Reborn in Reggae
By JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

25 November 2005

   Although she remains one of the most distinctive and soulful singers to emerge in the '90s, in recent years Sinead O'Connor has been known as much for the controversies she's caused (starting with her notorious Pope-bashing appearance on "Saturday Night Live" in 1992) and the confusion over her public pronouncements (among them her statements on religion and the news that she was retiring from singing) as for her music.

   At age 38, O'Connor remains a singularly talented artist and a sharp and insightful interview. I spoke with her about her new album, "Throw Down Your Arms," an inspired collection of reggae covers, and her current tour with the famous reggae rhythm section Sly and Robbie as she prepared to bring her new show to the United States.

   Q. A while back, you announced that you were retiring from music. What happened?

   A. I was retiring, insofar as the rock and pop arena I was working in. It was killing me, actually. I think I was a square peg in a round hole, and when I came out of it, I really believed I'd never go anywhere near singing again. But after three years, it became apparent that just because you don't want to work in that arena, it doesn't mean that you can't work at all.

   Q. Some fans may be surprised by your reinvention as a reggae artist, but you covered Bob Marley on an album as far back as 1992.

   A. For me, it's not a reinvention in the reggae arena. I made a reggae record, but I don't plan on making another; I'm working on a new album now called "Theology" that won't be a reggae record. It's not a reinvention in a Madonna style, either. I left the rock and pop arena and spent years figuring out how I could still be a singer in a way that would feed me instead of feeding upon me. With the help of my father and my sister, I went back and looked at who was the Sinead as a child that wanted to be a singer, and what was it that made her want to be a singer, this little girl who was in choirs singing religious songs. What actually inspired me to be a singer was religious music.

   Q. The spiritual aspect of reggae is lost on many people.

   A. I can only speak for myself. To me, what I like about it is going back to being a child growing up in an extremely religious culture. They were locking God in their tabernacles. It became apparent to me when I first heard Rasta music that music could be a way one could set God free. One of the things that is most misunderstood is that Rastafarianism isn't a religion; it's a movement. It's an anti-religious movement that doesn't believe in religion. It's a prophetic movement, and I've always been really interested in prophesy. That's what I find inspiring about the movement -- they're sort of warriors on God's behalf, and they stood up to be priests without having to be ordained, using music as their priesthood.

   The Rastafarian movement is all about the retrieval of self-esteem. Marcus Garvey understood that slaves had no self-esteem, and as an Irish Catholic, you are taught that it is a sin to love yourself. To be a good person, you have to think you are s---. And as an Irish Catholic girl living in circumstances of extreme child abuse, I could see myself in their struggle.

   Q. What is it like playing theaters with Sly and Robbie?

   A. Oh, it's an enormous kick just being on the bus at 3 in the morning! We all get along so well. We're just mad about each other. I grew out of [touring the way I used to do it]. There was no purpose in it after a while. If you are going to leave your kids for that long, you have to be able to justify it. The image I always get is that I used to do a lot of those summer amphitheaters in America, and there'd always be a carnival in the background, so you'd be standing onstage singing these songs and you'd hear these wheels going around and people screaming, and I'd be singing "Nothing Compares to You" and thinking, "What the f--- am I doing here?"

   Q. I saw you at Lollapalooza at the New World Music Theatre in 1994 in exactly that sort of setting, and the next morning, you left the tour and flew home.

   A. I was pregnant, and the show you saw me at I could barely manage not to puke! Also, I was singing a lot of miserable songs.

   Q. Have people been receptive to the reggae material on this tour?

   A. There are a few people who ask for the No. 1 hit single, but I was never going to go around and do that for 20 years. The majority of the people love it, to be honest. There are a few people who don't know what to expect and are transformed by the thing. Some people might be disappointed, but at the same time, these songs are terribly powerful. It is like going to Mass, not like going to a rock concert. I've been asking the promoters to be clear to people because I don't like people getting ripped off.


   Though you'd never know it from his public image as a rough 'n' randy backwoods bluesman -- an image he continues to project throughout his new book -- Billy F. Gibbons is one of the sharpest and most erudite minds in rock 'n' roll, as well as one of its most extraordinarily talented guitarists.

Rock + Roll Gearhead (Motorbooks, $29.95) is a lavishly illustrated coffee table tome -- though Gibbons says he prefers to think of it as a "tequila table" book -- offering a guided tour through his career, from garage-rock legends the Moving Sidewalks of "Nuggets" and "99th Floor" fame through ZZ Top, and the many gorgeous custom-made guitars and hot rods he acquired along the way.

If there's any disappointment to be found in the book's 192 pages, it's that the famously bearded Gibbons never drops the carefully crafted persona: How intriguing would the book be, for example, if it also included photos of his fine arts collection, reportedly the most impressive in Texas? But this is a minor gripe, since any fan of cars or guitars will welcome this hefty document as an irresistible example of politically correct pornography, staring with envy at Gibbons' gorgeous axes and hipster wheels for hours on end.