If you ever meet Dolores O'Riordan in the street or at a fancy restaurant, please don't comment if there are condiments adorning the back of her head. The glamorous 27-year-old lead singer of Irish supergroup The Cranberries is the mother of an active toddler, who delights in plastering his mommy with all sorts of goop.
"Taylor's nearly 2 - he'll be 2 in November," she said. "He's really chatting now - it's a lovely age."
It's also, she confides, an unpredictable one.
"You know when you're all dolled up and you're thinking you're great?" she said. "It's not until you're out the door at some function that you realize that you have ketchup all over the back of your hair!"
She laughed uproariously at the memory.
"And in the middle of any situation he'll walk up to me and say 'Mamma, caa-caa!' " O'Riordan said chuckling. "And no matter who I'm talking to, I have to say, 'Oh, right, excuse me.'
"That's the age he's at," she said. And from the tone of her voice, it's clear that she's never been happier.
Crash and burn
Three years ago, the search for happiness had been something of a holy grail for O'Riordan, who, with The Cranberries, appears at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, N.J. this Friday, Aug. 13, at 8 p.m. and at Jones Beach Saturday, Aug. 14, at 8 p.m. To the casual observer, she seemed to have everything: youth, beauty, talent and fame. The band had sold 28 million albums, including "Everybody's Doing It (So Why Can't We?)"and "No Need to Argue." They'd also had chart-topping hits like "Zombie," "Dreams" and "Linger."
In 1996, the band released "To the Faithful Departed," which sold well, despite being lambasted by critics for tracks like "Bosnia" and "I Just Shot John Lennon." Tickets for their upcoming U.S. concert tour were nearly sold out, and the band were invited to perform on the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards in New York City.
But the Cranberries' meteoric rise to international rock stardom had placed heavy demands on its young singer, demands she found difficult to cope with.
"When we did 'To the Faithful Departed,' we had gotten to a point where we were working way too much," O'Riordan recalled during a telephone interview last week. "All the fun had gone out of the band. All the fun had gone out of life, full stop."
O'Riordan's frighteningly thin appearance at the MTV awards sparked speculation that she was suffering from anorexia.
"You know, I was just quite sick and stressed from working too much and just not coming home and not having any sense of reality," she said slowly.
"I felt like I had no real kind of love around me, no stability," she said. "You end up being kind of messed up."
Though she knew in her heart that she needed a break from the constant work, O'Riordan tried her best to keep going.
"I was just collapsing under the grueling schedule and everything that was going on - it was just too much," she said. "But when I reached out for help, nobody wanted to hear it. Nobody wanted to know that I wanted to cancel [the tour]. Because at the end of the day, it's a lot of money for a lot of people, and you're just a bloody product."
In a strange way, O'Riordan said she feels lucky that she came so close to a physical collapse.
"I guess the thinness was a good thing, because if it wasn't for that, I don't think I would have gotten away," she said. "It got to a point where I was just so thin - I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't do anything pleasurable, anything easy." She gave a rueful laugh. "But of course, I could smoke 500 fags a day."
Her nerves were frayed to the point of breaking.
"I was constantly thinking, 'I have to sing in 10 minutes' - I was constantly wired," she recalled. "I was always bouncing around. I couldn't stop going. I was having panic attacks."
Eventually, O'Riordan says, she couldn't do things that normal people take for granted.
"I remember it got to a point where I couldn't sit down comfortably in chairs," she said. "I was really that thin."
O'Riordan's friends and family worried about her, which only served to increase the singer's anxiety.
"People kept coming up to me, saying, 'Dolores, you're really thin.' " she recalled. "And I was like, 'Yeah, could you get lost, please?' Because that was just another problem on top of all my other problems. I was a nervous wreck, man.
"I just didn't want to hear it because there was such pressure on me to finish the tour, and I guess I wanted to be bloody perfect."
Ultimately, O'Riordan came to the realization that she could no longer go on with the tour, given her physical and mental state. The band decided to cancel the rest of the shows, and O'Riordan returned to Ireland for some desperately needed rest.
"It took about six to eight months for me to come down," she said. "And then I got pregnant and had a baby. And I just learned to be really, really happy and fell in love with my baby and my husband. I got to know my family. I learned what it was to have fun again."
O'Riordan is philosophical about the experience.
"It was my own fault - I'm not blaming anyone else," she said. "I should have seen it happening. But getting famous when you're so young - you can't go to college and learn how to deal with that.
"It was such an amazing dream, and when it did happen I just never wanted it to end. I never wanted to give up, I wanted to keep doing it forever. And it ate me up."
Her voice was rueful. "At the end of the day you just have to look after yourself," she said. "You can't get to sucked in by it all.
The band's new album is entitled "Bury the Hatchet," a phrase that has special significance for the group.
"When we came back together to start working, we said, 'We'll bury the hatchet on the past, between ourselves, between ourselves and the critics,' " she said. "We wanted to learn from everything that had happened instead of dwelling on it."
"Hatchet" has sold well, despite garnering mixed reviews. Though there's an Irish feel to it, given O'Riordan's distinctive vocals, the band consciously avoided adding any Celtic flourishes. She has no desire to work her heritage into the mix.
"I think it's such a cliché for Irish bands to do that Diddly-aye," she exclaimed. "It's almost like selling an Irish thing, a product."
She also objects on the grounds of artistic creativity.
"It wouldn't be like we made that up. The Corrs didn't make that up- it's there, it's traditional," she said. "I find it far more exciting to make beautiful music without using what's already there. It's just an awful cliché.
"You know, you throw it in and it's like "We're Irish, it's the little band." She laughed. "You might as well stick a leprechaun on the corner of your album."
O'Riordan was happy that the record label didn't try to capitalize on the band's Irish roots.
"They record company didn't try to position us as an 'Irish' band when we were starting out," she said. "I mean, there might have been a subliminal Irish thing. But I think if you're too Irish, you'll only appeal to a certain type of person. Trendy teenagers aren't into Diddly-aye music.
"We wanted to keep our music cool and hip. And I don't think Diddly-aye is cool."
But O'Riordan is quick to note that she loves traditional music.
"I think it's amazing. It's lovely and I'm proud of it, she said. "I respect it because it's the music of my country. I love when I go to the pub and you have a few great trad players - it's beautiful.
"But," she added, laughing, "I remember when I was a teenager, I didn't want to go headbanging to it."
As for what trendy teens are buying today, O'Riordan is a bit unimpressed.
"Boyzone and The Corrs are massive over here," she said. "In Ireland and the U.K., there are a lot of throwaway pop songs, singles that are sort of here today, gone tomorrow.
"The upshot is that audiences become accustomed to mindless fluff rather than more complex writing. I mean, you don't hear a lot of Metallica or Pearl Jam here."
So far, the Cranberries have resisted taking the pop route, which they consider the road well-traveled.
"Singles are easy to write," she said. "The key to writing them is to keep the words really simple.
"In fact, the simpler you keep it, the better," she said. "If the chorus is 'I love you,' that's really good. And if the chorus is 'Let's make love,' that's even better."
"It's so non-challenging," she sighed. "I love the idea of writing true, beautiful poetic songs. I love the challenge of trying not to be too banal. Trying to be a little bit more artistic."
O'Riordan plans to stay well-grounded on the band's current tour in support of "Bury the Hatchet." To that end, she's taking her son with her on the road.
"Everything's different now," she said. "Having a child really makes you think. When I decided to get pregnant, I thought, 'I don't care if I ever have a career in music again.' The most important thing was that I wanted to have a child. I wanted to be a mother.
She paused. "When you have a child, it just changes the terms of your life. It changes your mentality. The most important thing is your child."
O'Riordan is able to spend a great deal of time with her son, even when she has only short breaks.
"I'm basing Taylor in three or four different places while we're touring," she said. "Places where it's beautiful, and there's a swimming pool and other children to play with. The label's been great about letting me use a private jet, so as soon as I finish a show, I fly out to wherever he is, and I stay until it's time to fly out to the next show."
O'Riordan's sense of well-being also comes from knowing her son is in safe and loving hands.
"My mother's watching him," she said. "And it's a wonderful set-up. She adores him, and he loves being with her. It means so much to know that when I'm not with him, he's with someone who really cares about him - not a stranger."
Of course, O'Riordan admits, the greatest visible change that the child has wrought has been on her appearance.
"In the old days, I'd be fixing myself before I went out, putting on nice clothes and all this carry-on," she said. "Now, it's just, head down, and I'm wearing a tracksuit and my hair's standing up and I have a pound of butter on the back of my head because I don't realize it's there. And I look like all the other moms.
"So you just blend in. And people are so nice because they realize that you're just human too.