How I wrote ‘Zombie’ by The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan
Before the Irish band’s singer tragically died in 2018, she told us how this classic 90s rock song was created
Irish indie/alt-rock band The Cranberries quickly found worldwide commercial success in the 90s with their debut album, Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?, which featured the hit single Linger. Follow-up No Need To Argue could easily have been their ‘difficult second album’, but it instead became their best-selling LP, propelled by its lead single Zombie, which topped the charts in five countries.
Moved by the death of two boys in an IRA bomb attack in Warrington in 1993, the band’s yodelling frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan wrote the song’s uncompromising lyric and recorded an impassioned vocal to match. Here, in her own frank words, Dolores expanded on how Zombie came to life…
“At the time Zombie was written, we were touring in the UK. It was before the peace treaty and there had been a lot of trouble. There were a lot of bombs going off in London and I remember this one time a child was killed when a bomb was put in a rubbish bin – that’s why there’s that line in the song, ‘A child is slowly taken’.
“We were on a tour bus and I was near the location where it happened, so it really struck me hard – I was quite young, but I remember being devastated about the innocent children being pulled into that kind of thing. So I suppose that’s why I was saying, ‘It’s not me’ – that even though I’m Irish it wasn’t me, I didn’t do it. Because being Irish, it was quite hard, especially in the UK when there was so much tension. It’s so different now. If you told a teenager now what it was like back then they wouldn’t believe you, but it wasn’t such a long time ago.
“I draw from a lot of different life experiences: births, deaths, war, pain, depression, anger, sadness. I’m also obsessed with mortality. I have bipolar disorder so I struggle with mood swings – I go from one extreme to the next. But I think that was irrelevant when writing Zombie because the event was so massive at the time – it was all over the papers. I just remember being young and spirited, without any hang-ups, I had no chip on my shoulder and would just write what I thought.
“It came through quite subconsciously really, although I had a feeling I was going to write about it. I had the core chords that I’d written on my acoustic guitar, and I was back in Ireland when it came together. I was living in a small flat with my first boyfriend in Limerick, and I remember I’d come home after a night out. I sat down with my guitar and started strumming those chords and the chorus just came out really fast then.
“Once I’d got that hook and the chorus, I started thinking about the verses and they came quite easily at the time. I found it very easy to write lyrics when I was younger because I had no inhibitions – they just came pouring out. I find as I get older it’s more difficult: you develop fears and you go, ‘What will people think of this?’ But it’s important not to think too much about what people will think, because then you’ll never write!
“When it was recorded with Stephen Street and I heard it back, I thought, ‘Woah, that’s catchy.’ But I didn’t have any idea, at the time, that it would be so successful. You never really know. Even to this day, when I’m writing I can’t tell if it sounds good or bad!”
EXPERT OPINION by James Linderman
“This is a song that completely exemplifies the tricky balancing act of caring very deeply about people, but at the same time, not caring one bit about what they think of your art and so being able to express yourself honestly.”