Dolores O'Riordan - 'I went nuts. I was so lonely all that time'

The former Cranberries singer, Dolores O'Riordan, has had a crash or two, she tells Arifa Akbar. Now, with a second solo album in the offing, she's living at a slower pace

Friday 12 June 2009 00:00 BST

Dolores O'Riordan is telling me about the life-changing skiing accident she had at the age of 22. It's a good analogy for the trajectory of her early career in which she scaled the heights of pop fame at the tender age of 19 with the indie rock band, The Cranberries, toured the world for the next 13 years and then crashed to an almighty halt.

It was 1992 and O'Riordan found herself on the French Alps with her four other band members, donning skiing apparel and heading straight past the baby slopes for one of the most precipitous black runs in Val d'Isère . She had never skied before but, "what better way to begin?", she thought to herself, as she hurtled down the mountain at breakneck speed. Then she realised that she didn't know how to stop. It ended with morphine, wheelchairs, bedpans, major surgery and metal in her leg. She has never been able to run since. But a crash, she says, is not always a bad thing. It may even be the thing, she suggests, that saves you from yourself. Looking at O'Riordan, now aged 37, and in glowing health, she appears to have been saved.

Gone is the rock sneer and the heavy kohl-lidded look of the 1990s when she belted out "Zombie", a lament about The Troubles from the acclaimed 1994 album, No Need to Argue, which topped the charts across the world.

"I've turned away from politics for now," she says. "I'm in a peace-and-love kind of place."

She is now a tanned, relaxed, mother of four (a stepson aged 18, Taylor Baxter, aged 12, Molly Leigh, eight, and Dakota Rain, four) who has swapped her love of running for country-walking with her husband Don Burton, her former tour manager whom she married in 1994. She is also on the brink of releasing her second solo album in August, No Baggage, which still bears her inimitably lyrical, Limerick-accented voice, but with softer and brighter lilts than with The Cranberries.

The songs, she says, were inspired by motherhood and reflections on life, such as "Switch off from Life", delivered in almost a whisper, and "Be Careful (what you wish for)", which could almost be a reprimand by the older, wiser Dolores to her younger self. "The album's about life and the journey of life, looking back at the journey, and being aware of the fact that you only have one life and to love in the moment of your life," she says.

In 1990 O'Riordan replied to an advertisement for a singer for a band, then called The Cranberries Saw Us. The barefooted, quirky-haired lead vocalist shot to fame instantly with the rest of the band as The Cranberries' debut album, Everybody Else is Doing It, So Why Can't We? sold more than five million copies in America, and the act subsequently went on to become one of the biggest rock acts of the 1990s, selling 14.5 million albums in the United States alone and producing five albums in 13 years.

But, just like her experience on the black run, the journey came to a crashing stop at the age of 32.

Overwhelmed by a mix of performance anxiety, exhaustion and paranoia, O'Riordan and the rest of her band members announced a "hiatus" and stopped recording together. By then, they had also released the albums No Need to Argue (1994), To the Faithful Departed (1996), Bury the Hatchet (1999) and Wake Up and Smell the Coffee (2001) as well as a greatest-hits compilation.

"I just wanted to stay at home, do the laundry, take my children to school. Just switch off and be a mother. I enjoyed living in Canada, where my husband comes from, because I was treated like any ordinary person. I became a volunteer at my children's school, I went into the classroom. It was very grounding. I got sick of being famous," she explains.

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In fact, years earlier, at the age of 23 and during the height of her band's fame, O'Riordan had an experience that closely resembled a nervous breakdown. "It was really bad, a bit like the film, Jacob's Ladder. I thought people were watching me all the time. Looking back, I went nuts for a while. I didn't want to go out or leave my room and even when I was in the room, I'd see faces looking at me."

Part of this anxiety was born, she thinks, from having "too much too young", but some of it was also cultural. In Ireland, she says, where she had grown up singing in front of audiences in pubs, "people don't look at you singing. They go within themselves and listen. Music is about listening not looking. That's why I wore these huge baggy dresses on stage with The Cranberries," she says.

When she gave birth to her first child aged 25, she turned away from singing abruptly to transform herself into an "ordinary" woman and mother.

"It was a life-changing moment. I felt a huge urge to survive. I wanted to be here. For a long time before this point, I didn't want to be in the world. It was like being born again. I thought to myself, "I don't want to make music again". I stopped singing, even in the shower. When I started singing, I'd say "no" and stop myself."

When her son was two, she finally made peace with her musical past and returned to the recording studio with her bandmates to make the poignantly named album, Bury the Hatchet. "My son helped me get better. He made me happy. I wrote "Animal Instinct" about him. I found my happiness again so I started singing again."

"Before that, before my breakdown, I didn't live in the moment. I basically had the wrong kind of love and attention around me. I lived six years in a bus with strangers, touring the world with the band, seeing the insides of hotels. I lost touch with my friends. I was lonely all that time. I went nuts I was so lonely. These were days before mobile phones so I had to find a phonebox just to talk to my parents. I lost a lot of my youth."

O'Riordan is the youngest of seven children and always the talented "baby" of the brood. Born in Limerick to a devout Catholic family, her stark, punkish appearance was partly informed by her love of bands such as Depeche Mode, REM and The Cure, to whom she listened as a teenager, and partly by a reaction to the enforced austerity of her mother.

"Growing up, there was a lot of pressure for women to be good looking but my mum was very strict and she didn't allow me to wear make-up. Looking back, it was good for me. It slowed me down from becoming an adult too quickly."

She always knew she wanted to be a singer. Writing her first song, aged nine, her school teachers and friends knew it too. It came as no surprise when she became a household name in Ireland, as a teenager.

"Everyone at school knew I wanted to be a singer. I'd always be banging on the piano playing my new song. The teacher would gather us round and the whole class would listen," she recounts to me.

She has in the past made comments about the difficulties of working with women, and her own preference for being around men in her professional life, which has led to some criticism. But to conclude she is "unsisterly" would be a profound misunderstanding, she says.

"At a certain age, girls are complete bitches. They're terrible, females, compared to men. We are far more complicated creatures. Boys get things off their chest. Girls will play mind-games for a long time. We just have more complicated psychologies."

This second solo album is a follow-up to Are You Listening?, released in May 2007, but despite the fact that she's now "going it alone", she has not discarded the idea of a reunion tour with The Cranberries. But not just yet.

"It's funny, we all got together a few weeks ago and we've all got kids and babies. To bring kids into the world, you need to be there for them. I'm really enjoying taking things at my own pace."

'No Baggage' is out on August 24

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