Q&A: Sinead O'Connor on Her 'Gospel Sessions' and the Priesthood of Music

Lincoln Center shows are the singer's sole U.S. appearances this summer

Sinead O'Connor performs in Paradiso, Amsterdam.
Paul Bergen/Redferns
Sinead O'Connor performs in Paradiso, Amsterdam.
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Sinead O'Connor has always loved her God – it's the rules imposed by organized religion she doesn't accept. In her only U.S. appearances this summer, the world-class singer and provocateur returns this Friday and Saturday to New York's Lincoln Center, where she blew away the audience at last year's Curtis Mayfield tribute with her enraptured versions of the late soul great's songs "Jesus" and "Billy Jack." "The Gospel Sessions" will feature members of the Soul Stirrers and the Blind Boys of Alabama, as well as the Inspirational Voices of the Abyssinian Church.

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"Music to me is a priesthood," she tells Rolling Stone from her home in Ireland, sounding relaxed and at peace. This weekend, she'll lead the invocation.

I'm curious how you stay so busy in quote-unquote retirement.
Uh, well, obviously, I'm not in retirement.

But you've flirted with it on occasion.
I have.

But you can't stop singing.
Well, no, but that's old news, really.

Right. Then let's talk about new news. I saw the Curtis Mayfield tribute last year, which was amazing. Was that your connection with Lincoln Center, how this came about?
Yeah. After that show, the Lincoln Center approached me and asked would I consider this forthcoming show. And a couple of guys approached me to ask whether I'd consider a gospel album, also. I think it was because I had done the version of "Jesus," the Curtis Mayfield song. Chris Goldsmith is the producer – he's the guy putting it all together. I'm thrilled, personally, because there's a couple singers from my favorite gospel band, which is the Soul Stirrers. I'm very happy about that. The other guys I don't know yet.

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What's your personal history with gospel music? Did you come to it early or late?
Well, I was born in a country that was very religious, with terrible religious music – awful, awful. It was actually Bryan Adams who gave me a CD of the Soul Stirrers. Someone had given it to him and he didn't like it, and he said, "Oh, you'll probably like it. You're religious." Long time ago – actually, not that long ago, probably about 10 years ago. It had the Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke, but particularly there was a singer called R.H. Harris. He's my favorite, and he's a lot on that album.

On some level, you probably think of all your music as a kind of gospel music.
Well, yeah, insofar as I consider music a priesthood. Music to me is a priesthood, definitely.

From the beginning did you think of it those terms, or did that develop over time?
I always did think of it in those terms, but it got deeper over time.

You're the one with the pulpit, leading the choir.
Well, not so much that. You're praying. I don't like preaching or proselytizing. You're just in a room with a bunch of regular people like yourself, praying.

It's no secret that you've had an issue or two with the Catholic church over the years. Is singing gospel music kind of like taking it back for yourself, saying that it doesn't belong necessarily to the church?
Well, I don't believe gospel music has ever belonged to the Catholic church. But I am interested in rescuing God from religion. I do think the worst thing that ever happened to God was religion. And certainly the worst thing that ever happened to God, one of them, was religious music.

You went to school with Quakers –
Well, no. I only went to school with the Quakers for one year. The rest of the time it was Catholics.

But did you experience anything there that helped you form your views of the world?
Yeah. I think Quakers are people with self-esteem, and they therefore had esteem for other people. They were very caring. The way Catholics were raised in my time, the less you thought, the better a person you were, the better a Catholic you were. So self-esteem was a big no-no.

And the Quakers have always been globally concerned – no war, ending poverty, social justice. So if you only spent one year with them, it was still a formative time in your life, and I'm wondering if it helped you zero in on those ideas you were maybe already thinking about.
No, the people who helped me with that were artists, like Bob Dylan or John Lennon. People like Muhammad Ali and characters like that, the Rasta musicians – the idea of music as a priesthood, much more than being an entertainer, which is fine as well. Ali's a very rock & roll figure. Even though he wasn't a musician, he fits terribly well into that world, and he's certainly along the lines of father figures to musicians who chose a spiritual path, along with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Van Morrison . . . There are artists and other kind of irregulars like Ali who shone the light on a path – of course, none of us can be as great as them – which we're all entitled to walk or hobble in our own little way.

In his case, the obvious symbolism of him being a fighter – you're somebody who stands up for something you believe in, and you actually kind of take fighting poses onstage sometimes, don't you?
Well, you know what, I fight for the same thing Ali was fighting for, which is respect for the living presence of the Holy Spirit. If you study what I've been fighting, that's what it's been about. I'm not a willy-nilly fighter. And I sing onstage. My extracurricular activities are offstage. I just sing onstage.

Right, but you're physically invested in the music. You kind of bounce like a fighter getting ready to get in the ring.
Oh yeah, very much so. Yeah, I do use the body.

You mentioned the record project.
I have no plans to do a gospel record. We'll see how the evening goes. I'm working on my own Sinead O'Connor record. See, I'm very wary of – I don't want to enter one arena and shut myself off from others. What's the word? I'm multidenominational, musically and every other way.

But you have done albums with overarching themes, whether it's reggae or songs about motherhood.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. So you never know. I gotta get on, see how I manage the shows. You never know.

Anything you're going to do to prep for the show before you get here for rehearsal?
We're studying the songs, heavily, and then we pray a lot [laughs]. We're gonna do stuff like "Trouble of the World," "John the Revelator," "Nearer Blessed Lord," an R.H. Harris song called "Born Again." Lots of others – "I Believe in You," the Bob Dylan song.

This is not a new idea, but you could make a case that an awful lot of pop music that sounds like it's about boys and girls is actually about another, higher kind of love.
Well, funnily enough, there is a Rasta song, a reggae tune that we're gonna convert into a gospel tune that we're gonna convert into a religious song. It's called "Good Time Rock," by a guy called Hugh something-or-other [Malcolm], a Seventies song. It's a Rasta spiritual song, but we're going to change it so it's gospel, not reggae. [O'Connor's son interrupts the call to ask his mother a question.]

Have any of your kids expressed interest in making music?
Well, yeah – the one you just heard there, he's the rocker. He's six, and he's obsessed with Chuck Berry. He just wants to play guitar. He carries his Chuck Berry albums 'round the house. If he can't find them . . . Most kids can't find their blanket, they get upset. If he can't find his Chuck Berry CDs, he gets upset.

What sort of advice are you giving him?
Ah, I'm just letting him do his thing. If he just wants to watch Chuck Berry, it's fine.