Dolores O’Riordan appeared to be in good spirits the second weekend in January. On the 12th, the Cranberries frontwoman 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.”
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.”
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?, begat 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.
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.”
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 voicemail 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. Watch below.