Life after rehab
Identity is conflict, Jean Paul Sartre once said. For most of her adult life, Cait O'Riordan was in conflict with herself. At times, it must have seemed like open war. There was a phrase she would regularly repeat to herself over and over for years: "Everyone's really fucked up. Thank goodness, I'm alright."
Of course, Cait was, by own admission, looking at things back to front. She had no idea that she had depression or that she was an alcoholic. It was when only when the professionals started poking around her head in the Priory that she realised her true identity. They told her she had been dealing with debilitating depression practically all her adult life. "Except," Cait adds, "I hadn't been dealing with it."
Do you ever truly deal with it?
"It is ongoing, forever," she says straight away. "There have been enough AA meetings where people say scary stuff like they didn't have a drink for 15 years and then they started again. So you can't ever really say: 'This is guaranteed. I'm alright now, even if I live to be 80.' It frightened me so badly, being told I was addicted to something." The absolute focus of her life now is, she says, staying sober and not hurting anyone.
The 43-year-old is currently studying at UCD, doing an Access To Arts course. After this interview, in a cafe on Grafton Street, she is walking home to Rathmines to write an essay on Irish politics before packing to fly to the US on Friday to play in New York with her band, Prenup -- basically, Cait on bass plus Hothouse Flowers's Fiachana O'Braonain on vocals and guitar and Dave Clarke on drums. Their debut album, Hell To Pay is out on April 4.
"I love playing with Prenup," she says, talking of their "middle aged rock'n'roll, Rolling Stones-y, grown-up, pissed-off" feel. The idea of the group emerged when former Golden Horde singer and boulevardier Simon Carmody was asked to do a gig at a private party at Johnny Ronan's house in November 2005.
"Simon wanted to do a punk set so he got Dave on drums and me on bass. I guess Fiachna was invited to the party because I then got a call, saying 'I've got these songs . . ."
Given the commitments of various types (Fiachna lives in Paris, Dave Clarke was in Chicago and Cait has her studies), the band has only recently been able to get to work. "You'll have to ask Fiachna about the songs because he wrote them," she says. "The songs are all about traumatic relationships." Traumatic relationships being something Cait possibly knows more than most about.
Caitlin O'Riordan was born in Lagos, Nigeria, on January 4, 1965. Her father, Martin O'Riordan, originally from Lahinch in Co Clare, worked for an oil company that took him all over the world. The family fled Nigeria in 1967, in fear of their lives, when the Biafran war broke out on July 6, 1967. "People were getting shot dead," Cait says. "The giant multinational oil corporations were being super-cautious. So my dad went to England and that's where I grew up. He was redeployed to other countries."
Cait has absolutely no memories of Nigeria. "I thought I did but I don't think they can be real." She has never been back. She was in Niger in 2006 for the total solar eclipse over the Sahara, and she thought she was so close to her birthplace that she should go into Nigeria but, she says, with characteristic self-negativity, "as a middle-aged white woman on her own", she decided it was a "stupid idea".
Throughout Cait's youth in London, her dad was in places such as Mauritania in northwest Africa and Gatta in the Gulf and, as such, was rarely at home: for as long as she can remember, he was always off somewhere else. Cait's Scottish mother stayed home to mind the four children. Ask her was it difficult to grow up effectively without a father, and she pauses to reflect before answering. You can soon see why: the answer is revelatory. "My mother, I think, is still alive . . . I haven't seen her in 20 years," she says. "So it is not really fair for me to start saying things about her that I don't know."
But I am asking you. It was you who grew up with without a father.
"But what can you compare it to? A kid's not sitting there going: 'Well . . .' It was just what my dad did and what would I compare it to? It wasn't an issue." In truth, her mother and father's relationship was a very real issue for Cait. The effects of it have been, and possibly will be, felt all Cait's life
Her relationship with her siblings -- older brother Martin, younger sister Clare and younger brother Murray -- was a complex one by any definition of the word family. I get the impression from her tone that Martin is no longer with us. "He died," she says.
Can I ask you what happened to him?
"He had a problem . . . he had a heart attack. He was 39."
When I press further and enquire if she had a good relationship with Martin, Cait shakes her head and says that the "only person I kept in touch with from my family is my little brother".
When I ask why that is, she says she didn't believe her family was "a loving family".
"It wasn't anyone you'd want to hang out with. But I did feel protective of my little brother. So we stayed in touch. He was in love with music, like I was. So we were very similar like that, and I wanted to stay in touch."
You say you think your family wasn't loving. Looking back, why do you think it was like that?
She is reluctant to answer this question, given that other family members are not there to tell their side of the story.
This is your story, Cait, your life.
"I think it must be very hard to be left alone to raise four children," Cait says haltingly. "So it was great for me to be old enough to leave."
After school, when she was in her mid teens, Cait would get the bus from Whitton to Richmond Tube Station and then get the tube to central London and hang out in record shops. There was one particular shop, called Rocks Off, where one Shane MacGowan worked.
She went for for a drink in the local pub with the owners of the shop and there she met and struck up a friendship with MacGowan, who was then in a band called The Nipple Erectors. Cait was living in a hostel at Centrepoint under St Ann's Church in Soho at the time, having left home as soon as she was legally able to do so, at 16. Living in a various hostels around London was, she recalls, "stressful".
Living at home wasn't exactly a job, either.
"That's it. What do you compare it with?" she laughs. "At least I felt like I was free. In some hostels, you had to be in a certain time. When I was in Queens Park hostel near Kilburn -- that's when I joined The Pogues -- you came and went. You were kind of on trust."
When she joined The Pogues at 17, she would either go back to the hostel every night or sleep "on a lot of floors". At that age, naturally, Cait thought she knew everything about life that was needed to know.
"I thought everyone else was wrong and I was completely right about everything."
She says her mother never tried to get her back. "Never, no. It must have been a relief, you know," she says. There is a certain amount of sadness in hearing a daughter say these words. The last time she saw her mother was in 1990.
When Cait settled in Dublin, she says, she had this romantic idea that her father would come over and fix her house and want to live here. "I think that's part of growing up without a dad: you have these fairytale notions," she smiles, wistfully (when you talk to Cait O'Riordan, you can't help but keep thinking that her smiles are somehow a regretful yearning for the things she lost -- her childhood, her family, her father, Elvis Costello, a chance at a happy life).
"And he did come over and looked at the house, and said: 'I can't do this. You need professionals.' I drove him around, but he wasn't impressed with Ireland. The only thing that impressed him was that Grafton Street had been pedestrianised. And that was it. I just never saw him again."
Her father died in 1998.
How did you feel when he died?
"Nothing. Nothing, no. God, now I'm hugely sad that I missed out on all these relationships but at the time I thought: 'So what?' It's awful. It sounds so cold now but . . .
"I have this weird Pollyanna thing about all the negative stuff," she says, "It all feels very necessary and useful. I would never have learned anything. It works for me. It is helpful. It is a way of dealing with horrible things."
"There is no big drama," she says. "It's just corrosive. You're just eating yourself away from the inside out."
The last time Cait had a drink was February 14, 2007. "Valentine's Day, yes," she smiles, "but I am not the romantic type. I guess because I wasn't raised to be romantic."
From the outside, Cait's 16-year relationship with singer-songwriter Elvis Costello appeared romantic. "I guess from the outside maybe . . ."
Legend has that she and Elvis fell for each other while he was producing The Pogues' 1985 masterwork Rum, Sodomy And The Lash, on which album Cait sang the forlorn classic I'm A Man You Don't Meet Every Day, and the Poguetry In Motion EP in 1986. (She later left the band completely to go on Elvis's American tour with him. And she played Slim McMahon alongside the Pogues, Courtney Love, Joe Strummer, Dennis Hopper and Elvis, in Alex Cox's 1987 spaghetti rock western Straight To Hell.) What drew her to Elvis was, she believes, that she "needed an excuse not to have to do anything. Not to have to try. You know -- if you don't try, you can't fail. I just needed something I could hide behind.
"He's not here, so I'm not going to talk about his motives. But I'm surprised anyone would have put up with the way I behaved for that long. That's as much as I can say about it."
Is that not Cait blaming herself for everything?
"Not blaming -- taking responsibility. Trying to be clear-eyed about it. To take the focus off someone who can't speak for themselves here," she says, meaning Elvis.
"You know Pat Henry, [the fitness guru who runs the gym on Pembroke Street where Cait and I both go] don't you? He has told me he knows couples right now where very plainly the man is punishing himself for being successful through his choice of woman. That really resonates with me. I think we can punish ourselves. We can use people to punish ourselves."
Was that the need Elvis was fulfilling with you?
"You'd have to ask him."
Is that what you felt?
"I hope it is not true, but it seems, just from my experience, that it might be true."
Is that not a terrible thing to say about yourself: that someone would be with you for years to punish themselves?
"But I've done it. I have used people to punish myself. We let negative people in our lives for negative reasons. "
But doesn't that merely reinforce your self-loathing?
She laughs. "Well, you are talking to a depressed alcoholic!" She roars with laughter. "So, yeah, I think there is an element of self-loathing in there."
Last year, Cait started on a process to reinforce self-worth by making friends and making the effort to hold onto friendships, and also by connecting with her younger brother and his four children in Brighton.
"It is all working out very well, " she smiles. "I'm being optimistic."
Perhaps it is an indication of the protective shell Cait has had to wrap herself for survival ever since she moved out of home at 17: when I asked her how she felt when Elvis married Canadian singer, Diana Krall, in 2003, the event appeared to be news to Cait.
"I just detached myself completely," she says. (Her ex of 16 years was married at Elton John's mansion in Surrey, England, in a wedding attended by the likes of Paul McCartney). "When he left, that was the end of it. That was the end of contact. That was the end of my interest."
Is that how you operate to protect yourself?
"Yes. Like with my family. With the band. With ex-partners. Because I couldn't deal with it in any useful way so I just didn't deal with it at all."
Fox News odiously described Cait in late 2002 as "like Costello's Yoko Ono, a Grim Reaper in person with seemingly no sense of humour. But then again, how much could she take? Nearly every Costello album has some reference to the one-time love of his life, bombshell model/writer/rocker Bebe Buell. His current album, When I Was Cruel, has a cover picture of two bumble bees. Get it? Bee Bee. You can't keep doing stuff like that to a woman who doesn't like to laugh."
But Cait O'Riordan does nothing but laugh. I've never seen a woman laugh so loud when describing herself as "a depressed alcoholic" or say she was like Samantha in Sex And The City for a few years in Dublin. "I spent a couple of years just like a real nightclub vampire," she giggles.
"For 2004 and 2005, I was going out and just pulling 25-year-old rugby players. There must have been a reason. I was drunk and they were cute. My girlfriends thought it was fantastic. You know, someone has to be Samantha in any gang of girls -- and that was my role," she laughs again, adding that she has relinquished that role because you have to be drunk to do that and: "I don't drunk anymore. I'm 43 now and to think that a gorgeous, fit 25-year-old guy is going to have any interest in me -- you have to be drunk to think that."
That's just the self-loathing part of your psyche beating you up.
"It's self-confidence. I wasn't raised to have self-confidence. That all needs working on."
Fake it to make it, Cait.
"That's exactly what they say to me in the hospital," she says, adding: "One day at a time."
She was diagnosed with depression in 2003. She was extremely ill: she had lost lots of weight and she wasn't sleeping. She went to a doctor in London and was sent to The Priory hospital immediately. After a week there, she was told by the psychiatrist that, from observing her and reading her notes, it was pretty clear to him that she had depression and had been suffering from it for a long time. Her therapy began in earnest then.
"It worked, yes, but looking back now it was very divided," she says in hindsight, "because it was kind of a crisis situation in keeping me alive really -- not starving to death or dying of lack of sleep. They didn't deal with the drinking while I was in there. I had to go back and do the drinking last year."
She adds that now that those two things -- depression and alcohol addiction -- have been dealt with, she thinks it is weird that she wasn't upset when her dad died. "But the therapists say you can only deal with what you think you can deal with."
(Her dad, she says, was very into Elvis and Johnny Cash and country music. "He always claimed he was the first Teddy Boy in Dublin." Her mother, who was from outside Edinburgh, barely registers in her memories, other than bad ones. Despite repeated requests, I can't get her mother's name out of Cait.)
Cait has been through a lot and has emerged, bloodied and far from unscathed, but wiser, on the other side. Like a lot of people who have been through hell and survived, she is slow to take credit for her bravery and her struggle.
"I have had massive help," she says. "I don't know how I would have managed if I didn't have money. I don't think anyone can do it on their own, I couldn't have done it on my own. If I didn't have the money, I wouldn't have had the really good doctor.
"I went to see a doctor in Ireland when I was very ill and not sleeping: he prescribed sleeping pills. I thought that was very stupid. I went back to my doctor in London, who had been seeing me since I was a teenager. He immediately went: 'Oh my God', and said: 'You need to go to hospital.' Whereas a doctor in Ireland gave me sleeping pills.
"In London, it was a psychiatric hospital. I went in as an inmate and you stay there until they think you are safe to leave. I did three months as an in-patient and then another as an out-patient."
The first thing you notice about Cait after her height (5 foot 10 inches -- "both my parents were giants") is that she is always smiling. "Smile and stand tall," she says, "it's better than Prozac."
Her three desert island discs are Elbow's Fugitive Motel ("makes beauty out of the loneliness and the dislocation of the road"), The Pogues' Rainy Night In Soho ("Shane's poetry at its most heartfelt, direct and beautiful") and Louis Armstrong's What A Wonderful World ("makes grey days bright"). She wants Viennese lyric baritone Wolfgang Holzmair to sing An Die Musik by Schubert at her funeral.
"It's all arranged," she claims, before adding with a smile: "If Wolfie can't make it, I'd like Tom Waits singing You're Innocent When You Dream."
And are you? Innocent when you dream?
"Sure, aren't we all?"
Have you ever had sex to one of your records?
"Not that I can remember."
Were you ever in love?
"No . . . not yet."
Not even with Elvis Costello? Did you fall in love with Elvis Costello and wake up with Declan MacManus (Elvis's real name)? "No, it was nothing like that. I was very young. I needed . . . --no one had ever loved me or been affectionate to me in my life and suddenly here's someone being affectionate and kind and interested. And it was fantastic."
What went wrong, then?
"You'll have to ask him. I didn't leave him. He left me. I can't help you on that one, Barry."
The point is: Elvis was giving you everything you never had. Why didn't you accept and embrace the love, however alien to you, that he was giving to you, rather than withdraw from it?
"Obviously, I had no idea what to do with it," she says. "I had no experience in returning affection because I hadn't been given affection. So it was just completely wasted. I didn't know any of this until I went to therapy," she laughs.
Elvis, on the other hand, she says, "will know what we didn't work out because he ended it."
In 1991, Cait wrote a song, Broken, for Elvis's album Mighty Like A Rose. The poignant opening lines went:
If I am frightened then I can hide it
If I am crying, I'll call it laughter
If I am haunted, I'll call it my imaginary friend
If I am bleeding, I'll call it my wine
Cait says the last time she saw Costello was at the end of 2002. She denies they got married, as was reported, on May 17, 1986. "You're obsessed with Elvis. I got over it. I'm sure you could if you really tried."
"We weren't married," she smiles wistfully. "It was a kind of Muslim 'I divorce you' kind of thing." That made the split very easy, she says: no piece of paper with marriage on it and no children. "If someone tells you they don't want to be with you any more, and if you are like me, you just say, 'fine', and walk away, and you don't look back."
Keep walking, Caitlin O'Riordan. You'll be all right.
Prenup release their debut album, 'Hell to Pay' on April 4. They play a residency in Crawdaddy, Dublin every Wednesday next month