It was perhaps the most shocking crash and burn in pop music history. With her 1987 debut, The Lion and the Cobra, 20-year-old Sinead O’Connor staked her claim as one of the most powerful voices of her generation — a potential that was fully realized three years later when the follow-up, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, became an international sensation. But after engaging in some high-profile squabbles with everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Grammy Awards, in 1992, O’Connor tore up a photograph of the Pope on Saturday Night Live and declared, “Fight the real enemy”; the next week she was booed off the stage at a Bob Dylan tribute concert, and her album of standards, Am I Not Your Girl? (recorded years before Rod Stewart made such things commercially viable), disappeared from sight. One of rock’s brightest stars had become persona non grata overnight.
O’Connor retreated from the public eye for a few years, but she has refused to let that episode define her subsequent life. Over the last seven years, she has steadily and quietly released six albums, including projects exploring traditional Irish music and roots reggae. Her new album, Theology, is a two-disc set offering parallel versions — one disc acoustic, one with full-band arrangements — of new compositions by O’Connor that interpret Biblical texts, plus a few appropriate covers. The afternoon following a stellar performance at a small New York City nightclub, O’Connor — now a 40-year-old mother of four — settled in over coffee and cigarettes to discuss her musical, spiritual and personal journeys.
eMusic: This album seems to work as a summary of your recent interests — studying different religions, Irish folk music, reggae. Does it feel that way to you?
Sinead O’Connor: Yeah, totally. It was something that was growing in my mind for some years, and based on certain influences. With traditional Irish music — when you start dealing with those songs, there’s nowhere else to go besides spiritual music of some kind. You can’t really climb back down from there. I also had the idea, because of the inspiration I had from the Rasta movement, to do some kind of religious thing. So yes, it’s pretty much an expression of all of the things I was interested in, gathered together.
eMusic: The different texts on the album add up to a kind of Judeo-Christo-Rasta blend. Do you differentiate between religions, or do they all meld together for you?
SOC: Well, Rastafari is not a religion for a start, it’s really more of a movement. Whereas Judaism and Christianity are religions. By birth, I’d be a Christian — which makes me partly Jewish if you think about it, because Christianity could not exist if not for Judaism. But the Rasta movement itself is kind of a Judeo-Christian movement, too. So I don’t feel any contradictions or conflicts between any of the religions, because it’s all the same God. People call it different things, but everyone is basically singing about the same thing.
eMusic: This is the first time in seven years you’ve released material that you’ve written. How was it to begin the process of writing again?
SOC: It was great because of the material I was working with, and what I was trying to do. I had plotted it out in my mind for a long time before I started, so it was a very easy process. It was also pleasant insofar as it wasn’t directly about me, so that was kind of a nice experience. I felt ready. I guess I had some nerves about whether I would be able to pull off what I was trying to pull off. If you’re going to deal with this kind of spiritual or scriptural songs, there’s a very fine line between corny and cool.
eMusic: So what was it that you went in trying to accomplish?
SOC: First of all, I just wanted to make a beautiful thing, and something that honored God. But also, most importantly, part of the impetus of making the record was the time that we’re living in — specifically talking about war and all these things that are happening because of the way people on all sides are interpreting particular theologies. Warmongering people are saying somehow that God supports the use of violence as a means to sorting things out, and they quote various scriptures as a way to try to support their case.
I was very interested in making something which showed the opposite to be true, something that would contradict that fake image of God, where there wouldn’t even be one syllable which gave the impression that God was an aggressive force. So that meant being able to have very sharp editing qualities. And then having to take things and make them rhyme, but also be true to what the Book was saying — to try to, for example, get the Book of Job into a three-minute song, you want to be very careful about what you’re leaving out.
eMusic: What determined which songs were taken directly from the Bible and which were given more of your own interpretation?
SOC: It’s just that’s the way they came. The songs with just tiny bits of scripture and then more of my own thing, those just kind of fell out, they just happened that way. The others are more intentional, where I really sat down with the intention of writing. There were some particular scriptures that I knew for a long time I wanted to put to music, like the Song of Solomon — I’ve been kind of obsessed with the Song of Solomon for years. I used to paint out the various sections of it, so that was one I just had to use only lines from it.
The first song I wrote was “Something Beautiful” — which was a prayer for the ability to write, and also a statement of intention for what I wanted to do with the record. Once you’re over the first one, then you kind of get the confidence to go on and do the second, so once I listened to that song and I got the feeling that I wanted to get, then I could go forward.
eMusic: How did you wind up with the two different versions of the album?
SOC: Accidentally. My plan was to make the acoustic record, but I’d made some demos with (producer) Ron Ton in London, and when I told him that I didn’t want to work on Theology with him, but on another record, he was really upset. He asked me if I’d let him do it, and I said OK.
I suppose what I like about it is that if part of the reason for making the record was commenting on this issue of how people are interpreting the same scriptures and doing completely different things with them, musically it came to symbolize that same idea. And also I liked that the audience could hear the evolution of the songs. So they can hear what it sounded like when I was sitting in my living room, and then what it sounded like produced.
eMusic: You completely left music for several years. Why did you stop and why did you feel it was time to come back to it?
SOC: For three years, I didn’t even keep a guitar, didn’t have an instrument in the house. I just looked after the kids. It was nice, but I guess I began to just get a bit bored. If you have that kind of thing inside of you, you have to actually be using it, even just a bit, otherwise you start to get blue. I got fed up cooking, that was the other thing, and I got fed up at the supermarket. I started to break out in a rash whenever I had to go to the supermarket. I just needed a bit of balance.
What I hope I’ve done was to step out of the rock and pop arena as such, and focus myself into a more inspirational arena, making the kind of music that’s natural to me, that I have control over and have some say in how it all goes. And I’ve gotten a massive response from that community.
eMusic: At the show last night, you sang “Black Boys on Mopeds” from I Do Not Want… and one line really jumped out—”These are dangerous days/ Speak your mind and you dig your own grave.” It seems to carry so many layers of meaning, from people being killed over cartoons to your own history.
SOC: It definitely does, though I don’t know how to explain why. It’s a song about what the world makes as its priorities. We fantasize that everything is marvelous, but when you look down at the actual reality that people are living in, it’s not as romantic as people would like to make it out to be. That’s the subtext of the song — and that’s pretty much where we are now. What does the world make a priority? In America, the government spends 124 billion dollars in three months on a war when its own people commonly are starving, and kids in this country are killing each other.
I think it’s interesting that since this war has been going on, so has the level of violence between teenagers skyrocketed, in England and America. If the government represents the father figures of the nation, the father figures are teaching the younger people, by example, that violence is how you sort things out. So it’s a question of priorities, and that’s what that song is getting at.
eMusic: Does singing the older songs make you look back to your early career?
SOC: I suppose I think of it as all being a very, very, very, very long, long time away, very, very far away, so I don’t necessarily relate to it. It’s not so much part of my life now. It’s like I was there but I can’t remember most of it.
I only do the old songs that I like or that resonate with me now, so I don’t necessarily associate them with that time. But if they do make me feel anything about that time, it would be good, pleasant things. Mostly I feel proud of myself, actually, because I didn’t realize that I’d written all those songs, and I used to think they were shit. When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate songs like “Black Boys on Mopeds,” I couldn’t understand what everybody was on about. But now I think, well, it’s a really good song.
I suppose I felt that I wasn’t really in control of things then. There were things I was wanting to do with my life, but my job was an obstacle. I had left Ireland when I was 17 and got straight into the music business, and I’d become famous very early, so I hadn’t really had any time to form an identity of my own as an adult woman. No matter where I was or what situation I was in, I wasn’t what everybody was thinking I was. And I had a massive identity crisis.
eMusic: Do you still recognize the person who wrote those songs twenty years ago?
SOC: Yeah, very much so. It’s very nice actually, very pleasant — they mean the same thing, but I feel like I own them a bit better now. Because of my age and because of the feeling as you get older that you get more comfortable in your skin, more sense of who you actually are. When I was younger, I used to feel slightly detached from the song, detached from it all. I feel more present now.