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.
What was it like singing in front of an orchestra?
I felt like they must look at me and think: “Who is this upstart? Why is she pretending to be a singer?” I felt so intimidated because they just walk in off the fuckin’ street and play. That’s how they spend their whole lives. I just felt like such a bluffer.
I was really fucking paranoid about it. I was walking in where people like Ella Fitzgerald and Julie London had been. I just kept saying to myself, “Shit, you’re nothing, you don’t deserve to be here, who do you think you are?” But after I was done, I ended up feeling that I’d like to get into that side of it, “cabaret,” for want of a better word. I’d like to do things like musicals or things like what Liza Minnelli does.
Most of the artists you usually talk about – rappers, Dylan, Van Morrison – break so many of the rules of songwriting, whereas these songs defined many of those rules.
No, I don’t think they do at all. I drink that pop music these days is all along defined lines, but this music isn’t. Cole Porter was an enormous chance taker. In an age where there was such a lot of censorship, he was able to very cleverly write rude things but say them in the most beautiful way. They did it in a much more pure and honest and truthful way. They went for reality then.
We don’t really write about real feelings, ’cause we don’t know how to talk about them anyway. We don’t make love anymore, we fuck, and so we write about fucking. We don’t feel, we don’t feel. These people felt, and the songs still feel now. They wrote fifty or sixty years ago, and it’s exactly the same as it is now, whereas sixty years from now “I Want to Sex You Up” is not going to be in any way connected to what anybody feels. These people had it right. And after them it died.
Did you try to record anything that you had written?
No, I had no interest in putting out another Sinéad O’Connor record. Just not interested. I needed to have some fun and get away from it for a while, ’cause it went somewhere that I wasn’t planning for it to. It’s not that I was displeased by that; I’m pleased with being successful, but now I need to leave that alone. Besides, I’d like to be happy for a while.
But I’m a singer as well as a writer. I think of myself much more as a singer than a writer. The only reason I ever wrote songs was because I was so fucked up in my head that I had to figure things out for myself, and so I wrote songs to figure things out.
“Nothing Compares 2 U” was an interpretation of a song you didn’t write, too.
Well, exactly. And I think that that’s what I enjoy doing. I enjoy doing other people’s stuff better because it’s like acting. It’s a chance to use someone else’s words for a change instead of having to expose yourself. It’s a chance to let out the other parts of myself and not just the angsty young thing. Now I want to be a woman.
How do you look back on those crazy months after I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got came out?
Well, it’s all one thing to me. “Nothing Compares 2 U” was just the herald, so it’s all one big conglomeration of experiences to me. I feel I was very lucky to have the experience. It was very frightening, and it was also good fun. And I got completely and utterly fucked up by it I felt lost, I didn’t know who I was, I had a total identity crisis. I practically broke down. But if it wasn’t for having got to that point, I never would have been put in a position where I had to find that out quickly, or else I was going to die.
Is there anything you would handle differently now?
No. Well, a lot of personal things, not public things. As far as any of the things I’ve done in public, no. Except before the second album came out, my having said that I would support the IRA. Apart from that there’s actually nothing I regret.
On a personal level, I regret relationships that I got into where I didn’t have my armor on. But if it wasn’t for those things, I would never have had to ask myself why I did these things, why I attracted these people, why I couldn’t protect myself emotionally. Now I have my armor as a result of not having had it. So you’ve got to be grateful to the people that fucked you up. It’s actually something to thank them for.
What got you back on track?
I had been stopped at a very young age and really hadn’t grown at all. So then when I became famous, all these things happened to me, and I was so broken down that I had to be helped. That’s when I met someone who became a very good friend — Peter Gabriel — who had been through a lot of the same things himself and recognized them in me.
There was talk of a romance between the two of you.
People always assume that if a man and a woman are great friends, that they are lovers. I would say that Peter Gabriel and myself are very, very, very, very close, and he’s one of my best, best friends, and beyond that I don’t have any comment. We’re a man and a woman who happen to be very good friends, and we have a lot in common.
I’d say actually that most people who are influential in my life are grown men, men with a lot of experience and a lot of life. When men get to that age, they think about their lives a lot, they analyze their lives, and they’re very wise. Men really come to fruition when they’re about forty. Women, I think, more when they’re around thirty. It takes a long time to become a man.
What do you think of the “men’s movement”?
I love it. I love it. I love that book Iron John. It’s very accurate, what [Robert Bly] says in that book. I wish he would do a book that was the equivalent for women. I’d love it if he analyzed the story of Joan of Arc, wrote Iron Joan. I think women are not very understanding, and I think it’s our own fault.
Women are in control, whether we see it or not, because we have the babies, we raise the sons and the daughters. So if we don’t like how we’re being treated, we’ve got to see that it’s our own fault because we’re not allowing our sons to be men.
You have said that you are not a feminist.
I’m not an anythingist. I don’t belong to anything.
What does feminism mean to you?
I have a very deep love and respect and understanding for men. I have a love and understanding for women, too, but sometimes I feel more compassion for men because of the pain they’re in. I don’t feel that men are bastards, and I don’t think it’s right to frighten them by trying in a conglomeration to act against them. It’s very difficult to be a man, far more difficult than being a woman. That’s not to make little of what women are saying, because women are being treated abominably by some men, but it’s only because they don’t know what to do.
Do you have any female role models?
Joan of Arc is my biggest. My influences have been men, which is curious. I haven’t felt as safe with women. I’ve never been close to them. Obviously, because of my mom. My singing has been influenced by people like Etta James or Barbra Streisand. But Joan of Arc is definitely the one, because she fought for what she knew was the truth. She took literally what God told her, and she listened to the voices inside her and died for it. Died a most horrific death.
Is the reason for these feelings about women entirely due to your relationship with your mother?
I think probably inside myself I’ve been quite frightened of women. Not that I don’t like them — I love them. But because of my mother, I’m very sensitive to how women look at me. The most frightening aspect is the way their faces look when they actually look at me. I’ve been treated quite badly by women, like the girls at school. They hated me because I was very quiet, and I had long hair, and I would brush it in front of my face, and I would sit in the back of the class, and I never used to speak to them. They thought that I was very full of myself. They thought I was very beautiful and thought that I thought I was great and that’s why I wouldn’t talk to them. So I feel safer with men.
It seems you’ve gotten more focused on religion.
There’s no such thing as religion, there’s only God. Which is truth. Organized religion is a lie. It’s designed to take you away from God, particularly the Christian church. People must learn about the history of the popes, the people who are running the world. ‘Cause whether we like it or not, whether we practice Christianity or Catholicism or not, we’ve got to realize that those fuckers are running the world, they’re running every government in the world. They are the World Bank. I don’t have proof of that, but I know that it’s true.
We’re living in hell as far as I’m concerned. The existence of child abuse means that the devil is winning. The devil to me is not a little red guy with a fork, he’s a guy with a collar and a big red hat on that goes round saying, “Young people of Ireland, I love you,” when the young people of Ireland are sitting on the streets on heroin.
Your spirituality sounds almost obsessive.
It’s from direct experience. I lived in hell for a long period of time. The only thing that saved my ass was God. I suppose it sounds like kind of an obsession, but it’s the only reason I survived. It was the only way I could come out of a pretty grim situation and have a decent relationship with myself and my family. I’m still angry, but I’m alive, and that’s because of God. If I hadn’t believed in God, I would be dead now, I would be drunk, I would be on drugs. God gave me a voice, and that’s what saved my ass. What got me through hell was my voice.
They don’t know what God is; they’re the Roman Empire, the people who invented child abuse. All you have to do is look at their history to know that this is true. That’s why they killed Joan of Arc, that’s why they killed Jesus Christ, that’s why they killed Martin Luther King, that’s why they killed John Kennedy, that’s why they killed [Pope] John Paul I. That’s why they killed Malcolm X. It’s why they’ve locked up Mike Tyson.
Poor Mike Tyson. I mean, there is an example of a man who was treated abominably as a child; all his ancestors have been abused as children. He’s only a little tiny baby, and all of these people are trying to fuckin’ kill him. And they have killed him to a certain extent. They all have a great time saying what a monster he is. Lay off, because there but for the grace of God goes every single one of us. Poor man. He has had the most miserable upbringing.
If he looks for solace in the arms of lots of women, what do you expect him to do? And that woman that is suing him is a bitch. I don’t care if he raped her; he should learn about himself and why it is he behaves like that, et cetera, et cetera. But equally she should look at herself and look at the disgrace that she is making of women. Look at what she is doing to him by trying to get money off him, going around doing chat shows. She’s used him, you know. It’s disgraceful, and she’s a disgrace to women as far as I’m concerned.
You say we need to counter that with love. How do we get to that point?
It takes forgiveness. Forgiveness is the most important thing. We all have to forgive what was done to us — the Irish people have to forgive, the African people, the Jewish people — all have to forgive and understand. The only way to stop the cycle of hate and abuse is not to allow ourselves to get caught up in it.
What did you think about the riots in Los Angeles?
I thought it was great. I really did. I thought it was time something happened and that people had some expression at last. I think it’s a shame that some people went so far as to kill other people, although I understand that people are in so much pain that they don’t know how to stay in control. But I think those people have a perfect right to go into shops and take anything they wanted to take. Absolutely. I admire that, I’m very glad. It was a cleansing experience, and a lot of good has come out of it.
Still, it doesn’t seem the most forgiving response.
They have to defend themselves. Jesus says that as well: “Woe to the nation that doesn’t defend itself against the invader.” You don’t have the right to kill, but you have the right to feed and clothe your family. You don’t have the right to go and break into a shop, but if the shop is fucked up and your children are starving and they don’t have anything to wear or they’re sick, then you have every right to take what you want. I think that obviously it’s awful for the people who do business and whose stores were destroyed, but in the end it’s a good thing that serves everybody. There’ll have to be a lot of chaos for us to sort ourselves out.
When you moved from L.A., it was said that you felt a lot of anger toward America.
Well, that was a lie. I did not leave the country for anything to do with that. I left because I missed home, and I missed my husband, and I missed red buses. I was lonesome. Being in Los Angeles was very tricky. I thought that the people would be so used to celebrities that it wouldn’t be a problem. In fact the opposite is true because all the celebrities there really love being celebrities. I hung around with a couple of those people for a day or two, and they frightened the shit out of me. It’s like a hotel people check into for material success at any cost.
Do you think people will be surprised to see the album dedication to New York?
I never said I had a problem with America. People told you that because they want you to think that I’m a liar and that I’m full of hatred. They distorted what I was doing. People like me are scapegoats, people who point out the fact that those people are living a lie, and they want to shut us up. That’s why they’ve assassinated everyone throughout history that ever spoke the truth.
Why do you think there was such a backlash when you started speaking out so much?
I think that was mainly because I was at a stage in my life where I had not yet the energy to be understanding of other people’s feelings, and therefore I expressed my own feelings in an aggressive way. I wouldn’t change my feelings or not express them. But now I try to be considerate of what other people out there hear. I wouldn’t be so aggressive and angry and pointing blame – I regret that – but that all came from a lack of understanding.
Do you think the changes you’ve gone through can happen on a larger scale?
I can see it happening. I can see Axl Rose, myself, Roseanne Arnold and other people talking about their experiences. We can see the role models coming out now and giving hope to other people, giving a sense that you can survive. That’s what Axl Rose is in the process of doing right in front of our eyes. Really, we’re just the same as everyone, we just happen to be so angry about it that we got ourselves famous so we could tell our stories.
Are you comfortable presenting yourself as a role model? Lots of rappers, for instance Ice Cube, say that they never signed up to be role models just because they make records.
I used to say that, too, but I think you’ve got to accept the responsibility. With Ice Cube, that’s his low opinion of himself because of the upbringing he’s had. He doesn’t necessarily see how wonderful he is; really he’s afraid to accept that he is the greatest poet that America has ever had. I would rank Ice Cube on an equal level with Bob Dylan in terms of being the voice of a generation. He’s possibly the most powerful person in this country, but he’s afraid to see that.
Were you bothered by any of the controversial stuff on Ice Cube’s last album?
That doesn’t mean that he’s not a good writer. The point that everybody’s forgetting is that art is the use of language, the means of expressing feelings. We all know what he’s talking about and he’s making us feel. Also, he’s created a conversation where there has been silence. He’s created that debate, and that’s what art is for.
Do you still listen to a lot of rap?
I think it’s had its day. I think its age is over because it’s done everything it can do. It will continue, but it can’t go any further, musically. Now something else will happen. Rap was the most influential form, the thing that most brought people together in the last ten years and that saved our asses, but it’s over.
Rappers are all young men, and they’re angry, and that’s why it’s brilliant. They’re angry, and they’ve all been fucked around by their fathers. They were abused as children, and now that is why they’re making themselves heard. It’s also why Axl Rose is famous, Roseanne Arnold – it’s why I’m famous.
Because of a need to be heard?
Because of wanting help, because we want help. We want our stories told. We don’t understand what’s happened to us, and we’re in a lot of pain.
When Axl talks about his childhood abuse, you’re very aware of his being in therapy.
My therapy is my belief in God.
Have you tried formal therapy at all?
I tried it, yes, but it didn’t speak to me. I tried one of the twelve-step programs — adult children of alcoholics-dysfunctional families, but I didn’t like the clinical shrinks so much. I didn’t get off on that, but I got off on the twelve-step thing.
Is one-on-one therapy just too detached or too structured?
It’s too much by the book. There’s rules they apply to everybody. They seem very concerned with money and are always looking at their watch. It just didn’t speak to me. Whereas the first time I walked into the adult child of dysfunctional families group, I was home. But it’s my belief in God that’s got me through.
You’ve talked about your fondness for smoking dope and also about your belief that crack imprisons the population of the inner city. By buying any drug aren’t you helping finance the destructive part of the drug trade?
I don’t buy marijuana off anybody that sells any other kind of drug. As far as I’m concerned, selling marijuana is one of the most respectable things anyone could do. I think everybody should smoke it.
Because it teaches you a lot about yourself. It forces you to feel. You cannot avoid being aware and getting in touch with yourself. People say you get really paranoid when you smoke, but it’s not that; it’s that you were feeling that way the whole time. You can’t run away from your feelings; it forces you to face them.
What do you make of the elections?
I’m shocked at how the stars in the entertainment industry allow themselves to be used. I’m shocked that Aretha Franklin sang the national anthem at the convention, for example. I don’t know anything about Bill Clinton; I can’t really say except that his speech at the convention was more sad than anything else.
You don’t think stars should choose sides or they shouldn’t be involved at all in the process?
Being involved in politics, which is designed to take you away from the truth. Those people are only interested in getting into power and getting a good salary.
What if a celebrity feels that since they get this kind of attention, they should use it to help a cause they believe in?
That’s fine, they should do that – but why not do it through the truth? Don’t go through the liars to give your truth. Just give it.
But as long as this country is in a situation where, say, access to abortion is controlled by the political process …
No, as long as you’re in a situation where you’re controlled by people who want money, it doesn’t matter who you vote for. George Bush said that he wouldn’t ban abortion. Bill Clinton will probably do the same thing. I wouldn’t trust any of them. I wouldn’t trust anyone who would hold a convention like that, who would hold it as if it were a gig, a big show, balloons and bands and flags and TV screens. It’s got nothing to do with anything but the publicity and the pomp. It has nothing to do with people who are starving. It’s all a lie.
Should people vote?
I’ve never voted, and I will never vote in my life, because I realize that there’s absolutely no point. Because they’re all fucking liars, they all want the same thing, they’re all after one thing, which is money. They are not the way. Politics is there to take you away from truth.
People should just not vote, they should stop going to work, they should screech this whole fucking sham to a halt. Put the fuckers out of business and start all over again. Have the faith to go through the chaos that will result from doing that, realize that’s the only thing to do. Look at what happened in Los Angeles. That has to happen on a larger scale without the destruction of people’s property or lives. If we’re all together, we can fuck it up.