Home and the World

The double life of Sinead O'Connor

While the Sinead O'Connor of yore may have scoffed at her new album’s title, How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, the stormy Irish singer did anything but during her reign in the early 1990s. She shaved her head to defy old-school rules about women, incurred the wrath of Madonna by tearing up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live, and refused to perform at a New Jersey venue if the American national anthem was played. Along the way she won a Grammy in 1991 but boycotted the awards show, proclaimed herself a lesbian (then decided she wasn't) and doggedly waved the flag for every oppressed minority who’d ever suffered the slings and arrows.

But things are different now. Though she’s buzzed her hair again and sports a new and rather massive Jesus Christ chest tattoo, O'Connor seems to have matured a bit –– like a fine wine, not a piece of cheese, thanks. Apparently there are some burdens too great to shoulder alone, such as the weight of how she’s viewed by her peers and fans –– and by herself.

“I’m at an age when perhaps you feel comfortable with who you are,” she says by phone from her home in Dublin. “When you’re young it’s quite scathing, it’s very confusing. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

How About I Be Me is O'Connor’s ninth studio album in a 25-year career that launched with her first hit, 1987’s “Mandinka,” and the 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got that featured her wrenching take on Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Alongside collaborations with Peter Gabriel, Massive Attack and the Chieftains, O'Connor’s past records have ranged from themed works on the Scriptures to albums of Rasta tunes and classic torch songs. Yet How About I Be Me is a rollercoaster ride over largely personal affairs centering on love, sex and family, spiked with piquant observations on the ravages of drugs and the child abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church.

It’s all fire and joy, an only semi-conflicting impulse best heard in her cover of John Grant’s “Queen of Denmark,” a withering litany of faults directed at someone else, with much of the bile flung at herself: “You put me in this cage and threw away the key…I don’t know what to want from this world…Why don’t you take it out on somebody else?”

“I would have been in the past inclined to be my own terrible judge of myself in court, on trial, beatin’ the shit out of myself,” she says. “I see the song as the other part of me fighting that part of me off.” She laughs. “We’re all inclined to be very critical of ourselves, although we don’t all talk about it. Kinda like goin’ to the toilet; we don’t talk about it but we all do it.”

With a newfound whimsical sentimentality, O'Connor scraps with a shaded, surprising character, one outwardly at odds with our image of Sinead the big-mouthed warrior. The blithely girlish “4th & Vine” and “Old Lady” (“One day he’ll say ‘That’s my girl,’ and make me laugh like an idiot”) and nostalgia-drenched “Very Far From Home” emanate from a 45-year-old’s belated realization that saving the world from itself is equally important as really going for what she wants.

“Yeah,” she says with a chuckle, “it’s a kind of new thing for me. I don’t think I’ve really done love songs before.”

O’Conner isn’t going all domestic and soft on us, not by a long shot. But her vantage point has shifted to a place where neither love nor life’s bigger schemes can be viewed as black or white.

“Well, the record was written between 2007 and 2009, when I was going out with a man who I’m still very best mates with, the father of my youngest child, and the songs are pretty much all about him. He’s a very joyful kind of a person; one of the great things about him, and actually our little son is the same, is that no matter if something bad happens, they find something amusin’ about it. Everything they look at in their world, it’s like they have these glasses on that everything’s funny through, whereas the rest of us have these glasses on that…” She laughs.

A seasoned (some might say wizened) perspective on matters of the heart allowed O'Connor to write and sing several of the album’s songs in character, to startlingly chameleonic effect in the vocal tour de force “Back Where You Belong” (“If I love someone I might lose someone”). Yet the recovering druggie of “Reason With Me” is not, she insists, O'Connor herself, though she sings his story as if keenly identifying with it. Obviously, what with news stories about O'Connor’s tempestuous love life (her recent marriage in Las Vegas lasted for seven days) or Twitter-fueled rumors of drug problems (she tried to score some weed –– not crack cocaine –– on her wedding night), one could assume that these songs hit close to home.

“I don’t really have a drug history,” she says. “I used to smoke a lot of weed, but I haven’t for a couple of years except for the rare occasion. And I don’t drink ­­–– I’m allergic to alcohol, it makes me puke.”

She credits 12-step groups with encouraging her to express herself openly without fear of reprisal. Indeed, "Feels So Different,” the first song on her second album, starts with Alcoholic Anonymous’ “The Serenity Prayer.”

“I just found the groups so inspiring, the stories of the people and the great climb they were able to make, the depths from which they were able to pull themselves out. There’s something magical about those steps.”

In “Reason With Me” O'Connor sings, “If I love someone I might lose someone.” Here again, is she saying she’s someone who can’t do things in moderation?

“No,” she says with a hearty laugh. “That was about a friend of mine who is a workaholic, not a drug addict. You know, there can be the obvious addictions, like drugs or sex or whatever, then you have other ones like working a lot or isolating yourself. A world full of people, and an awful lot of people are lonely. I identify with those people.”

Like a balm for the soul, How About I Be Me’s painterly harmonic strokes and sparkling instrumental textures add both urgency and calm to O'Connor’s prevailing tone of empathy, even when the deeply religious Sinead rears her reshaved head to heap scorn on the Vatican, and on those who’d stay mum re the sins of the Fathers. “Take Off Your Shoes” finds the Holy Spirit his/herself ripping the Pope a new air hole: “I plead the blood of Jesus over you…and every fucking thing you do.” “V.I.P.” castigates Irish artists (including, reportedly, Bono and Sir Bob Geldof) who declined to support O'Connor’s campaign to challenge the Vatican on child abuse: “To whom exactly are we giving hope? / When we stand behind the velvet rope / Getting our pictures taken with the Pope / Like some sick April fool kind of joke.”

In her defense of home, heart and humanity, Sinead O'Connor sees herself as a sentinel over Ireland’s highest ideals –– and, with no apologies, a fierce protector of her own happiness.

“I come from a tradition of Irish artists where I am principally concerned with affecting my society,” she says. “Artists are supposed to act as an emergency fire service when it comes to spiritual conflict ­­–– not preaching or telling people what to do, but being a little light that tells us that there is a spirit world. That’s all anyone has to do.”

photo by Neil Gavin

Let Her Speak

“I feel strongly passionate about the Holy Spirit –– that’s what’s behind it all, y’know. I do believe in God, and I don’t like God bein’ taken out by evil. I don’t like to see the Holy Spirit bein’ disrespected by people pretending to represent it. There are times when silence can be criminal. Some feel that it’s equally important that we go on and on about tits ‘n’ ass –– probably the most important words ever uttered in rock & roll are wop bop a lu bop a wop bam boom. But there are times when some actions are called for, and we’re livin’ in very dangerous times, spiritually speaking, we’re livin’ in quite bereft times, and certainly in Ireland our spiritual leadership has been zero. And if you look at the music business, it really has been spiritually bereft. I mean, where you’ve got kids believin’ that they’ve got to be rich in order to be successful, or be materially successful in order to be acceptable –– then you’ve got a major problem.”

“These are very critical times in Ireland –– the stuff that’s gone on the last four years has been some of the biggest events in Irish history. And it does disappoint me that we’ve broken a tradition where the kids are learnin’ in school about 1916 and how we got our independence and everything. Well, how they start teachin’ the kids is, they teach them first about what the artists were doing at the time. They started teachin’ us at age 10 and 11, they spent a year telling us what the artists and playwrights and poets and musicians were up to, because they were the ones who were on the outskirts of all of these changes. They understood that their job was to express the feelin’s of the people.”

“At the moment in Greece they’re wandering around protesting with signs that say ‘We’re Not Irish, We’re Not Gonna Take It,’ and it’s quite unsettling, because in Ireland there’s been this national stunned silence on the fact that we’re being, if you’ll excuse me, fucked up the ass without our permission –– and not in a nice way. Financially speaking, the country’s absolutely dyin’, people are starving, and it’s quite sad that the artists are doing nothing or saying anything about that. You’re expected to be quiet on all the matters of Irish importance, and that’s tragic.”

“‘VIPs’ comes with this series of questions; it’s a discussion, it’s not a lecture. And what I’m thinking about is, these young people comin’ into rap, for example, where they’ve had it drilled into them now for all of their bloody lives that to be a good person you gotta have bling, y’know, or to be an acceptable human being, a dozen cars, bitches or whatever. You don’t really hear people now saying, ‘I want to be a singer’ when you watch X Factor or American Idol. People are there because they want to be famous, they’re not there because they want to actually see if there’s anything spiritually speaking.”

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