Not a Bad Bastard Anymore - Spin July 1998
Sinead O'Connor Not a Bad Bastard Anymore
from Spin July 1998 written by Chris Norris
"So you're not to make me out to be a really horrible person," says Sinead O'Connor. She cocks her head and squints at me, shading her eyes with one hand. Ambling along the embankment of a London canal, Sinead O'Connor is a delicate-looking five-foot-four in blue Adidas sandals. She has just spent the past three hours sharing her thoughts on Biggie Smalls, Teletubbies, and the Northern Ireland peace accord, yet she looks like a child on a field trip----a child with one of the most riveting voices in modern music. Calling her horrible would be like stomping on one of the goslings that are paddling in the water nearby. Yet the woman knows her rep. "I'm sure you've had the odd tantrum or screamed at people or done things that you wish you hadn't," she says. "At the end of the day I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place. Because I'm not gonna say, 'Yeah, you're all right, I'm a complete wanker.' I have to defend myself, even if I might not want to." She pulls a Silk Cut cigarette from behind her ear. "No one's perfect," she says, lighting up. "I mean, I didn't kill anyone. Which is a miracle." When's the last time you felt like killing? "Last Thursday." 8 years ago, Sinead pioneered a classic album-opening device. It was a tense, cinematic sort of mise en scene that would become a staple of a particular genre. It involved ominous HBO strings, a reverbed voice-over, and an air of chilling, before-the-storm intensity. "God grant me the serenity" she intoned-it was the Serenity Prayer-but anthing from a warrior's oath to a pact with the Devil would have fit the form just as well. In short, O'Connor began IDNWWIHG in high gangsta fashion. Which, in retrospect, was just about perfect. In the next five years, O'Connor came to be known as a gangsta bitch supreme. She commanded as much tabloid space as Tupac and as many foes as Suge Knight. A Pope-shredding, Grammy-snubbing, anthem-boycotting drama queen, she pinballed from one public controversy to another, mixing political pronouncements with hissy fits. She overdosed on sleeping pills. She retired from pop to study opera. She got booed offstage at Madison Square Garden. If one is to be judged by the quality of one's enemies, O'Connor was formidable indeed: No less a personage than Sinatra said she deserved "a kick in the ass". "Here was this incredibly talented woman who was inevitably going to ruin her career and there was nothing I could do to stop it," remembers RCA Vice President Elaine Schock, O'Connor's publicist at the time. "After the Pope thing, she said to me, 'Don't get me out of this one.' And I was like, 'As if I can.'" Then, after this run of refusenik stunts, O'Connor committed an even more venal sin: She bacame a hippie. By the mid-'90's, she had begun a journey into the sort of earth-mother mysticism that frank-talking rock women like Liz Phair and Courtney Love would soon render spacey and anachronistic. After briefly hypnotizing audiences from the main stage of '95's Lollapalooza, O'Connor quit the tour due to pregnancy. And then, shunned by radio and less than a priority for her soon-to-implode label EMI, she receded into the woodwork---little more than a perplexing memory to a new generation of Spice Girls. Throughout all this, the singer who began her pop career at 16 was also learning how to be an actual person---raising a son, bearing a daughter, and healing some truly horrific childhood wounds. Reared in a family of 8, O'Connor had been beaten regularly by her now-deceased mother, shuttled to different homes, and forced into reform school at age 14. Her singing, she says, is what saved her life. It's also what makes all the drama matter. The pop memory is a short one and, as the recently departed Ol' Blue Eyes knew full well, there are second acts in American lives. O'Connor is remarkably well-poised to begin hers. By way of a reintroduction, O'Connor is performing in 3 of this summer's Guinness-sponsored Fleadh festivals and , significantly, as a main-stage act with the all-woman musicfest, Lilith Fair. Taking the stage with the likes of Sheryl Crow, Missy Elliott, and Bonnie Raitt, she will be rejoining the center of pop music's female pantheon. "I want to be part of the mainstream without changing my personality," she says. Happy to oblige, Atlantic Records has signed O'Connor to an eyebrow-raising $8 million, 3 album contract. "If you listen to GO, you know that great work is still to come from her," says Atlantic VP and GM Ron Shapiro, who signed O'Connor. "There is so much in her voice and her message for millions of fans she doesn't yet have." In the meantime, O'Connor made another minor but note-perfect reemergence into the public consciousness---as, naturally, the Virgin Mary. In Jordan's film the BB, O'Connor played a foul-mouthed, apparitional Blessed Mother who manifests periodically to soothe the film's troubled young protagonist Francie Brady. O'Connor relished playing out what she calls every Irish girl's fantasy. ("I tried to make love with the Mary outfit on," she says. "But I just couldn't do it.") But she identified just as much with the film's main character---a battered, self-loathing child who yearns to receive his "Francis Brady Not a Bad Bastard Anymore Certificate." "He was definitely somebody who was not understood and who therefore careened and careened and careened because he thought he was a piece of shit," says O'Connor. "I know what that's like. I wanted the world to think of me as valuable and useful and worthwhile person, because I had thought I was absolutely worthless. I hope I'm gonna earn my Sinead O'Connor Not a Bad Bastard Anymore Certificate." On a brilliant May day in London, newspapers trumpet the Sinn Fein's historic vote to abandon force in Northern Ireland. Sinead's home city of 13 years seems alive with hope, prosperity, and young people talking on cell phones. We convene near O'Connor's recently adopted neighborhood of Gospel Oak, home to her Freudian analyst and a safe haven for child-rearing. For O'Connor, the phrase "Gospel Oak" has come to symbolize a new life. "I'm changing in that I no longer desire to have the shit kicked out of me," she says, scratching the front of her head. Newly self-coiffed----having buzzed herself with a beard trimmer---O'Connor looks just as arresting as she did on the cover of her 1987 debut TLATC. The main difference being that the scrawled reminder on her hand now is for "Phenergan"---a prescription for her sniffling kids-rather than for "Purse" and the London street guide "A-Z," as sported on her first album. Also, she now wears a tiny stud in her left nostril and a wedding ring. "I'm not quite married, but I may as well be," she says. Her boyfriend, 34-year-old TV ad composer John Robertson, is closer to her age than were any of O'Connor's earlier paramours, who have included older managers, tourmates, sidemen, journalists, and Peter Gabriel. "I like gentlemen," she says. "I like three-piece suits and kindness and gentleness. I tend to get crushes on men who are very kind to me." She laughs. "[John and I] have been going out for about a year, which is longer than I've gone out with anyone." In addition to newfound stability, much of O'Connor's recent happiness also came with the folding of her label, EMI. A free agent for the first time in her adult life, the change prompted a reassessment of just where she fits into modern music. "Some companies gave me the big lecture, like, 'We think you should go back to being more angry, like your first record,'" she says. Her then-manager Fachtna O'Ceallaigh was among those pushing her toward fashionable rage. "He wanted me to be tougher and more hip and make records with the Fugees," she says. "And that's not really me. When I made my first couple of records I was that fucking angry, and it was a very painful place to be. It's cost me a lot of money to get happy. If I want to write little nanny songs, then that's what I'll do." This newfound balance suggests a career juncture rather like Madonna's, another therapized, semi-mystical mom exploring new sonic spaces. As part of the futruistic supergroup Ashtar Command, O'Connor has collaborated with Beck and members of Smashing Pumpkins, Filter, and Yum-Yum, producing music for the soundtrack to The Avengers. For her upcoming album, she is working with Brian Eno, Dave Stewart, and Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey. But while she lists everyone from Brandy to the trad-Irish mystic Noirin Ni Riainas favorites, O'Connor hesitates to predict what her future music will sound like. "It's too early to tell," she says. "But what I've always liked about my records is there's been a schizophrenic diversity in them." Over the years this diversity has been truly radical---mixing madrigals, hip-hop, folk, and hard rock in a way that never quite made sense to radio. This, plus a difficult public persona, has kept O'Connor's pop presence surprisingly limited for such a powerful voice, confined mostly to headlines and her cover of Prince's NC2U. Still, her exuberant Celtic wail and tremulous intensity has influenced a generation of rock singers. In fact, O'Connor is rather frank about pinpointing her mark. "I think Alanis is Sinead O'Connor with hair," says O'Connor, smiling. "Alanis and the Cranberries, they're kind of well-behaved Sinead O'Connors." She doesn't seem entirely amused by this. "I suppose it bothers me that people like them have sold a lot more records than I ever sold," she says. "They don't cause trouble and they play a game. They're not controversial in any way." Indeed, neither Alanis Morissette nor Dolores O'Riordan seems to have torn up any Pope photos, boycotted an Grammys, or defended Mike Tyson lately. The grand of rebelliousness O'Connor showed in the early '90s now seems nothing short of amazing---which may say less about her than about us. Unlike Morissette or even Love, O'Connor was a legitimately angry and undeniably beautiful woman who desexualized herself---a frightening combination that many men actually seem to take personally. Not female artist even comes close to provoking her kind of outrage today, whether it was due to her daring, dysfunction, or both. If in abandoning P.R. self-immolation O'Connor goes gently into VH1, something will be lost. As it happens, O'Connor is not entirely repentant, or, it seems, entirely at peace. When I pose a question rather too candidly---"Do you ever look back at your litany of statements and just say, 'Ah, shut up'?"---she seems surprisingly wounded by the inference. "Yeah," she says. "But I don't abuse myself. I mean, I don't need to since I've got so many other fucking people to do it." She dwells on the phrasing of the question. "I don't say 'Shut up,'" she says. "I respect myself for being the age that I was and having the passion and the integrity that I did have. I can say about the Pope thing, I'm very proud of that and I stand by it and I would do it again. Quite a lot of the other things---like the national anthem or the Grammys---I wouldn't do now because they're just fucking young moody shit. "But," she continues, "coming from where I come from and from the family that I come from it is natural that I would have been quite a disturbed person. I don't make any apologies for that. And I object to being abused for that." What O'Connor will call my "'just shut up' question"---along with a few other ill-phrased queries---subsequently earns me two faxes at my hotel. "Hope you don't mind me writing again," one reads. "I don't want to upset you or anything, but.." She goes on to decry the cruelty of the media and its complicity in creating some of her ill behavior. "Frankly, I would never use the term 'Shut up' to anyone---even if I hated them," she writes at one point. "I am a good and loving person and I deserve to be treated with love and respect." Clearly, these touching protestations of self-worth are not the words of a true gangsta bitch. "I've kind of unleashed all of that stuff that I needed to get rid of," O'Connor says. "And now I just want to put a little beauty around the place." But luckily for us, O'Connor isn't all aromatherapy and matrilineal mysticism. An autodidactic radical whose voice imbues even the corniest lullaby with a tremulous intensity, O'Connor may have more difficulty flitting off into the land of Lilithian fantasia than she might imagine (even if she is a daily pot smoker). Her children, two-year-old Roisin and 11-year-old Jake, help make sure of that. "Jake's a complete skate punk," says O'Connor. "He's into ramps, grinding, jumping off things. He listens to Usher, Mase, and all this hardcore rap. He also likes Lil' Kim, which I'm a bit worried about. I like her too 'cause she's so rude. But it's just a bit early for him." In fact, the same kid who kept a 20-year-old O'Connor from fitting the "enfant terrible" title comfortably may now provide her with one of the most compelling roles of her career---part Virgin Mary, part Yoko Ono, and part soccer mom, a role only O'Connor could play. I ask O'Connor if she's dreading Jake's adolescence. She shakes her head. "Everybody says when they get to 14, 15, it's awful," she says. "But I don't think it will be too bad. I don't feel that far away from that age myself." She laughs, perhaps realizing just how relative concepts like maturity and stability can be. "And I'm not exactly the most traditional of mothers. Obviously."