Sinead O'Connor walks into a conference room in the midtown Manhattan offices of her new label, Atlantic Records, shyly says hello to the dozen or so journalists gathered around a big square table, sits down, fires up an American Spirit and opens up. The topic at hand for the next half-hour is her new album, Faith and Courage, and each journalist is allowed one question. From the get-go she is candid, thoughtful and forthcoming, though she quickly makes it adamantly clear that the one thing not open for discussion is her priesthood. The last thing she wants to do, O'Connor explains, is use her pact with God as a publicity angle.
"Neither do I -- and this is very important -- want to disrespect the Church or disrespect Catholic people who may have a problem with women being ordained," she says. "They've shown me an honest tolerance, and as long as I don't go around disrespecting them, they're not going to go around disrespecting me. So I think that out of respect for them and my priesthood it's important not to talk about it."
The inquiring reporter sitting next to her nods in understanding, then asks if she can like, marry people.
"I'm not going to discuss..." O'Connor repeats herself, sternly but not impolitely. It's a display of seemingly infinite patience, a sense of grace under pressure, that might seem out of sorts with the often rash, angry young Sinead of yore. But if she's made one point patently clear today, and throughout the new album, it's that that woman has grown up a lot since then. She's not quite as openly confrontational ("I'm thirty-three now, so I'm less so, obviously"), but she hasn't gone soft, explaining that she still thinks confrontation can be very useful in getting some points across and that anger is a woefully under-appreciated emotion. But maturity -- and hindsight -- has given her a new sense of focus, and with it an understanding that, "If I want to get heard, it's important that I accept humility."
"I know I'm more confident in what I'm saying now," she says. "When we're younger, we're not so sure. As you get older you get surer about what you talk about until you learn how to communicate things in ways which are not threatening."
"I know that I have done many things to give you reason not to listen to me, especially as I have been so angry," she sings on Faith and Courage's "The Lamb's Book of Life," "But if you knew me maybe you would understand me/Words can't express how sorry I am if I ever caused pain to anybody/I just hope that you can show compassion and love me enough to just please listen."
Do not misinterpret that apology as an older, wiser O'Connor looking back on say, that incident with the picture of the Pope on national TV, and saying, "What was I thinking?" But she does recognize that sometimes, part of her message might have been obscured. "It's important to accept one's fifty percent in how a message got lost," she says. "I don't accept the fifty percent that is not mine, but if I want to be heard, then I must accept my fifty percent and therefore be humble enough to say, first of all, let me say I'm sorry that things I did hurt you. That doesn't mean I'm sorry I did it; it had to be done, however I'm sorry that it hurt other people. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
And the message she so desperately now wants to get across to people who may have long since turned a deaf ear to her? "That everything in this world would be OK/If people just believed enough in God to pray." O'Connor may not be forthcoming talking about her role as a woman priest, but her passionate faith shines through Faith and Courage, which she says she wanted to be a very spiritual record. She doesn't want to be "no man's woman," she sings on the first single, but adds, "I've got a lovin' man, but he's a spirit."
"It discusses the idea of wanting to conduct a relationship with one's soul," O'Connor told Rolling Stone shortly before the conference room discussion. It's a theme often repeated on Faith and Courage, a triumphant collection featuring some of the most exuberant and, it's worth noting, catchy songs of her career. A lot of credit for that may be due to the host of star producers on the album, including Dave Stewart, Wyclef Jean and Kevin "She'kspere" Briggs, but it has just as much to do with the overwhelming sense of ecstatic joy conveyed in O'Connor's lyrics and voice.
"It's the joy," she says, "that you get when you go inside yourself and find out how much more there is to life than meets the eye."