London Observer Service Dublin – There are some stars who cannot prevent themselves from shining. Even if you haven’t understood their success before, you get the point completely when you actually meet them. Dolores O’Riordan, lead singer of the Irish band the Cranberries, is not among them, at 5 feet 3 inches and weighing less than 100 pounds, she is not, as she admits, “a huge, voluptuous-type woman.”
In her black T-shirt and jeans, she looks particularly minuscule today, prostrate on a sofa in her hotel room. Her once platinum hair has reverted to matte black. Her skin is gray, her eyes dull. You cannot imagine her ever carrying off her “queen bee” entrances on stage – “descending a steep flight of steps to mix it with her drones,” as one of her many enemies in the music press put it. Indeed, you can’t really imagine her getting up from the sofa. Nor does she. Instead, she orders aspirin from room service. O’Riordan’s hangover is the most pop-star thing about her this morning, although she insists she hardly ever gets one these days. She was drunk for “a month solid” last time she toured and learned the lesson, Drinking, she says, is an English pop star thing: “A lot of English bands seem to think if they wear shades and lather pants and go around with a bottle of beer in their hands, they are a big hit.”
With or without a bottle in hand, O’Riordan is an indisputable hit. Having sold 13 million records in three years and ascended the top 10 lists of 25 countries, the Cranberries are Ireland’s biggest musical export since U2. Their success has made her an unusually rich 24-year-old with a liking for multiple house-buying and the ability to make dreams come true – one of them being to buy her mother a restaurant as a reward for the years she supported the family working in a factory canteen. A partial explanation for the Cranberries’ international success is, I suspect, the reason the pop purists resent it: O’Riordan’s unashamedly undemanding lyrics. There is not a sentence or a sentiment in her new album, “To The Faithful Departed,” that need detain you in any language. “Joe” is about how she loved her granddad (“I sat on your knees, every Friday”). “Bosnia” carries the uncontentious thought that war was “so unkind.” “Salvation” implores “all those people doin’ lines: don’t do it.” If your imagination were to snag on any of these lyrics rather than be lulled by their exquisite rendition, it would have nothing to do with their technical merit. By treating explicitly with universally felt emotions, these are songs that engage your heart even as they shut down your brain.
“It is,” she says, “very honest, direct stuff. I suppose that is why it broke through. A lot of people find it hard to be honest about their emotions. Actually, I find it quite hard to talk about them, but I find it quite easy to write them as a song.” Even though they’ll be shared with so many? “It’s fine because they all relate to it. They re all in the same boat, really. All the fans have those feelings and experiences – pretty simple, day-to-day stuff. Some people just prefer listening to a song than going to a psychologist.”
Actually, her songs would work as well for me if she hummed them (but the Cocteau Twins have already thought of that) or if they were obscured in Gaelic (the language she was tutored in at school). They might even work better. Some yearn to escape English entirely: the opening of “Ode To My Family” is a series of baby syllables; the chorus of “Electric Blue,” from the new album, is in Latin; “Bosnia” revolves into (and this is an official transcription): “Rummmpatitum, Rummmpatitum… Traboo, Traboo, Traboo…” It seems to me that if we are to grant her lyrics any worth, it is as a biographer’s tools. They then become as serious as anybody’s private diary and, in her case, perhaps more so, although we must take note of her confession: “I do exaggerate my emotions a little and I overreact for the sake of a song” – which may be the most honest thing ever uttered by a writer about literary effort.
The primary subject of her music emerges as her unequal relationship with men. Her first album, “Everybody Else Is Doing It, Why Can’t We (newspaper typo, should be “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We”) (1994) (another typo, should be 1993), deals with men as business partners and lovers. “Pretty” and “Put Me Down” are little more than grumbles directed at a local studio manager whom the Cranberries fell out with. Another, the famous “Linger”, concerns her first near-boyfriend, a 17-year-old soldier: “You know I’m such a fool for you,” she tells him; “You’ve got me wrapped around your finger.”
Her second album, “No Need to Argue,” agonizes over a doomed three-year romance with an Irish musician called Make O’Mahony, which can be encapsulated in three lines from the title track: “There’s no need to argue anymore, I gave you all I could/But it left me sore” (yet another typo, should read “There’s no need to aruge anymore, I gave all I could/But it left me so sore.”) “I ran away from home and moved in with him,” she says, “but the more successful I became, the more domineering he became and then physical violence stopped the relationship. It took me a year to get out because there was a lot of reverse psychology involved. There was this whole bit about: ‘You’re going to leave me now you are famous.’ The more successful I got, the worse it became. I was scared. I was really frightened.” I should add at once that when I put this to O’Mahony, he denies he was ever violent. “I have no idea why she is saying these things,” he tells me on the phone. “I’m very angry with her for saying them. “There are two kinds of hurt – physical and emotional, and I think I came out of the relationship more hurt than her emotionally… We had our rows like any couple, but it wasn’t anything violent.” Whatever the sad truth of all this, her songs suggest she was expecting a great deal from the relationship, almost the total protection a child seeks from a parent.
I am not entirely surprised to hear that she has only recently become close to her own father. She was brought up amid a family of seven children in a two-bedroom cottage outside Limerick, so his attention was necessarily divided. “We didn’t really talk when I was growing up,” she says. She never flirted with him? “No. I wanted to, but it just didn’t happen. So I kept that for when I was in my 20s.” So it was that her first song, written when she was 12, was about her crush on a 40-year-old. Now she writes songs about the 33-year-old she married two summers ago, Don Burton, former tour manager for Duran Duran, one of her favorite groups at school.
The new album sumptuously romanticizes the one-sided match. “In the day, everything’s complex/There’s nothing simple when I’m not around you,” she sings in “When You’re Gone,” while in “Electric Blue” she implores, “Always be near me, guardian angel.” Is she comparing the blue-eyed Burton with an angel? “In the song I’m kind of thinking,” she says sweetly, “that maybe somebody sent my husband to protect me.” I hope he appreciates the responsibility he bears.