Spend any time with Cranberries singer Dolores O'Riordan and it becomes clear that there are two words you will be repeating like a mantra.
Excuse me? Excuse me? Excuse me?
You see, O'Riordan is a low talker. She is a person — how shall we say? — soft of speech. It's not that she doesn't have anything to say. At 22, she has already earned herself a platinum album (Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can't We?), a feat bound to be good for at least a story or two. It's just that she often lacks the decibels to really drive the point home.
It is a quality she shares, in varying degrees, with the members of her band, who have come to London from their hometown of Limerick, Ireland, to begin recording album No. 2. It is three days before they head into the studio, and they are seated at a restaurant, enjoying a final wild night out. At one end of the table, next to O'Riordan, sits the soft-spoken drummer, Feargal Lawlor, 23. Across the vast expanse of pasta and red wine is the band's guitarist, the low-key Noel Hogan, 22. And in the middle rests Hogan's brother Mike, 21, who plays bass and, by all reports, doesn't speak much at all.
At the moment, the conversational lull is being filled with talk of how to follow up an incredibly successful debut and how to combat comparisons with a slew of other dream-pop exporters. "Everyone mumble, mumble, mumble identity," says O'Riordan, taking a sip of wine.
"Everyone wants their own identity," she says. "Who wants to re-establish something that's already been established? What's to be gained by that? Nothing."
Well, yes and no. The Cranberries are living proof that a lot can be accomplished by taking up residence on fairly familiar ground and giving it a fresh face. They sound an awful lot like the Sundays, who, in turn, strongly resemble the Cocteau Twins (a band, it must be noted, that owes quite a debt to Kate Bush and Jane Siberry).
What they have done with that aesthetic, however, is make it their own. Over ethereal waves of sound, O'Riordan's enchanting lilt relays her innocent, autobiographical tales of love, lost love and more love. The album's first single, "Dreams" ("Oh, my life is changing/ Every day in every possible way"), hypnotized listeners with its simplistic beauty. The next hit, "Linger" ("You have me wrapped around your finger/Do you have to let it linger?"), told the tale of O'Riordan's first boyfriend (a 17-year-old soldier who was shipped away to Lebanon) and was aired on MTV approximately 17 million times. Still, despite all the accolades, the band remains adamant about keeping its musical independence.
"If we do sound like other bands, like the Sundays, then that's coincidence," says Noel Hogan. "And if we sound like Iron Maiden, that's coincidence, too."
Truth be told, what separates the Cranberries from much of the current flock is age and experience. Or, in their case, the lack thereof. Their sound, like their table manners, is quiet, polite and imbued with a captivating innocence. All three Cranberry boys still live at home; the entire band was born in the '70s ("I don't really remember the '70s music," says Noel. "I remember the '80s very well. Howard Jones, Duran Duran"); they're all quite happy to have a woman in the band because "it helps us not turn into animals on the road," according to Lawlor. "You don't want to be drinking every night. It gets quite mad"; and they didn't form for the sex, drugs and rock & roll that other bands take to heart. Not even the sex part. "I wouldn't try to meet girls through the band," says Lawlor. "It would be like using my position as an advantage to meet them."
So, as folks around the globe were being introduced to the purity of the Cranberries, the band was simultaneously having its first significant introduction to the world.
"We mumble, mumble Amsterdam," says O'Riordan.
"We went to Amsterdam," she says. "And there were women sitting in the shop windows."
O'Riordan laughs and begins nodding vigorously.
"I was like 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph, they've got a woman for sale in the window.' Oh, Jesus. That's mad."
There is a difference between innocence and naiveté, and it is one that the Cranberries discovered in the band's infancy. In the early days, the group went by the bad pun come to life the Cranberry Saw Us and featured a different singer who wrote all the group's material. O'Riordan, meanwhile, was living in a small rural community just outside of Limerick and was honing her vocal skills primarily on choir hymns and traditional Irish arrangements.
When the three boys parted ways with their leader ("We still see him around all the time," says Noel. "He just says, 'Well done' "), they shortened their name, recruited the waiflike O'Riordan and promptly went about their business. There were, of course, some initial growing pains.
"We all knew we couldn't write lyrics or sing," says Noel. "So when we got Dolores, we knew we had to completely trust her. It was hard at first, a complete stranger. But then we got to know her, and we're all really good friends."
That's when it happened. Their friendship and musicianship still developing, the group had its first and most instructive foray into the adult world of the music business. Faced with a manipulative manager who was feeding different information to each of the band members, the four teen-agers got together and made a very grown-up decision. They canned him.
"Mumble, mumble fired mumble manager," says O'Riordan over coffee at her hotel the morning before studio D-Day.
"When we fired our manager, I think it made us a lot stronger," she says. "I knew I would never again let anyone make me do something I didn't want to do. I knew I would never again let somebody tell me what to do."
It is a pattern that manifested itself early in O'Riordan's life. Her very existence is proof positive that headstrong behavior has no genetic link to vocal projection. She grew up the youngest of seven children (two others died shortly after birth) in a household where her mother was forced to support the family after O'Riordan's father was disabled in a 1968 motorcycle accident and was never able to work again.
By the time she was 7, O'Riordan was already matting gum into her hair so her mother would be forced to cut it short (an action that she repeated when her band mates wanted her to grow out her hair, and she, in turn, shaved it all off). Finally, rebelling against her conservative environment and the fact that she would forever be the family's little girl (her brothers even beat up one of her boyfriends because he was a punk rocker), she fled her hometown for a flat in Limerick. Sure, it's only eight miles, but independence is independence. When the dust settled, she found herself dirt poor, a full-time Cranberry and just as close to her family as always.
"Mumble, mumble my mother, mumble," says O'Riordan with a look of teary nostalgia, when asked about her family's influence.
Could you repeat that, please?
"Looking at my mother gives me confidence," she says. "She had nine children before she was 28. And she raised seven of us on her own. So it's really nice to be able to say to her, 'Here, Mom, would you like this dress?'"
It is one phrase she is able to utter quite regularly these days. The happy ending to any Cranberries story is that on the strength of O'Riordan and Noel's musical marriage, mother O'Riordan should be knee-deep in dresses for years to come. Ask her daughter about her significant contribution to the band's stampedelike momentum and, for the first time, she has no trouble speaking up.
"I have loads of power in the band," O'Riordan says. "It's grand."
That's not all she has. If you see her on the streets of Limerick or London these days, chances are Dolores O'Riordan might just be making a loud, clear fashion statement.
"Mumble, mumble wanted mumble leather mumble," says O'Riordan with a charming laugh and a shrug.
One more time?
"I always wanted a pair of leather trousers," she says. "But where I come from, if you bought them, people would tell you that you look like a rock star. So I told myself that if I ever sell a gold record in America, I'd buy a pair of leather trousers. So now if people say, 'What, do you think you're a rock star?' I just say: 'Yeah. I am. I have a gold record in America.'"