This evening, O’Brien is sat in the shaded corner of a pub garden in Clapton. Straight from work, she’s wearing an immaculate suit, in smart contrast to the dog walkers and birthday parties jostling for a picnic bench and the final crumbs of late-summer sun. This is close to where she lives now, but during her six years in the city she’s moved regularly (deliberately). Those spaces have varied, from an old toy factory in Old Street to a disused convent building, and not long ago a mansion in Hampstead shared with 50 other people. One of those is where the track ‘Living With A Fugitive’ was born after a specialist police unit came knocking looking for a tenant. “I’m not overly precious about the soil and the roots,” she notes. “I’m happy to lightly tread between places.”
O’Brien was born in Dublin before the family moved west to Limerick where she lived until she returned to the Irish capital to study in her late teens. Her love of words and music began to develop at an early age, though they wouldn’t marry until much later. Sinead tells the story of how, when she was five or six, she would return from school with her ‘spelling book’ bulging with advanced new entries. Her parents grew suspicious and checked with the next-door neighbour (a primary teacher). “My dad was like, ‘she’s giving herself extra homework so that she can be better!” I was pretty keen on homework in general. I had a school bag before I had a school.”
Music wasn’t far behind either. “I was sitting in the car with my mum, I was six, and I completely remember. I just had this notion – I want to learn piano.” Initially, lessons were at a chaotic School for Music before she swapped those for the more formal private tutorials administered by a stern old-fashioned antiques dealer. “She took care of my hands,” remembers O’Brien. “Sometimes she would even take my nail varnish off. It was etiquette – you come like this to the class. I absolutely loved it.” She kept taking lessons until she was 18. “I’ve always done best under very tough teaching,” she says.
By her late teens the allure the big(ger) city – “my New York or something” – was growing. She had enlisted at college in Limerick, but after one year transferred onto a course in Fashion Design in Dublin – an intensive group with four teachers and twelve students. The rigorous mentoring style suited her, and towards the end of her studies O’Brien was selected to work at Dior in Paris for five months.
“John Galliano was fired right before I had gone there,” she says. “His earplugs were in the bathroom, it was that fresh [the fashion designer was filmed making anti semitic comments in 2011 and subsequently lost his job]. There was a strange atmosphere but I was quite intent on picking up on it and talking to all of the employees. They were all severely heartbroken for him.”
There, during her placement, she worked closely with Bill Gaytten (creative director), and assisted with fittings. “It just turned out that he liked the way I was working. I think I handed him a pin the right way around once instead of the spiky way. We started to get along.” Style, and specifically tailoring remains a big passion for O’Brien. In fact, it’s an area in which she still works. “It’s a celebration, a craft. I’m obsessed by tailoring and suits, everything to do with clothing and costume.”
However, it wasn’t just in fashion where O’Brien became well versed in Paris. During any spare time she’d indulge in the French tradition of drinking in cafés and watching the world go by. “Cafés – my second home,” she quips. As a distraction she began writing short observational poems. “At first they’d be more humorous – they were my way of entertaining myself. I would laugh and then maybe share it with a friend or something.” Together with a pal they came up with a title for these playful short passages: Freak Watching In The City. Sometimes she’d share these stories with mates, posting her work on Facebook. They’d do the same. “I liked the back ’n’ forth.” Soon that work took a more philosophical turn, or in O’Brien’s words, “became a bit bigger than funny shoes or something like that… but still looking at the daily things. The grit of it. People’s coming and going.”
When her stay in France concluded with a sad ferry boat ride (her mate accidentally booked onto the wrong ship) she arrived in London to fulfil a plan of meeting up with her friends from Limerick, Whenyoung. They’d get together on Friday nights, catch up and drink. Music would be shared and Sinead would read her latest poetry. The esteemed magazine London Review Of Books would later publish a short story of hers; a long way from her early adventures in writing, the tales of “nuns and priests having an affair” that she used to concoct with her childhood friend Aoife. John Cooper Clarke even invited her to support him on his spoken word tour.
“I got a handshake, like a welcome to the firm, kid. He was so welcoming and incredibly sociable. We stayed up all night at the hotel singing Velvet Underground together. He’s the best conversationalist I’ve ever met while also valuing everything you say. He actually introduced me to the music of Mark E. Smith – probably one of my most valuable references ever.”