Wholly spirited...

Copyright 2002 The Irish Times The Irish Times October 5, 2002


HEADLINE: Wholly spirited Sinead O'Connor may be a happily married housewife and domestic goddess, but that doesn't mean she's no longer a 'rock chick'.

Kathy Sheridan meets the surprisingly down-to-earth star.

So you hoped that she would shuffle in six hours late, doped up in her dog collar, calling herself Mother Bernadette, pausing mid-rant to chant a 40-minute mantra? Sorry. At 10 a.m. on a sunny Friday, Sinead O'Connor tears up the "celebrity" rule book. She is 10 minutes early, has booked a room ideal for the job, and is shockingly generous with her time. Her sane, professional PR woman does not sit in, poised to pounce at a hint of dissing the queen. The singer does not make repeated efforts to ram the discussion round to the marketing effort. She is calm, drole and self-deprecating, and answers questions as honestly as she can, to the point of calling herself a "waffler". Sinead O'Connor is a model of reasonable behaviour. At 35, the bambi eyes in the unadorned elfin face are as compelling as ever, the cropped brown hair has flecks of silver and the nails are bitten to the quick. The upshot is that she arouses the protective instincts of even the most bitter and twisted media hacks. And frankly, Sinead, that's not playing the game. It's so much easier to write coruscating, attention-grabbing copy when people behave like prats. You could, of course, nail her for NOT turning up in a dog collar and demanding due courtesy as a blessed Mother. It's only three years, dammit, since she was celebrating her ordination by dancing around her Lourdes hotel suite to the reggae beat of Vampire Slayer, vowing to pursue her stage career complete with dog collar and new soubriquet. Only two years since she came "out" as a lesbian, declaring that she had "failed miserably with men". Only a year since she married a man, journalist Nick Sommerlad. And what IS this thing that she has about journalists (John Waters, Dermott Hayes and Nick), anyway? The answer to the last is that she wanted to be a journalist at one stage and that "journalists are slightly bonkers, a bit like singers. They're usually quite intense people, they're used to a certain level of feeling - like singers - and they're not intimidated by someone who's quite intense. And you know, you can have an intelligent conversation with most of them". And you know, she doesn't even laugh. As for the rest, she doesn't flinch but she has learned to parry. "I am still a priest, yeah. But how I feel about it is very much a private thing between me and the Holy Spirit. If I'd had any sense then, I wouldn't have bothered talking about it, I would have just got on with it. But yeah - there was a bit of mischief as well." The mischievous element should never be discounted in her case. Nor the sincerity about "being in love with old God or whatever you call It". Fair enough, but what about the vow that she intended to live in Lourdes, wear the black robes and call herself Mother Bernadette, even on stage? Sitting here in her cardi of many colours, she is unabashed. You can be a priest, she decided, "without having to do all the rules and regulations. "With regard to the name thing, it's not so much that I wanted to be known as Mother Bernadette . . . But my name in my other life as a priest is Mother Bernadette and in my work life, obviously I'm known as Sinead. As for going to live in Lourdes, it's not really practical. At the time, I wasn't sure how things were going to end up in the custody case (involving her daughter) or where I was going to be living. In terms of wearing the gear, what I found is that I'm very sensitive to colours and feelings, and if I walk around in black clothes all the time, it's just depressing, so I just thought it's not actually me." So is the lesbianism actually her? "The thing is that I don't really believe there's any such thing as gay or straight; I've had relationships with men and relationships with women. What happened was I was doing an interview with an American magazine, a gay mag, and the woman says to me: 'Why do you think lesbians like you?', and I said, 'well, cos I'm one of them', meaning you know, because I'm half one and half the other, so lesbians can see something of themselves in me. So they went off on a whole big trip about it, which I was quite happy to let them do." But you confirmed it in a letter to Hot Press a week later, said you preferred sex with women and romantic relationships with women? "Yeah, because I guess that's where I was at the time, because (mischievous laugh) I was in a relationship with a woman. I think when you fall in love with somebody, it doesn't really matter." To her credit, her tastes as a lesbian were not the obvious ones. Asked in Q magazine around the time she came "out" which of The Corrs she fancied, she said none of them: "Too much blusher". So she went on to marry journalist, Nick Sommerlad, and one year on, remains happily married. "You just know when someone is the soul you've been looking for," she says. But it's an intimation of a more got-together Sinead that certain subjects are not for public airing these days, and Nick is one of them. What is known is that they met when he came to Ireland to work in February last year and married in August, when her (mischievous?) statement of intent at the time, was "to be a non-politically-correct wife, baking and cooking all day and making myself sexually available". But through no fault of hers, the path to routine suburban domesticity has not run smooth. In June, it was reported that he had left his job as a political writer with the Irish Mirror, infuriated by its coverage of the libel battle between Terry Keane and what the paper described as his wife's "former lover", John Waters. According to the Guardian, Sommerlad felt betrayed when the Mirror splashed the story on the front page, although it had refrained from printing a picture of her daughter, which, to O'Connor's horror, had appeared in other newspapers. All she will say is that Nick is working in England at the moment, "because he found it a bit tricky working here, so we're doing that thing where we're commuting to see each other." Now, she fits her working life around the joint custody arrangements for her son and daughter. Her pride in them and in herself as an abuse survivor who has managed to become a "good enough" mother - "you can only be good enough" - is palpable. Her son, a 15-year-old at school in England, has had his terrible teens, she reckons. "He had what I call the Eminem summer two years ago, when he was a little rude for about three weeks when he was listening to Eminem. I love Eminem but he's not for kids and it's the only time I've ever taken an album off my son. "I felt very strongly about it, particularly about the track where Eminem murders his girlfriend and has her in the boot of the car, but there's quite a lot of very anti-gay references as well. Grown-ups can listen to that and not go round acting like that. The only time I correct my kids is when I see them not being respectful or loving to other people. Why I flipped in the end was when we were in the street, this old guy looked at him, just happened to glance his way, and my son turned to him and said (sullen, teenage snarl) 'what are ya lookin' at, gay lord'. There had been little instances like that where he hadn't been respecting older people and that's really what it was about. So the record got chucked off the balcony." Sinead O'Connor Censors Album Shock? "I'm a huge Eminem fan, but I don't want my kids acting like him. If I'm paying the school fees, I don't want the teachers ringing me up saying your kid is acting like Eminem. It was my son who came back to me after that summer and said he felt ready to listen to those records again without acting like it. He understands that he isn't a white kid in America dealing with the stuff Eminem was dealing with." (P)For a woman who describes herself as a "dedicated weed-head" as well as "kinda half housewife, half rock chick" (reflecting the 50/50 custody arrangements), she seems well content in her suburban routine. She runs the house herself. "I get fed up sometimes with all the cleaning and all that shit, but I love it as well. I'm very houseproud. The place is f**king gleaming and I'm very proud of myself when I have it gleaming and the food is in the fridge and it's all done. It's not so much that I'm housewifey - that's the wrong word - more that I'm a mother." She is conscious of trying to create something that was missing from her own childhood. "Yeah. That's a huge thing, because our house was always a shithole so I always associate that with that time. I need the house to be clean. I feel like a good mother if the place is clean and tidy." The violence wreaked by her mother on the family is well-documented. "My brother Joe was asked about it in an interview years ago, and he put it very clearly. He said that my mother's violence was the type of violence that if you did it to an adult, you'd be put behind bars." Her mother had different ways of dealing with each child. "It wasn't the odd cuff around the head. In my case, it was sexually abusive. It was of a sadistic kind that was continuous. You can have sexual violence without anyone having sex with you - by being made to take your clothes off, by being made to open your legs so that someone can abuse your womb or your vagina, that kind of thing." It remains relevant because it explains so much about her restless, troubled past, and her profound hurt when as a young, troubled star, she entrusted her story to a world that preferred not to believe her. It explains the music and "the way that I kept falling over myself and getting myself into more and more unhappiness" and the anxiety that still haunts her ("silly things, you'd be worrying about Monday's dinner on Friday"). It is only recently, she says, that she has begun to re-assemble the shattered fragments of her psyche and learnt to quell the churning anxiety with the help of a local counsellor who has enabled "the true Sinead", the one in her imagination who wears a lovely flowery shirt, "to hug the Sinead inside who's just the little scared girl." She has reached a new state of contentment, she says. "I'd say the past two years since I moved back to Ireland would be really when I began to feel a lot calmer. I guess you come home or something. I'm still working on it obviously, still going to the counselling. I still have another year or two to do before I'd be fully, you know, compos mentis," she says with a rueful laugh. "My husband's been amazing. Obviously falling in love properly and having a good relationship like that has been a huge support to me in terms of my recovery. We've only been together a year-and-a-half or so, but I guess that's when the real peace and happiness began." The miracle is that she managed to survive at all within the mainstream music industry, which she once described as "the most offensive business that I could possibly imagine having to be involved with". Her stories are eye-openers: the record company that in the early days would send over the band's miserable dinner money only after constant reminders, but only after deducting the three pounds for the courier. "They know we're artists, we don't think about money, we don't generally start asking questions till we're 28 or 29 - we don't care as long as we've got a cash card, we just trust everyone. So they work on that principle, that they know you're not going to bother asking." Take Tracey Chapman's first album contract. "She was getting paid what we call seven points, that is seven per cent of what her album generated. Out of that she paid back to the company - we all do - what the videos cost to be made, all promotion costs, advances you got, plus 20 per cent to your manager, five per cent to your lawyer, 10 per cent, perhaps, to your accountants - all out of that seven points. The record company took the other 93 per cent. "For my second album I renegotiated my contract for 12 points and that's as high as it has ever been. Michael Jackson is the highest paid artist in the music business, and he gets 18 points. That's the max. And then the record company people are so vulgar and feel so little guilt that they will sit around with you at dinner and actually brag about their houses in Connecticut and how they have mistresses everywhere and how much they're paying for boob jobs for them." The other people who are being conned, she says, are the audience. "Cassette tapes have been eradicated. Why? Cassettes work. They did it only so that you have to buy CDs, so they could make more money off you, so you could give them 20 quid instead of six. It costs them two pounds or something to make a CD. And they lied about them - said you could eat your breakfast off them. You can't, CDs actually scratch very easily." She reckons that the Internet will eventually stop the rot. "The legal system will make it so that money has to be paid for downloading, but prices will come down. Artists will get paid fairly and audiences will be charged fairly." In the meantime, for her new album, Sean-Nos Nua, she has moved to Hummingbird, a small independent company. "They're a completely different race of people; they're human beings." The deal is that she licenses the album to the company for seven years, and bill-paying and profits are split 50:50. To be financially "safe" has always been important to her. "It would have been an aim of mine to be independent. If I was going to have kids, I didn't want to be living in a council block depending on the dole or whatever. I had my first kid at 20, so to me, the money is for the kids. I like that I can go to the supermarket and spend 200 quid a fortnight on groceries and feel good going home with them, or that I can jump on a plane this afternoon if I feel like going to Amsterdam for the weekend. And I know that if my family are ever in trouble, I can help them out. "So that's what I like money for. That's one of the great things about making money. Apart from being able to feed the kids, I also own my own house. I don't have a mortgage, I don't live in a big posh rock star house. I live in an ordinary house because I want my kids to feel normal like everybody else. "I live in a little housing estate up in Monkstown, with normal people, normal second-hand car, but I can feed my kids and I can commute to see my hubby. "Yeah, I like beautiful things, by which I mean my house is kinda like a church. I collect Virgin Marys and churchical stuff. I got this gorgeous Virgin Mary in Lourdes, it's five foot tall, and I've got a lovely stained glass window with St Michael on it, things that are not expensive but they're beautiful. "But the other thing I love about money is that you can do something to really change someone's life. I probably made about 10 million quid over the years and I guess I gave away half of it - which I'm really pleased about, because that's what it says you should do in the scriptures. "You're supposed to give away at least a tenth, but I would never spend that money in a lifetime, whereas there are people who were helped out with that money whose entire lives are now different, in a better way. If I had hung on to it, it would still be sitting in my bank and I would be a miserable old bitch - do you know what I mean?" Meanwhile, she has started back to songwriting in recent weeks after shutting down for a couple of years while her manager was ill. But Sean-Nos Nua had to come first, she says, because the songs wouldn't leave her alone. "They're like very old ghosts in some way, they haunt you, get you by the soul. I had been trying to make this record for 12 years, but the mainstream record companies just didn't get it at all." Nor did her manager, Steve Fernoli, who died last year and whom she never fought with - except about his taste for strip clubs and leaving her "with all of these boob-job lesbians trying to stick their arses in my face" - and talks to still. "After he died, he was coming to me in my dreams, saying you have to make this record, so it was all those ghosts. Also, it was about the fact that these songs recall a calibre of Irish song-writing that we're really failing to meet now. Look at bands like Westlife and Boyzone and all that kind of crap - from which the only one I would exclude is Samantha Mumba, who I think is f**king incredible and who obviously hasn't even begun to do nearly what she's going to do." She also reckons that music like that on Sean-Nos Nua needs rescuing from the "trad heads, because they've made it appear very unglamorous, unsexy and un-rock 'n' roll": something she dates back to Count John McCormack, "whose vanity was played on so that he became a puppet for the theocracy and basically took the sex out of a lot of these songs". There's no doubt that they've been "sexied up" now, as she puts it. An urge to reflect the cultural gap, "the transformation, the death and rebirth of what is Irish culture", is why, she says, she "deliberately took the two Irish language songs - Oro Se Do Bheatha 'Bhaile and Baidin Fheilimi - and f**ked with them the most". Jamaican musicians are the least of it. Her uniquely beautiful, ethereal voice features on the 13 tracks, which include a heart-breaking Peggy Gordon, Molly Malone, Her Mantle So Green, My Lagan Love and I'll Tell Me Ma. Sinead, the singer, is back.