No Woman No Cry - Hot Press 1995
Despite the controversies in which she has recently been involved, when SINÉAD O'CONNOR starts talking music it becomes evident why she ran away to join the rock 'n' roll circus in the first place. Citing Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Van Morrison as her ultimate trinity, she discusses the spiritual forces that drive and inspire. Interview: Bill Graham
MEET SOMEONE like Sinéad O'Connor early and you're probably destined to have one strange personal symbolic memory that only starts to make sense far much later in the plan. Mine revolves around fear of the fame game.
The scene - an afternoon after a personal long day's journey into night. On a fairly quiet midweek morning in a Leeson Street club, I fancied, rightly or more probably wrongly, that I was being ogled by a female affiliate of a Dublin drug-dealing clan whose connection had helped to ravage Phil Lynott.
Still my response counts more than the accuracy or otherwise of my imagination. I inwardly recoiled and began glumly brooding on how the fame game too often results in the eventual victory of the parasites.
Later, I crashed on a sofa in Steve Wickham's flat. Around lunchtime, I foggily awoke to the sight of Sinéad O'Connor, a regular daily visitor to her early Dublin musical ally, Wickham, inquiring if I wanted tea or coffee and kindly checking this dullard's flimsy frame of mind. Already I valued her intensity but still thought her innocently fragile, knowing nothing of her family traumas and, as yet, little more about her single-mindedness.
She hadn't yet signed to Ensign but it was already becoming obvious that her destiny wasn't to traipse around in perpetual circles with the musicians of Dublin's second division. My first waking sight of her brought the morning's earlier broody memories flooding back.
She smiled and I guiltily felt some sort of cad. Phil Lynott was dead and she was alive. But if this spy from the previous night's dangerzone said nothing, my instincts immediately sounded a warning. I woke, I saw and I feared.
Not so much for her; more for where she could be headed. Those few hours earlier, I'd got too close to Mephistopheles the puppet-master. She wasn't a lamb - but I'd just smelt a past slaughter.
Now, a decade later, Sinéad O'Connor needs to retell a recent dream. This time, it's her own unconscious that signalled the fears of fame. "I dreamt I was in my Granny's house in Crumlin," she related. "I was sick or something or I was lying in bed. And Roseanne Barr and Michael Hutchence were trying to come in the door and see me. And my Granny's arm was across the door and she was going 'No'."
Funny how you can take heed when Roseanne Barr and Michael Hutchence become your archetypes. But then, while dreams will always bewilder and belabour logic, they sometimes can provide the most suitable summary of a person's predicament. And really Sinéad O'Connor already knew her direction. These days, her ambivalence about fame can often lead to a desire to escape its grip. Or as she continues:
"That's how I see the whole thing. It wasn't a world that I would like to be in. I'm not ambitious in that way. What I'm ambitious about is attaining myself and getting to myself. If you want to be a rock star, there are so many sacrifices that you have to make - your children and yourself. The price you have to pay for it is too large. I never wanted to be a pop star and I didn't like it while I was there."
"All I ever wanted to do when I wrote songs was to discover myself," he says. "To learn how to live in my own body. And I don't need to be a rock star to achieve that. Quite the opposite."
This London afternoon, Sinéad O'Connor insists on the limits to her ambition. She'll also produce some powerful supporting evidence. Now she's certainly not championing her first two albums. She looks back and remarks: "I suppose I don't separate any of the work that I've done. I see it all as one thing. And what I think I've done musically is write diaries - the diaries of an adult survivor of child abuse."
Serious Sinéad - but then her mood quickly shifts and she smiles: "I'm pretty embarassed by most of it actually. Especially the first record and quite a lot of the second. It is as if I read my diaries, I'd be mortified as well. Some of the songs on the first album I wrote when I was 15, so I'm hearing all the ignorance in them.
"So mostly I'm quite embarassed by them and I won't perform songs I've done before, other than 'Last Day Of Our Acquaintance', which I think is a good song. And 'Emperor's New Clothes' which I do as well."
Of course, the artistic weather might soon quickly shift. Still it's obvious that she believes her creative past lives offer few clues to the contemporary personal conundrums she feels she now must solve. And there's other hints dotted through the interview. For instance when we discuss how pregnancy can affect a woman's career in ways that will never afflict a man, she offers this insight:
"I don't think it necessarily gives you problems with your career. It just means you can't go on the road all the time and I don't particularly enjoy that anyway. I'm not a very ambitious person anyway. I know another woman in the music business who is very ambitious and I think she's great and that's her choice. But it means her child suffers and suffers a lot because her mother wants to be that.
"But I've learned from my own experience in that world that that's not reality. The only thing that does really exist is your own children and that's what you put your real career into."
First you achieve stardom, then you discover you must learn to find your own personal private clearing in the forest of fame. Of course, most make convenient and comfortable accommodations and are able to live clandestine double lives.
One year in three, they'll haul on the costumes of their personas for their fans. Tour and album promotion over, they then shake off the motley before retiring back to the manor. Not her - there just aren't two Sinéad O'Connors. She just doesn't possess those masks and convenient public extensions of her personality. Public is as private.
We often forget that success hit Sinéad O'Connor young, indeed far younger than most. Delete the Take Thats and Boyzones and all the other acts targetted at Smash Hits readers, and most don't reach the charts till they're 25 or over. So while she hasn't breached 30 yet, she's been around for almost as long as Morrissey.
Almost a veteran, she's seen the scenes emerge and then get erased. So don't be surprised her experience leaves her detached from the recent Britpop resurgence. She finds it slack and removed from her own agenda. But she doesn't initially weigh in with a cultural or musical analysis. Instead the scene's lifestyle, especially its drugs associations, prompts her uneasiness.
"I'm quite bored by most of it," she begins, immediately explaining that she's "not interested in those bands really, in the drugginess and the drink-ness of it all. I mean I know those people to see and associate with them in various ways. And I like them all but they're all completely off their faces.
"And that's what I find disturbing about music now - it's gone extremely druggy. I've been in the music business now for eight years and I've come across other bands before but in the last year, there have come bands who are so ..."
"They represent the young people of their country," she continues. "And therefore the young people of their country are likely to be totally drunk or off their faces on drugs. And so to me, it's drug music and I'm not attracted to it."
Some may get taken aback and wonder if Sinéad O'Connor has suddenly gravitated to a new prohibitionist Puritanism. After all, four years ago in The Mad Hatter's Box, she recorded her favourite saying as "Don't Bogart That Joint, My Friend."
But she anticipates that line of inquiry and strives to reconcile her past and present views: " I think you can dabble with those things. If you do them maybe once in your whole life, you can learn something. But if you do it more than that, it's Russian Roulette."
I suspect what's bugging her is a new excess of fairly heedless recreational use. We're no longer discussing Bob Marley's sacrament or Rastas inveighing against Babylon with a spliff in their hand. And though the music business has never been a drug exclusion zone, Sinéad O'Connor is testifying about a new explosion:
"It is startling. And it's the same in America, except it's heroin. And it's in the last couple of years that it's shot up. I don't think I know anyone here in London who doesn't take drugs except for the Irish girlfriends that I have here."
And one, though not the only, reason why I think she's unhappy, is because she finds it wasteful, a spurious rebellion that leads not to any spiritual wisdom but a new brand of enslaved consumption and conformity. And Sinéad O'Connor will be damned before she's one of Mephistopheles' puppets.
Besides, she definitely belongs to the party that believes drug addiction "is a searching for God. Drug addiction and drug-taking is a searching for ecstasy. It shows up the loss of spirituality, the loss of sexuality. It's a false God-fix or a false sex-fix."
But forget the drug issue. Even temporarily sideline her personal and thus inevitable fixation with the traumas of child abuse. For many other secondary reasons, Britpop was unlikely to be Sinéad O'Connor's favourite flavour of '95. She just doesn't share its influences and gurus.
Ignore even the painting of Bob Marley on her mantlepiece. Basically suburban, Britpop is disinterested in spiritual tumult. And as I check through Sinéad O'Connor's current pantheon of musical heroes and heroines, I'm reminded that none is English.
Like Bob Dylan who she'll even claim "saved my life." Her brother bought Slow Train Coming and she recalls it "as the first record I really heard. It had spirituality and sexuality - cos he's a sexy bastard. And he was singing sexy hymns like 'You've Got To Serve Somebody'.
"And," she then quips, "he's Jewish as well, which makes him prime fantasy material for me."
She harks back to Blood On The Tracks but judges that an album "from a different person." After Infidels, she believes Dylan declined, but over fifteen years after first hearing it, she still rates Slow Train Coming as her favourite album .. . everybody was embarassed by that record, as if they were ashamed by its spirituality," she says.
She cites Van Morrison as the third member of her trinity besides Dylan and Marley, explaining that she "found him later in my life when I came here to London. His album, No Guru, No Method, No Teacher is on the same level as Slow Train Coming as an inspiration."
Sinéad will confess that she's less inspired by women singers and can't quite sort out why.
On one level, her choices aren't so much individual as unique. Who else is impressed by both Nóirín Ní Riain and Courtney Love?
An Arabic singer, Faruz gains her approval - "I like her a lot, she's amazing," she says - and early inspirations were Etta James and Barbra Streisand, though she's since become disenchanted with the latter."When I was a kid, I liked her but now I find her fake after seeing people like Etta James."
But if as she believes "the job of a singer is healing", one influence from the past makes sublime sense. "Ella Fitzgerald," she says, "I love her, she's probably my heroine."
Truly, her strength is her diversity. There isn't a woman singer who's straddled and mastered so many styles. And it isn't just the contrast between the taut Smithsian rock of 'Mandinka' and the balladeering of 'Nothing Compares 2 U'. Or the even wider, almost unimaginable divide between the showboating covers of Am I Not Your Girl? and the severe Irish adaptations of Universal Mother. Her guest work even adds a further dimension.
'Thief Of Your Heart' just can't be avoided. If 'Fairytale Of New York' is the Eighties Irish record, 'Thief ...' so far, must be our landmark for the Nineties. And not just because of its stellar cast. No record so skilfully interwines Irish and international musics to set down a marker for the 21st century.
So far, the only account of its making can be found in Bill Flanagan's U2 book. According to his witness, it was a surprisingly casual affair, as if Sinéad had just wandered in off the streets for an informal chanting session. However, as she tells it, she was the beneficiary of a benevolent ambush by Gavin Friday and Bono.
And Jim Sheridan. "My experience was that Jim turned up here one night and brought me out and got me drunk and convinced me to sing it. I think Bono had already written the song and they'd already created the music with the idea of asking me to do it."
"Now," she continues, "I look at it as one of my favourite things that I've ever done. Bono is a great songwriter obviously. It sings very well, that song. He's a genius songwriter in terms of songs that call to be sung. I'd love him to write some more fucking songs for me but I think the chances are fairly slim. It was good that it was a song that also fitted into my character, that I could feel very personal about."
Again the media storms that regularly surround her can lead to critical and artistic amnesia. For instance, it's oft forgotten that the antique straightjacket category of the singer-songwriter neither suits nor usefully describes her. Her collaboration with Jah Wobble's Invaders Of The Heart on 'Visions Of You' is further evidence that some of Sinéad O'Connor's most memorable moments have and will continue to come from covering others' songs.
This causes her no problems. She'll still write and record her own songs but she's musing about making two albums of covers - one international and the other, "an album of standard Irish kinds of songs ... ones that I like such as 'Raglan Road'."
Long before Universal Mother, Sinéad O'Connor has had her own personal tangential relationship to Irish traditional music. Enya contributed to her debut, she was soon duetting with Christy Moore and of course Philip King was the source for 'I Am Stretched On Your Grave'. Oddly, she's been rarely questioned about how she perceives Irish music.
As with her first hearing of Slow Train Coming, an early teenage memory is paramount. When she was exiled to An Grianán in Drumcondra for her troubles, she recalls "the Fureys used to play there and I was totally smitten by that, especially when they played 'The Lonesome Boatman' "
"Part of the reason why I'd been feeling so lonely for the past ten years was because I'd lost contact with my own people and how they think."
And yet she's uncomfortable with strict categories since she genuinely believes that "a lot of people don't see a connection between me and Irish songs or music, even though I'm Irish. Because they think you should be in the sean-nós box. You're supposed to be an ould guy or an ould gal or like Mary Coughlan to do that stuff. Certainly that's been my experience of some people."
Unprompted, she credits Barry Moore as an essential recent musical help-mate, guiding her into the best environments.
"He's drawn me into that. Some of the experiences that I've had with Barry didn't have anything directly to do with music. But there was a vibration about the music which I hadn't come across until I met Barry. For instance, there was an experience in Kildare at a St. Brigid's Day celebration when I was moody and there was this big session going on. And I suddenly found that it provided me with exactly what I was looking for."
But surely, there were previous opportunities. After all, you've attended the Galway Arts Festival. But the question rubs her own Irish sores.
"To tell you the truth," she says, "I can't take too much of Ireland. I love Ireland but at the same time, I've been living here for ten years. I take from Ireland what's in me anyway and I can call on it, most times. I get quite ill if I spend a lot of time in Ireland, so I don't go to Galway a lot or get involved in that sort of thing."
So let's cross the Irish Sea. How has a decade's exile in London affected Sinéad O'Connor's own Irish identity?
"It did affect me," she immediately concedes before referring back to Barry Moore." I think that's what Barry gave me back in that weekend without realizing it. That was the weekend when I realized that part of the reason why I'd been feeling so lonely for the past ten years was because I'd lost contact with my own people and how they think."
No discredit to England. "I love London," she says, but then relates the problems of exile. "English people often cannot understand you as an Irish person," she elaborates. "Because Irish people are very passionate and emotional and English people are not. And that can lead to tricky relationships. But then when you find yourself among Irish people, they're just like you, they're all fucking crazy. There's a safety in that which I like.
"The Irish are all fucking crazy, which is something I miss when I'm here."