Outward pop music doesn’t usually succeed under what Sally Ó Dúnlaing refers to as Ireland’s musical “glass ceiling.” While there’s a huge per-capita level of talent, successful Irish pop is still rare. And even at a time when Irish electro-pop artists led by the likes of Róisín Murphy and Young Wonder have broken through, guitar bands and traditional folk acts still rule the scene.
Ó Dúnlaing makes music as Ódú and while she grew up in Coastal Ireland, she was born in New York to English and Irish parents. Her debut EP, Conversations, was released on February 24th and is filled with dark-yet-danceable pop songs about conflict, misunderstandings and heated emotion.
But before she turned to music, Ó Dúnlaing thought she would be writing plays or acting on stage for a living. She says her scripts were always ensemble- and character-driven. The dialogues that formed her plays, spawned the songs that she writes as Ódú and can be seen as ruminations on her pushing forward as a pop singer in Ireland.
“A lot of my plays were about groups of people who can’t communicate with each other properly, and the decisions that people can make. It all comes out in the end, so a lot of inner-monologue songs and all that sort of stuff,” said Ó Dúnlaing.
Ó Dúnlaing lived in New York City’s Greenwich Village for the first two years of her life while her father taught at NYU and her mother was studying history. Her well-travelled parents met in England and moved to the west coast in Santa Barbara before resettling to New York.
“My mom was listening to a lot of really great records and music at that time,” Ó Dúnlaing says. “Madonna was really big then… and so there was a lot of that kind of [music] coming into the house.”
The family moved back to Ireland in the late ’80s and Ó Dúnlaing grew up in the seaside town of Bray, in County Wicklow. While she remembered bits and pieces of New York, Ireland quickly became her home, and she and her friends spent most of their time at the chilly beaches.
“I think it was always destined that I would come back here,” she says. “There’s an amazing music scene around Dublin… I’ve been really lucky to be a part of it. It’s relatively small, but incredibly talented at the same time.”
Over the past few years, Ó Dúnlaing has taught music, gigged around Dublin, toured Ireland’s healthy cover band circuit, and generally fought an internal battle over whether she could or should pursue making an album of original songs.
“It’s the thoughts that we allow to enter into our head all the time; the classic ‘imposter syndrome,’” she explained. “[I was] trying to find ways to avoid facing what I actually wanted to do, in case it ended up going wrong, or in case I realized I wasn’t good enough or it didn’t go anywhere.”
“Different,” her debut single, is an introspective, conversational debate over whether a lover is truly the one. Ódú sings over a bass and xylophonic staccato synth beat: “Love is only a drug/ If you’re not enough/ Then, baby, it’s gonna get rough.” It comes across like an on-stage soliloquy that harkens to Annie Lennox, but also early Madonna.
Conversations’s opening track, “Feed You Lies,” speaks directly to her insecurity and anxiety of how people will react to her art. She has reined in her demons, but they still pop up from time to time. She thinks about how the Irish have an aversion to music not perceived as cool or having an edge. And as Ó Dúnlaing sees it, pop music is perceived as “dirty.”
“In Ireland we have this thing called ‘slagging,’” she explained. “When you slag someone off, you’re basically taking the piss out of them and making fun of them. There is very much this idea in Ireland of ‘don’t get notions about things.’ That’s a really Irish expression. A lot of people just don’t really want to step outside the box.”
Eventually Ó Dúnlaing decided that success or acceptance shouldn’t be her goal, but rather the journey to prove she could write songs, record them and release a collection of music that was personal to her. While this has added to the anxiety that keeps her up at night. She’s curious to find out how listeners react, and whether they identify with her original intentions or create their own, new interpretation.
“Even if it all goes to pot or even if it doesn’t really go anywhere—it isn’t the point,” she said. “It’s the experience of doing all that and knowing that I could. Like, ‘Yeah, you did that, Sally. You put that shit out there.’”