O Mother, Who Art Thou?

After years of controversial shape-shifting, Sinéad O'Connor finally seems comfortable in her skin. But as she shyly reveals to Edel Coffey, there are still one or two things we didn't know about her

When Sinéad O'Connor enters a building, she really makes an entrance. Not that you'd necessarily notice her in a shapeless woolly jumper and grey cotton trousers, but she walks conspicuously, taking giant steps, shouting a cheery hello to the concierge as she bounds into the Dublin hotel where we meet. She appears friendly but cautious -- which is understandable, considering that journalists have traditionally represented the enemy. But in the past few years, apart from a few blips (like declaring herself a lesbian and being ordained into the priesthood), O'Connor has been in the unusual position of maintaining a fairly low profile. This looks set to change with the release of the new album from Bristol trip hoppers Massive Attack, with O'Connor providing vocals on four tracks, including the forthcoming single Special Cases. But right now, she's hovering below radar. And with her latest album Sinéad's Nua -- literally Old Songs Made New -- she finds herself in the even more unusual position of being in favour with her public, particularly the Irish. She shrugs when I put this to her. 'I don't know, because I don't keep track of the whole 'Sinéad O'Connor' thing. I think people do begin to treat you with more respect when you survive the shite that they put you through and make it into your middle age with a smile on your face.' The 36-year-old flashes that smile briefly, but there remains a latent hostility in her. She isn't threatening but maintains a very obvious cold front. It certainly doesn't make questions like 'Are you a lesbian, then?' and 'So why did you marry a man?' easy to ask.

She speaks in a monotone and her fingers are permanently settled at each corner of her mouth only leaving their positions to tug occasionally at her bottom lip. She rarely turns her huge grey eyes towards you and when she does she quickly flickers them and settles them back on the wall or the window. She speaks freely but the overall impression you get is that she is incredibly uncomfortable. Every now and then, she relaxes a little and laughs shyly at something. But not often.

As with most things, she talks very seriously about her album, a collection of traditional Irish songs which represents the fulfilment of a long-held ambition. It's these rejigged traditional songs that will form at least half of her forthcoming Celtic Connections show. 'I felt these songs wouldn't leave me alone until I actually recorded them. Even though I've recorded them now I still want to f***ing throw myself across to Australia and sing them. So for songs to make you want to get out of bed ... I mean, I don't make money on tour, I'm not getting out of bed to make money, I'm getting out of bed because these f***ing songs make me. So that shows you how powerful they are, when you're old enough that you'd rather be in bed.' Then there's a flash of what seems to be Sinéad O'Connor at ease, laughing at herself. 'I keep going on about my age,' she says and, for a moment, she seems gentle and sweet, not scared and hard.

'I feel quite strongly about the songs,' she says. 'It goes back to the idea of them being ghosts, the fact that I've always been fascinated by the whole life-after-death thing and the psychic world. I trained as a medium in London when I was 18, on and off for about 15 years.' She is about to move on, not thinking she has said anything out of the ordinary, but obviously catches my look of surprise. 'Not professionally,' she adds. 'I don't think I'd be trained enough to unleash myself.' She laughs again, very shyly. 'One of the most important things in my life has been the discovery of that world and the idea there is life after death and the soul goes on.'

She says her knowledge of the 'spirit world' began as a child. 'I used to see lights around my family. I used to watch my family watching telly because when I watched them I could see lights around them.' It wasn't until her mother's death in 1985, however, that the experiences became more intense and frightening. 'All kinds of things began to happen and open up. I was fascinated by it but I was also scared of it. I had one experience one night in my flat by myself. The lights were flashing on and off and all of a sudden this character walks across the room and I really got a fright and just ran away. Weird shit was starting to happen. Say I just met you and we were having a cup of tea, I'd be able to tell you where you kept your private letters.'

But that doesn't happen any more? 'No, you never read a person without their permission,' she says. 'I'd never go looking into people's private business.' Unlike what people do to her, perhaps? 'Well, indeed,' she says .

O'Connor says she had to make Sinéad's Nua or 'go f***ing bonkers' but there was also an ulterior motive for singing these particular songs. 'I wanted to take off the Aran jumper and put a leather jacket on some of them. The way in which some of them have been delivered over the years has been a bit off-putting and made them very uncool. Not that I think I'm the coolest person on the planet by a long shot, but I know that a lot of those songs are cooler than they were letting on to be.' She also wanted to demonstrate that Irish songwriting has more to it than the banal 'ooh baby' histrionics of the chart-topping boy and girl bands.

'If you compare the standard of the songs with your Westlife and Boyzone and the rubbish coming out now, there's a lot to be desired. So I was kind of hoping that young songwriters will see how cool this kind of music is. There are so many songwriters in this country that don't even know they're songwriters and if they hear these songs they might be inspired to go a little deeper than 'what can I do to make you love me?' D'you know what I mean?'

Traditional Irish songs are not the first thing to receive the leather jacket treatment from O'Connor.

'I think I feel the same way about religion as I do about rescuing the songs from the trad-heads,' she agrees. 'I believe in rescuing God from religion. Religion has God held hostage and hidden behind bars. If God were alive he or she would be suing a lot of people for libel.' As for her ordination, she says her being a priest is a very private thing between her and the holy spirit. Most people will remember it as a very public affair however. 'It was too exciting not to make a bit of mischief. It would have been more honest to have just got on about my business, which is what I do now.' Despite being a Catholic and a priest, she tries to explain that she is first and foremost a Rastafarian. 'It was a Rastafarian act to have myself ordained.'

O'Connor is full of these sort of contradictions and has been known to change her mind about things she has said in the past. When asked is she a lesbian, she falters, then says: 'Well, I guess, what I am is ... it's hard to explain. I don't believe there's any such thing as gay or straight. You fall in love with someone. It's about the spirit and the soul.

'If you've been physically abused in a manner which is designed to subdue you sexually, the abuser wins if you don't express your sexuality. So for me it was very important to express all of my sexuality, to do all of the things I always wanted to do. Sex is about all of life -- your attitude towards your sexuality is also your attitude towards your spirituality and yourself and other people and all kinds of things, so it's quite important to break down those walls and even if you are afraid, shag that person that you want to shag. And if someone says, 'Did you shag that person?' say, 'Yeah, I f***ing did shag that person.'' She says she is slowly getting over the abuse she suffered as a child.

'I'm 95% pretty cool with it now but it's the kind of thing that's a life's work, really. So I've still work to do. It's a question of learning how to live with something. I suppose it's a bit like having an illness that isn't entirely curable. You can learn to live with it and manage it. So it's a question of learning how to manage yourself.'

She is less forthcoming on the topic of her new husband, the journalist Nick Sommerlad, whom she married last July. 'I think it's a very private thing and I think it's important that those things stay inside the front door.' She says she doesn't even read the papers any more for fear she will read something about her private life. 'When I had a record out I wouldn't buy a newspaper for about six months until I knew it was safe. There's the exception where you might read a good review just to f***ing make yourself feel good, but you kind of shouldn't. So I try not to take it in, good or bad, because it's all bullshit anyway, because it's all someone else's idea of you, it's not you. When you close your door you're just a little old person like everyone else.'

Sinéad O'Connor plays the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 16 as part of the Celtic Connections festival. The Massive Attack album 100th Window is released February 10 on Virgin

(c) 2003 Sunday Herald

article from the Sunday Herald (sent by Eddie Rice)