embrases a new style, religion
by Tom Moon
NEW YORK -- In the
vast and well-documented history of
pop makeovers, there's never been anything quite like
the imminent return of Sinead O'Connor.
Once seen on national TV
ripping up a picture of the
pope, she's now become a priest in the Latin
Tridentine Church, a tiny Catholic splinter group.
Once, her calling card was
rage, and her primary mode
was provocation; now, in songs with such titles as
"The Healing Room," she talks about overcoming anger
with poise, and extols the virtues of grace.
She once was bald. Now she
has hair. (It's black.)
Once she was a proud punk; now, she credits the Rastas
for showing her the light.
Once she ignored internal
cues. Now, she says in a
humble whisper as a cross and other jewelry jangle
beneath her deep-blue tunic, her inner ear is tuned to
"This record represents my
soul singing to me," the
slight O'Connor, 33, said in a plush suite at the Four
Seasons as she talked about her first full album in
six years, "Faith and Courage."
"I believe the soul has knowledge
of where your energy
should be. And if you are aware, and you have a
dialogue with it, you can learn from that. There are
topics in some of the songs that I wasn't consciously
trying to deal with, but they just came out. Almost
like these were the things my soul thought I needed to
It doesn't take long to sense
how important this stuff
is to O'Connor. As she talks about her journey to
enlightenment, her eyes flicker and flash in a kind of
visual punctuation, underscoring her awe at small
coincidences and major revelations. And though she's
endured ridicule and other kinds of torment for years,
she's hardly bitter: She exudes the confidence of
someone who has overcome obstacles through sheer force
She points to "Til I Whisper
U Something," which uses
a pounding ritual pulse and Celtic flute to address
the importance of relaxation, as one example of her
heeding an inner voice. "That's a universal thing, and
maybe really obvious. But when I wrote it, it was a
reminder to myself that I really needed to lighten up
and stay open."
It is in these "reminders"
-- meditations on the role
of spirituality in everyday life, as well as
expressions of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation
laced into the album's 13 tracks -- that O'Connor's
transformation is most vivid.
The singer and controversy
magnet, whose signature
sound is that of an anguished seeker clawing out of
deep emotional distress, has always flirted with the
metaphysical. Off and on since she was 18, she has
studied the paranormal at a London school for psychic
healing. "I'm learning to be a medium -- using guided
meditation to read auras and ask questions of the
spirits. It's something anyone can do, if they're
tuned into it. It fills me with the greatest joy."
With "Faith and Courage"
(Atlantic), O'Connor has
discovered compelling ways to bring her spiritual
journey more overtly into the mix, allowing it to
inform, on some level, every song. The album is a
series of lullaby hymns and petitioning prayers,
anthemic proclamations of devotion, and blunt
assessments of dysfunctional relationships, outbreaks
of rage overshadowed by beautiful melodies.
The narratives retain the
busted-apart-at-the-seams urgency of her previous work
-- one memorable refrain finds her imploring "take
back the hatred you gave me for me, take back the
anger that nearly killed me." But these pieces are not
always linked to the typical rock or hip-hop settings
she favored in the past. Several are built around
pulverizing, techno-style electronic drums, and others
strive for the uplift of classic reggae, or the
soothing contemplations of folk. And though many of
the compositions are freighted with symbolism and
personal anguish, they're never preachy. O'Connor is
one of the few pop artists who can make the "know
thyself" quest sound like a matter of life-or-death
O'Connor says that when she
began writing these songs,
she felt strongly about addressing serious issues
without compromising, or overburdening, the music.
"In the West, people are
not encouraged to go inward,"
she says as she lights up an American Spirit
organic-tobacco cigarette. "They're not exposed to
those ideas, and that meant I had to find ways to
introduce them that wouldn't be threatening. The thing
is, we live under the illusion that we are all
separate from each other, and what I believe is that
on the soul level, we are one. So if you're honest
when you talk about the things you're going through,
people feel it. They hear a bit of themselves in
Of course, sometimes the
signals get crossed, which
she says has happened with the first single, the
declarative "No Man's Woman." Though her intention was
to celebrate strong, independent-minded women (she
recently said she was a lesbian), some have
interpreted it as an anti-male diatribe.
"That's a shallow reduction
of my idea: Man in that
song is just a symbol of anything, real or not, that
blocks you, that keeps you from being free."
O'Connor says that when she
began planning the album,
she had just one goal: Unlike her previous successes,
particularly the 1990 breakthrough "I Do Not Want What
I Haven't Got," the new work would not mine a single
musical style from start to finish.
"The most important thing
is having a sense of
direction. My father's a builder, and he says that
when he looks at the drawing of the finished project,
he doesn't know all the steps it'll take, but he knows
what he'll end up with. When I started thinking about
the record, I took the same approach . . . I like to
be covered in butter, so I can't quite be caught in
one place. I mean, I have a pop streak and a real
Irish traditional streak and a punk streak, and I
don't think those things have all been represented
O'Connor wrote or co-wrote
10 of the 13 tracks, and
enlisted an all-star team of producers including Dave
Stewart of Eurythmics, hip-hop star Wyclef Jean, Kevin
"She'kspere" Briggs, and ambient-music pioneer Brian
"Everybody ended up doing
things they weren't used to
doing," she recalls. "The track I did with Wyclef is
country-and-western, almost. The energy of being
around really smart people who are feeling their way
in unknown territory was just incredible. And they all
gave me the space to be in charge. Producers can be
controlling, especially of female artists, and in
every case these men recognized that it's like a
relationship, like a marriage, and everybody worked to
make it a good environment."
That doesn't mean she wasn't challenged.
One day Stewart brought in
a track and had a specific
theme in mind for the lyrics. "He asked me to go write
a song about how I left Dublin to become a singer.
Which was uncomfortable for me, because I don't always
write autobiographically. And because it felt like I
was coming full circle: The girl I'm writing about was
so influenced by Eurythmics; he and Annie Lennox were
just tremendously important to me at that time."
The song, "Daddy I'm Fine,"
bounces between slurpy
funk and a careening, up-tempo punk thrash to
chronicle O'Connor's turbulent, headstrong youth. But
by the end, it tries to reassure her father, with whom
she fought as a teen-ager, that she turned out all
right. The last line: "And Daddy I love you."
O'Connor acknowledges that
she wasn't capable of
making such a forthright declaration a few years ago,
and credits teachings from Rastafarianism and
Catholicism with helping her development.
"I like religions which don't
withhold the magic," she
explains. "To me, the Rasta men are a true
inspiration, the way they talk: 'The "I" has work to
She sees no incongruence
between respecting the
Jamaican religion and working within the Latin
Tridentine Church. "My idea is to go in there and be
one drop in the ocean, as Bob (Marley) said. I can be
a bridge between cultures . . . I'm not here to beat
up the old church, just to suggest that maybe there
needs to be some change."
O'Connor quickly adds that
she's uncomfortable talking
about her priesthood, which became official last year.
"Because I didn't do it for publicity reasons, and I
don't want to bring them attention they're not
seeking." She offers the one affirmation she received
from church elders: "Their only statement has been
that they welcome someone working to seek a spiritual
O'Connor's theological studies
were just one of
several obstacles to the completion of "Faith and
Courage." She spent more than a year in record-company
limbo: "My label, EMI, closed 10 days after they put
my record out," she says, referring to the 1997
"Gospel Oak EP." She spent months learning bel canto
singing, a classical Italian technique that she says
taught her to focus on "the pictures and the intent of
the song rather than the words or the notes."
Then came a protracted battle
over custody of her
daughter, Roisin, now 4, who was fathered by British
journalist John Waters in what the British press
characterized as an "arranged pregnancy."
Waters told British officials
that he thought O'Connor
was an unfit mother. O'Connor soon found herself in a
"I suffer from depression,
and in the English courts
there's a bias against mental illness, any kind of
instability. The implication is that you're unfit to
mother." She tried to move the case to the United
States, arguing that in this country, "there is
support and understanding for mental illness. I knew I
wouldn't be punished for crying in court -- I was
hysterical, just phobic about being there at all. And
I found it difficult to sit there and take it when
someone's telling the most foul lie about you."
Though the British tabloids
initially reported that
she had lost custody, O'Connor says she and Waters
resolved the matter earlier this year by agreeing to
joint custody. (As for other perceptions advanced by
the tabloids: "I've never been an alcoholic . . . I've
never gone out with Daniel Day-Lewis, but that's not
for want of trying . . . I never supported Saddam
While the case was proceeding,
O'Connor and her son,
Jake, now 13, passed the time in Atlanta, where Jake's
father was working, watching TV -- specifically
televangelists. "I was struck by how inspiring they
are, how much feeling they put behind the words. I
want them to teach the priests of Ireland, because
some of them can be pretty dull."
The metaphor-rich sermons
sparked a song, "The Lamb's
Book of Life," that neatly encompasses the themes of
healing, reconciliation and forgiveness that run
throughout the album. On one verse, she talks about
Ireland's needing spiritual help to resolve "the great
hatred." On another, she asks for understanding for
her own transgressions: "I know that I've done many
things to give you reason not to listen to me," she
sings over a lilting reggae pulse. "Words can't
express how sorry I am if I ever caused any pain to
She insists it's not an act of contrition.
"I don't regret anything
I've done," she says. "But
I've come to understand why people felt threatened,
and I guess I did feel I needed to make some
acknowledgment of my behavior. To say that I've
learned, from my children and from everything that's
happened to me, about compassion."
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