On love, isolation, growth, creativity and flipping the switch.
My text alert tone goes off on Friday afternoon, three times in quick succession. Before we were due to catch up over FaceTime later that evening, I’d asked Sinead Harnett to send a couple of photos that captured what her everyday, isolation reality has been like over the last three weeks. First, came a photo of her piano, zoomed in to capture the full scale of the keys. Second, a framed photo of her nephew, Leo, with two KRK monitors placed either side. Then, a photo of her kitchen sink piled high with pots, pans and dishes. “How can I thrive in any way?”, she asks as we first start chatting, “I hate working from home. Or, rather, I hated.”
As an artist who’s worked tirelessly the world over since first breaking through in 2011, Sinead has spent much of the last decade going from writing session to writing session, and from meeting to meeting. Rarely taking time out — or giving herself a chance to heal from past trauma — her creativity often stifled and her moods sometimes erratic, she concedes that not all of her journey to this point has been plain sailing. Now, suddenly faced with the proposition of an uncertain period of time at home — “At first, I was like ‘oh my goodness’, what am I gonna do?” — Sinead has, in her own words, “flipped the switch”.
“Suddenly this switch went off in my brain and I realised, hang on a sec … I’ve been running around for the whole of my career, cramming in as much as I can; double session this day, flight there this day for a week’s writing camp, five meetings this day, a concert tonight and then finishing up, the album next month. I just thought to myself, why have I been living like that?”
It’s a question that has since sparked a flurry of activity from Sinead’s front room, beamed live via her Instagram account to a watching audience that is rapidly growing with each short broadcast. She’s even joined Tik-Tok, too. “Before, I was so busy running away from things and thinking, ‘who am I as an artist?’. Now, I wake up and look in the mirror and look at myself and think, ‘oh, you again!’. It’s made me realise, okay, this is who you are. It’s been a big realisation for me and a lot of people around me are saying the same thing. I know that what I’m choosing to do now is a lot less than I was doing before, but I feel like I’ve got a voice that I want to share with people.”
The time at home hasn’t been limited to just self-reflecting or jumping on Instagram either. “Another thing”, she quickly follows up, more passionately this time, “Why the hell were we allowed to fly as much as we did? Why does traffic fill the roads? How is the plastic industry still thriving? Why is the meat industry still ridiculous? The amount of damage we’ve done to the earth is incredible. We were living stupidly.”
Sinead released her debut artist album, ‘Lessons In Love’, in the autumn of 2019, a deeply personal record that traced years of trauma and heartache, but one that she was determined to frame in a positive light; all experiences, good and bad, can serve as lessons. Given her steely attitude to facing the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic so far, I wondered whether or not writing and releasing it had in any way prepared her for coping with life in isolation. “Basically, 2016 is when everything started to turn for me”, she recalls. “Up until then, I spent a lot of my life going in-and-out of really dark phases. I had a lot of healing to do for different reasons; all of us come with baggage, all of us have struggles, all of have issues and complications from our childhoods. The album, and all of the writing I did from 2016-2019, was a big part of the process of coming to terms with that. I knew I couldn’t move forward without facing myself and starting to like myself. I can see, even now, looking back at photos that I didn’t. I was so lost.”
“The amount of damage we’ve done to the earth is incredible. We were living stupidly.”
The album spawned singles like ‘Pulling Away’, ‘Leo Bear’ — a song dedicated to her nephew, Leo — and ‘Be The One’, which was recently re-booted with guest vocals from Col3trane, all of which not only feel entirely relatable in terms of their content, but also vividly cathartic; you can feel Sinead letting go, track-by-track. “The biggest lesson of the whole album is one of self-love”, she admits. “It’s almost like I had to write it and let it go. And now I’m a much more self-aware and self-loving person.”
In the midst of this album-writing cycle came a captivating COLORS performance of ‘Body’ in 2018, which saw Sinead fly to Berlin to record the track live in front of a small crew of videographers; “I’d much rather perform in front of a thousand people than three”, she concedes in hindsight, “it was so intense trying to get into my zone!”. It’s since amassed almost 15 million views and unbeknownst to her at the time, put Sinead on the map for an army of new fans. The ripples of that one performance can still be felt today, too, so much so that she was recently invited back to perform an isolation live stream via COLORS’ Instagram — a performance that piqued her interest in using Instagram to broadcast during the current pandemic. “What I love about COLORS is it’s such a discovery tool, people want to find slept-on, hidden gems on there” she says thoughtfully. “It’s interesting because a lot of people have said to me it felt like a moment, but I didn’t really see it like that at the time. When you’re the hamster on the hamster wheel, you don’t always know what you’re doing. Or where you’re going.”
Since that first COLORS performance on Instagram two weeks ago, Sinead has laid herself bare on the platform, not only as an artist performing live vocals and short sessions, but as a person, speaking openly, telling jokes and doing impressions of her mum; “It’s allowed people to see what a big, raging dork I really am”, she laughs. “Seriously though, we’ve got so much time to show who we are now, and we’re finding out how many people are actually hilarious. During the first week when everything with the lockdown was put into place, I felt it’d be wrong to share funny content and initially, I was feeling quite down myself. But I feel like it’s got to the stage now where we people need relief from the severity of the situation.”
“I knew I couldn’t move forward without facing myself and starting to like myself.“
As well as laughs, Sinead’s also brought a dose of activism to her live broadcasts, with those tuned in raising over £1000 for the NHS in 37 minutes during her latest stream. The method? Getting men to twerk live on camera, with some even choosing to pour cartons of milk over themselves — a tongue-in-cheek riposte to the apparent global obsession with girls twerking, which has seen artists like Tory Lanez and Swarmz smash Instagram Live records and amass thousands of new fans during isolation.
“I’m not gonna lie to you and say that people tuned into their Instagrams aren’t entertained, because there’s such a big demand for female bodies”, Sinead explains. “But what’s alarmed me most about the clips on social media are the comments popping up. People seem to think it’s okay to be mean and say awful things about the poor girls on camera. So I just thought, imagine girls got guys to dance. Would people like it?”
Despite being only two broadcasts deep, the answer to that question already seems to be an overwhelming yes. And guys seem just as keen to be involved, too. “What’s funny is that some people don’t know anything about Tory Lanez or Quarantine Radio, so I’ve had loads of guys prepped and ready to go with milk and all sorts. After the reaction to the first, I felt like I had a responsibility to make use of it and the NHS is in desperate need of PPE right now, so it made sense to fundraise. The response generally has been great. A lot of people have got in touch to say it’s a really good way to flip the switch, have a laugh and do something good at the same time.”
“So I just thought, imagine girls got guys to dance. Would people like it?”
With so much time on her hands for the first time in her career, it seems that Sinead Harnett is finally coming out of her shell. At ease with the person she is, confident and witty — “At this point, I reckon I could have my own talkshow on TV now” — writing freely and finding new ways to let fans into her world, she’s found silver linings in the most testing of situations. But more than anything, the lessons she’s learnt in her life so far, played out so viscerally on her debut album, have given her the perspective to confront the challenge of isolation head on.
“When and if this blows over and becomes a thing of the past, I really want to find a way to spread the word about treating the earth with the love and respect it deserves”, she concludes. “Personally too, I and I think all of us, need to slow down. I’m gonna do less, travel less, relax more and (mimics accent) ‘Just take it easy!’ as they say in Nacho Libre. The freedom this time has afforded me has helped me be more creative than any full diary ever has.”
Sinead Harnett broadcasts on Instagram Live weekly: https://www.instagram.com/sineadharnett