‘Obviously, I’m an a***hole occasionally’
Sinéad O’Connor – still a teenage punk at heart – has embraced songwriting in an excellent, emotionally honest new album
The boss: Sinéad O’Connor. Photograph: Donal Moloney
Letting rip: O’Connor tears up a photograph of the pope on Saturday Night Live in 1992. Photograph: Yvonne Hemsey/Getty
Aretha Franklin: Bono gave O’Connor a copy of ‘I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You’ when she was 18. Photograph: Fred Sabine/Getty
Teenage punk: O’Connor in 1989. Photograph: Michel Linssen/Redferns
It’s a baking hot summer day, and off Pearse Street in Dublin, in a building above a bookmaker’s, Sinéad O’Connor is leaning out of a window, smoking. The Sandberg-era title of her latest album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, is more emphatic than the name of her last, excellent album, How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? O’Connor has never been one for asking permission. She tends to reinvigorate rather than reinvent. But each record has signalled a new era, and the woman we encounter on this album is a different O’Connor again. This is O’Connor the songwriter, someone who has obsessed over the craft for the past two years.
She looks youthful and healthy. With her head perfectly shaved and her body showcasing tattoos, O’Connor looks like a wise teenage punk again. Basically, a badass. Given her prodigious career, it feels odd to write that O’Connor is hitting her stride, but her last album was one of her finest, and this is yet another. She talks at speed about a new beginning, a new dedication to songwriting.
“Right now, creatively, it’s the most exciting time in my life, definitely in terms of songwriting. I’m rubbing my hands with the idea of the songs I might write with people, or on my own, or whatever.”
Having come off the last album tour and dealt with “a whole load of really depressing business shit suddenly hitting the fan”, she says she committed herself to falling more in love with music to get through a period of decreasing affection for the music industry.
She was hanging out with the Irish blues musician Don Baker, and “he was the one who said, ‘Right, this is the time where you start listening to blues, this is going to change you as a writer, as a singer. I’ve been wanting you to listen to blues for years.’ ”
Blues schoolShe immersed herself in the Chicago blues of Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, Magic Sam and Elmore James. Listening to everything, watching live performances on YouTube and studying what blues musicians said about songwriting have paid off.
Nearly 30 years ago, when O’Connor was 18, Bono gave her the Aretha Franklin album I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, “which is the greatest sequence record of all time”, according to O’Connor.
“What that record is, is really the story of a romance. When you listen to that record the central character is going through a very important romantic journey, discovery of herself.
“The male character is very present on that record even though he doesn’t actually sing. You’re always wondering about the guy she’s talking about.
“So I wanted to create a similar kind of record where it’s all love songs, it’s pop, very rock, very funky and everything, and has the different types of characters, but there’s one central character who’s going through the journey of discovery of the difference between reality and illusion when it comes to romantic matters.”