June 25, 2000
She's a priest who worships Rastas, a celebate lesbian mother and an advocate of acid who thinks ecstasy is evil. Is Sinead O'Connor as contradictory as ever? Is the Pope Catholic?
By Aaron Hicklin
MY MOTHER always used to tell me to think before I spoke. Viewed from the perspective of the present, where self-expression is everything, that may seem a curiously quaint attitude, but it's one that I wish I'd taken heed of more often. Sinead O'Connor, I suspect, has come to the same conclusion. A bit late, perhaps, but welcome nonetheless, especially in America where her new album, Faith And Courage, has been hailed by critics as a graceful return to form, and an apology of sorts which attempts to make amends for her notorious Pope-shredding incident.
"It's about humility," she says, sitting as near the clouds as possible on the 31st floor of New York's Four Seasons hotel. "I think I learned something over the years, and I almost want to get the word humility tattooed across my fingers." She lifts her hands up, silently counting her knuckles. And then the all-new, humble Sinead smiles. It's a gentle, warm smile, the kind that pious people do so well. "I'm not saying I'm sorry I did what I did," she says. "I'm saying that my having to necessarily do these things hurt people, and I'm sorry that it did so."
But is the apology necessary? I remember being quietly impressed when she tore up a photo of the Pope during a performance on Saturday Night Live in 1992, since I shared the same puerile desire to outrage complacency. If people were offended, it was because they deserved to be. What did they expect anyway? O'Connor's reputation derived in no small part from the way in which she upset conventions. Her notorious shaved head - a gesture aimed at her record company which had wanted a more typically feminine image - was an early sign of the brittle, turbulent personality that gave her first two albums such terrific energy, but it also signalled very clearly that O'Connor was a contrarian. If you said go left, she would turn right, making it impossible to pin her down.
It's not hard to understand why some people hate her outspokenness. She can go off on embarrassing trails of thought, but she's also easily misunderstood. She believes prayer should be brought back into school life, but exchanges South Park obscenities with her 12-year-old son. She tells me that ecstasy is "evil", but she could "happily live on acid". She's a celibate priest (Mother Bernadette Mary if you please) who is nevertheless a practising Rastafarian. Confused? You will be.
Two weeks ago O'Connor came out as a lesbian, though she now says she hates labels of any kind. "The reality is that I don't believe in gay or straight and I am neither gay or straight," she says. And then to clarify she says that, well, actually, she is kind of a lesbian, if by lesbian we mean having a preference for women over men. "I prefer having sex with women, I prefer making love with women, I find that sexier, I'm more suited to going out with women. However, I'm celibate and choose to be celibate. I have gone out with men and find men sexy as well, but if it comes down to the bottom line, I prefer making love to women." So, a lesbian then.
There is nothing O'Connor does because it's hip or cool, or because it will boost her career, and those who love her, love her for this quality. In fact many of her actions could be seen as a calculated effort to assassinate her career. "I was always very tender, and when I was younger I covered that with defenses," she says. "It came across more angrily than maybe I meant to or wanted to, it's just that I had to defend myself."
She's less defensive today, perhaps because circumstances have changed. In 1988, Sinead was an original with few imitators. Today, angry young women abound in the charts, from Alanis Morisette to Fiona Apple. Singing about abuse is no longer novel, it's passZ. Worse, it's become a gimmick. "I think there were imitators who came afterwards, people with fake rage," says O'Connor. "With Alanis, I know because her record company told me and Madonna told me, they sent her home with The Lion And The Cobra [O'Connor's 1987 debut album] and said 'f***ing do that', basically. So I know it's a fake rage, really."
Then there's the fact that O'Connor has changed too. "I was 20 when my first record came out, I was 23 when all the shit hit the fan," she says. "I'm 33 now, and I think that helps. You grow in self-confidence. Having expressed all your pain you grow away from it. You feel reborn."
It's the born-again Sinead you hear on the new album - a passionate hymn to faith and an affirmation of love for the people in her life, and without - with all of us, in fact. She says it's the record she's always wanted to make, and though she said exactly the same thing six years ago when Universal Mother was released, she's so earnest that you have to believe she means it. "I see it as my first real album, it's the first, real Sinead. That's not to say that all the other things weren't really me, but all those other things were layers which were on top of the love I have, which is a desire to love on a massive scale, to inspire people into a relationship with their soul."
As for myself, I'm inclined to miss the old Sinead, locating an energy and anger there which I only wish others could exhibit. On the other hand it's just nice to have Sinead back, in whatever form. Faith And Courage is an essentially meditative endeavour which has a little too much to say about God and spirituality, but it's more melodic than anything since I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, her transcendent masterpiece which contained Nothing Compares To U - still to my mind the greatest single of the last decade.
On several key tracks - the achingly beautiful Jealous for one, and Hold Back The Night, for another - she reminds you of everything you liked about her first time round. Plus she's still the only singer I know who can hurl her voice into the stratosphere without sounding, as Catatonia's Cerys Matthews so often does, like a squalling cat. She has dedicated the album to Rastafarians, which would be irony if Sinead understood the concept. Aren't Rastas generally understood to be male chauvinists? Sinead agrees, but says that's not the point. "Equally I'm a Catholic priest, and Catholicism is also quite chauvinist. But I believe in not throwing the baby out with the bath water. I'm like a sponge, but I don't soak up the bullshit. To me it's a most Rastafarian act to become a Catholic priest, and try and lay yourself down as a bridge between what's good about the old and traditional and what's good about the future."
If you're beginning to think that Jennifer Saunders could do a great parody of O'Connor you're probably right, but equally there's something charming in her sincerity. She actually believes this stuff, and because she does you find yourself wanting to as well. Like John Lennon singing Imagine, it's hard not to be touched by her credulity. At one point she says dreamily, "It would be nice to try and pull all the religions together, say if that building over there was just a place where anyone from any religion could go and worship. There could be a billion different kind of altars in there, a billion different types of voice chanting prayers or rituals. I love the idea of this cacophony of us all in the one place."
Only a child talks like that. Only a child says "a billion" when they really just mean "a lot". O'Connor is not a child, of course. She's a mother. In fact she's a Universal Mother (the self-referencing title of her last album). Her children, Jake, who turns 13 next month, and Roisin, three, figure frequently in her songs, and whenever she talks about them her face breaks into that smile again. "Jake's recently got to the age when he's that much bigger than me, like half-an-inch or so, and he walks around with his arm around my shoulder, and I'm pushing the buggy, and it's the nicest feeling in the world to have your big son protect you like that."
Do they enjoy an adult relationship? "Jake's very relaxed, enough at least to share himself with me. And it's great to be able to swear. We ring each other up and use all the insults from South Park at each other - ass-ramming, Unclef**er, sh*tface and c***sucker, it's great to have that kind of relationship with your son. That's obviously one of the benefits of having children when you're young."
While she's relaxed about her children's viewing habits ("I can't control what my son watches") O'Connor won't tolerate violent video games. "There's a website that my son showed me called Assassins, where you can go on and kill famous people, you know, you can blow up Britney Spears. I mean it's not funny when you actually see it. And they have culling baby seals, the same site."
O'Connor spent four months living in Atlanta last year, and came away with a strong impression of a country that was being sucked into a violent vortex of its own making. "Kids are killing each other, kids are shooting each other, like what is it going to take for everyone? I couldn't believe when I was putting Jake into school in Atlanta, and both the schools we looked at required a form to swear that he'd never been done for rape or grievous bodily harm or armed robbery. I couldn't believe it. This is normal standard practice. If I was the President I'd be declaring a f***ing state of emergency."
In the absence of a state of emergency, O'Connor would like to see school prayers reinstated. "I know this is controversial, but I actually think there should be a moment at the beginning of every day where each child, whether they believe in God or not, can have a moment to themselves to communicate to their soul."
Soul brings us back to the album, since O'Connor believes music is the only way in which soul is manifested these days. "Music is the only thing that speak to people's soul, and it's probably the only method through which the existence of the soul is acknowledged," she says. Faith And Courage is all about spirit and soul - a direction she was already moving in on Universal Mother, her largely neglected fourth album, and one of the most soporific experiences of all time (she described the songs as lullabies, and she wasn't wrong).
Attention has largely been focused on the disparate band of producers, including the Fugees' Wyclef Jean, Brian Eno and Adrian Sherwood. But it's the tracks by Dave Stewart that stand out, in particular Jealous and Daddy I'm Fine - the most autobiographical number on the album, which ends with a declaration of love for her father. It sounds mawkish, and it is, but she carries it off with awesome conviction.
"A lot of people dis Dave, and they shouldn't," she says. "The Eurythmics were a huge inspiration to me, so it was incredible to work with him. Making music is a bit like love-making, it's so intimate that you have to feel very safe with the person, and he's very good at making you feel safe."
There's a generosity about O'Connor that you can only admire. If something has moved or touched her, she says so. How many other serious musicians would admit to being influenced by Rogers & Hammerstein, Barbra Streisand and Twinky - an obscure Irish pantomime singer?
O'Connor not only admits to it, but justifies it as well. "Nobody ever had a voice like Barbra's," she says. "People say that Aretha is the voice of the millennium, and so they should, but equally, right beside her, without a shadow of a doubt, is Streisand."
But the artist she keeps returning to is Bob Dylan. "When I was 11 years old my brother brought home Slow Train Coming, which is Bob Dylan's Christian album and I'd never heard anything like it," she says. "What I loved about him was that he was raging. You could tell about him that it was real, he seemed very private and never told anyone why he ran away from home at 14, and I think that's what I identified with."
O'Connor is less keen to talk about that period of her career these days, and specially her debut, The Lion And The Cobra, which evokes too many painful memories for her to enjoy. I just remember being mesmerised by this bald dervish who could make her voice jump spectacular somersaults. For O'Connor, however, it was the beginning of a long, traumatic process of publicly exorcising her demons. "I was writing and singing with an attitude of needing to kind of relate to the universe and to myself what had happened to me growing up," she says. "So it was coming from that - real rage and anger that came from being bought up in abusive circumstances."
Those abusive circumstances have been well documented (they centred on her mother, an alcoholic and tranquilliser addict who O'Connor accused of sexual torture), but the healing process seems finally to be at an end. People who accused her of seeking publicity missed the point. She was seeking attention, a very different thing. "Singers by nature are people who have to feel everything ten million times more than everyone else does, or else they wouldn't sing," she says. "I was lucky enough to have music and a voice and a place to direct all this sh*te, and vocalise it and get it all out."
Logic might suggest that having got it all out, Sinead would have nothing left to say. And that just makes Faith And Courage all the more extraordinary. I'm not sure who's going to buy it, since Sinead has been out of action for so long now, but I hope it's successful, I really do.
She says she wants it to be her own Astral Weeks - Van Morrison's great masterpiece - or Bob Dylan's Slow Train Coming. "If I look at Dylan, and I look at Van, I see the journey they were taking, but I don't see it end in happiness," she says. "My want and desire is to take on what I can learn from them, but to really bring it into joy."