She's had four children to four men, recorded 10 albums in two decades, and changed religion several times. Sinead O'Connor tells Paula McGinley that turning 40 has finally brought her peace of mind.
Now here's a thing. She once tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II and, some years later, was ordained as Mother Bernadette Marie by a breakaway Catholic sect. Opprobrium stuck to Sinead O'Connor like a nylon chasuble. But next month, the singer will have the chattering classes spluttering into their tea again with an appearance on the BBC's Songs of Praise.
O'Connor's Irish tour manager Paddy, can't believe his luck. "It's great, isn't it?" he twinkles. "You'll have to dress up," he says, eyeing O'Connor in her navy tracksuit pants and scuzzy slippers that might have been white once. She frowns and draws on her cigarette: mainstream exposure comes at a price.
O'Connor lives in Monkstown, an unprepossessing Dublin suburb. The gaudy statue of Our Lady on the doorstep of the imposing Georgian house gives a clue to the rebel within. Inside, it's reassuringly messy: toys strewn over the floor, two bouncy labradors vying for attention and children's drawings stuck on walls and kitchen units. O'Connor's bearded 20-year-old son, Jake, makes tea. He's a strapping lad, all skateboarder chic, and next to him O'Connor stands like his awkward kid sister.
She is polite but edgy, shooting darting glances around the kitchen - a big-eyed woodland creature disturbed from its nest. Stripped of make-up, her skin is unlined, although the trademark crop now comes with titanium streaks.
When she does eventually make eye contact, you're taken back with a jolt to the Nothing Compares 2 U video and that luminous close-up of her beautiful face.
There's a perceptible tremor in her hands as she lights up again. She explains she was very upset by an interview the day before, so upset and depressed that she went straight to bed after it was over. "I was crying my eyes out this morning," she says huskily. After 25 years of making her music, O'Connor still doesn't understand why the things she's said and done in the past make her an easy target.
This could be a little disingenuous - tearing up pictures of the Pope live on television is meat and drink to the media - but O'Connor is genuinely puzzled by the reaction she engenders.
"This Italian woman interviewed me yesterday and she was half my f---ing age and she's sitting here telling me what a bizarre, crazy person I am. It's like they think I'm going to jump up and hit them," she says, puffing furiously. "It's insulting. My kids are running around in the kitchen and I'm sitting here with someone telling me I'm crazy and I can't stand up for myself. If I do stand up for myself, I'm proving these people right so I just go quiet and I don't know what to do."
Confrontations such as these led O'Connor to retire from the music industry in 2003, unable to deal with the widespread perception of her as a loud-mouthed lunatic. She retreated into domestic oblivion and cared for her children. She wouldn't even have a guitar in the house and said at the time that she wanted "Sinead O'Connor" the performer to be dead.
"I was wading through these walls of prejudice and false ideas about me and I found it really painful," she remembers. "It was very abusive and I was suicidal over it for years. I thought I was a total piece of shit and I got to the point when I felt I couldn't carry it any longer. When you go to work, you shouldn't be made to feel like crying."
O'Connor seriously considered a career change and thought about becoming a professional housekeeper until the hoots of laughter from friends and family convinced her otherwise. Instead, she sought solace in therapy.
"I found a lovely woman in her 60s and I said to her, 'What the f--- am I going to do with myself?' And she'd keep telling me to 'stick with the knitting'," laughs O'Connor. And, yes, she does have a sense of humour. "And I'd say, 'What the f--- does that mean?' And finally I realised that it was an old-fashioned way of saying go back to what it was that made you get into music in the first place."
And when O'Connor did go back, she realised that what inspired the convent-educated schoolgirl were the hymns she sang in the church choir, some of which moved her to tears, and these memories of mass and the Scriptures she loved reading convinced her to explore other musical directions. She's uncomfortable calling her new work religious, preferring the American "inspirational" - "of course, that's bullshit because it is religious, but there you go" - and enthuses that her recent creative surge has given her back a sense of purpose.
"The rock and pop arena is about the size of your tits and what clothes you're wearing, which is partly why I got into a lot of trouble (because she didn't look sexually available)," she says. "So I've decided to stick with the knitting really and work in an arena that nurtures me."
Which brings us to Theology, O'Connor's new double album - the two CDs carry the same songs, but one is acoustic while the other gets the full band treatment. The album features nine new O'Connor songs and three covers including Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's I Don't Know How to Love Him and the traditional Rivers of Babylon.
"There's no message behind Theology," shrugs O'Connor. "I just wanted to make a beautiful thing, a nice thing to listen to."
During her time out, O'Connor studied theology at a Catholic college in Dublin and, in spite of its restrictions, believes her own religious background has brought much to her work.
"I went to a convent, but I didn't imbibe any of the negative things about Catholicism. The fact there was badness about it didn't stop me from taking on board what was good about it so I'm equally inspired by Catholicism as I am by Hinduism and Sufism and all the other religions which inspire me."
Is it a good time to mention her ordination as Mother Bernadette Marie in 1999?
"That area is better for me not to talk about." Her mouth is set. "I shouldn't talk about it at all: it's a very private thing."
Although she insists there is no message behind her new album - going so far as to tell her record company never to use the "m" word - O'Connor can't resist a nod to the state we're in. She agrees that the "war on terror" is part of why she wanted to go back into the studio, but says she isn't making a political point, arguing instead that it's her own personal response to the schism between Christians and Muslims and the unrelenting bloodshed.
"Both sides claim somehow that God supports violence and I feel very strongly about what I would call crimes in the name of God. If God were around, he or she would be suing a lot of people for libel," she muses. "That's why I wanted to make the record very peaceful. I deliberately didn't choose anything that was in any way aggressive."
It's a measured response from a woman who once courted controversy with her wayward antics. Has she gone soft? Not really. The passion is still there, she's just keeping it in check. O'Connor is perhaps mindful that being too visceral in middle age doesn't do you any favours. That said, she doesn't beat herself up about the past.
"I don't regret anything I did as Sinead O'Connor," she says firmly. "Of course, we all have regrets in our private lives - 'I wish I hadn't spoken to so and so like that' - but not the Sinead O'Connor things. I guess there's no point regretting anything either. It's all part of evolution. I've been back to the States and of course they ask questions about it, but I just say, 'It's in the past. It's not something to talk about now.'"
Turning 40 last December unleashed a response that still surprises O'Connor: "Jesus, I didn't expect it to happen," she chuckles. What she means is the old "life begins at" adage. It came when she was 40 years and one day old - a sense of shedding an old life and getting a new slate.
"When I was younger, even though I was successful, I felt like an impostor. I couldn't understand why people liked my records - I thought they were shite," she recalls. "You're too young to appreciate the extent of yourself, which is probably a good thing, because, if you did appreciate it, you'd be a real arrogant f---er. I'm definitely more comfortable with the size of myself now. I don't get freaked out by it."
She's got a new man, Frank Bonadio, the father of her son Yeshua (Hebrew for "salvation", since you ask), who was born last December. Child number four follows Jake, Roisin, 11, and Shane, 3, who all have different fathers. O'Connor says she is "sickeningly happy" with Bonadio and, in her music room upstairs, under the watchful eye of Saint Bernadette, she melts in front of a black-and-white photograph of the two of them. O'Connor is dressed in a hoodie, eyes closed, leaning into this silver-haired bear of a man who envelops her. She looks childlike and vulnerable and, yes, sickeningly happy.
The relationship has been volatile. Bonadio is the estranged husband of Irish singer Mary Coughlan and, although he got together with O'Connor after his marriage ended, an unseemly spat between the two women culminated in a vicious text slanging match, which was gleefully reported by the Irish press. But all is calm now and O'Connor is sure she and Bonadio have a future.
O'Connor has spoken at length about the abuse she endured at the hands of her mother who died when she was 17. Today, she says, a "lifetime of therapy" means her childhood isn't an issue any more.
"I worked my arse off to recover. I went to therapy six days a f---ing week." And, these days, she's more reflective. "As a mother, my upbringing probably affected me in a good way in so far as you really want to be the opposite character from your own mother, so I'm very affectionate and very snugly with my kids."
She hunches her shoulders, emphasising her fragility. She's happy now and enjoying her work.
"I feel really excited about getting out of bed and singing my songs," she smiles. She stubs out her last cigarette defiantly. "One thing you can do is make music you love so much that you don't give a shite about the other stuff."
As someone once said, stick with the knitting, Sinead.
(c) 2007 The Age