Big dreams can take you anywhere. But when Dolores O’Riordan would tell friends, teachers, strangers, anyone at her high school of her destiny, she did so without boastfulness or swagger. “I’m going to be a rock star,” she’d say, like it was a matter of fact. And it was. Dolores went on to become one of the greatest rock stars Ireland has ever produced, one of the finest singers of her generation, and a songwriter of startling originality and impact.
What gave this young girl from Ballybricken, County Limerick such unwavering confidence? More than anything, that voice, a once-in-a-generation vocal that is unmistakeable within milliseconds of hearing it, and which she seemed born with. In interviews, Dolores would say that she’d been singing before she could talk. On long car trips, family sing-songs would develop into competitions to see who could sing the best. “It was before seatbelts, and there were always four or five of them on the back seat,” remembers Dolores’ mother, Eileen. “And she won, every time. Her father used to play the accordion, and he had a fine old voice, too. But Dolores… She could sing, play by ear on the piano, and was always obsessed with music, desperate to try out every new instrument she discovered.”
She stood out in the choir and swiftly became a soloist in church. Soon, she was taking twice-weekly piano lessons at the London School Of Music in Limerick City with the stern Mrs Linehan. On the Day Of The Wren – the day after Christmas, St Stephen’s Day, when children go singing door-to-door – Dolores’s father would take her round the local pubs, where even as an 11-year-old she could cast her spell, silencing the jarred-up patrons with her voice. “She’d pass round her hat, and come out with loads of money,” remembers Eileen.” She used to empty it all out on the couch, and she always did great. The old men in the pub, they loved her singing.”
It wasn’t just traditional songs and hymns that captivated the young O’Riordan. Her brother’s Sinead O’Connor’s cassettes often mysteriously found their way into Dolores’ Walkman. She loved pop music, Duran Duran in particular. She was even a fan of thrash titans Metallica. No wonder her mother bought her a little keyboard when she was young, to write her first songs on. It was that same keyboard she brought with her that Sunday afternoon in 1990 when she tried out for local group The Cranberry Saw Us.
It wasn’t Dolores’s first audition, but every other band she’d tried out for just played cover versions. Dolores’ ambitions were trained a little higher than that. “She was shy,” remembers drummer Fergal Lawler. “We were all very shy, I suppose.” But then Dolores sang – first a couple of her own songs, then a Sinead O’Connor song. The boys were dumbfounded. “We were all looking at each other like, ‘Oh my god, she can really sing’. She was just belting it out. We handed her a demo tape of what became ‘Linger’ – it was just a handful of chords at that point – and invited her to rehearsals on Tuesday.”
Several days later she returned, and ‘Linger’ was now a finished song, with Dolores’ lyrics and vocal melodies in place; she’d even written the song’s lilting string refrain on her keyboard. Within a few months, the group had recorded their first proper demo. “That was when we first heard her voice properly, her high soprano,” remembers Fergal. “Jesus, she was good.”
“She was making a beeline for what she wanted to do,” says Eileen, of Dolores’ early days with the group, and the swiftness with which she began to shape their music. “She was a tomboy, a rebel, she was independent. She’d take their chords and music, and reshape them, change it to how she thought it should be.” Eileen had wanted her daughter to attend university, but now a path had opened along which she could chase her true dream. “She said to me, ‘I’ll make you a promise, Mam. If you let me do this for one year, I promise if we don’t succeed I’ll go to university.’ And within a year, she was famous. It all happened so fast.”
Indeed, it did. Spotted by A&Rs from Island Records, the group – now named The Cranberries – were soon recording their debut album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, under the aegis of Stephen Street. Street had been chosen in part for his work with the Smiths, who Dolores and her bandmates worshiped. But, characteristically, Dolores wasn’t cowed by this step into the big time, or the presence of this legendary producer. “She had a great rapport with Stephen,” says Fergal. “She treated her voice like an instrument, like an orchestra. She could sing high, she could sing low, creating these beautiful backgrounds for her lead vocals. It was a match made in heaven.”
Released in 1993, with Dolores penning all of the lyrics and writing or co-writing all of the music, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? went on to become a global smash, topping charts in the UK and Ireland and selling over 5,000,000 copies in the US alone. The Cranberries had become an instant worldwide phenomenon, bolstered by hit singles ‘Linger’ and ‘Dreams’. “When she set off on her first big tour outside of Ireland, I was very upset,” says Eileen. “I said to her brother Joseph ‘Our little one will be back soon’. And he said, ‘I don’t think she’ll ever really be our little one again. She’ll belong to the music world.’ And that’s how it happened, and I was always so proud of her.”
“She adapted to the big time very well,” says Fergal. “She was nervous at our first shows in Limerick, performing with her side to the audience. But as time went along, she became more confident, and when we toured with big bands like Duran Duran and The The, she saw how their singers embraced their audiences and won their support. She realised she could do that too, and made the big venues her own.”
“She was shy, but she knew what she wanted, and she did it,” adds Eileen. “She would turn her back to the audience at first, yes. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t a strong woman.” Soon, Dolores was able to share the stage with heroes like Bono and Pavarotti, and perform at the Vatican before his Holiness the Pope himself.
While Dolores also quickly learned that life as the rock star she’d always dreamt of becoming involved dealing with a celebrity industry she innately detested, her inner steel was more than up to the challenge. “She was very determined – she wouldn’t be pushed around,” says Fergal. “On our first tour of the States, some magazine wanted to photograph her punching her way out of a box, naked. And she was like, ‘There’s no way I’m gonna do that.’ And the press officer said, ‘They won’t give you the cover if you don’t play along,’ and she said, ‘You know what? I don’t care.’ She had such strength.”
That strength extended to guiding the group’s creative direction. While they were working on their second album, 1994’s No Need To Argue, she brought a new song into the group’s rehearsal space. Fergal remembers: “‘It needs to be heavy,’ she said, ‘so don’t be afraid to hit the drums harder than usual. Turn up the distortion pedals – it needs to be angry.’” Dolores was singing through a tiny guitar amp, so the group couldn’t yet make out the lyrics, but this future anthem had been inspired by the Troubles, specifically the IRA bombing in Warrington that claimed the lives of threeyear- old Johnathan Ball and 12-year-old Tim Parry. The tragedy got to her. She told friends and family, “You’re a zombie if you think violence is the solution”. People would tell her she shouldn’t get involved, out of fear. But she had no qualms with saying, “This is damned well wrong”. The controversial subject matter made Island reluctant to release ‘Zombie’ as a single, even though it was already a highlight of Cranberries concerts. “It was so powerful, and it always got an immediate reaction,” says Fergal. Dolores’ steely focus proved contagious. “We put our foot down, and the label relented.”
Winning Best Song at the 1995 MTV Europe Awards, ‘Zombie’ would go on to become the group’s biggest hit, and also their most enduring – indeed, it’s one of only a handful of tracks recorded in the 20th Century to have been streamed over a billion times on YouTube. But while the Cranberries sustained their success into the new millennium, the group announced an indefinite hiatus in September 2003. Over a decade of hard work had taken its toll, and it was time for Dolores and her bandmates to redirect their energies. For the singer, it was an opportunity to immerse herself in family life – and also to begin exploring a solo career.
She loved the idea of working on her own, craving a new challenge, and some real creative freedom. But even though she was the band’s lyricist and principal songwriter, breaking out on her own was still a daunting prospect, even for an artist as bold and self-possessed as Dolores. She was spending a lot of time in Canada in those days, and was put in touch with Dan Brodbeck, a producer, engineer and musician based in Ontario.
“We met for dinner – she seemed more interested in whether we’d click as people,” remembers Dan. “She liked the fact that I loved my family more than I loved the music business or being in the studio.” They arranged a few days in the studio to feel each other out, to see if they had a musical connection. “Three days turned into 12 years,” he smiles.
Dan found in Dolores an artist energised by this latest turn in her career. As she navigated the possibilities of her new life as a solo artist, Dolores was interested in making a solo album, but also inspired by the idea contributing to movie soundtracks, and so was taking this new material song-by-song. “She was really experimenting, with electronic influences and other influences – just totally breaking out and wanting this new music to sound nothing like the Cranberries. She was like, ‘I’ve done that – now I can do whatever I want.’ It was all a neat experiment to her. I’d never worked for anyone like her before. Everyone else seemed to have a preconception of what a song ‘should’ be. She was unencumbered by such ideas. She had an organic way of working, a force of nature – if it didn’t click, it wasn’t worth working on. She was an artist, for the sake of music.”
After four years, Dolores had amassed 20 finished songs, which she whittled down to the 12 tracks of 2007’s Are You Listening?, her first solo album. It was a powerfully diverse set, a bold and electrifying demonstration of all the potential that lay at her fingertips. “Her voice was haunting, and so malleable, and could weave into so many moods and styles,” Dan recalls. “She was so proud of that album – so excited to show people other sides of herself, to show them what she could do.”
The album was a success from the off, but music industry politics and the closure of the label that released it scuppered Are You Listening?’s chances in the marketplace, long-term. Nevertheless, Dolores was undaunted. “She just said, ‘Well, we’ll have to record another album then.’” It would be a tumultuous process. She selected Dan as producer of this second album, but his father was diagnosed with a brain tumour on the first day of pre-production, so Dan split his days between the studio and the hospital. Dan’s father did not survive the tumour, and the tragedy inspired Dolores’s song ‘Tranquiliser’. But while darkness shadowed its production, this second album – released in 2009 as No Baggage – was Dolores’ finest work yet, as she found new and deeper trust in her creativity and ability and originality as a solo artist. “There were times when Dolores would be writing something and then she’d say, ‘That’s what other people would do’, and she’d change it to something more interesting,”
remembers Dan, of her process. “That was her thing.”
As No Baggage hit record shelves in late 2009, Dolores announced the reunion of The Cranberries. Touring the globe throughout 2010, the renewed group also recorded released an album of new material, 2012’s Roses. This second time round, Dolores was better able to savour the joys of life in the Cranberries. “The frenzy of fame was gone,” says Fergal. “We were older, we could appreciate it all better.” And, having tasted the freedom of her solo career, Dolores continued to pursue creative avenues outside of The Cranberries – including her D.A.R.K. project, alongside former Smith bassist Andy Rourke and her partner, Olé Koretsky – while also writing another album with The Cranberries, the material for which was released in 2019 as In The End. That album would win a nomination for Best Rock Album at the 2020 Grammy Awards, an accolade that would have made Dolores immensely proud – not least for affirming once and for all that she had fulfilled her childhood ambition to become “a rock star”. Not that she really needed some golden gong to prove that – that Dolores O’Riordan was a rock star, one of the world’s best, was evident in every song she wrote, and every blessed word she sang.
She continued to record material for what was going to become a third solo album. “We fell out of touch for a little while,” Dan remembers, “but then Dolores contacted me again, and we’d email and talk about these other songs we’d worked on but hadn’t completed, and other tracks she’d been working, and we talked about finishing all these songs and making another record. She emailed me often, right up until she passed away.”
Dolores’ death at the age of 46, on January 15 2018, was a cruel and tragic blow, stealing from the world an artist who was still in the prime of their life, who still had so much to give. The impact of her too-short life, however, is incalculable, and enduring. “I still hear her voice everywhere,” says Dan, “on the radio, in the grocery store, and it never fails to stop me in my tracks. She was an icon, she was a beautiful friend, she was unforgettable. And she had a voice that, in a single note, you know who that is. And that is what a rock star is.”