"Mommy's a Brilliant Singer": An Interview with Sinead O'Connor

Brash, baldheaded, and jack-booted, Sinéad O'Connor was a singular figure when she made her debut in 1987 with The Lion and the Cobra, but listeners who got past O'Connor's distinctive appearance and sometimes confrontational stance discovered a supremely talented, soulful, and original musician. Her follow-up release, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, featured the Prince-penned smash "Nothing Compares 2 U" and made O'Connor, then 24 years old, an international sensation.

Almost from the outset of her career, however, O'Connor proved a controversial media figure, becoming a target of condemnation for, among other things, her comments in support of the IRA and her refusal to perform in New Jersey if "The Star Spangled Banner" was played prior to her appearance—a move that provoked Frank Sinatra to publicly threaten to "kick her ass." After a string of records that failed to reach her early '90s success and a self-imposed break to raise her family, O'Connor returned to form in 2000 with the beautifully introspective Faith and Courage.

Now, O'Connor offers Sean-Nós Nua (pronounced Shann-Nose Noo-Ah), a collection of traditional Irish songs blended with contemporary world rhythms and featuring a lineup of some of Ireland's best-known musicians. Literally meaning "new old style," Sean-Nós Nua is a moving and innovative tribute to the traditions of Irish music.


I've read some of your comments about the current state of Irish music, and clearly, you're not fond of a good deal of it. What is it about it that you find so unexciting?

Sinéad O'Connor: Well, there’s a caliber of songwriting that has existed in Ireland in the past that doesn’t seem to exist now. When you look at bands like Westlife and Boyzone and others, it’s all very kind of "Ooh, baby," you know? It’s not really about anything in particular. It doesn’t make the hairs on your neck stand up the way that I think songs ought to. So when you compare the standard of Irish songwriting to the standard with some of these songs it just looks bad. I mean, the tradition in Irish songs is that when you hear them you should be getting chills.

You've said that this is a CD you've wanted to make for 12 years. Why did it come to be right now?

SO: It's a record that had been nagging at me for an awfully long time and I felt I couldn’t move forward as a songwriter or a singer until I made it. This one was haunting me and wouldn’t leave me alone. There’s a story going around about Van Morrison that he burnt down his studio because he felt it was beckoning him every day, he couldn't focus on other areas of his life. And that’s what I feel about these songs, that they’ve been at me for so long to do them that I couldn’t do anything else creatively until I did these. I love this music, but I also made this CD partly so that I can get on with my own records, to clear the runway and then move on.

On your new CD, you mix in a number of non-Irish influences, such as reggae and world music. I was surprised at how well the different styles blend together. They seem on the surface to be incredibly different.

SO: Yeah. I guess the thing is that there are similarities in the culture in that we’re both colonialist countries; we’ve both been colonized by the same people and both cultures have had the same experience of the church, having been colonized by the English and the church. You know what I mean? There’s a certain amount of rebelliousness to the music. And there are huge Irish influences in the West Indies. The island of Montserrat still has street names that are Irish, you know. And at the height of the sugar trade in the West Indies there were tons of Irish convicts sent out there to work. And then after awhile there was a request sent to the British not to send anymore Irish people because they were inciting everyone to rebellion, you know. Even in some of Bob Marley’s music—most obviously in tracks like "So Much Trouble in the World"—you can hear the Irish whistle.

You dedicated your last CD, Faith and Courage, to Rastafarians. What is it about Jamaican music that you find inspiring?

SO: I’m very inspired by the Rastafarian music and by the whole culture of Rastafarianism because I like the idea of magic. There’s a lot of magic around Rastafarianism, or the belief in God as being magic and there’s also the belief in music as being a very powerful form of magic. And I think that’s something that Irish musicians identify with. Traditional Irish music has a lot of magic in it. A lot of these songs are like ghosts almost, you know, a "voices from the past" kind of thing. There are characters in these songs who really lived and really existed, and when you sing them, these characters take over your personality almost. And I think the same happens to a certain extent in roots and cultural music. There’s a lot of history to be learned from those kind of songs.

In addition to reggae, there’s a strong rap influence in some of your recent music. You once said that N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton was one of the most important CDs of the 20th century. What is it about rap that you find so compelling?

SO: Well, that CD in particular because it was rap when it was born. It was really the first time that certain people were allowed to have a voice. You know, these rappers represented a huge group of people who, up until that time, had not been allowed to voice themselves or to be heard. So I thought Straight Outta Compton was a very brave record; it was very challenging and it was a record made by very young people about their upbringings and their experience of growing up in America being African American. It was very brave and very challenging. And I guess I identified with it insofar as I was writing as an Irish person about the experience of growing up in Ireland and what it was like to be a child in Ireland and what it’s like to be an adult survivor of child abuse, for example, things like that. And I think they were dealing with very similar issues. I think Ice Cube (formerly of N.W.A) is your greatest poet, to be honest. He was only 17 when he started out with N.W.A and then with his own records. Songs like "The Product" or "Dead Homiez" are, you know, classic American poems, if you ask me.

In addition to this CD, which comes pretty close on the heals of Faith and Courage, you’re putting out tracks with the British hip-hop band Massive Attack and Conjure One, another band. Then there's your recent collaboration with Moby on his new CD, 18. All of a sudden, you're all over the place. What’s spurring you to be so busy?

SO: I guess the feeling that, you know, I’ll be a long time dead. Do you know what I mean? That’s what they say in Ireland, you may as well work while you can because you’ll be a long time dead. So I guess I want to live. I just feel I may as well do as much work as I can while I can.

You're the mother of two children (a son, Jake, 14, and a daughter, Roisin, 6). How has that affected you as an artist and, specifically, how has it affected your approach to this CD?

SO: I guess being a mother brings a certain calmness along with a certain desire to be soothing. And I suppose I guess that’s what my kids have brought: a desire in me, artistically, to be mothering, and that the music be mothering and soothing as well.

Your daughter is at a perfect age to appreciate this CD, yes?

SO: Yeah, she loved it actually. A friend of mine played her some of it in the car the other day and she went crazy over it. She started kissing the speakers and then she ran into the house and to me yelling, "Mommy’s a brilliant singer, Mommy’s a brilliant singer."

Were you singing at that young age as well?

SO: Yeah. I don’t know if I knew as such what I wanted to do until I was about 14, but I remember even being a tiny kid, kind of walking along, the rhythm of my feet on the ground would make me think of tunes. I definitely started making up little tunes when I was kind of her age, yeah.

You always seem to tackle your detractors head-on. After the whole episode on Saturday Night Live with the picture of the pope, you surprised many by becoming a Catholic priest. In keeping with your style, maybe there's an album of Sinatra covers in your future?

SO: I mean there’s no point, really, in doing Frank Sinatra tunes. He did them so brilliantly himself that I should best leave well enough alone. I’m a massive Frank fan—I mean, I would’ve been honored if he had kicked my ass, you know? And the fact that he even mentioned my name is good enough for me.

Borders chain mag / Conducted by Rich Fahle