When Irish alt-rock band the Cranberries were at the peak of their popularity in the mid-‘90s, frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan — who died Monday, Jan. 15, at the shockingly young age of 46 — appeared to be gracefully riding the wave of fame. But while the passion she conveyed on hits like “Zombie” and “Linger” was always genuine, she was overwhelmed by her rapid rise to success. With each new single and every additional accolade, she constantly worried about letting everyone down.
“When the band were really big and we had massive hits, I was always stressed-out and insecure,” she confessed to me in 2001. “I thought I wanted the band to be really popular, but when that happened there was so much pressure to keep it going.”
As of this writing, it’s unclear what caused O’Riordan’s death. Articles published in the hours since her body was found in London have noted that she was allegedly sexually abused between the ages of 8 and 12, and that she had suffered from anorexia, anxiety, binge-drinking, and bipolar disorder, as well as from chronic back pain for which she underwent surgery last year. In 2014, she told the Belfast Telegraph she had a “terrible self-loathing” and had “tried to overdose” in 2013.
However, when I spoke with O’Riordan nearly 17 years ago — as the Cranberries prepared to release Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, their final album before going on an apparently much-needed, eight-year hiatus — O’Riordan was in great spirits and seemed to have a newfound zest for life. Just short of 30 years old at the time, and a new mom to then-4-month-old Molly Leigh and 4-year-old Taylor Baxter, she had developed new priorities that instilled in her a pronounced sense of calm. (She would have another daughter, Dakota Rain, four years after our interview, and was by all accounts a model parent.) In conversation, O’Riordan was charming and casual; she even offered to make us tea before we began chatting, and she seemed to have little concern for what time it was or what she had scheduled for the rest of the day.
Following 1994’s No Need to Argue, which went seven times platinum, the Cranberries took an almost inevitable chart dip; their fourth album, 1999’s Bury the Hatchet, contained only one charting single, “Promises,” and received mixed reviews. For many artists, such a descent would result in panic, but for the reluctantly famous O’Riordan, it actually gave her a sense of peace that she hadn’t experienced in years.
“I’ve learned that for me it’s not about being a huge star, and I’ve never felt as happy as I do right now,” O’Riordan insisted with a smile and a shrug. “I guess when you get to that next level in life, everything that once seemed so important — record sales, touring, and staying popular — doesn’t matter as much anymore. Suddenly, your life’s fuller and you learn how to grasp the moment you’re in and live it and enjoy it.”
Exhibiting no sign of the depression or bipolar condition that would later plague her life, O’Riordan was enthused about family and enjoyed music as a creative pursuit, not as a career motivation. “When you’re pregnant or living with an infant, there’s a kind of sacredness around your body that affects everything you do,” she explained. “You don’t drink, you’re not smoking, you’re going to bed early, and the baby’s ruling you. You think about the child all the time. And when you sing, there’s a certain emotion in your voice you couldn’t have if it was any other way. The feeling that’s in your heart all the time comes out spiritually in your voice and the music.”
Even when O’Riordan struggled with mental illness and her past demons, she always spoke fondly of her family. She shared all three of her children with her then-husband, Don Burton, whom she married in 1994 while he was working as the tour manager for Duran Duran. “There’s more maturity, more confidence, and less apprehension that comes from taking care of children,” she said. “I’ve come to the conclusion that life is for the taking and just too short to dwell on the negative.”
While O’Riordan tried to remain positive, her struggles from the past still haunted her, and — burdened with the belief that issues affecting the environment and the disintegrating relations between rival nations would have a profound impact on her children — she would periodically become more outwardly emotional.
“You see how the ozone layer is being depleted and there’s lots more skin cancer, and you start to worry about what the world will be like when your kids are older,” she said when discussing “Time Is Ticking Out,” a prescient Wake Up and Smell the Coffee track about global warming and ecological awareness. “I know we need the products we manufacture, but at the same time, why can’t we live without plastic and all the crap that’s not biodegradable?”
When O’Riordan and Burton separated in 2014 following her well-publicized air rage incident — for which she was arrested, but not charged — Burton remained in Canada with their kids, while O’Riordan moved back to her native Ireland. Living far away from her beloved children may have exacerbated O’Riordan’s depression, although she continued to work with the Cranberries (who released their seventh album in 2017), and she also busied herself as a coach on The Voice of Ireland and with D.A.R.K., a side-project supergroup featuring the Smiths’ Andy Rourke.
In retrospect, one of the songs from Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, “Never Grow Old,” may most succinctly address O’Riordan’s duality — how she was torn between the optimism with which she wanted to approach life and the black hole that threatened to swallow her up.
“’Never Grow Old’ is about realizing that when your life is very good, you don’t want things to change,” she mused. “You believe this is the perfect moment in your life and you’re really very grateful. I wish I could stay in that moment forever.”