London Times, November 15 1997
London Times, November 15 1997
At 30, Sinead O'Conor seems to have found peace at last - she's even performing on a tribute album to Diana, Princess of Wales. Nigel Williamson reports The big interview - Calm after the storm There is an air of inner calm about Sinead O'Connor these days that comes as something of a shock. Can this be the same angry woman who burst onto the scene in the late Eighties with her shaven head and her bovver boots, and whose strident opinions provoked The Sun to call her a "she-devil"? Or the broken and tormented waif with the hollow face and haunted eyes who a few years later attempted suicide and, when that didn't work, checked herself into a rehabilitation programme? It is tempting to ask the real Sinead O'Connor to stand up, but as she explains, all of these aspects of her personality have been equally real. The most striking thing about her today is that she is so . . . well, normal. Her eyes dance, she is thoughtful and animated and humorous. And, face bare of make-up, she is serenely beautiful. Above all, perhaps for the first time in her troubled existence, O'Connor is comfortable with herself. Life, she will tell you, citing numerology and mysticism, as well as her own experience, begins at 30. She hit the magic digits last year. She is also disarmingly candid about the dark and sometimes demonic road she has travelled, which makes any interview with her a little like a session on the psychiatrist's couch. "I needed to puke," she says of those confrontational years when she was pilloried for talking loudly about the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother, her abortions and her rage at the Catholic Church which culminated in the infamous ripping up of the Pope's picture live on American television in 1992. "I was sick and I had all this stuff inside. I had to puke it out and after that I felt slightly relieved." Born in December, 1966, in a dreary Dublin suburb, O'Connor's parents separated when she was eight. The children went to live with their mother, an unstable woman, and O'Connor paints a harrowing picture of five years of abuse. "I was brought up by someone who hated me and I was taught to hate myself. A lot of the violence against me was very sexual and you stayed alive in our house by hating yourself. We got into the pattern of thinking we were nothing because we were made to say that we were nothing. If you hear it enough times, you believe it." When she was 13 her father, who was partly aware of the terror in which his children were being raised, won custody. "My mother was the chief violent abuser and she died when I was 18. But, with all respect to my father, who is still alive, I was someone who wasn't parented at a very young age. I had to find parents elsewhere so for me God, or the idea of God, became my parent." These days father and daughter are reconciled. "There were a few years when things were a bit rough but my father loves me. It was difficult for him to hear these things talked about in public, although there was far more than ever came out." Unsurprisingly, adolescence sent O'Connor, already unbalanced, haywire. After being caught shop-lifting she was sent to a school for girls with behavioural problems. At 16 she ran away to Dublin, started singing Bob Dylan covers in bars and soon joined local band Ton Ton Macoute. Spotted by record-label executives, she found herself in London with a record deal as a solo artist at just 18. O'Connor swiftly developed a reputation as troublesome but denies setting out to be deliberately provocative. "I didn't know anything about the business. At that age people talk to you as though you're interesting, but actually you don't know anything and that can get you into a lot of trouble. I had other things on my mind, like whoever I was shagging." That happened to be John Reynolds, who was drumming on her first album. In June 1987 she had their son, Jake. They married in 1989 and, although they separated soon afterwards, they remain friends and musical collaborators. The album, The Lion and The Cobra, released in February 1988, depicted O'Connor screaming on the cover. Its angry sound and the extraordinary attack of her voice - not to mention her extreme image and brash opinions - made an instant impact. The album spawned her first hit single, Mandinka but that was nothing compared to what was to come when she stumbled across a little-known Prince song, Nothing Compares To U. Released as a single in January 1990, her dramatic rendition of the ballad topped the charts in 16 countries. Even more compelling was the video, mostly featuring stark shots of her shaven head with a tear trickling down her cheek. "Yes, it was a real tear. But it is interesting that the tear is what really launched my career. People are grateful if someone cries their tears for them. It wasn't so much about me, it was what people saw of themselves in it because we are all brought up not to cry." Yet success brought fresh trouble. While her personal life continued in turmoil (at the height of her fame in 1990 she had an abortion, separated from Reynolds and moved to Hollywood), she sparked an international incident by refusing to perform a gig in New Jersey if the American national anthem was played. In a stream of provocative interviews she broadcast her megaphone views on life, politics and the Church. She refused to attend the Brit awards to collect the International Artist of the Year award; she pulled out of the Grammy awards telling them she didn't like the music industry's values; her outspoken views on the Gulf War led to her being reviled in the British tabloids. O'Connor has since thought long and hard about what happened. "I think I've been misrepresented rather than misunderstood," she says. "I don't regret anything but I can see that people found it hard to listen when I was screaming in their faces." She admits that the character assassination in the Press was deeply hurtful. "I wasn't having a strong relationship with myself and it drove me nervous because I cared what people thought of me. I came to terms with it by realising that it wasn't really me they were talking about, it was a projection." But she believes that she did not help her own cause. "People assumed I was a lot stronger than I was because I had a big mouth and a shaved head. Believe it or not there was an enormous shyness on my part so I acted tougher than I really was to cover the vulnerability. I can see now that I can help things more by being compassionate than by screaming. But I don't need to apologise for anything because the house needed screaming down." Worse was to come. After producing Am I Not Your Girl, an album of covers of cabaret standards in October 1992, she appeared on NBC's Saturday Night Live and tore up a picture of the Pope proclaiming, "fight the real enemy". Middle America was outraged, her records were ceremoniously destroyed in street protests and she was booed at a Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Gardens, fleeing the stage in tears. She fled America, too, giving away her $800,000 home in California to the Red Cross. Today O'Connor is unrepentant. "That was a war cry, an announcement of war against the silence. If the Virgin Mary was alive she'd be ripping up pictures of the Pope. There's a rumour going around that I wrote to the Pope asking forgiveness which is a complete lie." Back in Ireland during 1993 O'Connor began recording what would prove to be her most creatively satisfyingly album to date, Universal Mother, while, paradoxically, suffering a nervous breakdown. The album dealt with Irish history and her own narrative of abuse. She is proud of the results. "I'm embarrassed about my first albums. I sang in an American accent because I was brought up not to be myself. When I went back home I took singing lessons and it was the first time anyone had given me permission to sound like myself." But O'Connor was seriously ill. "I was tormented. It wasn't a pleasant place to be and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. I was ill for a good year before I went for treatment. I had a struggle with myself which I couldn't solve. I think I had been in denial. Going back to Dublin was about a discovery of me. Everyone has their breaking point and I couldn't go on any more without getting some help. It was some form of breakdown." After attempting suicide with a cocktail of vodka and pills and sending her son Jake to live with his father, O'Connor moved to London in 1994. "I tried Ireland for a while then I remembered why I left in the first place. It is a very difficult place to live, especially if you're f****d up like I was, because the whole country is built on denial." In London, in desperation, she joined a drug rehabilitation programme. "I wasn't doing a lot of drugs other than smoking a lot of cannabis but I thought it would help. I thought they would deal more with childhood stuff than they did, but it was a non-starter." Eventually she found a therapist who specialised in the treatment of child abuse victims and she credits him with saving her. Gospel Oak (a mini-album of lullabies and love songs released earlier this year) is her first new work since 1994 and is named after the London suburb which she still visits for therapy five days a week. Today O'Connor is a pretty good advert for therapy. Her anger, she says, has been replaced by compassion, although she objects when I ask if she has totally conquered the demons. "I hate that word. They're not demons, they're ideas I was given about myself that made me not like myself very much. I guess I'm a hell of a lot better than I was but I'm still on my healing journey and there's a way to go." Is she happy? "Yes, definitely. All I had before was sadness and anger. Now I have sadness sometimes but I have good things in my life as well." Two years ago she gave birth to a daughter Roisin, whose father is Irish Times writer John Waters and that, too, has changed her perspective. "Having a son was easy because he was him and I was me. But because my mother hated me vehemently because I was a girl I thought I didn't deserve to have a daughter. I was concerned that if I did have a girl I would be like my mother. Roisin has given me more compassion for myself. It has changed my relationship with me." She brings up her children in a thoroughly modern fashion, not living with either of their fathers but remaining close to both of them. "The two people I chose to have children with are men who are probably happier out of a full-on relationship with a woman, but at the same time would like to have children. It's extremely unconventional but it works very well because we just love each other." The new-found inner peace is also reflected in her new work. The songs on Gospel Oak and her new single This Is a Rebel Song draw deep on the Irish tradition, suggesting that she is at last comfortable with her roots. "The things I said were to create a conversation and it was in Ireland that conversation was most needed. In talking about abuse and the church what I did for Ireland is understood by Irish people." The new single, she is delighted to report, has already run into trouble with Radios 1 and 2 where it is feared too political to be playlisted. "It is a love song that makes a comment about the relationship between Britain and Ireland." She is convinced it is the best song she has ever written. Whether all of O'Connor's troubles are behind her remains to be seen. Next year a fresh bout of controversy is likely to surround her appearance in Neil Jordan's film The Butcher Boy, in which she plays the Virgin Mary. "People will be disappointed because there is nothing to make a fuss about. She isn't a cursing, disreputable Virgin Mary. She does say 'for f**k's sake' but that's understandable, isn't it?" * O'Connor's contribution to the Diana, Princess of Wales tribute album is the hymn Make Me a Channel of Your Peace , to be released at the beginning of December. This Is a Rebel Song is released on Columbia on Nov 17; So Far . . . The Best of Sinead O'Connor is released on Chrysalis on Nov 24. To order ANY album, including those featured or reviewed in metro, call The Times Music Shop on 0345 023498.
Copyright 1997 The Times Newspapers Limited.