No fish out of water

Sinead Lohan’s light, assured Irish brogue is barely audible on my end of the receiver, as she explains that she’s looking for a “cupboard to hide in” (in the background, her band is doing a full-throttle sound check). But Lohan seems eager, even while crouching under a desk, to talk about the musical journey that has brought her to America.

Lohan and her band are in the middle of an eight-week tour (during which she’ll visit Asheville for the first time) in support of her critically acclaimed new CD, No Mermaid (Interscope Records, 1998).

Lohan’s sound is a seductive, hypnotic and seemingly effortless blend of genres that range from Celtic folk to trip-hop. “I try to make melodies 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,” she explains. “That’s why I’ve always been inspired by sounds like the hum of a washing machine, or the rhythms of a moving train.” These life rhythms inform all the songs on No Mermaid.

“I’ve always had a love for [music],” Lohan says. “I just didn’t know how I could do it.” She means make a living out of writing and singing her own songs — a common challenge for singer/songwriters, whose original works sometimes sell better when performed by someone else. So Lohan decided, in her late teens, to pursue the business side of music (i.e., how to market songs) by taking a class being offered near her home in County Cork, Ireland.

“One day [in class], 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,'” she recalls. But the class didn’t laugh, and when the term was over, Lohan was so encouraged by her peers’ positive reactions that she began to perform full-time, mostly in local pubs. The next several years were spent writing and recording the kind of songs that are designed to, as she describes it, “stir emotions” — culminating in the release of a popular single, “Sailing By,” which officially put her on Ireland’s music map.

Lohan’s first full-length CD, Who Do You Think I Am? (Grapevine Records), debuted three years ago. Originally available only in Ireland, it went platinum within five months and was then released all over the U.K., to further acclaim.

But though European success seemed evident, Lohan had yet to conquer the U.S. and the radio/MTV-driven frenzy that marks American music. Luckily, getting lost in the pack was not to be Lohan’s fate. She was spotted by Mark Spector, her current manager, while performing with another Spector’s client, Joan Baez, during a British tour. Lohan’s performance stopped the industry folks in their track — a scene Spector recently recalled for the Los Angeles Times.

“I was standing backstage with Joan, and we found ourselves drawn to the side of the stage,” Spector recalled. “We became fascinated by her, over the space of 20 minutes.”

Baez’s fascination led her to record two of Lohan’s songs, which are featured on Baez’s new album, Gone From Danger (Grapevine Records, 1998). Baez also invited Lohan to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival, where the two performed together, and American audiences had their first look at the Celtic unknown.

Lohan wasn’t satisfied for long, though, with being unknown hereabouts. Itching to complete her next CD, she headed to New Orleans, where she’d already recorded some material for No Mermaid (produced by industry heavyweight Malcolm Burn, who’d previously worked with Peter Gabriel and Shawn Colvin). The songs flowed out, fast and furious.

” I write when I am inspired, but the lyrics are usually so vague that they [don’t] seem to … apply to my life [until] long after I’ve written them,” Lohan explains. It’s usually months, even years, after she’s put them down on paper that they tend to become relevant to her life. “They’re like predictions, and then like comforts,” Lohan muses. Her music, she once said, is “about feelings and emotions. … There are no ‘messages.'”

On No Mermaid’s title track (which is also a highly radio-friendly hit single), Lohan — in her whispery, ethereal voice — sings, “I am no mermaid/I am no fisherman’s slave/… I keep my head above the waves.” That she does.

Neither the artist nor her promoters at Interscope want her to become a “one-hit wonder,” either. The record company, which represents such hot acts as Bush, No Doubt and The Wallflowers, seems to understand that there’s almost limitless potential for a truly talented performer like Lohan — if one’s sights remain fixed on long-term success.

“It’s more of an organic approach [at Interscope],” Lohan explains. That means she has precious little record-label manipulation of her work to deal with — a luxury not afforded most new acts in an often cutthroat industry.

And Lohan remains adamant that she’ll always retain creative control of her songs. “My music is what I know best, and I won’t change it to fit other people,” she concludes with her characteristically soft — but decidedly assured — voice.

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