|I interviewed Sinéad O’Connor in Dublin, where she was promoting a reissue of her most famous album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. The piece appeared in The Word’s issue of May 2009.
“I really needed to get rid of ‘Sinéad O’Connor’ for a few years, to let that die…. I was going to get a housekeeper job for a while.”
So we’re zooming through Dublin on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent and 40 days of repentance. On the whitewashed walls of a building used by U2, angry graffiti calls for that band to mend its ways. Amid the messages of love written in Spanish and Japanese are newer scrawlings that denounce the band’s tax strategy (U2 are channelling some earnings via Dutch banks). It’s been a big controversy in Ireland. “Stop hiding your millions, Bono!” the scolding slogans say.
Then we arrive at a boutique hotel in south Dublin. Even here, in its chic cocktail bar, there is a moralistic air. Wealthy-looking customers are wearing the black smudge of ash on their foreheads, evidence they’ve attended Church this morning. It’s all a bit bewildering to our party of English media types – journalists and music business people, photographers and their assistants – who mill about in a jumble of flight cases and lighting equipment. It takes a few moments before most of us notice we’ve been joined by a newcomer.
Quiet as a hologram, a small and drably-dressed woman has somehow entered the room. A fringe of dark brown hair falls over her face. If you stared at her for an hour you might – but only might – say she looked a bit like Sinéad O’Connor.
It’s Sinéad’s more outgoing manager, Fachtna O’Ceallaigh, who makes the introductions. His client nods at each of us in turn with a mournful, doubting look. Before we know it she has slipped away again, to smoke a cigarette on the hotel’s freezing forecourt. (Later I ask if she’s giving up anything for Lent. The cigarettes are all she would consider, she says, “but I know that’s not gonna happen.”)
I get the feeling she’ll be a reluctant interviewee. In the past few years she’s fretted that press reports have made her seem… well, a bit barmy. In 2004 she took out a full-page ad in the Irish newspapers to complain. But The Word is here on a more innocent mission. We’re invited to discuss her 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, due for reissue on a deluxe CD. It was her second album and it made her a star. It’s the one that has her fabulous cover of the Prince song, Nothing Compares 2 U, which in turn produced that famous video – Sinéad’s face, in close-up, tear-streaked – that probably lives in all our memories.
The song was brought to her by Fachtna, who was her first manager (and for a short while her lover). They parted ways in 1989 but 20 years later he looks after her career once more. In the meanwhile, it’s fair to say Sinéad has had her share of notoriety.
To briefly recap… She caused anger in 1990 by refusing to perform if a US venue played America’s national anthem; on Saturday Night Live in 1992 she tore up the Pope’s picture as a protest against child abuse; soon afterwards she was howled down by audience members at a Dylan tribute show. More recently there were headlines saying she had become a priest in a breakaway Catholic sect; that she was leaving the music business (but then came back); that she had become a lesbian (but then changed her mind); that she had attempted suicide. There is above all her insistence on the traumas of her childhood. She has accused her mother, who died in 1985, of abusing her in cruel though unspecified ways.
The album aside, I will try to tackle a few of these subjects, if I get time. Sinéad comes into our interview room like a woman walking to the gallows. She sits and stares at me with big, resigned eyes. “I fucking don’t remember a thing, to be honest,” she tells me. “So your job’s going to be quite difficult.”
I hand her the CD booklet, hoping it will help to jog her memory. “Well, let’s see,” she sighs, unimpressed. “This is terrible. You’re gonna have such a hard time with this one.”
Do you look at the girl on that album cover and think, “Who was she?”
I just think I was very young. I was really only a baby. I was the age that my eldest son is now, so that’s weird.
It’s an autobiographical record, isn’t it? Like a first novel?
Records were always my life story, always like diaries. Which is one thing I do remember about this record. When I went to Ensign [her label] with the finished record they said they didn’t want to put it out because it was like reading somebody’s diaries, and they didn’t think anyone would buy it. Their exact words were it would “end up on the warehouse floor like Terence Trent Darby’s second album.”
Did you have any qualms about being so personally revealing?
No. I couldn’t help it. The attraction of music was it was a world where you could say all the shit you couldn’t say in life. It was an off-loading place. My first couple of records were what I would call Recovery Records. I had grown up in a pretty severe situation and I was using music as a way of healing myself.
Do you mean the business with your mother?
Yeah. So a lot of the songs on this record were really about her. Even the fucking title I got from having a dream about her, and in this dream she said to me, “I do not want what I haven’t got.” In my mind, even Nothing Compares 2 U was me thinking about her… [She leafs glumly through the CD booklet.] The Emperor’s New Clothes was actually about U2, believe it or not.
Really? What were your feelings about U2?
Well, I didn’t like their records. I used to make ash-trays out of them. You could melt the vinyl records over the cooker… Feel So Different was a song about my mother. I Am Stretched On Your Grave speaks for itself really [she laughs bleakly]… You Cause As Much Sorrow was about my mother…
It’s a demanding business that expects people so young to make ten or 12 big statements per album. What do most of us know at that age?
All I knew was that I was incredibly fucked-up. So I was writing songs to help me deal with that, and as it happens I was lucky enough to be fucked-up enough to come up with a couple of albums from it.
But you wouldn’t recommend it.
Being fucked up? No.
At the beginning of the album you recite that little prayer, about having the wisdom to know what you can or cannot change. Have you measured up to that advice?
I don’t know. Again, I put that on there because my mother always liked that prayer. I didn’t associate it with me, I wasn’t saying it for myself. I suppose I’m quite good at accepting things that can’t be changed, mostly.
Do you really think you were good at accepting what you couldn’t change? You were always standing up and shouting and making a point.
Ah, but that didn’t mean I thought that I alone could change things. Everybody has to do their bit.
Would you do everything again the same way?
Of course I get asked that question a lot. I always say the only thing I would change is that I was quite young and my self-esteem was so fragile that I allowed myself to become very affected by what people would say about me. I allowed myself to get very wounded by that. That’s the only thing I regret, that I didn’t have a strong enough sense of identity. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been so bothered by everyone going on about what a wanker I was.
A lot of artists say they create a second character around themselves, as protection.
Well, that portrayal of me as some kind of crazy person, or controversial person, to me that wasn’t me. That was something media people were making me into, but as far as I was concerned, I was simply being me. For some reason everyone else was making that out to be controversial.
Making that record took you to a new level of success and attention. Did life change?
Life changed and people around me changed. That was quite shocking, how the people around me changed. Then the career began to interfere with things I wanted to do personally, like taking college courses. People around me started perceiving me as something other than what I thought I was. When you’re that young you don’t have a very strong sense of identity anyway. I was only making records because I was fucked-up. I didn’t give a shit what happened to the record after it came out, because the object of the game for me was to get this shit off my chest. So I couldn’t relate to the whole music business and everyone wanting me to be materially successful and be a pop star and go around the place miming songs on TV shows. And I couldn’t understand why anyone was into what I did. I was that low on self-esteem.
Why was your self-esteem so low?
I felt like an impostor. I felt I didn’t belong in the world I suddenly found myself in.
You must have got some pleasure from it, at some level?
What kept me going was that I had all this emotional shit that I had to get off my chest, so writing songs and performing allowed me to work through a whole lot of emotional shit. That’s all it was for me. As you get older it becomes something different, because you’ve got it off your chest. But certainly in those early days I was a right fucked-up dude.
Were you under pressure to be a pop star?
Yes, and I was a square peg in a round hole. I saw myself as a protest singer, really. I was representing child abuse survivors. That’s how I saw myself. So I didn’t fit in to the pop star thing. And I couldn’t see myself as an artist from the outside. All I saw was from the inside. I felt I was an impostor. I didn’t know who I was. I couldn’t find the “I” in it all. So I felt lonely. I understood what people meant when they say “Loneliness is a crowded room.” You’ve got people all around you but they’re not relating to you, only to some projection of their own. Mostly, they’re relating to someone they’re making a living out of. Then your friends start treating you differently. People in your family don’t relate to you in the same way. They have different emotional reactions to what’s happened to you. So you get lost at sea. And when you’re young nobody sits you down and tells you how to deal with the press, for example, how to conduct an interview without getting yourself into trouble. Then when you’re in the shit they all leave you. Most of the time when artists are in rehab, the manager’s sunning himself on some yacht somewhere. I couldn’t relate to myself as an artist. I wasn’t good at taking compliments.
Did you not see yourself as attractive?
No. I didn’t see myself as attractive at all.
Was the shaven head meant to show you weren’t playing the game of conventional attractiveness?
Yeah. Well I was heading in that direction anyway. I had a kind of Mohican on the go at one point, so it was like this much was bald but the middle wasn’t. And the record company asked me would I grow my hair, so that I’d basically be sexier and wear short skirts. And then Fachtna, when I told him, said “Ah you should fucking shave it.” So I did.
Nowadays they would say it was a brilliant stroke of marketing.
Well that was down to Fachtna. And so was Nothing Compares 2 U.
So you’re working together again. Why did you part?
I was very young. We’d been working together since I was 17 or so. This was no fault of Fachtna’s but I had identity issues, as you do at that age, and probably more so when you come from a fucked-up background. So it became that I was more like Fachtna than me. If Fachtna liked something I liked it. If he didn’t then I didn’t. That wasn’t down to him, but me. To find an identity of my own I had to break free.
You announced you had retired from the music business?
Yeah. At the time I was certain I wasn’t going back to it at all but after a while – it’s a bit silly if you have some kind of talent but you’re not actually using it. So I got a bit fed up after a few years and I needed to make some kind of music.
So you thought, not only will I not be signed to a label, I won’t even make music?
Yeah, I got rid of my instruments and everything. I wouldn’t even look at an instrument.
What did you plan to do instead?
Just look after my kids. At that time I had two. Then I got so I would break out in a rash if I went to the supermarket. So I said I’d go back to work so I could get a housekeeper and she could go to the supermarket for me. That’s one of the perks, I now have a housekeeper who does the shopping for me.
Didn’t you miss it?
No, I didn’t at all. I really needed to get rid of “Sinéad O’Connor” for a few years, to let that die. Spend some time forging my identity as an ordinary person, dealing with ordinary things like an ordinary mum. I didn’t miss music at all. Then after a few years I did miss it, but I wasn’t sure how to get back into it in a way that wasn’t going to be hurtful. I was very damaged by all the “Sinéad O’Connor’s a cunt” stuff. That was hard. If you’re a good artist the reason you are is because you’re so sensitive, and being a sensitive person I didn’t handle that shit very well at all. I had to figure out, “How am I going to get back into music in a way that nurtures me, instead of feeds off me?”
My family never took me seriously when I said I wasn’t going to do music. I got annoyed and told them I wanted to get a 9-to-5 job. Which I still quite fancy. But they’d just laugh at me. I was going to get a housekeeper job for a while. They’d say, “You’re fucking mental. You need to be doing music.”
Sinéad never did take that housekeeping job. She began a tactical retreat from mainstream pop with a beautiful album of traditional Irish songs, Sean-Nós Nua (2002). More recently she made the roots reggae-based Throw Down Your Arms (2005) and Theology (2007), the latter a stirring set of spiritual numbers, replete with Old Testament eloquence. These more specialised records have seen her blossom as a vocalist and mature as a performer. She plans, in early 2010, to release a conventional pop album. The songs she’s written so far, she says, are rather unusual for her – they’re proper love songs.
In fact O’Connor paints a picture of domestic contentment at the moment. Now 42 and living in the seaside town of Bray, just south of Dublin, she likes to call herself a suburban mother-of-four, who never sees the TV news because her kids control the remote. The four children were each conceived with different fathers. “It was tough to get a balance,’ she says of her private and professional lives. “But I suppose it also protected me from getting lost in the decadence of the music business. I’m sure if I hadn’t had kids I would probably have got involved with Class-A drugs.”
Her eldest, Jake, has just set off to travel the world, which gives her a mother’s pang. Her youngest child, Yeshua, is shared with her current man, an American: “I have a lovely partner. It’s our anniversary today and we’ve been together for three years. But we sensibly don’t live together, we live down the road from each other, a few minutes’ walk. He has two kids of his own and we have a kid together and then I have my kids. So if we lived together it would be fucking chaos. His name’s Frank, and he’s lovely.”
(Actually, the background story is even more complicated. As readers of the Irish tabloids know, Frank Bonadio was formerly long-term partner to the Galway singer Mary Coughlan; whilst his relationships with the two women did not overlap, O’Connor and Coughlan have had some bitter exchanges. Coughlan’s new album, The House Of Ill Repute, is a brilliant, if cynical, exploration of romantic disillusion. Promoting the record, Coughlan explicitly links it to her 13-year relationship.)
I start to ask Sinéad about her turbulent times, but she is now looking restless. Of the Bob Dylan show at Madison Square Garden she says: “It wasn’t one of the worst experiences I’ve had. Y’see, when people write about it they don’t mention that half the audience were cheering. It was half-and-half and it depends which one you focus on. I don’t think it was one of the worst things. It was a little embarrassing… But to be honest, my biggest regret about that night was the fucking outfit I wore. That bothered me more than what actually happened. I just wore the worst fucking outfit. Terrible.”
She has to leave, she says, suddenly. She has another appointment. She tells me she was trying to read my wrist-watch, upside-down, across the room. In all, I think the interview has been an ordeal for her. Her nervous tension was evident. With an apologetic smile she hands me back my CD booklet, which I’d noticed her kneading all through our talk. And yes, it’s utterly buggered.
Just before the end, I wondered whether Sinéad ever saw her own experiences in the lives of newer female artists? Her answer seemed quite autobiographical.
“I suppose with some singers, like Britney Spears… She gets a similar type of shit to what I used to get. In many ways it’s worse, because she gets shit over how she looks, if she’s fat, or she gets shit as a mother and that must be really difficult. Then you’ve got people like Amy Winehouse, who I love. Everyone’s after her. In a way it’s understandable, because she doesn’t seem good at taking care of herself. But when you’re that fucking talented it must be hard to feel normal, to just feel like a girl like everyone else.
“She probably parties a bit harder, just to fit in. I suppose she sparks controversy because it’s unusual for a woman to be in that state in the public arena, its generally the men that are like that, like Shane MacGowan. But she’s also very young. If your talent is so much bigger than you are, at that age, it’s hard to have much in common with other people.”
So I look up from my tattered CD booklet, and the quiet hologram has disappeared.