"I transport myself through my imagination," admits the Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad Lohan. "In fact, I think it's my greatest asset." While Sinéad's other attributes -- her intuitive command of language, her strikingly inventive and effortless blend of musical materials from Celtic folk to trip-hop, the poignant otherworldly chime of her voice -- are certainly contenders for "greatest asset," it is the ineffable force and clarity of her imagination that gives her music its emotional range and dreamlike ambiance. Indeed, Sinéad's imagination is the source of her sensibility, providing a singular and expansive inquiry into the nature of consciousness and the secrets of the heart.
On No Mermaid, Sinéad Lohan's second album, the singer distills the raw turbulence and mystery of human emotion into a singular essence, creating a window into an invisible world that exists within the confines of our own. "I take photographs of feelings and instants," she says of her songwriting. "I want to express things that are very internal. There are no 'messages.' I just get so involved with an emotion that I know when I sing the song on stage, the sentiment returns -- because the sentiment is sincere, it's real." In her music, Sinéad combines the rigors of traditional songcraft with an expansive palette evoking a spectrum of sonic references. "In writing," she confesses, "I first think of melodies in my head -- simple, repetitive, hypnotic melodies that draw the listener in. Then the lyrics suggest themselves."
Sinéad's is the art of suggestion and allusion, her music a manifestation of life's kinetic emotional core. "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 there's a feeling way down in the music. That's why I've always been inspired by sound like the hum of a washing machine or the rhythm of a moving train." It's these rhythms of life, as profound and regular and un(self)conscious as breathing, that propel the songs on No Mermaid. The title song is a declaration of psychic independence, the singer rejecting the external imposition of myth upon the self in favor of a reality that's more fantastic than fiction: "I am no mermaid/And I am no fisherman's slave/I keep my head above the waves." "Don't I Know" begins with a deceptively lo-fi beatbox shuffle before an elegantly melodic double-tracked vocal kicks in. Sinéad creates a deep-pocket groove to hold the psychological complexity of "Loose Ends," a song which contemplates the weaving and unraveling of life's narrative threads. In a majestic statement as musically anthemic as it is personally revelatory, Sinéad promises to confront life's demons "Whatever It Takes." No Mermaid's 12 songs come full circle with "Diving To Be Deeper," in which the protean heroine of the title song accepts and welcomes the oceanic undertow of mystery; she is no longer content to merely keep her head above the waves. "The songs exist apart from me," she's claimed. "They're floating around and I catch them."
Sinéad Lohan was born in County Cork, Ireland, and was first exposed to music in a decidedly 20th century manner: via the media. "I used to love watching 'Top Of The Pops,'" she admits. "I felt older when I listened to music and I could always tell the real stuff. It stirs emotions in me when I hear people sing with that spirit. I try to do that now. You give it all you have and feel you've nothing left, but you still find a way to take it further. That's where I want to go." At the age of 13, she began to write poems "full of mixed-up metaphors" and preferred the music of Sting and Paul Weller to traditional Irish jigs and reels. A year after leaving school, she enrolled in a music business course. "Initially, it covered a lot of the business side," she remembers, "so there was no call to sing or write at all -- and I honestly didn't know how I could. Then one day we all had to sing a song we'd written and I thought, 'right, if they all laugh, I'll pretend it's not my song.'" Needless to say, they didn't laugh. In fact, the reaction to Sinéad's first "performance" was so positive that she soon began to perform regularly at The Lobby, a "small, but intimate, upstairs room" of a pub in Cork. She'd started writing songs at the age of 17 and spent two-and-a-half years recording them with her musical partner, guitarist Declan Sinnott (Horslips/Moving Heart) in his back-garden studio. She made her first impact on the Irish music scene with "Sailing By," a single from the Woman's Heart 2 collection.
In early 1995, Sinéad's debut album, Who Do You Think I Am, produced by Sinnott, was released in Ireland, where it reached #8 on the charts. "Sailing By," a single from the album was a major Irish airplay hit. She went on tour with the Woman's Heart roadshow, which sold-out some 25,000 seats in Dublin and three nights at London's Apollo Theatre. In March 1995, she took her band on the road to play her first solo tour of Ireland and was heralded as the freshest new talent to arrive on the Irish music scene in years. In a mere five months, Who Do You Think I Am was declared platinum in Ireland.
Over the course of 1996, Who Do You Think I Am was released in the U.K. and Europe to universally positive notices. In August 1996, she released a single of her version of Bob Dylan's "To Ramona," the only cover tune in her performing repertoire. It hit #9 on the Irish charts and remained on the charts for more than four months. The success of the single brought Who Do You Think I Am back onto the Irish charts. The fall of 1996 saw Sinéad recording a track for a William Butler Yeats tribute album and touring Europe with the Blue Nile. She was nominated for the inaugural Cream of Irish Awards. She was voted Best Newcomer in the 1996 National Entertainment Awards, one of the Irish entertainment industry's highest honors. She closed out 1996 recording her first demos for No Mermaid.
In May of 1997 Sinéad traveled to New Orleans to meet Malcolm Burn, a longtime collaborator with Daniel Lanois who'd also worked with Peter Gabriel and Shawn Colvin. She returned in August to begin recording No Mermaid.
With Burns at the production helm, Sinéad began to take her music in a bold new direction. The songs for Who Do You Think I Am had been written between four and six years before the album's release and reflected the sensibility of a much younger Sinéad. No Mermaid would be the showcase for a fully-realized artistic vision. "I'm very enthusiastic about this album," she says, "very happy with how the songs are presented." She couldn't be happier about her choice of producer. "We're both strong-willed people and we worked without interference," she comments. "Most of the time I was happy to have Malcolm do exactly as he feels. He has such great ideas."
But ultimately, there's no way to explain the mysteries of No Mermaid; they're known best to Sinéad herself and seem destined to be revealed in the hearts of her listeners. "Nobody knows what I write about exactly," she has said. "Nobody knows why I write and nobody ever sees me write. If I lived in a different century, they might have burned me as a witch for expressing myself the way I do. The funny thing is, I don't understand most of the songs when I write them and then they become obviously relevant to what I'm going through a few months or a year later. They're like predictions and then like comforts."
If the songs on No Mermaid are predictions, then we can all take great comfort in the future.
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