‘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.”
Her voice is particularly strong across I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss. Harbour comes to life like fingers in a plug’s socket, 8 Good Reasons manages to make whispering melodic and The Vishnu Room soars.
The vocal power wasn’t a conscious decision, she says. “I think what happened is I was on tour all of last year. We were touring and touring and gigging and gigging, and I was performing live every day and singing every day.
“That’s where you would be at if you’re in a heavy phase of touring, because you’re just singing every day, so you’re strong as an ox as a singer, you know? And then when you get into the studio, and the previous day you’ve been doing gigs, you’re singing more like you’re on stage than you would, say, if you went to make a record and you hadn’t been on tour in a year.”
Singular voiceO’Connor has one of the best singing voices in contemporary music. It’s instantly recognisable and immediately affecting. She can convey fragility in a breath yet match the tenderness with vocal power. “The first album was full of some pretty wallpaper-peeling volume on vocals,” she says, laughing, “so I think there’s always been a volume thing as well as a silence thing or a gentle thing.
“I’m a voice thrower in some ways. It seems like I have a big loud voice, and I do in some ways, but in other ways I don’t. It’s a very hard thing to describe, but there is a certain amount of throwing that goes into it. You can create the feeling that you’re yelling when you’re not. It’s very hard to explain.” She pauses. “It’s not an effort, put it that way.
“Live performance, that’s my strong suit. I was born for live performance; that’s what I do. I could genuinely say, so far, it would be very rare that we wouldn’t have a show that would be eight and upward out of 10, in terms of freedom, by which I mean that you’ve got lost in the music and the songs and the characters and you haven’t let your life come on stage.”
Her pride in her job as a musician, artist and singer-songwriter is clear. “If you’re a singer and a songwriter, your job is to be emotionally honest. It’s not in your nature to hide things. It’s not in your nature to [be] anything but yourself, even if you’re going to get shit for it. You’re aware too as an artist your job is as a catalyst. Whether you like it or not, you’re a catalyst. That’s what you were born for.”
There are also plenty of wry smiles in the new lyrics. O’Connor cites a line in Kisses Like Mine as one of her favourite on the album: “ ‘I’m special forces / they call me in after divorces.’ Just stupid stuff like that. It’s stupid, but I like it.”
This awareness of humour in writing is new. “What is in my mind as a songwriter quite often is, how can I get some humour into this? And that would never have entered my mind before I dealt with John.”
John is John Grant, a songwriter O’Connor has collaborated with and whom she calls “the surgeon general, emotionally speaking. If you say singers and songwriters are like surgeons . . . he’s a genius.”
Strength and resolvePeople seem to be attracted to O’Connor’s apparent vulnerability, but her career has been equally defined by her strength and resolve.
At a tribute concert celebrating Bob Dylan’s 30th year as a recording artist at Madison Square Garden in 1992, after Kris Kristofferson introduced her, the crowd booed fiercely, as though greeting a particularly disliked gladiator.
She stood there, head up, and took it for minutes, staring down the taunts. Telling the band to stop playing, she launched into Bob Marley’s War, the song she had sung less than two weeks previously when she tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live, in a defiant act of protest that the audience at Madison Square reacted to.
Given the amount of abuse and criticism O’Connor has been subjected to, particularly from the Irish media, in response to her commentary on the Catholic Church, sexuality and more, one longs to travel back in time at that point and tell her not to worry, that she’s right, that vindication will come.
“It never was about me being vindicated. To me it was about the Holy Spirit being voiced for, that there was one person in the entire matter who still hasn’t been heard, and that to me is the Holy Spirit.”
Issues go unresolved in Catholicism because “whoever’s running the church either doesn’t believe in God or doesn’t respect it. The same God they’re telling us is watching us, they’re not acting like is watching them. That’s a bit of a crisis. To me it was about that spirit being vindicated, which I don’t see has happened yet,” she says.
“Maybe sometimes one can be ahead of one’s time without meaning to be, and sometimes one can be the kind of woman that isn’t wanted . . .
“Until everyone in this country over 35 has passed away, the theocracy will still be alive. And I am not actually of the theocracy, and that could bother people. I think I’ve probably taken a bit of flak for that – as well as being an arsehole occasionally, obviously,” she says.
“It’s difficult to take flak for anything, but if you’re an artist, you’re going to have to expect that there’s going to be some flak, because you’re unlocking things. You’re unlocking people’s emotions. You’re making people uncomfortable, just by being yourself.”