IT’S GETTING CLOSE to that time when artists get to toss off their shoes, kick up their heels and head to Stradbally, Co Laois next Friday for the repast in the woods that’s known as the Electric Picnic. After five years of turning the amps down low and playing mostly acoustic gigs, Sinéad O’Connor is revving up for a firebrand performance with a full band and a trailer full of new songs, writes SIOBHÁN LONG
She’s got her ninth solo album, Home, almost in the bag (bar some further studio tweaks from producer, John Reynolds) and the colour of the sky in her world is a whole lot bluer these days.
Homeis O’Connor’s first studio outing since 2007’s Theology. Containing just one cover (John Grant’s The Queen Of Denmark), she’s written or co-written the rest of the songs, much of whose subject matter closely mirrors her more recent life experiences.
Sitting in her living room, smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee, O’Connor cuts a relaxed figure, hungry to get back on the road and have some fun. She’s still got plenty to rail about: the church, child abuse, drug addiction and the damaging impact of parents’ behaviours on their children, to name but a few, but there’s much that she now recognises as simply reflecting the daily challenges of living.
Parenting, relationships and fancying your boyfriend’s best friend are all grist to the mill for this artist who’s never shied away from naming the unnameable, whether it’s incendiary (cue bisecting the pope’s photograph on primetime TV, declaring her affection for certain root vegetables and gardaí in leather trousers in a recent online lonely hearts ad) or merely mundane (cut to domestic quarrels raucously played out in the public eye).
The album title, suggested by her brother Joe, is carefully chosen and fitting, O’Connor feels. It sums up what this collection is all about.
“Home, for me, means my kids, a place of safety, a place where I know who I am,” she says. “When I’m away working, I find it hard to know who I am or what I am. I don’t have the things around me that normally make me know what my role is.
“I think also artistically, it’s about returning to doing my own thing, after a circuitous journey. I’ve made quite a few themed albums, and this one is really all about coming home.”
O’Connor runs the gauntlet of difficult subjects throughout Home. A standout is Reason With Me, a song about addiction and emotional isolation that seeks to pinpoint what might be at the heart of dependence with its wraith-like refrain: “If I love someone/I might lose someone”.
“Well, obviously if someone is taking Class A drugs, they’re trying to cover up something,” she offers. “Only an enormous amount of pain would require heroin. But I don’t think it just applies to drugs. We all use different means of keeping people away from us. I used to be a terrible weed head. There was this smoky mist all around me, which I could see afterwards, was my way of creating this haze because I was afraid to love someone or let anyone in. And that was because I was afraid I’d lose them. In my case, I was smoking like a fuckin’ maniac, but it would have been because I was a crazy bitch rather than because of anything else.”
THAT’S MY GIRL
O’Connor’s great strength as a songwriter on this album is her willingness to talk about subjects many songwriters shirk.
“There’s a whole load of obvious stuff in the world that nobody ever talks about, like pooing, pissing, wanking, dying,” she says. “I have a great T-shirt that says ‘Death ... bit of a worry isn’t it?’ I’m sure death is something that nearly everybody thinks about at least once a day – but no one ever talks about it.”
When I’m an Old Ladyhas O’Connor singing a poignant line that ends with “that’s my girl”, which echoes her 1992 album, Am I Not Your Girl?Rain forests have been felled in the name of O’Connor’s (admittedly eventful) love life. Does this song reflect a primal need within her to belong in a relationship? “It’s actually a song about being in love with your boyfriend’s best friend. And that did happen a number of years ago, that a guy said those words to me, ‘That’s my girl’ – and even though you’re middle-aged, you still act like a 16-year-old and get carried away.
“Up until recently, I probably would have been the kind of woman who feels like I have to have a fella in order to be alright, or to feel secure. But I actually don’t feel that any more now. I think it’s just me growing older. Now, I’ve got used to doing my own thing ...I feel better now, in terms of feeling a sense of belonging in the world. Sometimes being with people in the past, I felt more lonely than being on my own.”
But whatever about relationships, O’Connor is adamant that her sex life is in dire need of renewal, a theme that has drawn much publicity over the past week. Not minding whether Im in a relationship or not does not mean that I dont want to shag the arse off every man I could possibly get my hands on, she says. In fact, while I may be happy enough without a partner, I would wilt away and be depressed if I wasnt having sex. With nice people.
O’Connor ploughs headlong into deeply personal territory on Homewith I Had A Baby.
“It’s a subject not really written about,” she declares, referring to the challenges of rearing a child whose father is absent. “The only other song that’s tackled it, at least that I could think of, was Papa Was a Rolling Stone. I read so many books, but not one talked about what to do when the father isn’t around. My main objective was to tackle it without being accusing, and if it blames anyone, it’s me. It says quite clearly in the song that a child shouldn’t suffer over things that I’ve done. It’s more about what do I tell the kid ... What would the father want me to tell him?
“It’s not just fathers who bugger off. Mothers do it too, and they don’t ever have to look back and watch the damage that it can cause. I mean, it can really ruin a kid’s life. It became a terrible stress between myself and my kid for a while, and it was a real source of sadness in my life.
“It’s all sorted now, and I certainly had no desire to cause any hurt in the song to the child or to his father. Anyway, anger is a temporary emotion. There will come a time, years from now, when we [the child’s father and O’Connor] won’t be angry with each other, so I didn’t want to put something down that would be permanent, and which just wouldn’t be true at some time in the future.”
MUSIC FOR ALL THE RIGHT REASONS
The drive to make music is as strong as ever for O’Connor, but it comes from a different place these days. “When I was younger, I was making music because I was fuckin’ mental,” she says. “And it was the only outlet for me. That’s why I love Bob Dylan, because when he came along he changed what you could say in songs. Up until then, it was all ‘baby, baby, I love you’, but with Idiot Wind he showed that you could say stuff in songs that you wouldn’t be able to say anywhere else.
“For me, starting out in songwriting, I did it because I lived in a society where I couldn’t actually discuss these issues. Now that I’m older, and I’ve worked through a lot of that, I have different reasons for writing songs . . .I don’t have this enormous pain, which I would have felt before – and which was very healthy then. Now, I’m driven more by the need to make music or the enjoyment of singing the songs live.”
AN ECCLESIASTICAL MATTER
O’Connor has never been shy to air her views on religion and Catholicism. She is horrified by the silence of Irish artists on foot of the Murphy and Cloyne reports. She voices some of her reservations on another of Home’s tracks: What is a Real VIP?“I spent some time after the Murphy report came out trying to encourage various Irish and other artists to get involved,” she says, “and they were completely indifferent. They did not want to know, and I was very wounded and very angry about that. At the same time, I’m aware that I have no right to tell people how they should or shouldn’t act. And that raised the question in my mind: what is a real VIP?
“In music, we all think we’re great, yet the real VIPs are these children. The song talks about ‘a face that never was, nor will be kissed’. Well, that’s about these children who never felt a mother’s kiss on their face. I think it’s easy for a lot of us to lose the sense of what’s important.”
“THE MOST IMPORTANT SPEECH EVER MADE BY AN IRISH POLITICIAN”
History will judge artists harshly for their indifference, O’Connor believes. “One hundred years from now, Irish kids are going to be learning about this, which is to me the most important event in Irish history. And they’ll be asking: ‘Well, what were the artists doing?’ This is what I would call real Catholic emancipation: the loosening of our psyches from the Catholic church.
“Enda Kenny’s speech is the most important speech ever made by an Irish politician. He nailed it with his ‘gimlet eye of the canon lawyer’. So I feel there’s a cowardice and a hypocrisy about the silence that’s come from Irish artists – and artists in general. And there are times when deafening silence from artists is really criminal. Don’t they say ‘All that it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing’?”
The wider impact of these abuse scandals has yet to manifest itself, she says.“There will come a time when a movement will begin, based on a recognition that what they’re selling in the Vatican – or the ‘Vatican’t’, as I like to call it – is not Catholicism. Actually, there’s a lot that’s beautiful about Catholicism. What’s good about it can be taken out of it. There’s no need for hierarchies, rules or regulations dictating who God can or can’t love. In some ways, I think God has to be rescued from religion. Over the course of time, it’s possible if enough people gave a shit, to create an alternative Catholic church.
“We don’t necessarily need religions but we like rituals, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s basically a charity and we could run it ourselves. The only real use for priests is for bereavement or dying. In the 21st century we don’t need anyone dictating to us what we should think. It’s fuckin’ stupid.”
The Cobra, Marilyn Monroe and a bit of Sean Nós...
O’Connor’s ninth studio album, Home, is due for release in early 2012.
Double album featuring the acoustic Dublin Sessions (produced by Steve Cooney) and O’Connor with fully amped-up band on London Sessions. Further extended O’Connor’s weakness for Andrew Lloyd Webber, with a cover of I Don’t Know How To Love Him, from Jesus Christ Superstar.
THROW DOWN YOUR ARMS (2005)
Classic roots reggae collection, produced by Sly and Robbie, and featuring a cover of Bob Marley and The Wailers’ War.
SEAN NÓS NUA (2002)
O’Connor’s first long player foray into traditional music, with covers of Lord Franklin, Peggy Gordon and Lord Baker. Featuring Christy Moore and produced by Dónal Lunny.
FAITH AND COURAGE (2000)
With production duties spread across Wyclef Jean, Brian Eno, former Eurythmic Dave Stewart and O’Connor’s ex-husband, and long-time drummer and producer, John Reynolds.
UNIVERSAL MOTHER (1994)
Songs co-written and co-produced by Phil Coulter, featuring a cover of Kurt Cobain’s All Apologies.
AM I NOT YOUR GIRl (1992)
Soft jazz standards collection which included the Rogers Hart classic, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, a Marilyn cap-doffing reading of I Wanna Be Loved by You alongside the sledgehammer effects of Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.
I DO NOT WANT WHAT I HAVEN’T GOT (1990)
Anchored by the MTV-hogging Prince cover Nothing Compares 2 U.
THE LION AND THE COBRA (1987)
Breathtaking debut, two-parts incendiary autobiography; one part otherworldy vocals swinging deliriously between spectral sinuosity and unfettered outrage.
Others include Studio EP, Gospel Oak(1997), a six-track extended player, co-produced by O’Connor, Reynolds and Dónal Lunny. Sustenance for many who craved anything from the artist who left six years between her fourth ( Universal Mother) and fifth ( Faith And Courage) albums. Compilations include: So Far...The Best Of Sinéad O’Connor(1997) She Who Dwells In The Secret Place Of The Most High Shall Abide Under The Shadow Of The Almighty(2003) Collaborations(2005) The Essential(2005)
As she readies herself for the release of Home, O’Connor finds herself weeding out material from her live sets that no longer means something to her. It’s all about the challenge of singing songs that she can emotionally invest in, she believes.
“I wouldn’t give a flying fuck if it was God himself who wanted to hear a song,” she says. “If I didn’t identify with it emotionally, I wouldn’t sing it. So, for example, with Nothing Compares 2 U, I never tire of singing that song, because I can always find that thing within me that identifies with the lyrics.
“But a song like Troy: I wrote that when I was 17, when my mother died and I don’t feel angry like that anymore. I don’t feel that terrible pain that I felt then.”
Sinéad's 3 commandments of singing
1.Sing in your own accent
2.Don’t sing a song that you don’t identify with emotionally
3.Don’t think about the notes, think about the feelings within a song
Sinéad O’Connor plays the Electric Picnic on Friday, September 2