Interview: Sinead O’Connor
It’s refreshing to see Sinead O’Connor written about for the right reasons. Lately, the Irish star and mother of four has been taking up column inches for her fourth marriage, separation and then reunion with her new husband; for her claims of being misdiagnosed with bi-polar disorder; and for threatening to shoot the pope should he visit Ireland. She has always been one to make a statement – she first shaved her hair in defiance of stereotypes, and, at the peak of her fame, tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on television. Now, five years since her last release, her ninth studio album How About I Be Me (and you be you)? is being hailed her best in a decade and even a return to the intensity of her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Since her career began 30 years ago as an alternative solo artist, she’s embraced traditional Irish folk and reggae, while her last album Theology was an idiosyncratic collection of songs based on Biblical scriptures. How About I Be Me (and you be you)? is an album of original songs, except for her cover of John Grant’s “Queen of Denmark.” Some songs see her turn toward religious hypocrisy, namely the 2009 Murphy Report into the cover-up of child abuse in Catholic schools in Ireland, a subject against which she’s a well-known outspoken critic, But as well as expressing disgust, this album boasts some of O’Connor’s most light-hearted and uplifting songs.
eMusic’s Elisa Bray talked with Sinead O’Connor about John Grant, bi-polar disorder and getting naked.
People are saying this is your best album in a decade.
I’m delighted if that’s how people feel; I’m ecstatic and trussed up like a peacock. Obviously you can’t betray any of your albums, I’m proud of all of them, but yeah, I’m particularly proud of this one. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t.
You’ve tried a few genres in the past: Irish folk, reggae… What brought you back to traditional songwriting?
Yeah, those – the traditional Irish record, the Rasta record and Theology – were records that I’d been longing to make for years and years so I had to get them out of my system. They’re kind of quirky little side records, but I think they were necessary stepping stones to rebuild a certain confidence perhaps that I lost, more because of personal shit that was going on. They were kind of nice, safe stepping stones back into the process of songwriting myself. I had to get them out of the way first.
Why such a long time – five years – since your last album Theology?
I think it’s the way I write. It’s quite slow. Some artists describe, I think mistakenly, the feeling that they’re channeling something that isn’t them. In my case it’s very much the subconscious that does the writing. And it’ll happen accidentally. I don’t sit there and consciously try to write a song, but I’ll be doing something mundane and suddenly I’ll hear melodies or words and then the way I work is I know not to pay attention to it, particularly as it’ll come back again with another bit, and I just let it build itself that way.
Are there exceptions?
There are exceptions, say “VIP” or “Take Off Your Shoes,” that Bob Dylan used to refer to as finger-pointing songs, that I suppose I do more consciously try to sit down and write, but the character songs like “Reason with Me” are all pretty much subconscious. And it’s the same with the love songs – those happen slowly, but the other ones would happen quicker, where consciously I know that I want to write about a particular finger-pointing subject.
With your finger-pointing songs, do you feel a responsibility to discuss religious hypocrisy?
It would be weird not to address it on the album. I did very much feel with this record that it would be a huge gap and a big question mark in people’s minds because I have been so active for the past few years in the whole church struggle.
I am someone who since I was a kid has been very engaged in a relationship with what I prefer to call the Holy Spirit. And I’m someone who’s quite passionately in love with that spirit and I get angry on that spirit’s behalf when I see it being misrepresented or people exploiting it for nefarious purposes. I think that all human beings who have a passionate love for that spirit need to stand up and defend that spirit because in this child abuse issue, for example, the victims have a voice, and I acknowledge that it took them years to get it, but the one character involved that has no voice in fact is the Holy Spirit – it has no defenders. “Take Off Your Shoes” is supposed to be the Holy Spirit talking to the pope. And if you believe in God at all, you can’t steal a chocolate bar, never mind stand lying about the rape of little boys, so to me our church has been taken over by people who don’t believe in God and don’t respect it. And we deserve better and the church deserves better and the Holy Spirit deserves better. So that’s really where I’m coming from.
And in “VIP” you’re finger-pointing other celebrities who don’t speak out.
It’s not really supposed to come across as terribly finger-pointing; it’s asking questions of all of us, including me.
It’s very gentle and hymn-like.
Yes exactly, I actually sang it a few times over because I wanted to be careful not to sing it angrily. At first I wanted to finger-point and sing it angrily and then I thought that it doesn’t work like that, it’s far better if you sing it sad, because it’s sad actually that people are silent, it’s nothing to be angry about. And in fact you don’t really get far with people if you stand there screaming and shouting at them.
How did the John Grant cover come about?
My manager played the song and I loved it and then I got in touch with John because I couldn’t understand the words and now the two of us are best mates. It’s just a fantastic song and John has this brilliant ability – he does it a lot on his forthcoming album – where he can take you to a very heavy emotional place and then immediately lift you out of it with one funny line. It’s very safe for males to go somewhere emotionally with John. He can take men to this very dark place and then get them out of it within minutes, which is very powerful because a lot of fellows would be afraid to go to the emotional places.
And you’re best mates now?
Oh yeah; he’s one of my best mates now. The two of us are like brother and sister. I think we’re very much the male and female version of each other. As Cathy says in Wuthering Heights, we’re made of one and the same. He played me some of the demos for his new album and they were hugely, ridiculously brilliant.
What was the title inspired by?
It was inspired by Irish reactions to my having written two or three articles for a Sunday newspaper which were quite graphic about sex and women wanting sex. We’re still a messed-up country in many ways and repressed, and so there was a lot of abuse thrown in my direction. As usual. In this case it was because I’d been graphic about sex and after a few weeks those [critical] phrases just began to come into my mind. There are all these rules; we’re all meant to be square pegs in square holes, you can’t be different. People were referring to me as mad and insane for being open and graphic about sex because I’m a woman.
Did you originally shave your hair as a statement against gender stereotypes?
Well I suppose I kind of did, yeah, if I look at it truthfully. What happened was I had a Mohican anyway, so I was sort of heading in that direction and then my record company – it must be 25 years ago – sat me down and said they’d like me to grow my hair and wear short skirts. When I told my manager, he said “I think you should fucking shave it.” So I did.
What’s great is the body isn’t actually as fucked as people might think so I can still get naked if I need to. It’s been good because it means that you focus not on how you look, but how you sound. When you have a shaved head you look striking whatever you wear, you don’t have to worry as much about make up and all that shit and I think that could be a terrible trap if you sell yourself on your sexuality. I feel sorry for people like Madonna because if you build your career a lot around how you look, when you’re in your 50s you’re running against time and trying to make yourself look 30. This way I get to be continue being me, but equally I can still get my tits out if I need to.
So you’re not going to grow it anytime soon.
I have done it over the years, but I look awful. My children begged me to shave it. It just doesn’t suit me. It’s got this weird wave in it; it looks all mumsy.
The theme of marriage crops up quite a lot in the album – was that because it was happening to you?
Well no, that’s the funny thing. Of course everyone thinks I recorded and released the album yesterday – as if I was able to get married on the 8th December, write the album and record it in such a short space of time! The songs were actually written between 2007 and 2009.
But the very weird thing is, and people have said this to me over the years, and I do remember being conscious of this when I wrote these songs, that songs can come true when you write. It’s really fucking weird. If you ask other singers they’ll tell you it’s the weirdest shit, you’ve got to be really careful what you write because it happens. And I do remember thinking “I want to be happily married one day, I want a lovely sweet husband.” I was going out with someone else at the time so the love songs on the record are actually about this other person who fathered my child and the record is dedicated to him and also to my brother (to clear up any misunderstanding), but I do remember thinking that if I write this then it’ll happen.
That’s so weird.
It’s very funny – Frank [Bonadio, the father of her son] has brown eyes, and the song talks about this guy with brown eyes. And then I married a guy who has green eyes [Steve Cooney], so I ran back to the studio and we changed it to green eyes so that he wouldn’t be offended, and then me and him broke up, so I ran back and we put a beep because I didn’t know, and then we went back to brown eyes. And now I’m married to a man with blue eyes [Barry Herridge].
So did you change the lyric again?
No, it was too late – the record was already made. But John [Reynolds, her producer and first husband] says he’s got to just get me to sing every color of the rainbow so we can change it in case we separate.
Is songwriting a cathartic process?
Very much so, always. Singing is also. When I am making a record I can’t wait to play the stuff live; the actual act of singing is almost more cathartic.
Is it always the same for you when you’re singing?
The way I work is the Stanislavski method – it’s a bit like method acting, so you are every night drawing on your own emotional experiences. The audience can’t see what you’re doing inside yourself – you’re drawing on all your past and memories and emotional experiences in order to deliver. My job, as I see it, as a singer, is to get to the emotional place.
It sounds tiring.
Well you know what, now you mention it, it is quite tiring. I do get extremely tired after gigs. It’s quite the emotional workout as well as physical workout. As a singer you must put your entire being into it so that there is no difference between the singer and the song – that’s your job. You all adore the singers that do that. Bob Dylan, for example, I think he’s the greatest singer that ever lived, and you could say he’s not perfect, but he is the song, his whole being is in it. And it’s good for me because I’m a person who finds it quite hard to sleep. I always sleep very well after gigs.
Have you always suffered insomnia?
Only in about the last eight years or so. It’s because I suffer from bi-polar disorder. It’s not full blown, but I’m on the spectrum of it. It’s one of the symptoms (you have to go through all manner of bullshit); it won’t be anything that you’re worrying about, your brain won’t shut down. I think that’s what happened to Heath Ledger quite frankly, I think unfortunately you can end up accidentally, understandably, trying to medicate yourself to sleep.
Do you have any pre-gig rituals?
I have multiple back problems so I always have a massage because it helps me relax my body enough to sing properly. I get nervous; I have these signs on the ground to remind me to breathe because when I’m nervous I forget to breathe and then my whole back gets fucked up. Then I have a drink I need which is ginger, lemon, honey and hot water, and a certain amount of praying is involved. I usually feel a bit weird if I forget the prayer, which I don’t very often. I have once or twice, and it doesn’t seem to go as well when I forget that. So I go into the toilet and quietly pray.