Sinead O’Connor Speaks
Her face goes blank, and everyone in the room knows what’s coming. Things were moving along smoothly during Sinéad O’Connor’s public debut of material from Am I Not Your Girl?, her first album since her 1990 breakthrough I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. The risky new record is a collection of pop standards that were family favorites in her youth: “These are the songs that made me want to sing,” she explains in the album credits.
She’s spent all morning in front of a forty-piece orchestra at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York, singing Loretta Lynn’s “Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home,” in preparation for a television broadcast on the BBC’s Top of the Pops. As show time approaches, she’s told she only needs to answer one brief introductory question before going into the song.
But when the host beams in from London over Sinéad’s headphones, the singer flinches. She doesn’t want to say what she’s been doing lately. “It’s such a boring question,” she says. “What do you think I’ve been fucking doing?” Then she’s off – — can’t he ask her something specific, like was there really a potato famine in Ireland? No, it’s explained, that would confuse the listeners. Finally, she agrees to answer. “I’ve been getting as far away from being famous and materially successful as possible,” she snaps, a response that — surprise — never makes it to the airwaves.
As she starts to sing, her voice sounds great, fuller and more dramatic than on the album, but what everyone will remember about Sinéad this day is that she was difficult. It’s a split-second paradigm of her career. After I Do Not Want rocketed up the charts, powered by a haunting, unforgettable version of the Prince-composed “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and established her as both one of the most revered and most despised new stars in recent years, she commenced a series of moves that alienated a large percentage of even her most devoted fans.
In rapid succession, she pulled out of a Saturday Night Live appearance because shock comic Andrew Dice Clay was that week’s host, refused to allow “The Star-Spangled Banner” to be played before a concert of hers in New Jersey (Frank Sinatra said she deserved a “kick in the ass”), boycotted the Grammy Awards to protest the materialism of the music industry (Hammer offered to pay her way back to Ireland) and moved to Los Angeles but soon returned to London, claiming that “there isn’t any American culture.” Last year she continued growing up in public, giving painful accounts in the press of the childhood abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother.
As she curls up barefoot on a sofa in her mid-Manhattan hotel, smoking Camels and slamming espresso through two intense marathon conversations, it is clear that the twenty-five-year-old O’Connor continues to regard interviews as an opportunity for public therapy, a way to confront her current twin obsessions — God and child abuse. Her whispered words swing from moving to loopy in seconds. She asserts ideas and opinions that are still essentially unformed and, more curious than strident, is passionately sincere even when directly contradicting herself. And talk about wearing your hang-ups on your sleeve: Her ripped oversize T-shirt reads Recovering Catholic.
What is it like to go back and sing songs familiar from your childhood – such an unhappy time in your life?
Without me noticing it, it became a kind of a journey inside myself, to rescue myself. To go in and have fun and be who I am, which is just a girl who wants to have fun and sing. The songs on the first two albums were all about me working things out. These songs are about having worked a lot of those things out.
I’d say it’s the closure of a phase and therefore the opening of another one. I have to let go of some things so that I can become whoever it is I’m supposed to be. I’m only twenty-five. I’m not going to be who I’m really supposed to be till I’m fifty or sixty. I think I’m becoming a woman. I’m growing up, but I’ve been finding it hard to let go of being a girl.
Were the songs selected for specific memories?
A lot of them were. “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” is very emotional for me because my mother used to really like me to sing her that song. It was the first song that I ever sang outside of school. Later, I used to run away, and to make money I would sing that song in talent competitions. “Scarlet Ribbons” links up with my father because he used to sing me that song. I was staggered by the idea of these ribbons just appearing because this girl asked God for them.
Are you afraid of people looking at “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and thinking you’re being presumptuous, trying to emulate Eva Peron or present yourself as a martyr?
I don’t know anything about Eva Peron. It’s just one of the most beautiful songs that I’ve ever heard. I can hardly sing it, it makes me feel so much. That’s the only reason I’ve ever done anything.
Actually, that’s the song that a lot of people have picked out because they said they thought it was just crap, but then when they heard it, they said they heard the song for the first time in their lives. They could hear it as a song and not just some bollocks.
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