Dolores O’Riordan

Dolores O’Riordan

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The Stunning Death of Ireland’s Music Icon
Dolores O’Riordan

Dolores O’Riordan appeared to be in good spirits
the second weekend in January. On the 12th,
the Cranberries front woman and her longtime
bandmate, guitarist Noel Hogan, spoke by phone
about a March tour and starting their first studio
album in six years. “She was great,” says
Hogan. “We spoke about getting back
to work.” Two days later, O’Riordan
e-mailed him several fresh songs
that would be considered for that
next band album.
Sadly, those plans never came to
be. On the morning of January
15th, O’Riordan was found
dead in a London hotel room. She
was 46. At press time, the results
of an autopsy and toxicology report had
not been announced, and police were
treating the death as unexplained but not
suspicious. (The coroner’s investigation has
been adjourned until April 3 “as they await the
results of further tests,” according to that office.)
The news marked the shocking end for a
singer whose steely, siren-like voice and
lyrics about both the personal and the
political made her one of the most potent
stars of the alt-rock era. As U2 said
in a group comment, “She had such
strength of conviction, yet she could
speak to the fragility in all of us.
Born in 1971, O’Riordan was
raised near the Irish city of
Limerick, the youngest of
seven. She idolized her dad,
a farm laborer who was
injured in a bike accident
that prevented him from
working. But a degree of
darkness overshadowed
her early life. At
one point, her sister
accidentally burned
down the family home.
Later, Dolores said that
as a child she had been
sexually molested
by an older man. As
O’Riordan told Rolling
Stone in 1995, “I have a
lot of secrets about my
childhood.”
Initially, O’Riordan
was a shy performer,
even singing with her back to the audience. “There was no big act,” says Hogan. “I
think [that] resonated with people.” Despite their newness, the
Cranberries were swept up in the Nineties alt-rock major-label
bidding fever. Their 1993 debut, Everybody Else Is Doing It,
So Why Can’t We?, beget crashing-wave hits like “Linger”
and “Dreams,” powered by the blend of the band’s guitar
shimmer and O’Riordan’s luxurious, haunted voice. That
album and its 1994 follow-up, No Need to Argue, sold
millions of records, and the Cranberries even taped an MTV
Unplugged.
According to former manager Allen Kovac, O’Riordan intentionally
decided to set her band apart with politically urgent lyrics; she
wrote its biggest hit, 1994’s “Zombie,” about two children killed
during a 1993 bombing in England by the Irish Republican
Army. Kovac says Island Records urged them not to release
it as a single. (In his telling, she ripped up a $1 million check
the label offered her to work on another song.) “Dolores
was a very small, fragile person, but very opinionated,” says
Kovac “Her belief was that she was an international artist and she
wanted to break the rest of the world, and ‘Zombie’ was part of that
evolution. She felt the need to expand beyond ‘I love you, you love me’
and write about what was happening in Ireland at the time.”
Music became her escape. In grade school, her voice stood out: “If I started
to sing, then all the others in the room would stop and listen,” she told Rolling
Stone. In 1990, she met a local band, the Cranberry Saw Us, and replaced
the departing lead singer. Thankfully, they were rechristened the Cranberries.
“Dolores came and sang a few songs she had written,” says Hogan. “We were
blown away that this small girl from Limerick had such an amazing voice. The fact
that she wasn’t already in a band was a miracle.”
In the summer of 1994, O’Riordan married Don Burton, a tour manager of Duran
Duran; the couple eventually moved to his native Canada and had three kids. But she
and the Cranberries soon hit a rough patch. “Dolores gave so much of herself at the
gigs,” says Stephen Street, who produced their first two albums. “Perhaps she could have
tempered her behavior and been more measured, but that wasn’t her way.” A 1996 tour
was cut short while she dealt with exhaustion. “I had to fly to Ireland and take her to a
doctor,” Kovac says. “He said to her, ‘You’re not healthy enough to tour.’ My belief
was you had to deal with those issues, but I don’t think she ever got through.”
The Cranberries never again repeated their early level of success — their
2001 album Wake Up and Smell the Coffee peaked at 45 — but even as their
sound grew edgier and punkier, they never lost their fan base, for whom the
troubled O’Riordan remained a relatable pop star. The Cranberries’ music
remained in demand, used in soundtracks from The Sopranos and Gossip
Girl to You’ve Got Mail. (A sample of “Zombie” threads through “In Your Head”
on Eminem’s new Revival.) As Hogan says, “There are songs I hear today that we wrote over 20
years ago and I see and hear people singing along with them.”
When the Cranberries broke up in 2003, O’Riordan recorded two under-the-radar solo albums, and the
Cranberries regrouped in 2009, eventually releasing one of their strongest albums, Roses, three years later.
But O’Riordan’s life remained chaotic. She later claimed she tried to overdose on pills in 2012 and had a drinking
problem. Her marriage ended in 2014, the same year she was arrested for stepping on the foot of a flight attendant
and head-butting a police officer; a judge spared her from jail after determining she was mentally ill at the time. (“You
can’t arrest me — I’m an icon!” she yelled at the police.) She was subsequently diagnosed as bipolar. “Dolores had
a lot of things going on in her life over the past 10 years — good and bad,” says Hogan. “But what made Dolores
connect with people was her honesty. What you saw was what you got.”

Dolores was so disappointed when we had to cancel
the last tour… She did everything in her power to fix the
back problem but it persisted and won in the end.
– Cranberries co-founder, Noel Hogan

Again, O’Riordan powered through it all with music. With the end of
her marriage, she moved to New York and began working with a new
band, D.A.R.K., featuring former Smiths bassist Andy Rourke (who
calls her talent “breathtaking”) and DJ Olé Koretsky, who eventually
became her life partner. The band’s 2016 debut, Science Agrees,
took O’Riordan’s voice into new, electronica areas. But she never fully
abandoned the Cranberries, who last year unveiled Something Else, a
collection of new and old material played unplugged and orchestrated.
In an interview with the BBC to promote it, O’Riordan admitted, “I’ve
had health issues the last few years.” Those problems – specifically
back pain from years of playing guitar for so many years – led to a
canceled tour. “Dolores was so disappointed when we had to cancel
the last tour,” says Hogan. “She did everything in her power to fix the
back problem but it persisted and won in the end.

The day before she died, O’Riordan flew to London (one source says
she flew from New York to Dublin, where she stayed for a short while
before continuing on to London). There, work again beckoned. She
was planning to meet with Youth about the second, near-completed
D.A.R.K. album, and she was also carving out time to add her vocals to
a new version of “Zombie” by the L.A. metal band Bad Wolves.
After midnight on January 15th, O’Riordan left two voice mail messages
for Dan Waite, a label executive who had set up the collaboration with
Bad Wolves (and who had worked with the Cranberries in the early
2000s). In her messages, O’Riordan talked lovingly about her kids,
expressed their thrill at the Eminem sample and sang a snippet of the
Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (which Youth had produced). “She
was in a good space,” says Waite. “I’ve seen a few things saying she
was depressed but she was definitely making plans for the week” —
including, he says, dinner with him and his wife.
Instead, O’Riordan will be buried today in Limerick.
Dolores O’Riordan was the lead singer of hits like “Linger” and “Zombie”
with the Irish band the Cranberries.

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