Singing her own song
STRANGE the way Sinead O'Connor's London hotel bedroom has lost its anonymity. The Irish singer's signature is scrawled across it like an artist's on a canvas. Buried in the rumples of the unmade bed is a tray with an untouched cooked breakfast, shrivelled now and glistening with congealed fat. Around the room, cigarette butts float in half-filled glasses of water. An open bag spews its contents on to the floor. But most eye-catching, somehow, is a saucer with a half-eaten segment of orange, the spilling ash from a stubbed-out fag erupting from the flesh of the fruit. The volcanic orange is as much a piece of modern art as Tracey Emin's unmade bed. There is something slightly unnerving about it that sums O'Connor up - that combination of sweetness startlingly sullied by stale grey ash.
We sweep the debris aside, make room for a fresh tray of coffee and sit on either side of the window. She asks if I mind; lights a cigarette. She is 40 now, and her speaking voice is low, surprisingly deep compared to her singing voice. You can hear the smoker in it now, the husky edge of too much nicotine staining the soft Dublin tones. She blows the smoke upwards, away from me. The jumper she wears is grey and baggy; she is lost inside it. Her head is shaved again - soft, dark, baby stubble, greying slightly at the temples now. The face, devoid of make-up, is dominated by her eyes, grey-blue, the colour of a stormy sea.
O'Connor has always seemed a complicated woman. In her 20s, she rejected the pop-babe image her record company wanted, shaving her head. She admits that she also did it to stop herself hiding - the Greek barber she went to cried; O'Connor loved it. She still rejects the comfortable mainstream, and her new release is Theology, a double album of songs with a spiritual theme. It includes a cover version of 'I Don't Know How to Love Him', from Jesus Christ Superstar, which will be released as a single.
The passion that always fuelled her singing spilled over in her private life. In 1992 she tore up a picture of the Pope live on American television, in protest at the Catholic Church's handling of child-abuse cases. Later, she was supposedly ordained a priest by an excommunicated bishop. And, as we'll discover, her love life has been incredibly complicated by most people's standards. Yet, for all this, there is something very raw and straightforward about O'Connor's gaze. Take me or leave me alone, she seems to say, through a little fug of smoke.
She had the same quality when she looked into the camera on the video for her most famous hit, 'Nothing Compares 2 U'. Her gaze was unflinching, as if she was appealing to someone that none of the rest of us could see. Who could forget her eyes, the mesmerising way two tears formed, filled and spilled down both cheeks? Later she will tell me what she was thinking about when those tears rolled.
But for now we are in the polite early stages of the interview, me pouring coffee, her lighting a cigarette. On the way up to her room, I had been told what was, and was not, permissible to talk about. It doesn't take long to discover that O'Connor is not a woman who pays much attention to rules.
MUSIC saved O'Connor's life. "Not from death, really, but from un-death - which is worse in some ways, being alive on the outside but dead inside."
She was one of four children, all ruthlessly beaten by their mother. "It was a horrifyingly violent set of circumstances. For a lot of kids, myself included, the fear, or the reality somehow, is that your spirit won't survive. Even if your body survives, the vileness of the thing will crush your spirit in a way, you know? And inside yourself maybe there is a part of yourself that you have to kill off in order to survive."
O'Connor was completely withdrawn as a teenager. "I was distressed, basically, desolate in a way. I wouldn't go to school, wouldn't do anything. I bunked off school, robbing things, so I didn't really have a hope in hell of making a good life for myself."
But then a music teacher handed her a guitar and a book with a Bob Dylan song in it. "She was trying to get me out of my shell because she couldn't figure out what else to do with me. It was a song with the chords in a graph, so only an idiot couldn't do it. But it changed my life forever. I thought, 'Oh my God, I can actually have a life; there is something I can do.'"
Terror was a constant in her childhood. "You were guaranteed that you were going to get the shit kicked out of you at some point in the day." Yet she never felt angry with her mother. As an adult, therapists told her she was in denial. "They always want you to beat things and be angry, and I was just like, 'I can't.'" Why? "I loved my mum very much. I wasn't angry with her, just petrified."
Did alcohol fuel her mother's rages? "No, she was just a complete f***ing psycho, basically. I was terrified of her and very badly wounded by her, but I didn't feel angry. It's hard to explain. But almost... As she's sitting on top of me, I can see through her to her soul... You know what I am saying? Even as it's happening I can see a soul in torment, a soul you wouldn't want to be. I always had compassion for her."
O'Connor's parents had split up when she was eight, her father unable to cope with his wife's violent temper. Unusually, he fought for his children, becoming only the second man in Ireland ever to win custody. "We went with my father - me, my sister and my younger brother. My older brother didn't. My sister, I think, was glad because she was sensible, but for me and my little brother, it wasn't what we wanted. We wanted my mother fixed."
Abused children may be cowed, but they long for love, often returning like whipped puppies to their abusers. "A child can't accept that their mother doesn't love them," explains O'Connor. "If you knew that, your f***ing soul would break into bits. You wouldn't be able to handle it." Does she think her mother loved her in her own strange way? "No, I don't. She hadn't the capacity for love. Some people in the world are born without the capacity for love."
Yet she longed for her mother. "I was so upset I literally lay on my bed howling like a wolf all day long. Poor Daddy. For about eight or nine months I wanted to go back to my mother, which wounded my father, obviously."
They went back when she was about nine. There were no social services to overrule childish folly. And, once they had gone back, her mother refused to let their father near them. "She would lie about why he wasn't there, so if anything I was angry with him. Misplaced anger, because it wasn't true. I adore my father. He is a great man."
At 13, O'Connor had a best friend called Rachel. "Her mother was this lovely woman who figured out what was going on. One day she turned round to me in the car and said, 'You don't have to put up with it, you know.' That was the greatest help she could have given me - just to let me know it wasn't normal and that I deserved better. That one sentence changed my life. I rang my father and he came and collected me."
And yet 'normality' eluded her. "I started to display the effects of what was going on. In those days, no one ever talked about abuse. My dad was normal, and of course that was completely unfamiliar to me. I didn't know how to fit in. I couldn't conform to normal school and community."
Her father would drop her at one school gate and she would walk out of the other. Then she started stealing. "I was heading down a potentially very dangerous path." Did she know why she was stealing? "No, I felt very weird about it. While I was doing it I was feeling terrible, so I would be saying my prayers at night."
But stealing had been part of her mother's life. "My mother had a kleptomania thing going on and used to send us out to steal. One of the ways we avoided getting beaten was to steal things from shops for her. We used to do flag-day collection boxes. She would drive us into town to get them, and we would lie about our names and addresses. In those days they trusted anybody. She would take the silver money and give us the coppers."
When O'Connor was 17, her mother died in a road accident. "I was absolutely devastated. It blew me apart. I really think it took me until I was about 32 to recover."
Someone once told me that when their abusive father died, they cried not only for him but for the father they had never had. "It was a similar thing for me," agrees O'Connor. "I was angry with God that there was never going to be a chance to fix it. And to help her to be okay. To be a daughter, as much as having a mother. I was raging for a long time - angry, angry. I believed in God and loved God and everything, so I kind of compartmentalised it, but I remember screaming in the middle of the night, 'How can you do that?' There was no chance of fixing it. But there you have it."
Five years later, O'Connor recorded 'Nothing Compares 2 U', a song written by Prince. Even now she has difficulty singing it. "The trouble with being a singer is that you have to feel it, but when you feel it you sometimes cry. There are songs I can't sing because I cry on the first word. You know that song 'Streets of London'? Jesus, I love that song, but I cannot sing it. From the first word I want to bawl. The melody... Oh, I don't know... It's an unbelievable song. Some songs just kill you."
She would get nervous in rehearsals and call a break when she knew 'Nothing Compares 2 U' was coming up. "I love it and I love singing it, but I'm afraid to sing it." What was she thinking about when she cried? "I was thinking about my mother. That she was dead." One particular line tore her. Later, I log on to YouTube and watch the video again. The line she mentions is not where the tears fall, but it's where they begin to well. "All the flowers that you painted, Mamma, in the backyard," she sings plaintively, "all died when you went away."
COLD remnants of coffee in cups, dark and circled. Smoke spiralling still. To the outside world, I say, her adult life looks chaotic. Is it a reflection of her childhood? O'Connor looks neither challenged nor offended. "Does it? I am not in touch with the way people see me. Why do you think it's chaotic?" Well, for a start, she has four children with four different fathers. (She has a baby, born at Christmas.) "It's just the way I am. It might look on paper to be chaotic, and in some ways it's glorious chaos, a house with four kids, but it's actually very simple. To me, it's nothing."
She seems like a person who has been looking for love all her life. "Yeah, that would be true." Has it escaped her? "No, not at all. But I've had to kiss a lot of frogs..."
Having four babies, she says, is a reflection of wanting four babies. Then she grins. "Well, actually, it's a reflection of non-use of contraception. I get carried away with romantic ideas. Whenever I had a baby, I wasn't looking to marry the man or necessarily stay with him. Obviously, you're not going to sleep with a man who isn't someone you could have a close friendship with for the rest of your life. But I didn't want to stay with them just because we had kids."
She says she was thrilled when she first became pregnant, at 20. She had a son, Jake, and married his father, a musician named John Reynolds. She has been married twice - the second time in 2002, to Mirror journalist Nick Sommerlad. Her second child, Roisin, was "planned and instigated" with John Waters, an Irish political journalist. Things turned sour in 1999, when Waters accused her of neglect - a charge subsequently dismissed by social services. "We get on very well now," she says. She forgave a man who falsely accused her of neglect? "I had to pray for the ability to forgive him, but as soon as I did pray I just got it. That's the truth, like."
They had known each other only a month when she got pregnant. Later, she moved to London. "He was freaking out - understandably, in a way - because he wasn't going to have a close relationship with his daughter. That's why I went back to Dublin, and she stays half the time with him and half with me."
But when it all happened, his accusations made her suicidal. "I thought I was going to lose my daughter. And if I moved back to Dublin, my son, who is now 20, didn't want to come, so I figured I was going to lose one kid whatever I did. And obviously the experience of being taken off my own mother was so traumatic that it kicked all that off as well."
Her third child, Shane, was with another singer, Donal Lunny. "The third pregnancy was a complete freak because I had my period and thought it was safe. But Shane is a complete blessing - the most incredible child on earth. Well, they all are."
An extraordinary story appeared that Lunny's Japanese wife had demanded money as compensation for being wronged. O'Connor wants to say little for her son's sake, but admits that although she offered money when she was vulnerable, she didn't ultimately pay it. The only reason she considered doing it was because Lunny disappeared when she was eight weeks pregnant - she reasoned that if she paid the money he would see his son. She changed her mind.
But it's an interesting insight into O'Connor too. Despite her public bravery, privately she has been more easily manipulated. A classic example is when she claimed to be a lesbian. She first said it to "take the piss" out of her record company. "They exploit the gay magazines to put you on the cover, but go mad if you say you're gay."
But things got out of hand. "I'll tell you what it really was. This sounds completely crazy, I admit. I certainly did some exploring of my sexuality, which involved sleeping with a few women. But I had an affair with this particular woman, who was really very aggressive - a whisky-drinker who would scream and shout at me. I had been there before, obviously." O'Connor was then asked in an interview whether she preferred sex with men or women. She said men. "This woman went nuclear. I made efforts to correct it, to say what she wanted so that she would lay off me, basically. It was completely insane. I should have told her to get lost, but I used to be someone who would cave in if I was bullied."
Even her latest romance has been turbulent. The father of her new baby is Frank Bonadio, who was separated from the Irish singer Mary Coughlan when they met. The triangle has kept the Irish press agog. Coughlan claimed Bonadio treated her badly. O'Connor wants to protect both her and Bonadio's children, so explains her side off the record. The bottom line is that she and Bonadio are together. Can it last? "I believe it will."
Bonadio has changed her life. "Somehow your life all comes together, your family comes together, so you don't feel alone. It's a very grounding and supportive thing. I would definitely have been someone who was hungry, who needed cuddling and holding apart from sex - though that too, obviously. But the nice physical closeness of having a good relationship is very healing. He's the goodest man you could meet. He doesn't have a bad bone in his body. A big, hairy, cuddly man. He's really good to me."
Children have been even more important than music to O'Connor. "I think in some way your children give birth to you," she says. She never worried about harming them, but she did worry about being a good mother. "When I was a child, the only physical contact I had was violence. I understood that the only thing you need to do to be a good enough parent - and that's all you can be - is to hold your children, to be physically close to them."
And to know your limits. "I don't think I would have had children unless I knew I could have a nanny." She learned that from her mother, who didn't. O'Connor leaves discipline to her nanny. She gives the kids sweets and says not to tell. "It's good cop, bad cop. I get to be good cop."
The thing is, she says, she's not living some wild, rock-star lifestyle. "I'm not snorting coke and stuff. I'm actually much more of a normal, grannyish person than people might imagine."
PEOPLE think O'Connor is mad. She's not, but she is unusual. How could she not be? The first question journalists often ask, she says ruefully, is about being a lunatic. They think she is aggressive, that she'll hit them if they say the wrong thing. Women who don't conform are threatening. In fact, she is very obviously shy.
Maybe it's partly the spiritual stuff that raises people's eyebrows. O'Connor has studied world religions all her life, and took a college course in psychic studies when she was 18. But why does she believe in God so absolutely? "Because living with my mother would drive you to prayer," she says simply.
But she has a love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church, and little time for organised religion. "God and religion are two different things - unfortunately, religion doesn't know that. It sometimes thinks it is God."
Ask her about being a priest and she says she keeps that private, which is the only ridiculous thing she says in the interview. Priesthood isn't about personal faith, it's about public ministry. If she really is a priest, it would be a public role. But experience has no doubt taught her the advantages of silence. She is used to people dismissing religion as a crutch. Each to their own. As her old manager used to say, that's why there's chocolate and vanilla.
The tape is off now. I'm about to go. "You know my brother is a writer?" she asks. I do. Joseph O'Connor is a highly regarded Irish writer. You must read his new book, Redemption Falls, she says. Best book ever. She says it with such pride and admiration. I'll definitely read it. "Cool," she says. It's fascinating to have two highly creative people in different disciplines in one turbulent family.
On the way out, I catch sight of the orange and fag ash and think that sometimes dark and light co-exist in unlikely alliance. Painful experiences can put people in touch with their emotions on a level that sparks creativity. The strangest of gifts from the rockiest of places.
(c) 2007 scotsman.com