By Fred Mills
Harp Magazine, November 2005
Sinead O'Connor's career to date has included at least two major artistic peaks separated, significantly, by 12 years: 1990's I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, featuring her staggering cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," and 2002's Sean-Nos Nua, a haunting collection of traditional Irish tunes. In between, however, have been some curious professional detours and no shortage of growing-up-in-public flameouts, so it's not surprising that journalists have tended to dwell upon the so-called "outrageous stuff." That's what sells papers, after all.
That the Irish singer reportedly regards doing press as roughly falling somewhere in between jury duty and hemorrhoid surgery doesn't come as a surprise, either. For despite it being well over a decade since she ripped up a photo of the Pope on a 1992 broadcast of Saturday Night Live, calls for O'Connor's head subsequently ringing out from all corners, to this day writers feel compelled to dredge up The Incident, even at the expense of any contemporary commentary. Sure enough, in the May 27 Entertainment Weekly, for the magazine's annual "Summer Preview" issue, an O'Connor feature gave but cursory mention of her new album-a covers collection of spiritually inclined reggae classics titled Throw Down Your Arms, issued on her new independently distributed That's Why There's Chocolate and Vanilla label-and instead dwelt at length upon The Incident. So much for a preview.
Warned by O'Connor's publicist that the direction the EW story took greatly peeved the singer, I had no problem pledging to steer this interview down other roads. She's notoriously outspoken enough on various topics to keep things lively, and besides, Throw Down Your Arms is brilliant, both as a maverick statement from a pop artist (a former pop artist, I will be assured) and as a pure-minded musical offering in which songs by Burning Spear, Lee Perry, Bob Marley, the Abyssinians and other reggae giants are served with an edgy reverence.
What catches me off guard, however, is when O'Connor none-too-subtly brings up The Incident herself not long after our conversation gets underway. As a preemptive journalistic peace offering, I tell her that I know she's not fond of interviews, to which she replies, "Sometimes I enjoy them, actually, but sometimes, yeah, they're a pain in the arse." Noting that back in the late '80s Musician magazine ran a piece called "Questions Sinead O'Connor Hates," I ask her what questions she's loath to field nowadays.
"Ooh...." she thinks for a second. Then: "One question I hate getting asked is [in snide tone of voice], 'Do you feel you have anything to apologize for?' Because I just want to be rude when I answer that. It's very hard not to just tell people to go fuck themselves-'Suck my dick!'"
And with that succinct bit of interviewer-interviewee table-clearing, we're off.
HARP: What prompted you to make an album of traditional reggae? Did the prior experience of doing an album of traditional Irish songs have any bearing?
O'CONNOR: In some ways it did. But as a child I grew up in a very theocratic society, so I sort of became interested from a very small age in rescuing God from religion. And it became apparent that music and singing was a way one could do that. I was inspired by the [American] civil-rights movement as well as the movement for freedom in South Africa, and how people used singing as this method of expression of surety, if you will, of having God on one's side. I became interested in the idea of that, although in my own society it wasn't being reflected musically. I moved to London when I was 17 and came across Rasta people and Rasta music for the first time-in my mind Throw Down Your Arms is not a reggae record but a Rasta record-and I was so fucking excited because these were the first people that I saw who were actively and passionately involved in what I'd dreamt about doing. So there was always the seed there, the desire to make a record like this, because I was so inspired by the Rastafari people and their whole take on spirituality, the difference between God and religion. And the connection with this and Sean-Nos Nua is, once you've sung those songs there is no place to go other than into spiritual music, spiritual singing. Those Irish songs take you to a certain height, and after you've experienced that you can't really go back down.
HARP: So do you intend this album to have a specific spiritual-antiwar, even-message for our times?
O'CONNOR: Absolutely. There's a world that's yearning for assistance, spiritually. These problems that we see in the world, they are spiritual problems. Trying to fix them with politics is like throwing a rock to a drowning man, you know? So there are a lot of teachings in these songs that I'd be very interested in passing on-the whole message of the Rasta movement would be a very antiwar, antiviolence kind of system. And while I don't think I'm a majorly important character in the universe, I suppose in a small way what artists are able to do is just feed something else into the world. I think it's left down to the artists to take up where religion and politics are failing. That's what I see some of the Rasta guys were doing 30 years ago with these songs-songs that still nowadays can literally save lives.
I had those songs in mind over the years. Those were the ones that really helped me in my life. Each specific one is very, very important to me, for millions of reasons, and have been extremely relevant in my life and carried me through things or buoyed me up at certain times-or helped me make mischief at other times!
HARP: Did you have to prove yourself to any of the studio musicians? [The album was recorded in Kingston, Jamaica, at Tuff Gong Studios.]
O'CONNOR: No, God no, no. These are top-class musicians. A lot of them played on the original records, and they're all in love with the songs as much as I am. They kind of found it amusing that a woman would want to come in and do these warrior kind of songs, this "tiny little woman from Ireland who looks like a boy" kind of thing. In Jamaica the word "tuff" is used as a compliment, but in Ireland if they say "she's tough" that would be an insult. So in Jamaica they were laughing their heads off going, "She tuff, she tuff!" They were leaping about the studio as I would play them each song I wanted to do.
HARP: And for this record you also set up your own independent label.
O'CONNOR: I just wanted to have creative control insofar as I want to make the records I want to make. If you sign a deal with a label in the rock and pop arena, they're not gonna be supportive of you making religious records. My next record that I'm working on is one I call Theology. It's all acoustic, and I always wanted to make an acoustic album, as bare as possible, with just voice and guitar a lot of the time. And I always wanted to write a book of theology, but I can't write books so I'm doing it with songs. A rock and pop company is not going to know how to market it. They want you to have a hit single, and they interfere with your record. They put huge pressure on you. They still do! Even though I'm very solid about the direction and the focus I'm on now, I'm getting an awful lot of pressure from concert promoters: "Oh, won't you do 'Nothing Compares 2 U,' won't you do your old songs...?" And my thing is, no, that career is over. I'm not doing anything from that.
HARP: If you could go back and meet your younger self, what would you tell her?
O'CONNOR: I would warn her not to really give a shit that people are gonna abuse her. You've just got to be yourself. Everyone's gonna kick the fucking shit out of you for being yourself because it's a dangerous thing for a woman in this world to throw off the chains she's supposed to keep wrapped around herself. I regret I didn't have a strong sense of myself [back then] because I let myself get really hurt in a lot of what went on.
HARP: You have to have a thick skin in this business.
O'CONNOR: You know, I don't believe that! In this business, the nature of an artist is that they are a very sensitive person, and you mustn't lose that. The other side of that is, yeah, you're gonna be hurt easily. But the second you start toughening up your heart then you're gonna lose the very thing that makes you an artist. You can train your mind, as such, to maybe not give a shit, or you can do things like not even read anything [about yourself], and you need good people around you to support you. You can't be covering up your heart with armor, you know? And I suppose if I had to say anything to a 20-year-old [me], I'd say, "Sinead, look-just don't give a shit when these people are telling you you're a piece of shit. Don't buy into it." I came to believe I was a complete fucking monster, so I had to recover.
HARP: Is that why you announced a couple of times you were retiring from music?
O'CONNOR: Not the first instance when everyone said I was retiring. That wasn't the case. But I did retire about three years ago, from the mainstream pop and rock arena. And I genuinely did believe that I wasn't going to go back to work at all. I didn't sing a note for three years. [I also had] fibromyalgia, a chronic fatigue illness that painfully affects your muscles. When you get something like that it's a gift, actually, because you have to reassess your life. It's purely stress-related, so you have to get out of your life the things that are taking your energy.
So I took three years out of things, but then I began to see that this doesn't mean I could never sing again-I could just go into another arena. And it is nice to come back and actually get a sense of my own self. I'd focused on my children, and I'd had another child since as well.
HARP: What do your kids think of their mom's music?
O'CONNOR: I have a boy called Shane, who's only 16 months. Then Jake is 18, and he knows about it and he likes it and everything-but since he's 18 he has to pretend he doesn't! [laughs] My daughter, Roisin, the nine-year-old, I've kind of kept her away from it all. She knows I'm a singer but she's never been to one of my gigs. I've just tried to keep them out of all this as much as possible, really. So far I've wanted them to just have a normal life and have them think that their mother is a normal, boring fuck! I've been living back in Ireland for the last six years, and I've deliberately lived in a really ordinary house in an ordinary neighborhood.
HARP: Are you politically active these days? In the past you were involved in AIDS benefits, for example.
O'CONNOR: Not politically active, no. Spiritually. I'd had some records that went to benefit various AIDS charities. I try not to get involved with politics of any description. But I am interested in the cause of rescuing God from religion.
HARP: So you won't be doing a Bono any time soon?
O'CONNOR: No, because in order to be able to sing properly I need not to have any cocks in my mouth, you know?
HARP: How do you view the way the world started going crazy in 2001 and all that's happened since?
O'CONNOR: I suppose what I see in all this is that there are all these people who claim to be representing God and who are actually killing each other, killing people. You can't judge one side or other to be better or worse than another-anybody who claims that they have God on their side while committing an act of violence is blaspheming. I think in a way God works in funny ways, and that all of this violence, the war, is going to force people to reject war permanently, forever. That by the time this is all over there will never be another war because people will just not stand for it. I think the way to fix these problems over time is learning not to judge each other. I think we all need to say, "Look, the way we've been sorting out these things doesn't work. Maybe we could try to sort it out lovingly."
HARP: So is it possible in 2005 for a musical movement to exert a positive force for change like that?
O'CONNOR: Well, the Rastafari movement had that 30 years ago and still has a huge effect around the world. So yeah, I think music is the thing that rescues God from religion and politics, and I think artists have a big part to play. But I also think the spiritual leaders of the world are terribly quiet about all this. I don't know why they haven't gone to meet Tony Blair and George Bush and whoever it is in Iraq who's killing everybody, and show them the other way.
HARP: With our President it's the cowboy way: Shoot first, ask questions later.
O'CONNOR: What bothers me about him is he seems to have the wrong facial expression when he talks about violence. He smiles! But they are all victims of a culture of violence, a culture of being brought up to believe this is how you sort things out.