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Sinead Harnett April 2024 Brennan Bucannan 04

Sinéad Harnett is healing her childhood pain with creative catharsis

25 April 2024, 12:00
Words by Jen Long
Original Photography by Brennan Bucannan

Sinéad Harnett tells Jen Long how she drew on her experiences in therapy to create Boundaries, a love letter to her inner child.

“I never went into this saying, ‘I'm going to make an album about boundaries.’ I don't plan anything,” smiles Sinéad Harnett against the harsh sun of an unusually bright day in East London.

“Once I did take a step back after about a year and a half, I was like, this is shit that I've been burying for all these years that's come out. Obviously that's not to say, woe is me, but it wasn't easy. I could see reflected in the songs what I was learning and what I had to unlearn. It said to me, ‘This album is called Boundaries and these are the stories that you've brought to the music.’”

Born in the UK but now based in L.A., Harnett was raised by her mother in North London. “My dad wasn't living with me, he was living in Australia. I stayed with my mum who was working a lot of jobs. She moved from Thailand when she was 20,” she says. “Growing up in a single parent family and the challenges that someone moving from Thailand to here would have had with no money, I was never taught [boundaries]. Gradually over the years I've been like, ‘What's missing and why is working on finding myself and feeling comfortable in my skin so hard?’ You have to set them in order to do that.”

While neither of her parents were musical, growing up she was often exposed to her mother’s fondness for strong female voices, the likes of Etta James and Tina Turner. “There were big power ballad females being played. I think that resonated with me because they were always kind of emotional and they were always complaining about a man, which definitely has become my thing in my music too,” she jokes.


After her mother was given a piano as a gift, Harnett taught herself to play by ear, escaping into music as an act of catharsis. “There was probably quite a lot on my shoulders,” she says. “I'm grateful because when I think of all the greats that I love - the Amy's, the Lauryn Hill's, the Etta's, the Jasmine Sullivan's - they're all pulling from a real place of pain. I guess if I didn't have that I wouldn't know what to write about. I'm grateful for the things I didn't have and what I've been able to do with it as a job.”

The first time Harnett ever performed was at a school talent show. Inspired by Whitney and Christina Aguilera, she performed a cover of the latter’s “Walk Away” from her Stripped album. “I just remember my friends saying, ‘Why didn't you tell us that you did this?’”, she says. “It was always a secret for me, it was like writing in the pages of my diary. I was never like, ‘Guys I'm a singer and you need to come and listen to me.’ I think that's still stayed with me. I never invite friends and family to shows because I'd hate for anyone to go and stand up for three hours unless they really want to.”

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Harnett continued to exercise her voice in the background. While studying at Bournemouth Uni, she worked in an American-themed diner. After starting a band called Black Tie with her friend (“Because I'm Thai and she was black”), Harnett was persuaded to sing for the restaurant’s customers. “I'd serve cheeseburgers and then start singing “Walk On By”, she laughs. “Sometimes people were like, ‘Wow, I get to see some singing while I eat these chips’, and other times it was very awkward.”

Harnett’s big break came in 2011 when she was discovered by Wiley through her YouTube channel. A series of big name collaborations followed as she worked with acts including Disclosure, Rudimental and Ryan Hemsworth, before releasing her debut album Lessons in Love in 2019.

Releasing follow-up Ready is Always Too Late in 2021, a reflective, collaboration-heavy record of soulful R&B, she told Billboard, “I think all boundaries start to really set in stone where we’re like, ‘I used to take that in my 20s?’ I feel like, at 30, life’s just begun. I feel my youngest now, which is really weird. My inner child is so activated.”


Releasing third record Boundaries this week, she laughs at how recurrent the subject has become. “It shows you how things kind of domino effect. That album, I was talking about needing to put yourself first in order to achieve the whole self-love thing. This album is what happens once you do start implementing it,” she says. “I'd say it's more eclectic. I think that there are soft moments, but there's also a bit more, ‘Who is this sassy bitch? Where does she get those balls from?’ Which I didn't hear much of in the last project.”

Across Boundaries, organic instrumentation blends with bombastic and soulful songwriting, Harnett’s textured and elegant vocals sparring with the driving production and drawing the record’s tapestry elements together. Recent single “The Most” is a confronting cut of smooth R&B, while album highlight “Beautiful” juxtaposes uplifting harmonies with damming lyricism.

“That song was actually about the learnings of the relationship that was the therapy catalyst,” she says. “It was very much like, if you just wouldn't look like this I could walk away so easily. I know that seems really shallow, but I think the most toxic relationships sometimes feel like you're understood properly because those people come from a place of pain too. Nothing sticks like a trauma-bond, unfortunately.”

While it was a break-up that provided Harnett with the impetus to start her journey through therapy, it also came paired with the quiet isolation and anxiety of the pandemic. “It was the first time that you could stop and really look in the mirror, because our lives are so packed. It was reflection time. That kind of started and coincided as I was writing this album,” she says. “I never thought I deserved therapy. I think most of us think if we've got a roof over our head and a job, like, what we got to complain about?”

The pandemic also influenced Harnett’s writing process while making the album. After two years of remote writing sessions over Zoom, she decided to write alone over instrumentals she’d been sent from various producers. “I found that things were clicking more. Sometimes when you work from scratch you kind of get what you're given,” she explains. “You feel rude to say, ‘Can we try something else?’ over and over again.”

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Creating the record over a two-year period, Harnett ended up with sketches for around 150 songs, routinely returning to and finessing the ideas that stuck. Writing as she was going through therapy, she stayed true to her original sentiment, treating her lyrics like diary entries. “I like to be quite loyal to the feeling and the emotion at the time,” she says. “So that's why some of the songs are still kind of younger Sinéad, less grown Sinéad, because I guess that was true at the time. I like to see how I've grown since then, or perhaps fallen off.”

On recent ballad “Burn” she’s delicate but direct, delivering an emotionally affecting warning that pits the protagonist against herself and is steeped in biography. “It’s basically my heart on my sleeve, into the pen, onto the paper, to the microphone, into the ether. It's definitely the truth,” she says. “I was in a relationship when I wrote it and I think it was just fear personified, fear of ruining something that was actually good for me. I see the inner child when I hear that song.”

Balancing out the moments of bleak honesty, tracks like “No One” and “Wish You Could See” are hook-fuelled and soulful cuts that brim with a smiling confidence. The latter wraps up the album with the ultimate kiss goodbye. “People always start laughing at the bit where it says, ‘Goodbye fucker. I'm only on good vibes, fucker,’ because they're just like, ‘OK, this is the comedy coming through and the clown,’” she says. “For me it kind of seals off the story where it's like, look how great it can be when you do set those boundaries.”

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One striking difference between Boundaries and Harnett’s previous releases is the lack of collaborators. Working with a cast of trusted writers and producers, including Camper, Tyler Reese and Jayla Darden, she keeps the performances to a solo effort (although the deluxe version may break that). “A bold choice for the ‘Néad. I was like, is anyone gonna listen?” she laughs. “It just feels like my truth, and all of the lessons and layers learned from therapy. I guess having it just be me really reflects that.”

Boundaries delivers a powerful and intimate collection of songs, shared with a commanding confidence. Never overbearing in their sentiment, Harnett uses the light of self-deprecation and experience with the draw of melody and pristine production to balance the weight. Referencing some of her sassier moments, she smiles, “I like that there's some empowering going on for the first time, because I'm more used to being the emo girl trying to fix everything and everyone in my songs. I'm kind of actually valuing myself.”

Boundaries is released on 26 April via Thairish Limited / Right Hand Co

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