Older and wiser

Catriona Mathewson

'OH MY God, she's cancelled the interview!" Sinead O'Connor has been out of the international music loop for years, but the Irish beauty has only to pop her shaved head above the radar and she sends people into a spin.

News she had cancelled an entire round of scheduled interviews in Australia this week was greeted with a certain resigned acceptance of the inevitable.

The words "tantrum" and "diva" were bandied about. The Irish wild child -- not so much a child any more as she turns 36 in December -- has created something of a "difficult" image for herself since she exploded on to the world stage at the tender age of 21.

She famously tore up a photograph of the Pope during a performance on US show Saturday Night Live in 1992, once spoke in support of the IRA, she railed against the Catholic Church, flirted with lesbianism after a failed marriage and, more recently, announced she had been ordained as a priest of a renegade offshoot of the Catholic Church.

Cancelling interviews was par for the course. Or so it seemed.

But when quizzed about the cancellation in a subsequent interview, an older, wiser, amiable and punctual O'Connor said she hadn't changed a thing.

It emerged, the "schedule changes" were organised by her manager, who wanted to ensure O'Connor -- doing the interviews at night from her Dublin home -- had enough time to put her six-year-old daughter Roisin to bed before diving into a gruelling round of interviews.

After a long absence, the Irish songstress is back with an album of traditional Irish songs, given a bit of Sinead treatment -- hence the title Sean-Nos Nua, which translates as "Old style but new".

O'Connor said the album was a dream she had been nurturing for years, but was also a good project to get her rusty songwriting "muscle" back into gear after an extended break.

"My manager died about a year ago and he had been sick for a couple of years, so I hadn't been writing anything or doing anything," she said. "I was more or less waiting to see what was happening with him. I didn't want to create work for him while he wasn't well."

On the promotional merry-go-round again, it quickly becomes apparent O'Connor has changed. These days, far from being outspoken, it is hard to get her to talk about anything other than her music.

"I have had rather a lot to say, like most Irish people," she said. "But one thing I have learnt out of the experience of the past 15 or 16 years is that I'm a singer and I suppose it's more appropriate to talk about things to do with songs and music than it is too much to talk about your personal life.

"My feeling now that I'm older and wiser is that when I am engaged in an interview or promoting the record, really what is anyone's business is my songs, my singing, my records, things associated with that.

"It's now two years since I've done any promotion. I've only been doing interviews for about four weeks and I've f----d up twice in as far as I did two interviews when maybe I spoke a little more personally than I would have liked to.

"Not that it does any harm but it's just that I'm getting too old for that now."

Guarded and wary, she sets the ground rules early.

"I don't like to talk about the past or the Pope f----'n thing or anything that people want to drag up that's all in the past. I don't like to talk about my childhood because it's all in the past now."

For the record, O'Connor has spoken out previously about the pain of her parents' divorce -- when she was eight -- and her subsequent life with a violent mother.

HER mother, she has claimed, forced her and her siblings to steal and subjected them to brutal beatings, although her brother has publicly claimed O'Connor exaggerated the severity of the situation.

At 13 she moved in with her father and, a year later, was taken into care, where a nun gave her her first guitar and started her on a track that would change her life.

O'Connor once said she initially shaved her head to distinguish herself from her mother. Much of her career has been marked by her battle to come to terms with her childhood -- venting her anger in verse and often in confessional interviews.

The real tears which rolled down her face during the filming of Prince cover Nothing Compares 2 U, she has said were prompted by memories of her mother, who died in a car accident in 1985.

"I've moved very far away from all that stuff and talking about it is quite painful, actually. I think it's quite important now that I actually pull the shutters down and not be willing to put energy into keeping the past alive," O'Connor says now.

Watching what she says in public and learning not to wear her heart on her sleeve is something O'Conner has come to appreciate the hard way.

Her debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, was an unexpected critical and commercial success when it was released in 1987. And the follow up, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got (1990), featuring the Prince cover, catapulted her to international mega-stardom.

It was all a bit much for a little girl from a troubled childhood in Ireland and her outspoken views quickly began to overshadow her music.

The title of her 1992 album of covers, Am I Not Your Girl? was reportedly a reference to the public backlash against O'Connor.

During the 1990s she only released one more original album, Universal Mother in 1994.

That year she became pregnant with daughter Roisin, and still blames the media for precipitating a painful split with the baby's father, Irish Times columnist John Waters.

The break-up culminated in a bitter custody dispute -- now resolved under an amicable joint arrangement.

O'Connor says constant speculation about the couple eventually drove them apart.

However, there also was a radio interview in which O'Connor said the relationship was "a donor situation". O'Connor later explained she did not mean to imply he was merely a sperm donor, but that they met at a time when she wanted another child and he had many qualities she admired.

SHE emerged from trying times in the late 1990s to release Faith and Courage in 2000.

For all her run-ins with the press, O'Connor shares many close relationships with members of the media.

Her first husband, and father of her 15-year-old son Jake, was writer John Reynolds and last year she married British Press Association reporter Nick Sommerlad.

"'I wanted to be a journalist myself when I was younger. I did my work experience at the Irish Times. I guess I just fancied being a singer more than I fancied being a journalist."

And who can blame her?

She's certainly had a chance to air her views very publicly, and despite her reticence to discuss events of the past, she regrets nothing of the angry young woman she was.

"I guess I only regret that I was so young during all of it that I didn't give too much of a shit how anyone responded to it."

It was all part of the journey.

"I suppose you grow out of being angry by expressing it. In your 20s you do feel quite angry. When you're middle-aged like I am now you get slightly more towards being loving and compassionate instead of angry."

The turning point came when, she says, she realised that instead of trying to change the entire world, she could just change hers.

The Catholic establishment refused to ordain women priests, so she became a self-styled priestess, saying "God is something that needs rescuing from religion."

Today O'Connor is happily married, gearing up to write a new album and considering more children. Some would say she was almost respectably comfortable and contented but the activist of old is always just below the surface.

Older and wiser maybe, but Sinead O'Connor is still a contradictory character. She hates the church but is deeply religious. She dislikes being known for controversy rather than music, but often finds if difficult to bite her tongue.

She once refused to appear on a US variety show when she discovered ironically sexist comedian Andrew Dice Clay (aka Ford Fairlane) was also a guest.

(c) 2002 The Courier Mail

from The Courier Mail (Australia)