area of interest because someone has touched on it before.”

The result is that O’Brien’s work is very grounded. The ordinary is perhaps the only canvass broad enough for her multi-disciplined stylings. There is also a safety in the ordinary: “I find vivid environments very helpful rooms to place my ideas within. They sort of help to hold down the dreamer in me with some weighty everydayness.” A contrast exists between the everyday inspiration in O’Brien’s work and the bounds of her imagination, but as any fantasiser will argue, “There’s a good tension there.”

Words: Oscar Edmondson // Photos: Wanda Martin

Sinead O’Brien’s latest single ‘Kid Stuff’ is out now via Chess Club Records. Stream the release here. You can also catch her live at Rough Trade Bristol on Monday 25th October 2021, as promoted by No Need To Shout in collaboration with Wax Music – tickets are available here.

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