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Sinead O’Connor: The Rolling Stone Interview

The unique Irish singer and Artist of the Year discusses her rise to the top, her battles with Frank Sinatra and working with Prince

Sinead O'Connor

Musical guest Sinead O'Connor performs on 'Saturday Night Live' on September 29th, 1990.

Alan Singer/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

Sinéad O’Connor really does want what she hasn’t got.

At least it seems that way as she spends part of a sunny winter afternoon shopping at Book Soup, a popular store on Sunset Boulevard, in Hollywood. She wants Italian Vogue. She wants a bunch of English and Irish newspapers. She wants a copy of a new unauthorized biography about her. And most interestingly, she wants Scandal Annual 1991, a less than weighty tome that promises a guide to “Who got caught doing what in 1990.” Flipping past the book’s cover – which features a photo of her least favorite comedian, Andrew Dice Clay – O’Connor locates a section in the table of contents called “Boy, Is That Dumb!” that gathers “the year’s most stupid actions and statements.” She smiles and says quietly, “Well, I must be in there somewhere.”

As it turns out, O’Connor is nowhere to be found in the Scandal Annual, but her fear is understandable. Since “Nothing Compares 2 U” hit Number One and made her a star a year ago, O’Connor has been in the news constantly – and usually for reasons unrelated to the brilliance of her music. In her year of living dangerously at the top, O’Connor has taken on all comers.

She and Frank Sinatra engaged in a surreal pissing match over her refusal to have the national anthem played before one of her concerts. She and the Diceman clashed when she canceled an appearance on Saturday Night Live because he was the host. Then O’Connor went public with accusations that Prince – who wrote “Nothing Compares 2 U” – physically threatened her. Most recently, self-designated fashion czar Mr. Blackwell placed her high on his list of the worst-dressed women, calling her “the bald-headed banshee of MTV” and “a new age nightmare.”

“It’s not like I got up in the morning and said, ‘Okay, now let’s start a new controversy,’ ” O’Connor says. “I don’t do anything in order to cause trouble. It just so happens that what I do naturally causes trouble. And that’s fine with me. I’m proud to be a troublemaker.”

Of course, she has better reasons to be proud. All the recent commotion has at times threatened to obscure her real achievement in the past year: namely, that with I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got – a demanding, highly personal masterpiece – she proved that a recording artist could refuse to compromise and still connect with millions of listeners hungry for music of substance. For this accomplishment, many honors have come O’Connor’s way – three MTV video awards, four Grammy nominations and now a virtual sweep of the ROLLING STONE Readers and Critics Polls. Readers voted O’Connor the Artist of the Year and also named her tops in the Best Album and Best Female Singer categories. (And, perhaps because she is so controversial, she was also selected as Worst Female Singer by the readers.) Critics were also at a loss for someone to compare to O’Connor, giving her top honors in the Artist of the Year, Best Album, Best Single and Best Female Singer categories.

Over lunch at the Source – the famed L.A. health-food restaurant where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton face off at the end of Annie Hall – O’Connor, 24, ignores such offerings as the Aware salad and the brown-rice pancakes, settling instead for eggs, cappuccino and a steady stream of cigarettes. As she reviews the events of the past year, O’Connor occasionally switches the topic to something else she wants that she hasn’t got – a man. “I’m completely in love with Andy Garcia,” she says excitedly at one point. “I think it’s a fucking tragedy that both he and Kevin Costner are married.” A friend of hers expresses some disappointment with the appearance of Costner’s butt in Dances With Wolves, but O’Connor declines to offer an opinion. “I couldn’t say,” she opines, “it’s been so long since I’ve seen one.” But her mood improves as she delivers some new information: that the guy she loves in the latest Janet Jackson video is both straight and single.

True to her reputation, O’Connor is no diplomat. Asked to list her favorite records of 1990, she offers an additional list of her least favorite. Yet, for all her well-chronicled feistiness, O’Connor is not the hairless hell raiser so many stories would lead one to believe. In person there’s a sweetness and generosity about her that doesn’t translate to the tabloids. It’s evident in the way she speaks with fans who approach her and in the way she quietly slips a twenty-dollar bill to a middle-aged homeless man on the street. Finally, though, it is not Sinéad O’Connor’s personality that makes her Artist of the Year but the bravery and power of her remarkable music.

You’ve said that disruption and disturbance are not necessarily bad things. But do you think all the controversy of the last year has hurt you in any way?
No, I don’t think it’s hurt me at all. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing this interview for the Readers and Critics Poll, would we? I don’t look at all the things that happened as being disruptions or disturbances. I look at them as being incidents where I expressed how I felt about something, about what I saw to be the truth. And sometimes a lot of people didn’t agree with me – which is to be expected.

You don’t think it’s had a bad effect on your public image?
I think that people aren’t nearly as stupid as the media thinks they are. I don’t think the media has any idea what people think. I find all the controversy funny now. The national-anthem episode is the funniest thing that happened to me in my whole life. But at the time, I was shitting myself. I thought if the New York Post said, “Sinéad O’Connor snubs America,” somebody would shoot me. I went to a Janet Jackson show, and she had these pyrotechnics. I fucking nearly died when they went off. I leapt out of my skin.

What turned you around?
It happened when I went outside in disguise at one of the shows where there was supposedly an enormous protest being launched. I felt much better because I could hear what the actual people in the crowd were saying. And they were saying the whole controversy was rubbish. I stopped being frightened, because I realized that the people who I was actually in any way concerned about were on my side. And that the media was just making a big deal because it sold newspapers.

Besides the time you went undercover, have you had many other chances to meet your fans?
Yes, but it’s very different when they know who I am. Most of the time it’s awkward, because they don’t necessarily act like themselves.

Because of the nature of your work, it’s obvious that your fans feel a deep connection with you. What sort of things do they say to you in fan mail?
I don’t know. I don’t read it.

Why not?
I’m very frightened of getting ideas about myself. It’s not that I don’t care about people, because I do. It takes a lot for somebody to actually write a letter to you, but I can’t just sit there all day reading letters from people telling me I’m brilliant, because I’ll fucking go mad. I might turn into the biggest wanker that ever walked the Earth, which I’m probably heading toward anyway at this stage.

The national-anthem episode got much stranger when Sinatra put his two cents in.
That also scared the shit out of me at the very beginning because it was, you know, Frank Sinatra. But soon enough he turned his attention to George Michael.

Frank was turning into a rock critic for a while there.
Yeah. I mean, he was on some kind of roll. And obviously the man has a problem with women – obviously he has. But I don’t have any problem with him.

Are you a fan of his music?
Yeah, I love Frank Sinatra. I’ve bought practically every fucking box set that his record companies have thrown out. I think he’s brilliant.

Would you sing with him?
Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s more of a case of whether he would sing with me. Somehow I don’t see it happening.

Fill in the blank: 1990 was the most ______ year of your life.
Jesus, it was just the most. It was the most intensely emotional year of my life. Every single emotion that a human being could possibly experience, I’ve experienced constantly and intensely. It was very traumatic. There were very good things about it. But it’s been very, very disturbing, and I’m quite fucked up in a lot of ways at the moment as a consequence.

What was the high point of the year for you?
When I passed my driver’s test. I finally have a license!

Also, going to Ireland to do an awards ceremony. I’ve always felt quite condescended to by the Irish music business, and so I was quite pleased to be able to stand there and say I’m able to do something.

Why do you think they couldn’t deal with you?
Because I was a woman doing something different. The kind of music I’m doing, it’s not what Irish women are expected to do. At the beginning they didn’t really see that there was anything to it. And so they were quite patronizing about it.

How do you feel about the suggestion that you can only write when you’re unhappy?
Well, they’re not unhappy songs. What have I written that’s unhappy? Name me an unhappy song.

“The Last Day of Our Acquaintance.”
Yeah, but you see, for me that song isn’t … it’s not unhappy. It resolves itself. It’s going through all of the feelings that you feel about a situation and ending on quite a fucking strong note. You know, I think the songs are quite optimistic.

Is there any song you’ve written that you’d describe as light?
I’d say “Jump in the River” is about the lightest song I’ve done.

And that’s not exactly “Louie Louie”
No, I don’t really like light. I’m not really a light person. I mean, there’s so many other people doing light.

When you dominated the MTV Awards this year, people seemed surprised to see you up there smiling and enjoying yourself. It was as if your image was such that people didn’t expect you to actually have fun.
People expect me to have a certain attitude toward award ceremonies. They don’t expect to see me freaking out over the fact that I’ve won an award, because I always said that. I don’t really give a shit about things like that And I don’t, professionally. But just as a human being, like as a young girl from Dublin, there I was in Los Angeles making acceptance speeches and having a blast. It was fun.

I’m more excited about the ROLLING STONE Readers Poll vote than I am about something like the Grammys, because it’s a matter of actual people saying they like me. That’s much more exciting, more real, than the Grammys, which are very political. This is not because you sold a lot of records or any kind of shit like that.

Your music is so much more complex and demanding than the standard stuff heard on the radio these days. Do you think your success is a fluke or part of a bigger trend?
People don’t want to hear what’s on the fucking radio. People are screaming out for something more. Look at the way records get to Number One in this country. It has to do with what people buy, but the other half has to do with what the fucking radio stations play. That’s ridiculous. That’s not an honest representation of what people like. How can it be?

Why do you think you were the one to break through?
I’m not the only one. It just so happens that I had a Number One record. But I’m not the only one. What about Van Morrison? Van Morrison ought to be fucking canonized as far as I’m concerned. He ought to win every Grammy for every category of every fucking award that there possibly is. Why doesn’t he?

The media in this country doesn’t encourage people to think. Turn on the radio or the TV – you don’t see anything that inspires you or makes you think about anything. And that’s the way people like to keep it. They don’t want people to think for themselves. The only way that people are getting the opportunity to think for themselves at this moment is through music. And in particular, the hip-hop movement, which is why the censors are doing their fucking level best to stop it. It’s complete racism. I would have been censored if it wasn’t. Loads of people would be. Madonna would be. Madonna’s records got to Number One. Vanilla Ice – let me make this point, “Ice Ice Baby” is a complete rip-off lyrically of N.W.A and loads of people. “Police are on the scene/You know what I mean” – as if Vanilla Ice ever had an experience with a policeman. If that can get to Number One, that makes me very suspicious. It’s okay for Vanilla Ice – who is very all-American and white – to make violent records and talk about things like that. But it’s not all right for N.W.A. N.W.A has had the same record out, except much better. It didn’t get to Number One.

Some people accused you of censorship when you dropped out of ‘Saturday Night Live’ to protest Andrew Dice Clay’s appearance. Recently you said you’ve reconsidered your decision.
I wouldn’t change what I did, because I had to do it in order to get to this realization. But I’m very opposed to the whole censorship thing. And so if I speak out against censorship and how I think that people should be exposed to N.W.A or Ice Cube if they want to be, then I have to allow for Andrew Dice Clay. Of course, I still don’t like the guy. I think he’s a wanker, I really do. And it’s not just because of the feminist thing. It’s because I have a huge problem with homophobia as well, and that’s the worst thing that I think he does. But at the same time I can’t try and stop him.

Did you see that ‘Saturday Night Live’?
Yeah, I did. I mean, the whole show was based on the fact that myself and the other lady [Nora Dunn] had pulled out. So I wonder what it would have been about if we hadn’t. But actually I was glad, because I had been madly in love with a bloke and the only time I could ever go out with him was that night. So it was all very convenient for me.

In recent interviews you seem to have given up on men.
Well, men are all the same, aren’t they?

I don’t know. Are they?
I think so.

How so?
Oh, they’re all full of shit. They have no balls. Men have no balls.

And there are no exceptions to this rule?
I haven’t met an exception to it, no. I haven’t ever met a male that would be as prepared to live by himself, to be as true to himself, as a woman would be. You know, I’ve never met a man that had the balls to stick his neck out. Obviously, people do – people like Ice Cube or Ice-T – that’s why I like people like that. But romantically I’ve never met a man like that. They allow themselves to be intimidated easily, and they can’t express themselves. Ugh. Men are just a pain in the ass, they really are. But of course I would like Lancelot to come along and sweep me off to his castle. You know, I’m getting on a bit.

Let’s talk hair. Have you ever considered letting it grow long so people would stop making a big deal about it?
No. The only time I’ve ever thought I should grow my hair is in order to get some man to fall madly in love with me. Men find me intimidating anyway and maybe even more intimidating because I have no hair. I don’t really know why it’s such a big deal to people. I suppose it’s because it’s not like anybody else’s. It has certain associations as well. It has the whole fascist association. It has the whole lesbian association. And it has the whole aggressive-woman association, which, of course, everybody hates. Years ago, Chris Hill and Nigel Grainge [the heads of Ensign Records, O’Connor’s label] wanted me to wear high-heel boots and tight jeans and grow my hair. And I decided that they were so pathetic that I shaved my head so there couldn’t be any further discussion. I also did it for other reasons, but that told them. They wanted me to look like one of their wives, or one of their mistresses. I mean, can you imagine me in a pair of skintight black jeans and a pair of high-heel boots? I’d look ridiculous. I mean, if I thought I looked good in those things, I’d wear them.

Are you aware of people trying to look like you?
I’ve seen people with shaved heads, but I wouldn’t flatter myself by assuming it was because of me.

So you don’t feel you might be a role model?
I don’t think I am.

How about a sex symbol?
Well, no. I’ve always wanted to be a sex symbol, but I don’t think I am. I hope I am. Well, I can’t imagine myself being one. I mean, I think I’m really hideous and ugly and fluffy and wrinkly and disgusting, so I can’t imagine anyone thinking that I was sexually attractive. And if they do, where the fuck are they?

But hundreds of male writers have written endlessly about how beautiful your eyes are.
Yeah, but it’s only my eyes. It is not anything else.

What are your impressions of life as a celebrity?
Basically, what I’ve encountered is a load of bullshit. Especially since being in Los Angeles. It amazes me how full of shit people are. It amazes me how into being famous a lot of people are and how they’re so into it that they will introduce themselves to you by their band name rather than their own name or by whose wife they are. I wish that people could realize that people like me are just like them. I wish that they could realize that as much we do anything for them, they are doing it for us a hundredfold. Whatever healing that takes place through music is equally given back to the person that writes it. So we’re all in it to help each other.

Have the experiences of the last year made you more less spiritual?
More so. Much more so. I think that’s because before any of this happened I had a sufficient amount of training to be able to deal with everything from a philosophical point of view. Otherwise I’d probably be on smack. I’d probably be an alcoholic. I’d probably be dead if I wasn’t able to see it from above and say, “Well, what can I learn from this?” Or, “What must I change about myself?”

Why did you decide to settle in Los Angeles?
I don’t really know yet. At the moment I think the only reason I’m here is because I want to learn things, and my life has changed so much since I left England last year that I couldn’t just go back to living in Golders Green. So I wanted to just have a new set of experiences.

Is there anything you miss about Ireland?
I miss the fact that people there are very honest. I don’t see that here at all. I’m very, very frightened of this place and how full of shit everybody is. I miss the truth of the place. But Ireland has its own dishonesties as well.

What don’t you miss?
I’m glad to be away from the things that I associate with my upbringing in Ireland, which wasn’t happy at all. And so I’m glad to be away from things that remind me of that and away from the feeling of being trapped and the feeling of not being allowed to express myself and the feeling of being in some way an outcast because of being the kind of woman that I am.

In one recent magazine article, you discussed how you were abused by your mother. Have you ever regretted being so open with journalists about such personal topics?
No, the reason why I discussed that is because I believe very much that the reason why those things happen to people is because we are all brought up not to discuss them. The things that happened to me happened because of the society in which I lived, which was a society that did not – and still doesn’t – express itself. And I think it’s very dangerous to keep those kinds of things in.

You’ve also talked openly about some unpleasant experiences with Prince. I understand that you no longer want to sing “Nothing Compares 2 U” because of what happened.
Yeah. It spoiled the song completely for me. I feel a connection with the song, but the experience was a very disturbing one. At the moment I really don’t like the idea of singing the song. I need to get to the stage where I can separate the writer from the song – which I suppose I always did before. But I’m just very angry with him. Anyway, it’s not like I’m going to spend the rest of my life singing the song that I had that went to Number One. That’s not what I’m all about. I do other stuff, too. I mean, I’ve sung the song so many times that I’m bored with the song at this stage.

In concert, you struck me as being anything but bored. I’ve never seen a performer who seemed so emotionally committed to their performance.
This past year the concerts were like going through therapy because there was so much shit going on on the road. Luckily, every night I had a show to do; otherwise I would have gone mental. There was an awful lot of very, very serious, traumatic stuff going on. It was just as well that I was on the road. But then as a result of being on the road, all these other traumatic things happened.

Was it especially hard being separated from your son while touring?
Yes. Very much so, very much so.

Does he have any idea what his mom does far a living?
Uh-huh. I just say that I sing songs.

What’s the best Sinéad rumor you heard this year?
I think that I’m having Lenny Kravitz’s baby. I mean, I wouldn’t mind. And Peter Gabriel’s baby, too.

Is it a boy or a girl?
I don’t know yet. I haven’t read the papers. One of the funniest things, actually, was recently in one of those really tacky soap magazines. They had something about how I was a big fibber because I was a feminist yet I used to be a kiss-o-gram girl. And I fail to make the connection.

Is there any music you wouldn’t want your son listening to – like, say, the Geto Boys?
I would want him to listen to whatever he wanted to listen to. I think people like the Geto Boys and N.W.A serve a very useful function. Apart from the fact that they are expressing what life is like for some people – and that’s why some other people have a problem with it. If you believe that music is to express human feelings, then you’ve got to acknowledge that aggression is a human feeling as well, and that it is far better for somebody to go into their car and listen to “Fuck tha Police” than to actually go and blow up a policeman.

You know, rap is the only type of music that I know that expresses all of the human feelings and encourages people to make something of themselves.

Earlier, you offered to give a list of the records you hated last year. Which ones were they?
Oh, dear, can I do this? Why not? Fuck it, it could be a very long list I hate M.C. Hammer’s record. I hate Vanilla Ice’s record with a vengeance. I hate Whitney Houston’s record, that “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” I hate that. What else? There’s an AC/DC record out.

“Moneytalks”?
No.

“Thunderstruck”?
Oh, God, his voice is just horrendous, it really is.

What do you think of another MTV staple, Guns n’ Roses?
I saw an interview with Axl Rose on the television, and I thought he was really really lovely, I really did. My friend Ciara and I were talking about him yesterday, about how you just want to bring him home and give him a bowl of soup. He’s like a little kid, isn’t he? He just seemed that he really needed some mothering or something. We want to tell Slash we love him as well. And Mike Tyson.

You’ve said that while you were growing up your big influences were Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand.
They were, but I’d say that at the moment my biggest influences are hip-hop people. Not musically, but personally. My biggest influences are people like Ice Cube. Ice-T is an enormous influence. I saw his concert and nearly wet myself. Also Public Enemy, Van Morrison and another Irishman called Christy Moore. Also Roseanne Barr.

Roseanne Barr?
She’s amazing. I saw her on TV the other day, when she went on about Arsenio Hall. I just thought that she was the most incredible woman I’ve ever seen.

Considering recent events, perhaps the two of you could collaborate on a rap version of the national anthem.
I wouldn’t sing the national anthem.

Don’t like the tune?
I think of the lyrics of the song as being very dangerous. I think if you are into censorship, you should censor that, frankly. “Bombs bursting in air” and the “rockets’ red glare” isn’t anything that I’m interested in singing about. And yet N.W.A piss everyone off singing about AK-47s.

Do you have goals for this year?
No. What I’d like to happen is to return to normal.

Do you think that’s possible?
Yeah, I do. I think it has to happen. I just need to forget that I’m Sinéad O’Connor, you know. I need to be whoever I was a year ago, before all this happened.

As the song says, do you feel so different now?
Oh, yeah. I feel even more different now. Absolutely.

In This Article: Coverwall, Sinead O'Connor

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