Interview - Sinead Lohan: The Irish enigma

Ireland's produced more than its fair share of pop stars over the last few years. Now singer and songwriter Sinead Lohan looks set for stardom. Just don't expect her to talk about it
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THE QUESTION I really wanted to ask Sinead Lohan was, "Why should we care?" There are so many songs in the world already, so many records to buy. After Janis and Joni, Tracey and the other Sinead, and countless more over the years, there can't be much room left in the pigeonhole marked "female singer-songwriters". So why should a softly-spoken woman from County Cork expect to take our money?

I wanted to ask that, as we gathered up coffee and sparkling water in a rented room at an ultra-fashionable hotel in Dublin. There were other questions too. Why did Lohan think the people of Ireland had taken her to their hearts, so that her debut album went double platinum? What special magic did she have at the start, to make her stand out from the thousands of other young girls with a taste for poetry and strumming?

Like every other bedroom guitarist, she was a Bob Dylan fan. So how did it feel to receive what must be one of the ultimate accolades? Joan Baez - protest-singing legend of the Sixties, one of Bob's former lovers and worldwide queen of the folkies - recorded two of Lohan's songs last year and used one of them, No Mermaid, as the title track of an album.

I wanted to ask all that, and more, as she shook her braided hair and curled up in a big beige armchair. But there were two problems. Firstly, she was tired. It was only mid-morning, and last night the pick of Dublin's pop and rock fraternity had turned up at the Olympia Theatre to watch her play. Secondly, and far worse for me, she seemed to think she was Van Morrison.

It wasn't that she was as rude or grumpy as that reticent Ulsterman can be. Sinead Lohan was polite enough, but she clearly belonged to the school of performers that believes the songs should speak for themselves. "You can explain things away to death," she said in a lilting voice that was both quiet and determined. "The people I listen to - Van Morrison, for example - I like the feeling, the place he takes you to in yourself. It's so inspiring, and it makes you feel you've blended in with everything in the world. I wouldn't be trying to explain that, and I wouldn't be asking him, `What do you mean?'"

Which is fine if you're an enigmatic legend or you're talking about songs with a clear message, but Lohan's are anything but that. From No Mermaid, the title track of her own new album, to the song which closes it, Diving to Be Deeper, her lyrics are awash with watery imagery, and their meanings are as elusive as sunlight playing on the waves. "I take photographs of feelings," she says. "There are no messages. I try to make melodies that are hypnotic, that go round and round until you don't know what I'm saying or what it means but which you can feel way down."

Watching her sing live, or listening to the records, you start out thinking she's a space cadet, and then slowly become captivated (or should that be hypnotised?) by her strange charm. Unfortunately, in conversation, we never got past the first of those two stages. It was hardly a surprise when she confessed a passion for Lewis Carroll, creator of Wonderland and master of nonsense. "I love the impossible. I survived my childhood still believing in imaginary people and different realms. That's what I feed on, really."

Lohan was brought up by her mother, a widow, in the centre of Cork city. Dublin is the official capital of Ireland, a mainstream European city that still has traces of its colonial past, but Cork is something different - smaller, more independent, more tangibly Irish with a proud record of resistance to foreign rule. The surrounding countryside is beautiful, the economy there still rural, but Cork is also a magnet for all those bohemian types who have chosen the west coast of Ireland for its laid- back lifestyle but who still need a shot of culture from time to time.

Lohan began writing things down at the age of about seven or eight. "Then I got into music when I got older. It's such a huge medium and you can expose yourself in a way that can be very vulnerable, but if you do it in a clever sort of way, or with a different twist every time, then you don't have to give anything away, really."

Those words reminded me of the previous night's show, when she'd seemed able to hide, despite the spotlight. Dressed all in baggy black, with Alice-band in hair, she shared private jokes with the band rather than talk to the audience. Only when the big pale acoustic guitar that served as her shield was taken off and she stood alone to sing was there a real sense of communication between audience and performer.

This lack of stage craft must have been by choice rather than ignorance, because at 17 she left school for a college course in popular music. It covered all aspects of the business, from contracts and management to performance and production. Had she intended to become a star? "Absolutely not. I went on the course to learn sound engineering because I thought at least that would keep me around music. Then one fine day the teacher asked everyone to write a song. I sang one of mine and he said, `Oh, that's pretty good.'"

Only a month after her first gig, at a small venue in Cork, the 17-year- old began recording a debut album with Declan Sinnott, right-hand man to the Irish legend Mary Black, who outsells U2 in her own country. Black's music is a traditional synthesis of Irish folk and mainstream rock, and the album that Lohan recorded in fits and starts when Sinnott was available over the next two years was very much in the same style.

"I didn't have any experience of singing into a microphone, or of being in the studio, or of production. I just had a bunch of acoustic guitar songs and some very vague ideas in my head. I had the opportunity to be produced by a really great guitar player who was a well-known producer, so I was lucky. I think he did a very good job with what he had, and it sold very well here."

Which is a diplomatic way of saying she has grown out of all that, thank you. Sinnott is no longer on the scene. The new album was recorded in New Orleans with Malcolm Burn, who has worked with Daniel Lanois and Peter Gabriel, and has a much more modern sound. The swampy atmospherics provided by Burn go well with ideas and rhythms conceived by Lohan after listening to the likes of Massive Attack and Portishead. Released tomorrow, the album's being promoted with a series of live dates at HMV shops around the country. Dates in Europe will be followed by a tour of Britain in September, when the first single Whatever It Takes is released.

The question remains, why should we care? Because of the fragile beauty of her music at its best, which seems both ancient and modern. Also because Lohan is part of a new generation of young Irish women performers who don't feel they have to struggle with traditional culture and the Church in the way that even recent predecessors like Sinead O'Connor or Dolores O'Riordan have. She has something new to say, then, but just don't ask her to talk about it. Leaving, I asked Sinead Lohan if a word in her song Out of the Woods, was "into the picture with you" or the more cinematic "pictures". Her answer? "If that's what you think it is, then that's what it is."

Sinead Lohen's new album, `Is Anything', is released tomorrow

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