Sive always wanted to be a songwriter. The Kildare woman, real name Sadhbh O’Sullivan, studied music at Ballyfermot College, then in Germany and the Netherlands. She wanted to make a career in music but wasn’t sure how to do it.
“I knew I didn’t want to be putting pressure on my songs or songwriting to be raking in cash or feeling that I had to perform at weddings to make a living,” she says. A new direction came thanks to an master’s degree in community music.
Working primarily with older people in community and healthcare settings, in her day-to-day job Sive oversees dementia-inclusive choirs and raises awareness of the benefits of music for those with dementia.
This type of work, she says, gives her a sense of fulfilment “because when you’re pushing your music it can feel very ‘me, me, me’, so it’s nice when the focus isn’t on you”.
The focus is on her this month, however, as she releases a new, finely wrought alt.folk album, We Begin in Darkness. All the writing was completed before March 2020, and she says with a sense of relief that it is not a ‘Covid record’.
“I think that’s a good thing,” she adds, “and I felt no pressure whatsoever to direct the songs in that way.”
In 2012, two years before she embarked on her MA, Sive released a debut album, We Are Moving. She is “still proud of it” but in the interim period she removed the record from streaming services. “I don’t disown that first album,” she says. “I just think it doesn’t represent my sound any more.”
Certainly, the music has changed. From We Are Moving’s knotty arrangements to 2017’s The Roaring Girl, 2019’s self-titled EP, and then to We Begin in Darkness, Sive has continued to flex her creative muscles. She says the past five years have been a learning curve in terms of songwriting.
“I’ve freed up a little bit,” she says. “I’m more prolific and less precious about the creative process. I’m also more into taking note of the opinions and points of view of others and being able to see the bigger picture. That’s no harm, and it has certainly helped.”
When Covid hit, she co-founded Embrace Music, a socially driven organisation tasked with generating opportunities for people to accept music in their daily lives. It has run numerous projects, including a year-long livestream programme for nursing-home residents and the release of a song cycle in collaboration with the Irish Hospice Foundation. Sive says it can be humbling to work with people who are less able physically and mentally.
“In anything, be it music or whatever, you can sometimes get caught up in a lot of rubbish, worrying about things, comparing yourself to other people,” she says. “I’m not saying I don’t do that, but my daily work shows me a different perspective. You see the struggles some people have, how some people can be so much on their own, and how little help people can often get, particularly if they’re caring for somebody.”
For the participants, different kinds of music can trigger memories and ease agitated minds. She is realistic about her work, however. “In terms of when people come to the choir and they have a nice time, a lot of people, particularly the carers, say they see the effects of the choir sessions for the rest of the day or even the day after.”
During these sessions, people are seeing the dementia patients at their optimal levels, but, Sive says, “we’re not making any assumptions that we’re changing their lives, yet at the same time it’s getting people into a room and trying to give them a positive experience for two hours”.
“Sometimes, music might be the only thing that lifts a person out of themselves, that has them communicating, expressing themselves or bringing back memories,” she adds. “It’s a really lovely thing to be able to do.”
‘We Begin in Darkness’ (VETA Records) is out now