The musician opens up about playing guitar as an escape from school bullies, her formative time abroad, and inspiration gained from working with people living with dementia
Naas main street on a sleepy Monday morning. The mystic-y folk singer-songwriter Sive is casting her mind back to childhood. Her golden hair is lit by the sunshine streaming in through the window as she speaks.
“When I was only about a year old, I broke my arm by falling off a table at a party,” she says. “So rock and roll! I don’t remember the incident itself, but I do remember having a sling on, hiding behind the couch in our sitting room, eating from a bowl of grapes with my one good arm.
“I also remember standing on the wall outside our house with an umbrella on a windy day, trying to fly away.”
Listening to her otherworldly new album We Begin in Darkness – which comes out on April 28, followed by a launch show at Workmans Cellar in Dublin on May 19 – it isn’t difficult to imagine the young songstress with long golden-red hair flying away across county Kildare.
She was interviewed recently on Panti Bliss’s podcast The Panti Personals, when the host accurately described Sive’s music as possessing “an ethereal, almost magical sound with a beautiful songcraft”.
Born in 1989, Sadhbh O’Sullivan grew up in Naas as the only child of two school teachers. At the age of six on a family holiday to a campsite in the south of England, she entered a talent competition. She sang ‘Teidí Beag Álainn’, with a teddy bear in her arms. She didn’t win.
“And it was many years before I braved the stage again,” she says. “How I’d love to have even a smidgeon of that childhood brazenness back again.”
Two years later she wrote a poem about a white poplar tree growing outside her family home which she called ‘The Tree from the Land Beyond’.
When she was 10, she bought The Man Who by Travis. When she heard the opening track ‘Writing to Reach You’, she instantly thought: “This is really making me feel things.”
She describes her early teen self as “self-conscious, introverted, and a self-professed weirdo. I remember being super-uncomfortable with my body. I just wanted to hide most of the time”.
At 13, she bought a guitar and it became her best friend. She would spend all day during the summer holidays playing. It helped her deal with life and being a teenager. In her early teens, she was bullied in school.
“Nothing serious, but just this relentless sort of low-level stuff,” she says. The first song she wrote on the guitar was about that experience. “It made me realise I could use music to turn anything I wanted into something good. It felt like alchemy. I wasn’t a big fan of school, and really that realisation was a bit of a life saver.”
At 15, the summer after her Junior Cert, she started a band called The Isohels with school pal Claire Nicole Prendergast on vocals. Things began to change for her as a result. “I didn’t care what the bullies thought of me, because I felt like I was in this whole other world they couldn’t touch.”
Rehearsals took place in Claire’s garage, with a tractor in the middle of all the song-making. They started producing demo tapes – most of which, she says, “featured sheep in the background”.
Their first gig was in the bike shed of the Patrician Primary School in Newbridge. “There was a big stage set up but it started lashing rain. Everything had to be moved into the shelter. It was terrifying. We were all on the Rescue Remedy.”
It was not to end well. They released a single, ‘Better’, in 2005 and an album Kooramock in 2008, but split up straight after the gig at Whelan’s in Dublin to officially launch the album.
She went on to Ballyfermot College in Dublin to pursue music. When she was at a band camp in Hammelburg in Germany for a short period, she started playing solo material.
Later in 2008, after finishing up at Ballyfermot, she lived in Tilburg in the Netherlands as part of an exchange programme the college had.
“I was only there for half a year, but it was definitely a formative time. I felt like I was starting to gain some understanding of what I wanted my music to sound like. After that, I kind of knew I had to keep going and do my own thing. I was quite naive when I look back, but very driven at the same time.”
In 2012, she released her debut solo album We Are Moving. She brought it out “with absolutely no help and no idea what I was doing”. When she was asked by a friend why she released an album when no one knew who she was, the only answer she could give was: why not?
“Of course, there are lots of reasons why not, but all I knew was that I loved albums and I had a bunch of songs, so I wanted to make one.”
In 2013, she released an EP, ‘Turn Down the Silence’. She was, however, “disheartened” and “fatigued” by the music industry.
Around that time, she “stumbled” upon an introductory Music in Healthcare training course with a focus on geriatric care. “It fulfilled me in a way that had been missing in my life.”
She felt she was using her skills in a way that was meaningful. She did a Masters in community music at the University of Limerick.
Since 2014, she and her colleague Sharon Murphy have run community choirs, music sessions, and arts and health workshops in nursing homes and hospitals in Naas and Celbridge for people living with dementia and other age-related illnesses.
How does music help?
“From a dementia-specific point of view, music and lyrics are often stored in some key areas of the brain which tend to remain intact when other parts might be deteriorating,” she says.
“When you do this work in settings like nursing homes and hospitals, you learn to look for signs that the music is touching people in some way.
"Sometimes it will be obvious. A person with severe memory loss might suddenly remember a whole song. But sometimes it might be more subtle. Someone who has been unresponsive for some time might tap their finger to the beat, or simply maintain eye contact with you while you sing.
“Music, and singing as part of a group, can be an incredibly uplifting experience.”
Some of the themes that arose from these workshops – like the changing of seasons, the interplay between light and dark, and the non-linear nature of grief – helped Sive arrive at the title We Begin in Darkness.
“I’d been thinking about how the Celtic new year begins at the beginning of November. This idea, too, that everything is born out of the darkness, and that’s when the name struck me for the album,” she says.
She cites influences including Jesca Hoop, This Is the Kit, Lau, Snowpoet, Laura Veirs and Villagers on We Begin in Darkness, a follow-up to her 2017 album The Roaring Girl. Written before the pandemic put the world on pause in March 2020, it was recorded for the most part at home in Naas over the multiple lockdowns, and produced by Matt Harris of indie-punk duo HAVVK. It was frustrating, if fun.
“The first lockdown was OK because everything was quiet, but after that it got trickier. Trying to record vocals in an on-street apartment is gas craic, as is trying to squish recording set-ups into corners where they really don’t fit. I was tripping on mic stands getting out of bed, whacking my guitar off walls, getting tangled up in cables.”
She is not sure she learned anything about herself in the two pandemic years.
“I still feel quite muddled up by the whole thing. I suppose, on a practical level, I’m way more flexible and less worried about things getting cancelled or not happening in the way I’ve planned them.
“On a personal level, in some ways the whole experience made me feel like I was less resilient than I ever imagined, because it did break me at times. I fully realise people had it much, much worse than me.
"But in other ways, I was quite resilient. I’ve had so many opportunities to do meaningful work that wouldn’t have come up otherwise. None of that would have happened if I didn’t get proactive about reimagining what I do and pushing myself out there, looking for opportunities. So, I should be giving myself credit for that.
“We should all be giving ourselves credit for surviving with a semblance of sanity intact.”
‘We Begin in Darkness’ by Sive is released on April 28. She plays at Workmans Club Cellar in Dublin on May 19, tickets at