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Sinead O’Connor: The Decade’s First New Superstar

After weathering some hard and haunting losses, the young woman with the supernatural voice is flat-out great

Sinead O'CONNOR

Sinead O'Connor performs in U.K. June 1st, 1990.

Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty

Can we shut out the lights?” asks Sinéad O’Connor, in a soft voice.

It’s a cold and blustery late-February night in the center of London, and the twenty-three-year-old Irish-born O’Connor is perched on a stool in a BBC Radio sound studio, holding an acoustic guitar and looking a little uneasy. She has come here to perform some songs from her newly released second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, for a future radio broadcast. And for reasons of her own, she feels like singing these songs in the dark. After the lights dim, O’Connor begins strumming the hushed opening chords to “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” — a song about a young woman who has been brought to the edge of her deepest-held hopes and dreams and then deserted by the one person she needed and trusted most. It is one of O’Connor’s most powerful and affecting songs, and for good reason: Not so long ago, she endured the experience tha

Can we shut out the lights?” asks Sinéad O’Connor, in a soft voice.

It’s a cold and blustery late-February night in the center of London, and the twenty-three-year-old Irish-born O’Connor is perched on a stool in a BBC Radio sound studio, holding an acoustic guitar and looking a little uneasy. She has come here to perform some songs from her newly released second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, for a future radio broadcast. And for reasons of her own, she feels like singing these songs in the dark. After the lights dim, O’Connor begins strumming the hushed opening chords to “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” — a song about a young woman who has been brought to the edge of her deepest-held hopes and dreams and then deserted by the one person she needed and trusted most. It is one of O’Connor’s most powerful and affecting songs, and for good reason: Not so long ago, she endured the experience that she is singing about, and it transformed her life.

Tonight, she seems to be singing the song as if she were composing its painful recollections and caustic indictments on the spot. In a voice that veers between hesitation and accusation, O’Connor sings: “I know you don’t love me anymore/You used to hold my hand when the plane took off/Two years ago there just seemed so much more/And I don’t know what happened to our love.” And then, just when the music should surge into the crashing chords and fierce yowls that frame the song’s bitter kiss-off, O’Connor halts the performance abruptly, and for several long seconds there is only silence from the dark booth. “I need to practice that one a bit,” she says in a shaky tone. “I need to calm down.”

A minute later, O’Connor resumes the song, and this time she leans harder into the performance. It is an exceptional thing to witness. Somewhere in that darkened booth, a young woman with an almost supernatural voice — a voice that can convey rage, longing, shock and sorrow, all in the same breath — is both chasing down, and being chased by, some difficult private memories, and it seems less like a pop performance than an act of necessary release. It is also a timeless ritual: Pop, jazz and blues singers have been sitting in darkened recording booths turning private pain into public divulgence for generations. But many of the best of those singers — from Billie Holiday to John Lennon — were, in one way or another, ravaged by that darkness. If Sinéad O’Connor has her way, she is going to howl at that darkness until there are no more bitter truths that it can hold.

Maybe it’s her startling looks that first catch you — that soft black bristle that barely covers her naked head or those soulful hazel eyes that can fix you with a stare that is hungry, vulnerable and piercing in the same instant Sooner or later, though, it is Sinéad O’Connor’s voice — and its harsh beauty — that you will have to reckon with. According to her father, it is a voice that she inherited from her mother — a passionate and often troubled woman. According to Nigel Grainge, the president of her record company, it is a voice that bears the lineage of her strife-torn and heartbroken homeland, Ireland. “We’re talking soul singing, like Van Morrison,” he says. “That is, real soul singing.”

Whatever its origins, O’Connor’s voice is a remarkable and forceful instrument, and it is fast establishing her as one of the most estimable new pop artists to emerge in years. This is a heartening development, though also — given the sort of music that O’Connor makes — a completely unlikely one. On the basis of her 1987 debut work, The Lion and the Cobra — a brilliant album about sexual fury and spiritual passion — O’Connor seemed fated for a career like that of Van Morrison, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen or many of rock’s other great truth tellers: namely, a career of essential artistry, on the border of mainstream affection. But with I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, Sinéad O’Connor has achieved both widespread success and flat-out greatness. Furious and lovely, the album is the work of a young woman who has had to weather some hard and haunting losses and who sets out to rebuild her faith. By the album’s end, she has won a certain measure of hard-earned peace but only by venting some racking pain and leveling an excoriating rage at those who have betrayed her. In an era when even many of the best pop albums are increasingly subservient to the dominance of style and beat, Sinéad O’Connor has fashioned a full-length work that takes uncommon thematic risks and that makes style entirely subservient to emotional expression. Like Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is an intensely introspective work that is so affecting and farsighted, it seems capable of defining the mood or experience of an entire audience.

Which is exactly what it appears to be doing. In the U.K., the album bulleted to the top of the charts in its first week of release. In America, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got climbed to Number One on Billboard’s album chart within a month of its release — an almost unprecedented feat for a relatively unknown female artist. The singer herself believes that it is the video version of the first single — a deep-blue cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” — that has paved the way for the album’s success. Indeed, “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a gripping performance: For five minutes, O’Connor holds the camera — and therefore the viewer — with a heartsick gaze and tries to make sense of how she lost the one love that she could never afford to lose. One instant she tosses out sass, the next, utter desolation, until by the song’s end, the singer’s grief has become too much for her, and she cries a solitary tear of inconsolable loss.

“I didn’t intend for that moment to happen,” says O’Connor, “but when it did, I thought, ‘I should let this happen.’ I think it shocks people. Some people, I know, really hate it — maybe because it’s so honest, or maybe because they’re embarrassed by displays of emotions.

“But I think I’m probably living proof of the danger of not expressing your feelings. For years I couldn’t express how I felt. I think that’s how music helped me. I also drink that’s why it’s the most powerful medium: because it expresses for other people feelings that they can’t express but that need to be expressed. If you don’t express those feelings — whether they’re aggressive or loving or whatever — they will blow you up one day.”

Spend much time around O’Connor, and you’ll find that she’s a lot like her music — that is, smart and complex, and she can effortlessly tap into deep wells of sadness and anger. But as often as not, she can also prove sweet and goofy, and she can seem truly bewildered by the rituals and expectations that accompany fame. For example, the day after her performance at BBC Radio, during the photo session for this article, O’Connor takes the occasion as an opportunity for listening and dancing to some homemade tapes of reggae oldies and recent hip-hop faves like Queen Latifah and N.W.A. (Hip-hop, says O’Connor, is the pop form that she feels has the closest spiritual kinship to her own music.) Sometimes, right before striking a serious pose, Sinéad will roll her eyes and crack up, as if she’s both tickled and embarrassed by the notion of her own celebrity.

At other times, the realities of O’Connor’s fame can prove less amusing. The afternoon following the photo shoot, O’Connor is walking down a hallway at the offices of her London record company, wearing dark sunglasses and a black leather jacket. She has the hood of a white jersey pulled over her head and seems deep in thought as she walks along, staring down at her feet. It turns out that she has just finished reading a blistering article about herself in the pop-music weekly New Musical Express, and it has left her near tears.

In England, O’Connor has become a controversial figure with the press. When she arrived on the scene, she was given to uttering often-acerbic views about politics, the music business and sex — and came across, in NME‘s estimation, as “the female Johnny Rotten of the 1980s, an angst-ridden young woman who shocked established society with her looks and views.”

Recently, O’Connor has done her best to undo this image, though the British press has been reluctant to let her outdistance or make amends for her past. In this morning’s NME, the newspaper takes several of the more controversial statements that O’Connor made a couple of years ago on a range of topics — including her views about U2, the Irish political situation and her former manager, Fachtna O’Ceallaigh — and contrasts them with her recent statements on the same subjects. It’s a scathing and intentionally mean-witted piece of journalism, and at the article’s end, writer Eugene Masterson asks: “Does a leopard change its spots so quickly or is Sinéad a chameleon who changes her views to suit her moods?” NME‘s implication couldn’t be clearer: O’Connor is an opportunist and manipulator who abandoned her forthrightness at the first blush of success.

“When the press looked at me,” O’Connor says, “they saw a woman with a shaved head and a pair of Doc Marten boots, and they assumed that I was aggressive and strong and tough. The truth is, I’m not really any of those things.” As she talks, O’Connor is tucked into the back seat of a taxi, en route to her home in the Golder’s Green area of North London. She stares out the window as the car makes its way through the rain-drenched maze of British urban sprawl, and she talks in a low but intense voice. “Just because I’m a woman that speaks my mind about things and doesn’t behave like some stupid blond bimbo, doesn’t mean that I’m aggressive,” she says. “It really hurts me when people think that — when they make me out to be some sort of nasty person, when all I want to do is be a good person. It can hurt so much that I feel like crying.”

O’Connor pauses and pulls absently at the hint of forelock at the front of her head. “They don’t care that if they say, ‘Sinéad O’Connor’s a complete bastard,’ I’m going to sit up all night and think, ‘I am a complete bastard,’ ” she says. “And when I’m walking down the street, I’ll be thinking, ‘Everyone’s looking at me, thinking what a complete bastard I am.’ Obviously, if they listened to any of my music — to a song like ‘The Last Day of Our Acquaintance’ — they would realize that I couldn’t possibly be as secure and strong as they would expect me to be. Obviously, there’s a lot of insecurity in there.

“But they don’t care about what a person has been through.”

A few minutes later, O’connor arrives at her home in North London. It is a medium-sized two-story cottage-style house, nestled into a side street of similar residences, just a stone’s throw from an ancient-looking graveyard. “I like dead people,” says O’Connor when asked if she ever minds the proximity. “I find it comforting to have them close by.”

Inside, O’Connor’s home is strewn with careworn toys and a few stray strands of Christmas lights left over from the holidays. In the smallish living room, she turns up the heat, takes off her leather jacket, grabs some cigarettes and a lighter from beside a portable cassette boombox — the house’s main stereo — and settles down in the corner of a weather-beaten sofa. A gray cat patiently watches O’Connor’s moves and then leaps onto the sofa and curls into a contented ball beside the singer. There is nothing in this scene of domestic modesty that would announce that you are visiting the home of what one critic has called “the decade’s first new superstar,” and apparently, O’Connor likes it that way.

“I never think of myself as Sinéad O’Connor, rock star,'” she says with a bashful smile. She picks a Silk Cut cigarette from her pack, lights it and thinks quietly for a moment. “The truth is,” she continues, “music doesn’t really play a huge part in my life. At the moment, I’m just putting an album out, and of course, that means a lot to me. But the most important part of my life isn’t the album: It’s the experiences that are written about in the album. To me, these records are like a chronological listing of every phase I’ve been through in my life. And it’s those experiences — not the music — that have made me happy or pissed me off.”

For O’Connor, many of her experiences have been harsh from the start. She was born the third of four children to John and Marie O’Connor, a young Catholic couple living in the Glenageary section of Dublin. John, an engineer, and Marie, a dressmaker, had married young, and by the time Sinéad came along, the relationship had already turned sour. It was a tense, sometimes brutal home life, and the violence occasionally carried over to the children — particularly the two daughters, with whom Marie had a strained relationship. “A child always thinks that it’s their fault that these things happen,” says Sinéad. “I was extremely fucked up about that for a long time. Between the family situation and the Catholicism, I developed a real capacity for guilt.”

One thing the family shared good feelings about was music. Marie O’Connor had sung Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in her youth, and she encouraged her children to explore their vocal talents. “Sinéad, in particular, had a good musical ear,” says John O’Connor. “I had her out for a walk one Saturday, up in the Dublin mountains, and I had a business Dictaphone along. It was never meant for singing, but Sinéad sang so pretty and nice this one time that I kept it on the tape. It’s interesting to hear how true Sinéad’s voice was, even at that stage. She could hit a note on the head and hold it for fifteen seconds or so — just like she can today.”

To Sinéad, though, singing was more a release than a pleasure. “I remember when I was very young,” she says, “I’d go out for walks, and I’d sort of be making little songs up. I think I was so fucked up that I wanted to make noises or something — like shout and scream about the whole thing. I suppose that’s how it started. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a singer: It was just that I could actually express the pain that I felt with my voice, because I didn’t have the facilities to express the pain that I felt in any other way. It was just all bubbling up in there, and it had to come out.”

In 1975, when Sinéad was eight, John and Marie O’Connor separated. For the first few years, Sinéad lived mostly with her mother. Marie was “extremely strict,” and by the time Sinéad was thirteen, she found life with her mother too grim and repressive and settled into her father’s home. “I think I took everything out on him,” she says. “I’d just come out of years of being severely abused. Suddenly I had all this freedom, and I didn’t know what to do with it.”

Sinéad began cutting classes, sometimes spending entire school weeks holed up in Dublin’s bowling alleys, playing video games. She also began stealing — first lifting money from her father, then from strangers, then eventually shoplifting clothes, perfume and shoes from local shops. Eventually she got caught. By this time, John O’Connor had left his career as an engineer and had taken up the practice of law — and he understood that his daughter might be headed for serious legal trouble. “She had good bloody reason to be unhappy with her home life,” he says, “though maybe it’s my own feeling of guilt my failure to do what was right for the kids at the time — that is speaking here. Anyway, Sinéad never did anything seriously wrong — she wasn’t a sex fiend or a dope fiend. But after she got caught nicking a pair of shoes in a shop in downtown Dublin, there was a fear that she was getting wayward.”

In the early Eighties, Sinéad’s father sent her to Sion Hill, in Blackrock — a school for girls with behavioral problems, run by Dominican nuns — and then to a succession of boarding schools that included Mayfield College, in Drumcondra, and Newtown School, in Waterford. “I sent her to these places,” he says, “because I couldn’t handle the problem any other way. She was resentful, but she also knew that she needed help. And she did go through a tremendous change pattern while she was in Waterford. That kid came out of that school, and she never looked back insofar as moral integrity is concerned. She’s now absolutely and fiercely honest, and she wasn’t when she went into that school.”

It was during her tenure in the boarding schools that Sinéad moved closer to music, spending evenings in her room, playing guitar and gradually writing some of the songs that would end up on The Lion and the Cobra. In 1982, a teacher at Mayfield asked the fifteen-year-old O’Connor to sing at her wedding. O’Connor sang Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen,” and her full-throated delivery caught the ear of Paul Byrne, the bride’s brother, who was also the drummer for In Tua Nua, an Irish band with ties to U2. She and Byrne struck up a friendship, and later O’Connor co-wrote In Tua Nua’s first single, “Take My Hand.” For a time, there was talk of her touring with the band, but her father insisted that she stay in school. Sinéad’s brush with recording had enlivened her, however, and she began singing in a folk duo in Waterford’s coffeehouses and pubs, where she became known for haunting and unusual originals, like “Never Get Old” and “Drink Before the War,” and for forceful covers of Bob Dylan songs, like “Simple Twist of Fate” and “One More Cup of Coffee.”

“Whatever depth and intensity was inside me,” she says, “it was coming out in my music. I didn’t know whether it was mystical or religious or what, but it was as if I was pulling a big rope out of the middle of me — a rope that had been there since before I was born.”

By the next year, O’Connor had decided it was time to leave school and become a professional singer, but her father refused. “And then,” he says, “she made the most determined statement she ever made about a professional career in music: She simply walked out of the school, saying nothing to anyone, and disappeared. She was only sixteen, and I was up a wall. I didn’t know where she was. When she came home, it was plain that she had made up her mind. So we sent her to the College of Music, in Dublin. I was hoping that she would get some classical education in singing so as not to damage the vocal cords. She also studied piano. She’s not a naive composer. She knows where she is in music.”

Then, in early 1985, Marie O’Connor was killed in a car wreck. It had been almost two years since Sinéad had seen her mother, and at the time of Marie’s death, their relationship was unreconciled. “I was completely and utterly destroyed,” O’Connor says. “I felt that we had never really had a relationship. But now, looking back, I know that my mother knew I loved her very much, and I know she loved me. More than anything, I just felt sorry for her. Her life had been such misery, and as a result, our lives had been misery. It just must have been hell for her. She had lost her career when she got married, and she’d had baby after baby, and I don’t think she had ever had time in all those years to figure herself out, like I’ve had since leaving Ireland.

“More than anything, I think she is the reason why I sing.”

By 1985, galvanized by the international success of Irish heroes U2, Dublin had become something of a hotbed for aspiring rock and folk acts. In the early part of the year, Nigel Grainge and Chris Hill, the director and manager, respectively, of London’s Ensign Records (and early supporters of Ireland’s Thin Lizzy and Boomtown Rats), paid a visit to Dublin, auditioning area bands at a local rehearsal studio. Nothing much caught their attention until the last group on their list — Ton Ton Macoute, who had acquired some acclaim for a new lead singer.

“At first,” says Hill, “they looked like another godawful pub-rock band. Then Sinéad walked in. She had thick black hair and was so pretty — though she wasn’t made up to look pretty. Then she sang. The songs were dreadful, but her voice was incredible. It ranged from this kind of pure little folk voice to a banshee wail, like something from the depths of somewhere. Yet she was so self-conscious. If she could have crawled back into the corner and sang with her back to us, she would have. At the end, Nigel said to her, ‘What you’re doing now isn’t right for us, but if you feel you hit on something, get in touch.’ The usual thing.”

Six weeks later, back in London, Grainge got a letter from Sinéad. “Dear Nigel,” she wrote, “I’ve left the band. I’m writing my own songs. You did say you would be interested in recording some demos of my stuff, so when I finish the songs, will you do it?” Grainge had made no such promise, but he was impressed by O’Connor’s sly ambition and sent her an airplane ticket. Two weeks later, when O’Connor arrived, Grainge had forgotten about her visit. Flustered, he called Karl Wallinger, who had just left the Waterboys to form World Party, and asked him to help the young Irish singer through her demos. That night, when Grainge visited the session, Wallinger met him at the door with a smile. “I think you’re gonna get a real surprise here,” he told Grainge. As Grainge walked in, O’Connor was in the middle of taping her last song, “Troy” — a mesmeric account of sexual need and romantic betrayal. Grainge was riveted and signed O’Connor to Ensign. “Her performances,” he says, “were absolutely devastating.”

Shortly after, O’Connor moved to London and started work on the material for her first album. “She was clearly very lonely,” says Grainge. “She spent a lot of time hanging around the office, making tea and answering phones. Our big charge was to play her records. The first time we ever heard her, we said, ‘You sound like Grace Slick.’ She said, ‘Grace who? ‘ Another time, I asked, ‘How much Aretha Franklin have you ever heard?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know — who’s Aretha Franklin?’ “

“I asked her once, ‘Where do you think you fit in musically?’ ” adds Hill. “And she said, ‘Well, somewhere between Kate Bush and Madonna. I’m not sure where.’ And we thought, ‘That covers every fucking angle, right?’ “

O’Connor was writing music and developing at a surprising pace — and the sense of change began to show in her appearance. “She was always playing with her hair,” says Grainge. “One minute she had a Mohican. That was on for a couple of weeks, and then it all went — she walked in, and she had shaved herself bald. We thought, ‘Well, there’s a statement.’ ” Over the next few years, O’Connor’s bare scalp would strike various journalists as provocative, frightening, ugly, gorgeous, sexy and shocking — and would also help make her one of the most unforgettable new faces in all pop.

During this period, O’Connor met two other people who were to figure prominently in her life. The first was John Reynolds, the former drummer with the British trash-pop band Transvision Vamp. Reynolds started dating O’Connor after joining her studio band, and a month later, Sinéad was pregnant. “I was the only one that felt completely sure and delighted about the idea of having a baby,” she says. “I could understand John’s reluctance. Suddenly his whole life was flashing before him. But then there was the record company. They thought I was jeopardizing my career. My attitude was that if I had been a man, and my wife or girlfriend was pregnant, they wouldn’t be telling me that I couldn’t have it.

“I was very upset and very hurt. How could I choose between my career or a child? They’re both as important as each other. It wasn’t a Catholicism thing — I had nothing against abortion. In fact, I was actually in the hospital bed about to have an abortion, and then I left. It wasn’t me that wanted to have it. I wanted the baby — and I decided to have it.”

The other person that Sinéad met during this time was Fachtna O’Ceallaigh — an Irish patriot who had managed the Boomtown Rats and Bananarama and who also headed U2’s fledgling label for home-grown Irish bands, Mother Records. To the consternation of Grainge, O’Connor wanted O’Ceallaigh for her manager. “I opposed the connection,” says Grainge. “I knew Fachtna from many years before, when the Boomtown Rats were on Ensign. Fachtna gets very emotionally involved with his acts. He can be very inspiring, but he can also be infuriating when he doesn’t get his way. I told Sinéad: ‘I don’t want to work with Fachtna, and I don’t want him to be your manager.’ Which was the absolute wrong thing to say. It was like a father telling a child, ‘You can’t do this.’ She came back to me and said, ‘Fachtna O’Ceallaigh is my manager. Get on with it.’ And Fachtna became very closely involved with Sinéad. I mean, he was her mentor for a serious period of time.”

In the fall of 1986, O’Connor had begun to work with producer Mick Glossop on the first album, but the sessions soon fizzled. “The tracks sounded like a cabaret-rock version of these wonderful songs,” says Grainge. Adds Hill, “She was a young girl of nineteen years, who was pregnant and frightened that if she fucked up, she was gonna lose her record deal and be told to go back to Ireland.”

A few weeks later, Grainge, at the prompting of O’Ceallaigh, proposed a solution. “I kept thinking about what she had done with the demos,” he says, “how great they had felt. So I said, ‘Go in with a decent engineer, Sinéad, and produce it yourself. You know what these songs are about and how they should sound.’ About that time Fachtna came heavily into the situation. His style of management is to completely divide the artist from the record company, and from that stage, she stopped coming into the record company.”

In April 1987, at age twenty, seven months pregnant and with almost no studio expertise, O’Connor took over the production of her maiden album. Two months later, she had finished a record that all parties were thrilled with, and two weeks after that, she gave birth to her son, Jake Reynolds. It should have been a triumphal time. The Lion and the Cobra was a terrific album full of deeply felt songs about desire, damnation and courage, and O’Connor produced and arranged it all in a style that spanned folk music, orchestral rock and bass-heavy dance pop.

But within months, O’Connor felt herself embroiled in feuds and controversies. In early 1988, U2 dismissed Fachtna O’Ceallaigh from Mother Records, citing “incompatible temperaments”; O’Ceallaigh had once told a reporter, “I literally despise the music that U2 make.” Later, in an interview with Britain’s i-D magazine, O’Connor made some disparaging remarks about U2’s “bombastic” music and found herself reproached by the band’s associates. Before long, angry feelings and bitter statements had escalated on both sides. At one point, O’Connor was quoted as saying: “I have no respect for Bono and no affiliation with his music or ideas…. I know he’s faking that sincerity.” Another time, in a less-gracious mood, she told Melody Maker, “[U2] take themselves so fuckin’ seriously. [Bono’s] just a stupid turd.”

O’Connor has attempted to make amends for the affair, but a certain rancor still lingers. “I felt ostracized and punished over that whole thing,” she says. “But I also felt guilty, because I knew in the back of my mind that some of the things I was saying were not said for myself. I expressed anger with U2 because they had hurt Fachtna, who was a friend of mine. I was wrong to do that, because, really, Fachtna should fight his own battles. I had been hateful toward somebody I had no right to be hateful toward. U2 hadn’t really done anything shitty to me. But I also learned that U2 were a powerful band, and that the British and Irish music establishment would not allow you to be critical of them.”

O’Connor’s comments about the IRA — the outlawed political movement that opposes British dominance in the country and has committed numerous killings and bombings to achieve its aims — were even more controversial. On one occasion, O’Connor was quoted as saying: “I support the IRA…. I don’t like the violence, but I do understand it, it’s necessary even though it’s terrible.” In the British press — with whom the IRA is extremely unpopular — these comments were construed as an endorsement of terrorist violence.

O’Connor has long since disavowed any support of the IRA or its methods, but the issue continues to plague her. “I was involved in very complex relationships during that time,” she says now, “and I was influenced by the people I was hanging around with. I wanted their approval, and I was expressing things in order to get that approval, without realizing that that’s what I was doing. I should not have condoned the use of violence by anyone. I don’t believe that it’s right for either side involved in the war to kill people. I also don’t think for a second that the British government have any right to be in Ireland. But as I say, I was condoning violence to impress the people I was involved with, and should not have done that.”

The period following The Lion and the Cobra was also rough for more personal reasons. Shortly after Jake’s birth, O’Connor and John Reynolds separated for a time. Then, following O’Connor’s appearance at the 1988 Grammy Awards, she returned to London and, to the surprise of many friends and associates, married Reynolds. “I was in a lot of pain during that time,” she says, “but it wasn’t due to John. It was the fact that I was with somebody else who was fucking me up.”

It is now late in the afternoon, and the light in the living room has grown dim. O’Connor gets up, turns on a lamp, then settles back into the sofa, lighting a cigarette. “Around the time I got married,” she continues, “I had been physically ill for a long time. I’d been going to doctors, and nobody could figure out what was wrong. Then, for a whole summer, I saw a woman who’s like a spiritual healer and a dietitian, and I started doing yoga with her. That process gave me a chance to get my act together mentally and to begin to see that I was involved with people who were bringing out negative things in me.

“I realized that I had no control over myself — that other people were in control of me, that I was expressing opinions that were other people’s, that practically everything I was doing was to please other people. So I decided I had to assume control over myself in every aspect, and that meant I had to sever some relationships that were very, very difficult to sever. I had to summon the strength to be able to say bye-bye to people that I had previously thought I couldn’t function without. Now I feel like I’m sitting at the helm, where I’m supposed to be sitting. Now I’m the captain of my own ship.”

One of the relationships — perhaps the primary one — that O’Connor severed at this time was with Fachtna O’Ceallaigh. According to John O’Connor, “Fachtna came too close to seeing Sinéad as a possession. Management should be an arm’s-length affair; there’s a relationship that has to be kept scrupulously in its place. The manager’s first duty is that their client’s career should be maximized, and they should not let their personal feelings enter into it at all — whether they’re political feelings or emotional feelings.”

In December of last year, Sinéad O’Connor dismissed O’Ceallaigh as her manager. (She is now represented by Steve Fargnoli, one of Prince’s former managers.) Neither party is inclined to discuss the details of the separation, though O’Connor says: “Fachtna had given me a sense of my rights as an artist. He instilled in me the idea that if it wasn’t for people like me, the record industry would not exist — which is true. And he instilled in me the idea that I must have control over what goes on regarding how my image and work are presented. Most important, he was instrumental in showing me that I should be honest and true, and not compromise myself.”

But according to Chris Hill, O’Ceallaigh’s contribution went beyond that. “He did two important things: He helped her discover a part of herself — her sense of purpose and worm — but he also badly fucked her up. And the two things together are what made Sinéad O’Connor what she is.”

For his part, O’Ceallaigh says simply, “What is important to me is what Sinéad says. She is the one who knows exactly what occurred over the three-year period that I managed her. And even more important than that, her reaction means everything to me because she has always been and will always continue to be, as long as I’m alive, a best friend of mine. Everything else — whether. it’s success or fame or whatever, all the things that attend success — it’s all basically rubbish. I never thought of Sinéad as a person or object who made records. I thought of her as a human being and friend.”

Following her firing of O’Ceallaigh, O’Connor holed up in a garage studio with sound engineer Chris Birkett, and in a surprisingly short time had finished writing and producing the tracks for I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got — in effect, a collection of hard-hitting and heartrending songs about the circumstances of her recent life. “It is simply a record about a twenty-three-year-old human being,” says O’Connor, “and what she makes of her experiences. Some of the experiences are angry and some are hurtful. I write about whatever it is I happen to be going through at the time, and so if something awful was happening to me, that’s what I wrote about.”

Around the end of the year, O’Connor called Nigel Grainge and Chris Hill. She had been trying to rebuild relations with the pair and felt the time had come to play them the rough mixes for I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. “After we first heard it,” says Hill, “we were shell-shocked. I mean, it’s so personal, we couldn’t even make a judgment about it, and we couldn’t think in terms of whether it was a hit record. It is intense. I know she dunks it’s a happy record, but it doesn’t convey happiness — it conveys trauma. Because of our reaction, she thought we didn’t like it, and she said, ‘It’s not for men to like; it’s a woman’s statement.’ But Nigel and I both had been through divorces. You listen to some little girl singing ‘The Last Day of Our Acquaintance,’ and you know what it’s about. We’ve been there.”

Says O’Connor: “Nigel told me, ‘You can’t put that out; it’s too personal.’ I said, ‘People that like me, like me because of that. That’s what I do.’ “

Now, though, as O’Connor sits in her living room discussing the record, it seems evident that I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is going to be more popular than anyone imagined. “If you think about the kind of songs I write,” she says, “it’s strange that they would be commercial. I mean, they’re so personal. I think about why I wrote a song like ‘Last Day of Our Acquaintance,’ and then I think about millions of people buying and listening to it … It’s really weird.”

There is a noise — actually, an earsplitting scream — at the living-room door, and in a moment, O’Connor’s two-and-a-half-year-old son, Jake, bounds in, all smiles and whoops. He is blond haired and red cheeked and has the same deep eyes as his mother, but he turns shy when he sees a stranger sitting in the room. He is followed by his father, a tall, gracious man, who is home from rehearsals with his own band, Max. John and Sinéad have some family business to discuss — Sinéad’s brother Joseph has just signed a contract for his first novel, and John and Sinéad are wondering where to take him and her father for a family celebration next evening. Finally they settle on a local transvestite club — where a drag queen is reportedly delivering an impression of Sinéad singing “Nothing Compares 2 U,” replete with tear — and then John and Jake take off to begin dinner. Before going, Jake emits one last glorious yelp. “He’s mad, that child,” says Sinéad, shaking her head and smiling. “I feel like he really wanted to be born — he’s such a happy kid.”

She falls quiet for a few moments, pulling at her forelock. “A couple of years ago,” she says, “I was having a hard time as far as my personal life was concerned, and that mattered much more to me than whether my record was doing well or anything like that. But at the moment, I’m very happy. I have a lovely husband, a lovely son and everything’s going wonderfully.

“Really, I don’t know what more I could want — except to know myself a bit better. But then, that’s what I’m trying to do when I write songs.”

A month later, Sinéad O’Connor stands before a twenty-three-piece orchestra in London’s elegant Whitehall Banqueting House, dressed in a lime-green low-cut dress, singing a lush and sweet version of Cole Porter’s “You Do Something to Me.” The occasion is a press conference to announce Red Hot & Blue, an upcoming double album and television special that will feature pop artists like O’Connor, U2, David Byrne, Fine Young Cannibals and Neneh Cherry interpreting the music of Cole Porter. The project will benefit AIDS charities, as well as disseminate information about the disease and its prevention. O’Connor is the press conference’s surprise guest, and it is plain from her performance of this Tin Pan Alley chestnut just what an exemplary singer she is. She rocks gently to the song’s steady but tricky groove, and in those moments when the lyric calls for a subtle roar, she pulls her mouth back from the microphone in the manner of a seasoned jazz vocalist.

In the last few weeks, O’Connor’s world has exploded all over again, though this time in a beneficent fashion. “Nothing Compares 2 U” has become a huge international hit — the biggest record of the year so far — and earlier in the week, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got stormed into Billboard‘s Top Ten. In a few days, O’Connor will begin a lengthy world tour, and in preparation for it, her life has become filled up with appurtenances — beepers, portable cellular phones and the nice new blue car that she is being driven around in. All these attachments are designed to make her life easier and more efficient, but in other ways they amount to signs of pressure and obligation. This morning, O’Connor is in great spirits, though there are times, she admits, when the recent rush of events is exhausting. “It’s like my life is changing,” she says. “It’s like it will never be normal again.”

Later, after a long and tiring day of rehearsals, O’Connor is sitting in her room at a Holiday Inn when the telephone rings. She answers it, exchanges some pleasantries — and then begins to screech at an earsplitting level. “You’re joking!” she yells. “I don’t believe you. Fucking amazing.” She lets out another scream and begins jumping up and down on her bed. “How the fuck did you find out?” It turns out that it’s a friend of O’Connor’s calling to tell her that “Nothing Compares 2 U” has just become the Number One single in America after only a few weeks in release. In addition, it appears likely that I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got will top the album charts the following week. “I can’t believe it,” squeals O’Connor. “I better go and phone my father. Actually, I’ll phone you back. I’ve got to get control over myself.”

A few seconds later, the phone rings again. It is her assistant, Ciara O’Flanagan, telling O’Connor that her manager, Steve Fargnoli, is in the bar downstairs and wants to congratulate her. O’Connor bolts out of the door for the elevator, bouncing barefoot up and down the hallway, exclaiming, “Number One! In America!” For the next couple of hours, O’Connor is a model of exultation and childlike glee, ordering Singapore Slings two at a time and calling her father in Ireland on the cellular phone (when O’Flanagan points out that it’s an expensive call, O’Connor says, “I know, but when you’re Number One in America — ” and then breaks into a blush, laughing). “From now on,” she tells her friends in the bar, lifting her drink and tilting her nose in a mock high-society manner, “we are to refer to me as ‘M’lady.’ “

Later, though, back in her hotel room, when asked what it means to her to have a Number One single in America, O’Connor greets the question seriously. “I don’t feel like it’s me, almost,” she says. “It’s like a big fantasy. All the time you grow up, watching Top of the Pops or being interested in music, you always wonder what it would be like.

“I mean, I’m very excited and very grateful that it’s happened, but it really doesn’t change what I said before. I don’t want to be a rock star, I don’t want to be treated like one, and I don’t want any of the associations that go with it. I just want to be treated like an ordinary person, and I want people to remember that the most important things in my life are not making records and going around the world on tour. The most important thing is my family, and my spiritual beliefs. If I didn’t have those things, I wouldn’t be inspired to do anything.”

Earlier, Chris Hill had said something trenchant about O’Connor’s capacity for success: “I think she has a fire in her to be the biggest. In fact, she once told me, ‘I’m gonna be the biggest star there’s ever been.’ And I think she certainly likes the fame. But I also think that there’s a point where she won’t give any more than she needs to and where she’ll say, ‘Fuck it, I’m not doing any more than this. The rest of my life is mine.’ She could actually do that next week. She could turn around and say, ‘This is as big as I want to be; beyond here I don’t like it.’

“But at the moment,” Hill continued, “there is a more important question that confronts Sinéad: Does her art always have to come from pain? And it is an important question. We won’t know for years. She will still go through extremes of happiness and unhappiness in the next few years unless she is in control of the unhappiness so much that she never again has to suffer from it. And I pray to God she’ll be able to make great records when she’s happy — not for our sake, because all we have to do is sell them. It’s for her sake. No one should be sentenced to the unhappiness of a van Gogh just because that’s the only way they can work.”

Watching O’Connor as she calls friends and relatives and, with a sweet mix of shyness and pride, tells them her single has gone to Number One, the last thing anyone would wish on her would be more pain — even if it would make for more records as meaningful and captivating as I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. If the depths of the heart and mind can be determined by how one deals with unforgettable losses, or unattainable longings, then O’Connor has paid for her depths. She has learned some difficult truths — that life and love will break your heart, that success and fame are at best fleering victories and that no matter what blessings she finds in adulthood, nothing can erase the scars of past experiences or undo their memories. And though she has found a way to accept those truths, she has also found a way to rage back at them.

Still, there are moments when O’Connor is talking about all the newfound peace in her life and a tortured look will suddenly cross her face. Maybe in those moments she fears the happiness as much as she ever dreaded the hurts — because few things hurt more than realizing that, sooner or later, happiness goes the way of all evanescent dreams. In moments like that, sitting in crowded rooms with all the lights on, Sinéad O’Connor may not be all that distant from an all-too-familiar darkness, though maybe now it’s internalized into a more manageable, companionable place.

Whatever the sources of that look, O’Connor wears it with a brave face. “Every experience I’ve had,” she says, “is a good experience, even the bad ones. An understanding of sorrow and pain is an important thing to have, because if nothing else, it also gives you an appreciation for happiness. People who’ve been brought up happy and normal often don’t have an understanding of what life might be like for other people. Whereas people who have had an unhappy life have that understanding. In the kind of work that I do, it’s important to have an understanding of sorrow and pain and what life is like for other people.

“I realize,” she says, offering a shy smile, “that I’m in a very lucky position, and maybe something I pass along in my songs might be able to help somebody else. But that couldn’t happen if I didn’t have the experiences I’ve had.”

t she is singing about, and it transformed her life.

Tonight, she seems to be singing the song as if she were composing its painful recollections and caustic indictments on the spot. In a voice that veers between hesitation and accusation, O’Connor sings: “I know you don’t love me anymore/You used to hold my hand when the plane took off/Two years ago there just seemed so much more/And I don’t know what happened to our love.” And then, just when the music should surge into the crashing chords and fierce yowls that frame the song’s bitter kiss-off, O’Connor halts the performance abruptly, and for several long seconds there is only silence from the dark booth. “I need to practice that one a bit,” she says in a shaky tone. “I need to calm down.”

A minute later, O’Connor resumes the song, and this time she leans harder into the performance. It is an exceptional thing to witness. Somewhere in that darkened booth, a young woman with an almost supernatural voice — a voice that can convey rage, longing, shock and sorrow, all in the same breath — is both chasing down, and being chased by, some difficult private memories, and it seems less like a pop performance than an act of necessary release. It is also a timeless ritual: Pop, jazz and blues singers have been sitting in darkened recording booths turning private pain into public divulgence for generations. But many of the best of those singers — from Billie Holiday to John Lennon — were, in one way or another, ravaged by that darkness. If Sinéad O’Connor has her way, she is going to howl at that darkness until there are no more bitter truths that it can hold.

Maybe it’s her startling looks that first catch you — that soft black bristle that barely covers her naked head or those soulful hazel eyes that can fix you with a stare that is hungry, vulnerable and piercing in the same instant Sooner or later, though, it is Sinéad O’Connor’s voice — and its harsh beauty — that you will have to reckon with. According to her father, it is a voice that she inherited from her mother — a passionate and often troubled woman. According to Nigel Grainge, the president of her record company, it is a voice that bears the lineage of her strife-torn and heartbroken homeland, Ireland. “We’re talking soul singing, like Van Morrison,” he says. “That is, real soul singing.”

Whatever its origins, O’Connor’s voice is a remarkable and forceful instrument, and it is fast establishing her as one of the most estimable new pop artists to emerge in years. This is a heartening development, though also — given the sort of music that O’Connor makes — a completely unlikely one. On the basis of her 1987 debut work, The Lion and the Cobra — a brilliant album about sexual fury and spiritual passion — O’Connor seemed fated for a career like that of Van Morrison, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen or many of rock’s other great truth tellers: namely, a career of essential artistry, on the border of mainstream affection. But with I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, Sinéad O’Connor has achieved both widespread success and flat-out greatness. Furious and lovely, the album is the work of a young woman who has had to weather some hard and haunting losses and who sets out to rebuild her faith. By the album’s end, she has won a certain measure of hard-earned peace but only by venting some racking pain and leveling an excoriating rage at those who have betrayed her. In an era when even many of the best pop albums are increasingly subservient to the dominance of style and beat, Sinéad O’Connor has fashioned a full-length work that takes uncommon thematic risks and that makes style entirely subservient to emotional expression. Like Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, O’Connor’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is an intensely introspective work that is so affecting and farsighted, it seems capable of defining the mood or experience of an entire audience.

Which is exactly what it appears to be doing. In the U.K., the album bulleted to the top of the charts in its first week of release. In America, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got climbed to Number One on Billboard’s album chart within a month of its release — an almost unprecedented feat for a relatively unknown female artist. The singer herself believes that it is the video version of the first single — a deep-blue cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” — that has paved the way for the album’s success. Indeed, “Nothing Compares 2 U” is a gripping performance: For five minutes, O’Connor holds the camera — and therefore the viewer — with a heartsick gaze and tries to make sense of how she lost the one love that she could never afford to lose. One instant she tosses out sass, the next, utter desolation, until by the song’s end, the singer’s grief has become too much for her, and she cries a solitary tear of inconsolable loss.

“I didn’t intend for that moment to happen,” says O’Connor, “but when it did, I thought, ‘I should let this happen.’ I think it shocks people. Some people, I know, really hate it — maybe because it’s so honest, or maybe because they’re embarrassed by displays of emotions.

“But I think I’m probably living proof of the danger of not expressing your feelings. For years I couldn’t express how I felt. I think that’s how music helped me. I also drink that’s why it’s the most powerful medium: because it expresses for other people feelings that they can’t express but that need to be expressed. If you don’t express those feelings — whether they’re aggressive or loving or whatever — they will blow you up one day.”

Spend much time around O’Connor, and you’ll find that she’s a lot like her music — that is, smart and complex, and she can effortlessly tap into deep wells of sadness and anger. But as often as not, she can also prove sweet and goofy, and she can seem truly bewildered by the rituals and expectations that accompany fame. For example, the day after her performance at BBC Radio, during the photo session for this article, O’Connor takes the occasion as an opportunity for listening and dancing to some homemade tapes of reggae oldies and recent hip-hop faves like Queen Latifah and N.W.A. (Hip-hop, says O’Connor, is the pop form that she feels has the closest spiritual kinship to her own music.) Sometimes, right before striking a serious pose, Sinéad will roll her eyes and crack up, as if she’s both tickled and embarrassed by the notion of her own celebrity.

At other times, the realities of O’Connor’s fame can prove less amusing. The afternoon following the photo shoot, O’Connor is walking down a hallway at the offices of her London record company, wearing dark sunglasses and a black leather jacket. She has the hood of a white jersey pulled over her head and seems deep in thought as she walks along, staring down at her feet. It turns out that she has just finished reading a blistering article about herself in the pop-music weekly New Musical Express, and it has left her near tears.

In England, O’Connor has become a controversial figure with the press. When she arrived on the scene, she was given to uttering often-acerbic views about politics, the music business and sex — and came across, in NME‘s estimation, as “the female Johnny Rotten of the 1980s, an angst-ridden young woman who shocked established society with her looks and views.”

Recently, O’Connor has done her best to undo this image, though the British press has been reluctant to let her outdistance or make amends for her past. In this morning’s NME, the newspaper takes several of the more controversial statements that O’Connor made a couple of years ago on a range of topics — including her views about U2, the Irish political situation and her former manager, Fachtna O’Ceallaigh — and contrasts them with her recent statements on the same subjects. It’s a scathing and intentionally mean-witted piece of journalism, and at the article’s end, writer Eugene Masterson asks: “Does a leopard change its spots so quickly or is Sinéad a chameleon who changes her views to suit her moods?” NME‘s implication couldn’t be clearer: O’Connor is an opportunist and manipulator who abandoned her forthrightness at the first blush of success.

“When the press looked at me,” O’Connor says, “they saw a woman with a shaved head and a pair of Doc Marten boots, and they assumed that I was aggressive and strong and tough. The truth is, I’m not really any of those things.” As she talks, O’Connor is tucked into the back seat of a taxi, en route to her home in the Golder’s Green area of North London. She stares out the window as the car makes its way through the rain-drenched maze of British urban sprawl, and she talks in a low but intense voice. “Just because I’m a woman that speaks my mind about things and doesn’t behave like some stupid blond bimbo, doesn’t mean that I’m aggressive,” she says. “It really hurts me when people think that — when they make me out to be some sort of nasty person, when all I want to do is be a good person. It can hurt so much that I feel like crying.”

O’Connor pauses and pulls absently at the hint of forelock at the front of her head. “They don’t care that if they say, ‘Sinéad O’Connor’s a complete bastard,’ I’m going to sit up all night and think, ‘I am a complete bastard,’ ” she says. “And when I’m walking down the street, I’ll be thinking, ‘Everyone’s looking at me, thinking what a complete bastard I am.’ Obviously, if they listened to any of my music — to a song like ‘The Last Day of Our Acquaintance’ — they would realize that I couldn’t possibly be as secure and strong as they would expect me to be. Obviously, there’s a lot of insecurity in there.

“But they don’t care about what a person has been through.”

A few minutes later, O’Connor arrives at her home in North London. It is a medium-sized two-story cottage-style house, nestled into a side street of similar residences, just a stone’s throw from an ancient-looking graveyard. “I like dead people,” says O’Connor when asked if she ever minds the proximity. “I find it comforting to have them close by.”

Inside, O’Connor’s home is strewn with careworn toys and a few stray strands of Christmas lights left over from the holidays. In the smallish living room, she turns up the heat, takes off her leather jacket, grabs some cigarettes and a lighter from beside a portable cassette boombox — the house’s main stereo — and settles down in the corner of a weather-beaten sofa. A gray cat patiently watches O’Connor’s moves and then leaps onto the sofa and curls into a contented ball beside the singer. There is nothing in this scene of domestic modesty that would announce that you are visiting the home of what one critic has called “the decade’s first new superstar,” and apparently, O’Connor likes it that way.

“I never think of myself as Sinéad O’Connor, rock star,'” she says with a bashful smile. She picks a Silk Cut cigarette from her pack, lights it and thinks quietly for a moment. “The truth is,” she continues, “music doesn’t really play a huge part in my life. At the moment, I’m just putting an album out, and of course, that means a lot to me. But the most important part of my life isn’t the album: It’s the experiences that are written about in the album. To me, these records are like a chronological listing of every phase I’ve been through in my life. And it’s those experiences — not the music — that have made me happy or pissed me off.”

For O’Connor, many of her experiences have been harsh from the start. She was born the third of four children to John and Marie O’Connor, a young Catholic couple living in the Glenageary section of Dublin. John, an engineer, and Marie, a dressmaker, had married young, and by the time Sinéad came along, the relationship had already turned sour. It was a tense, sometimes brutal home life, and the violence occasionally carried over to the children — particularly the two daughters, with whom Marie had a strained relationship. “A child always thinks that it’s their fault that these things happen,” says Sinéad. “I was extremely fucked up about that for a long time. Between the family situation and the Catholicism, I developed a real capacity for guilt.”

One thing the family shared good feelings about was music. Marie O’Connor had sung Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in her youth, and she encouraged her children to explore their vocal talents. “Sinéad, in particular, had a good musical ear,” says John O’Connor. “I had her out for a walk one Saturday, up in the Dublin mountains, and I had a business Dictaphone along. It was never meant for singing, but Sinéad sang so pretty and nice this one time that I kept it on the tape. It’s interesting to hear how true Sinéad’s voice was, even at that stage. She could hit a note on the head and hold it for fifteen seconds or so — just like she can today.”

To Sinéad, though, singing was more a release than a pleasure. “I remember when I was very young,” she says, “I’d go out for walks, and I’d sort of be making little songs up. I think I was so fucked up that I wanted to make noises or something — like shout and scream about the whole thing. I suppose that’s how it started. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a singer: It was just that I could actually express the pain that I felt with my voice, because I didn’t have the facilities to express the pain that I felt in any other way. It was just all bubbling up in there, and it had to come out.”

In 1975, when Sinéad was eight, John and Marie O’Connor separated. For the first few years, Sinéad lived mostly with her mother. Marie was “extremely strict,” and by the time Sinéad was thirteen, she found life with her mother too grim and repressive and settled into her father’s home. “I think I took everything out on him,” she says. “I’d just come out of years of being severely abused. Suddenly I had all this freedom, and I didn’t know what to do with it.”

Sinéad began cutting classes, sometimes spending entire school weeks holed up in Dublin’s bowling alleys, playing video games. She also began stealing — first lifting money from her father, then from strangers, then eventually shoplifting clothes, perfume and shoes from local shops. Eventually she got caught. By this time, John O’Connor had left his career as an engineer and had taken up the practice of law — and he understood that his daughter might be headed for serious legal trouble. “She had good bloody reason to be unhappy with her home life,” he says, “though maybe it’s my own feeling of guilt my failure to do what was right for the kids at the time — that is speaking here. Anyway, Sinéad never did anything seriously wrong — she wasn’t a sex fiend or a dope fiend. But after she got caught nicking a pair of shoes in a shop in downtown Dublin, there was a fear that she was getting wayward.”

In the early Eighties, Sinéad’s father sent her to Sion Hill, in Blackrock — a school for girls with behavioral problems, run by Dominican nuns — and then to a succession of boarding schools that included Mayfield College, in Drumcondra, and Newtown School, in Waterford. “I sent her to these places,” he says, “because I couldn’t handle the problem any other way. She was resentful, but she also knew that she needed help. And she did go through a tremendous change pattern while she was in Waterford. That kid came out of that school, and she never looked back insofar as moral integrity is concerned. She’s now absolutely and fiercely honest, and she wasn’t when she went into that school.”

It was during her tenure in the boarding schools that Sinéad moved closer to music, spending evenings in her room, playing guitar and gradually writing some of the songs that would end up on The Lion and the Cobra. In 1982, a teacher at Mayfield asked the fifteen-year-old O’Connor to sing at her wedding. O’Connor sang Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen,” and her full-throated delivery caught the ear of Paul Byrne, the bride’s brother, who was also the drummer for In Tua Nua, an Irish band with ties to U2. She and Byrne struck up a friendship, and later O’Connor co-wrote In Tua Nua’s first single, “Take My Hand.” For a time, there was talk of her touring with the band, but her father insisted that she stay in school. Sinéad’s brush with recording had enlivened her, however, and she began singing in a folk duo in Waterford’s coffeehouses and pubs, where she became known for haunting and unusual originals, like “Never Get Old” and “Drink Before the War,” and for forceful covers of Bob Dylan songs, like “Simple Twist of Fate” and “One More Cup of Coffee.”

“Whatever depth and intensity was inside me,” she says, “it was coming out in my music. I didn’t know whether it was mystical or religious or what, but it was as if I was pulling a big rope out of the middle of me — a rope that had been there since before I was born.”

By the next year, O’Connor had decided it was time to leave school and become a professional singer, but her father refused. “And then,” he says, “she made the most determined statement she ever made about a professional career in music: She simply walked out of the school, saying nothing to anyone, and disappeared. She was only sixteen, and I was up a wall. I didn’t know where she was. When she came home, it was plain that she had made up her mind. So we sent her to the College of Music, in Dublin. I was hoping that she would get some classical education in singing so as not to damage the vocal cords. She also studied piano. She’s not a naive composer. She knows where she is in music.”

Then, in early 1985, Marie O’Connor was killed in a car wreck. It had been almost two years since Sinéad had seen her mother, and at the time of Marie’s death, their relationship was unreconciled. “I was completely and utterly destroyed,” O’Connor says. “I felt that we had never really had a relationship. But now, looking back, I know that my mother knew I loved her very much, and I know she loved me. More than anything, I just felt sorry for her. Her life had been such misery, and as a result, our lives had been misery. It just must have been hell for her. She had lost her career when she got married, and she’d had baby after baby, and I don’t think she had ever had time in all those years to figure herself out, like I’ve had since leaving Ireland.

“More than anything, I think she is the reason why I sing.”

By 1985, galvanized by the international success of Irish heroes U2, Dublin had become something of a hotbed for aspiring rock and folk acts. In the early part of the year, Nigel Grainge and Chris Hill, the director and manager, respectively, of London’s Ensign Records (and early supporters of Ireland’s Thin Lizzy and Boomtown Rats), paid a visit to Dublin, auditioning area bands at a local rehearsal studio. Nothing much caught their attention until the last group on their list — Ton Ton Macoute, who had acquired some acclaim for a new lead singer.

“At first,” says Hill, “they looked like another godawful pub-rock band. Then Sinéad walked in. She had thick black hair and was so pretty — though she wasn’t made up to look pretty. Then she sang. The songs were dreadful, but her voice was incredible. It ranged from this kind of pure little folk voice to a banshee wail, like something from the depths of somewhere. Yet she was so self-conscious. If she could have crawled back into the corner and sang with her back to us, she would have. At the end, Nigel said to her, ‘What you’re doing now isn’t right for us, but if you feel you hit on something, get in touch.’ The usual thing.”

Six weeks later, back in London, Grainge got a letter from Sinéad. “Dear Nigel,” she wrote, “I’ve left the band. I’m writing my own songs. You did say you would be interested in recording some demos of my stuff, so when I finish the songs, will you do it?” Grainge had made no such promise, but he was impressed by O’Connor’s sly ambition and sent her an airplane ticket. Two weeks later, when O’Connor arrived, Grainge had forgotten about her visit. Flustered, he called Karl Wallinger, who had just left the Waterboys to form World Party, and asked him to help the young Irish singer through her demos. That night, when Grainge visited the session, Wallinger met him at the door with a smile. “I think you’re gonna get a real surprise here,” he told Grainge. As Grainge walked in, O’Connor was in the middle of taping her last song, “Troy” — a mesmeric account of sexual need and romantic betrayal. Grainge was riveted and signed O’Connor to Ensign. “Her performances,” he says, “were absolutely devastating.”

Shortly after, O’Connor moved to London and started work on the material for her first album. “She was clearly very lonely,” says Grainge. “She spent a lot of time hanging around the office, making tea and answering phones. Our big charge was to play her records. The first time we ever heard her, we said, ‘You sound like Grace Slick.’ She said, ‘Grace who? ‘ Another time, I asked, ‘How much Aretha Franklin have you ever heard?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know — who’s Aretha Franklin?’ “

“I asked her once, ‘Where do you think you fit in musically?’ ” adds Hill. “And she said, ‘Well, somewhere between Kate Bush and Madonna. I’m not sure where.’ And we thought, ‘That covers every fucking angle, right?’ “

O’Connor was writing music and developing at a surprising pace — and the sense of change began to show in her appearance. “She was always playing with her hair,” says Grainge. “One minute she had a Mohican. That was on for a couple of weeks, and then it all went — she walked in, and she had shaved herself bald. We thought, ‘Well, there’s a statement.’ ” Over the next few years, O’Connor’s bare scalp would strike various journalists as provocative, frightening, ugly, gorgeous, sexy and shocking — and would also help make her one of the most unforgettable new faces in all pop.

During this period, O’Connor met two other people who were to figure prominently in her life. The first was John Reynolds, the former drummer with the British trash-pop band Transvision Vamp. Reynolds started dating O’Connor after joining her studio band, and a month later, Sinéad was pregnant. “I was the only one that felt completely sure and delighted about the idea of having a baby,” she says. “I could understand John’s reluctance. Suddenly his whole life was flashing before him. But then there was the record company. They thought I was jeopardizing my career. My attitude was that if I had been a man, and my wife or girlfriend was pregnant, they wouldn’t be telling me that I couldn’t have it.

“I was very upset and very hurt. How could I choose between my career or a child? They’re both as important as each other. It wasn’t a Catholicism thing — I had nothing against abortion. In fact, I was actually in the hospital bed about to have an abortion, and then I left. It wasn’t me that wanted to have it. I wanted the baby — and I decided to have it.”

The other person that Sinéad met during this time was Fachtna O’Ceallaigh — an Irish patriot who had managed the Boomtown Rats and Bananarama and who also headed U2’s fledgling label for home-grown Irish bands, Mother Records. To the consternation of Grainge, O’Connor wanted O’Ceallaigh for her manager. “I opposed the connection,” says Grainge. “I knew Fachtna from many years before, when the Boomtown Rats were on Ensign. Fachtna gets very emotionally involved with his acts. He can be very inspiring, but he can also be infuriating when he doesn’t get his way. I told Sinéad: ‘I don’t want to work with Fachtna, and I don’t want him to be your manager.’ Which was the absolute wrong thing to say. It was like a father telling a child, ‘You can’t do this.’ She came back to me and said, ‘Fachtna O’Ceallaigh is my manager. Get on with it.’ And Fachtna became very closely involved with Sinéad. I mean, he was her mentor for a serious period of time.”

In the fall of 1986, O’Connor had begun to work with producer Mick Glossop on the first album, but the sessions soon fizzled. “The tracks sounded like a cabaret-rock version of these wonderful songs,” says Grainge. Adds Hill, “She was a young girl of nineteen years, who was pregnant and frightened that if she fucked up, she was gonna lose her record deal and be told to go back to Ireland.”

A few weeks later, Grainge, at the prompting of O’Ceallaigh, proposed a solution. “I kept thinking about what she had done with the demos,” he says, “how great they had felt. So I said, ‘Go in with a decent engineer, Sinéad, and produce it yourself. You know what these songs are about and how they should sound.’ About that time Fachtna came heavily into the situation. His style of management is to completely divide the artist from the record company, and from that stage, she stopped coming into the record company.”

In April 1987, at age twenty, seven months pregnant and with almost no studio expertise, O’Connor took over the production of her maiden album. Two months later, she had finished a record that all parties were thrilled with, and two weeks after that, she gave birth to her son, Jake Reynolds. It should have been a triumphal time. The Lion and the Cobra was a terrific album full of deeply felt songs about desire, damnation and courage, and O’Connor produced and arranged it all in a style that spanned folk music, orchestral rock and bass-heavy dance pop.

But within months, O’Connor felt herself embroiled in feuds and controversies. In early 1988, U2 dismissed Fachtna O’Ceallaigh from Mother Records, citing “incompatible temperaments”; O’Ceallaigh had once told a reporter, “I literally despise the music that U2 make.” Later, in an interview with Britain’s i-D magazine, O’Connor made some disparaging remarks about U2’s “bombastic” music and found herself reproached by the band’s associates. Before long, angry feelings and bitter statements had escalated on both sides. At one point, O’Connor was quoted as saying: “I have no respect for Bono and no affiliation with his music or ideas…. I know he’s faking that sincerity.” Another time, in a less-gracious mood, she told Melody Maker, “[U2] take themselves so fuckin’ seriously. [Bono’s] just a stupid turd.”

O’Connor has attempted to make amends for the affair, but a certain rancor still lingers. “I felt ostracized and punished over that whole thing,” she says. “But I also felt guilty, because I knew in the back of my mind that some of the things I was saying were not said for myself. I expressed anger with U2 because they had hurt Fachtna, who was a friend of mine. I was wrong to do that, because, really, Fachtna should fight his own battles. I had been hateful toward somebody I had no right to be hateful toward. U2 hadn’t really done anything shitty to me. But I also learned that U2 were a powerful band, and that the British and Irish music establishment would not allow you to be critical of them.”

O’Connor’s comments about the IRA — the outlawed political movement that opposes British dominance in the country and has committed numerous killings and bombings to achieve its aims — were even more controversial. On one occasion, O’Connor was quoted as saying: “I support the IRA…. I don’t like the violence, but I do understand it, it’s necessary even though it’s terrible.” In the British press — with whom the IRA is extremely unpopular — these comments were construed as an endorsement of terrorist violence.

O’Connor has long since disavowed any support of the IRA or its methods, but the issue continues to plague her. “I was involved in very complex relationships during that time,” she says now, “and I was influenced by the people I was hanging around with. I wanted their approval, and I was expressing things in order to get that approval, without realizing that that’s what I was doing. I should not have condoned the use of violence by anyone. I don’t believe that it’s right for either side involved in the war to kill people. I also don’t think for a second that the British government have any right to be in Ireland. But as I say, I was condoning violence to impress the people I was involved with, and should not have done that.”

The period following The Lion and the Cobra was also rough for more personal reasons. Shortly after Jake’s birth, O’Connor and John Reynolds separated for a time. Then, following O’Connor’s appearance at the 1988 Grammy Awards, she returned to London and, to the surprise of many friends and associates, married Reynolds. “I was in a lot of pain during that time,” she says, “but it wasn’t due to John. It was the fact that I was with somebody else who was fucking me up.”

It is now late in the afternoon, and the light in the living room has grown dim. O’Connor gets up, turns on a lamp, then settles back into the sofa, lighting a cigarette. “Around the time I got married,” she continues, “I had been physically ill for a long time. I’d been going to doctors, and nobody could figure out what was wrong. Then, for a whole summer, I saw a woman who’s like a spiritual healer and a dietitian, and I started doing yoga with her. That process gave me a chance to get my act together mentally and to begin to see that I was involved with people who were bringing out negative things in me.

“I realized that I had no control over myself — that other people were in control of me, that I was expressing opinions that were other people’s, that practically everything I was doing was to please other people. So I decided I had to assume control over myself in every aspect, and that meant I had to sever some relationships that were very, very difficult to sever. I had to summon the strength to be able to say bye-bye to people that I had previously thought I couldn’t function without. Now I feel like I’m sitting at the helm, where I’m supposed to be sitting. Now I’m the captain of my own ship.”

One of the relationships — perhaps the primary one — that O’Connor severed at this time was with Fachtna O’Ceallaigh. According to John O’Connor, “Fachtna came too close to seeing Sinéad as a possession. Management should be an arm’s-length affair; there’s a relationship that has to be kept scrupulously in its place. The manager’s first duty is that their client’s career should be maximized, and they should not let their personal feelings enter into it at all — whether they’re political feelings or emotional feelings.”

In December of last year, Sinéad O’Connor dismissed O’Ceallaigh as her manager. (She is now represented by Steve Fargnoli, one of Prince’s former managers.) Neither party is inclined to discuss the details of the separation, though O’Connor says: “Fachtna had given me a sense of my rights as an artist. He instilled in me the idea that if it wasn’t for people like me, the record industry would not exist — which is true. And he instilled in me the idea that I must have control over what goes on regarding how my image and work are presented. Most important, he was instrumental in showing me that I should be honest and true, and not compromise myself.”

But according to Chris Hill, O’Ceallaigh’s contribution went beyond that. “He did two important things: He helped her discover a part of herself — her sense of purpose and worm — but he also badly fucked her up. And the two things together are what made Sinéad O’Connor what she is.”

For his part, O’Ceallaigh says simply, “What is important to me is what Sinéad says. She is the one who knows exactly what occurred over the three-year period that I managed her. And even more important than that, her reaction means everything to me because she has always been and will always continue to be, as long as I’m alive, a best friend of mine. Everything else — whether. it’s success or fame or whatever, all the things that attend success — it’s all basically rubbish. I never thought of Sinéad as a person or object who made records. I thought of her as a human being and friend.”

Following her firing of O’Ceallaigh, O’Connor holed up in a garage studio with sound engineer Chris Birkett, and in a surprisingly short time had finished writing and producing the tracks for I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got — in effect, a collection of hard-hitting and heartrending songs about the circumstances of her recent life. “It is simply a record about a twenty-three-year-old human being,” says O’Connor, “and what she makes of her experiences. Some of the experiences are angry and some are hurtful. I write about whatever it is I happen to be going through at the time, and so if something awful was happening to me, that’s what I wrote about.”

Around the end of the year, O’Connor called Nigel Grainge and Chris Hill. She had been trying to rebuild relations with the pair and felt the time had come to play them the rough mixes for I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. “After we first heard it,” says Hill, “we were shell-shocked. I mean, it’s so personal, we couldn’t even make a judgment about it, and we couldn’t think in terms of whether it was a hit record. It is intense. I know she dunks it’s a happy record, but it doesn’t convey happiness — it conveys trauma. Because of our reaction, she thought we didn’t like it, and she said, ‘It’s not for men to like; it’s a woman’s statement.’ But Nigel and I both had been through divorces. You listen to some little girl singing ‘The Last Day of Our Acquaintance,’ and you know what it’s about. We’ve been there.”

Says O’Connor: “Nigel told me, ‘You can’t put that out; it’s too personal.’ I said, ‘People that like me, like me because of that. That’s what I do.’ “

Now, though, as O’Connor sits in her living room discussing the record, it seems evident that I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got is going to be more popular than anyone imagined. “If you think about the kind of songs I write,” she says, “it’s strange that they would be commercial. I mean, they’re so personal. I think about why I wrote a song like ‘Last Day of Our Acquaintance,’ and then I think about millions of people buying and listening to it … It’s really weird.”

There is a noise — actually, an earsplitting scream — at the living-room door, and in a moment, O’Connor’s two-and-a-half-year-old son, Jake, bounds in, all smiles and whoops. He is blond haired and red cheeked and has the same deep eyes as his mother, but he turns shy when he sees a stranger sitting in the room. He is followed by his father, a tall, gracious man, who is home from rehearsals with his own band, Max. John and Sinéad have some family business to discuss — Sinéad’s brother Joseph has just signed a contract for his first novel, and John and Sinéad are wondering where to take him and her father for a family celebration next evening. Finally they settle on a local transvestite club — where a drag queen is reportedly delivering an impression of Sinéad singing “Nothing Compares 2 U,” replete with tear — and then John and Jake take off to begin dinner. Before going, Jake emits one last glorious yelp. “He’s mad, that child,” says Sinéad, shaking her head and smiling. “I feel like he really wanted to be born — he’s such a happy kid.”

She falls quiet for a few moments, pulling at her forelock. “A couple of years ago,” she says, “I was having a hard time as far as my personal life was concerned, and that mattered much more to me than whether my record was doing well or anything like that. But at the moment, I’m very happy. I have a lovely husband, a lovely son and everything’s going wonderfully.

“Really, I don’t know what more I could want — except to know myself a bit better. But then, that’s what I’m trying to do when I write songs.”

A month later, Sinéad O’Connor stands before a twenty-three-piece orchestra in London’s elegant Whitehall Banqueting House, dressed in a lime-green low-cut dress, singing a lush and sweet version of Cole Porter’s “You Do Something to Me.” The occasion is a press conference to announce Red Hot & Blue, an upcoming double album and television special that will feature pop artists like O’Connor, U2, David Byrne, Fine Young Cannibals and Neneh Cherry interpreting the music of Cole Porter. The project will benefit AIDS charities, as well as disseminate information about the disease and its prevention. O’Connor is the press conference’s surprise guest, and it is plain from her performance of this Tin Pan Alley chestnut just what an exemplary singer she is. She rocks gently to the song’s steady but tricky groove, and in those moments when the lyric calls for a subtle roar, she pulls her mouth back from the microphone in the manner of a seasoned jazz vocalist.

In the last few weeks, O’Connor’s world has exploded all over again, though this time in a beneficent fashion. “Nothing Compares 2 U” has become a huge international hit — the biggest record of the year so far — and earlier in the week, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got stormed into Billboard‘s Top Ten. In a few days, O’Connor will begin a lengthy world tour, and in preparation for it, her life has become filled up with appurtenances — beepers, portable cellular phones and the nice new blue car that she is being driven around in. All these attachments are designed to make her life easier and more efficient, but in other ways they amount to signs of pressure and obligation. This morning, O’Connor is in great spirits, though there are times, she admits, when the recent rush of events is exhausting. “It’s like my life is changing,” she says. “It’s like it will never be normal again.”

Later, after a long and tiring day of rehearsals, O’Connor is sitting in her room at a Holiday Inn when the telephone rings. She answers it, exchanges some pleasantries — and then begins to screech at an earsplitting level. “You’re joking!” she yells. “I don’t believe you. Fucking amazing.” She lets out another scream and begins jumping up and down on her bed. “How the fuck did you find out?” It turns out that it’s a friend of O’Connor’s calling to tell her that “Nothing Compares 2 U” has just become the Number One single in America after only a few weeks in release. In addition, it appears likely that I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got will top the album charts the following week. “I can’t believe it,” squeals O’Connor. “I better go and phone my father. Actually, I’ll phone you back. I’ve got to get control over myself.”

A few seconds later, the phone rings again. It is her assistant, Ciara O’Flanagan, telling O’Connor that her manager, Steve Fargnoli, is in the bar downstairs and wants to congratulate her. O’Connor bolts out of the door for the elevator, bouncing barefoot up and down the hallway, exclaiming, “Number One! In America!” For the next couple of hours, O’Connor is a model of exultation and childlike glee, ordering Singapore Slings two at a time and calling her father in Ireland on the cellular phone (when O’Flanagan points out that it’s an expensive call, O’Connor says, “I know, but when you’re Number One in America — ” and then breaks into a blush, laughing). “From now on,” she tells her friends in the bar, lifting her drink and tilting her nose in a mock high-society manner, “we are to refer to me as ‘M’lady.’ “

Later, though, back in her hotel room, when asked what it means to her to have a Number One single in America, O’Connor greets the question seriously. “I don’t feel like it’s me, almost,” she says. “It’s like a big fantasy. All the time you grow up, watching Top of the Pops or being interested in music, you always wonder what it would be like.

“I mean, I’m very excited and very grateful that it’s happened, but it really doesn’t change what I said before. I don’t want to be a rock star, I don’t want to be treated like one, and I don’t want any of the associations that go with it. I just want to be treated like an ordinary person, and I want people to remember that the most important things in my life are not making records and going around the world on tour. The most important thing is my family, and my spiritual beliefs. If I didn’t have those things, I wouldn’t be inspired to do anything.”

Earlier, Chris Hill had said something trenchant about O’Connor’s capacity for success: “I think she has a fire in her to be the biggest. In fact, she once told me, ‘I’m gonna be the biggest star there’s ever been.’ And I think she certainly likes the fame. But I also think that there’s a point where she won’t give any more than she needs to and where she’ll say, ‘Fuck it, I’m not doing any more than this. The rest of my life is mine.’ She could actually do that next week. She could turn around and say, ‘This is as big as I want to be; beyond here I don’t like it.’

“But at the moment,” Hill continued, “there is a more important question that confronts Sinéad: Does her art always have to come from pain? And it is an important question. We won’t know for years. She will still go through extremes of happiness and unhappiness in the next few years unless she is in control of the unhappiness so much that she never again has to suffer from it. And I pray to God she’ll be able to make great records when she’s happy — not for our sake, because all we have to do is sell them. It’s for her sake. No one should be sentenced to the unhappiness of a van Gogh just because that’s the only way they can work.”

Watching O’Connor as she calls friends and relatives and, with a sweet mix of shyness and pride, tells them her single has gone to Number One, the last thing anyone would wish on her would be more pain — even if it would make for more records as meaningful and captivating as I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. If the depths of the heart and mind can be determined by how one deals with unforgettable losses, or unattainable longings, then O’Connor has paid for her depths. She has learned some difficult truths — that life and love will break your heart, that success and fame are at best fleering victories and that no matter what blessings she finds in adulthood, nothing can erase the scars of past experiences or undo their memories. And though she has found a way to accept those truths, she has also found a way to rage back at them.

Still, there are moments when O’Connor is talking about all the newfound peace in her life and a tortured look will suddenly cross her face. Maybe in those moments she fears the happiness as much as she ever dreaded the hurts — because few things hurt more than realizing that, sooner or later, happiness goes the way of all evanescent dreams. In moments like that, sitting in crowded rooms with all the lights on, Sinéad O’Connor may not be all that distant from an all-too-familiar darkness, though maybe now it’s internalized into a more manageable, companionable place.

Whatever the sources of that look, O’Connor wears it with a brave face. “Every experience I’ve had,” she says, “is a good experience, even the bad ones. An understanding of sorrow and pain is an important thing to have, because if nothing else, it also gives you an appreciation for happiness. People who’ve been brought up happy and normal often don’t have an understanding of what life might be like for other people. Whereas people who have had an unhappy life have that understanding. In the kind of work that I do, it’s important to have an understanding of sorrow and pain and what life is like for other people.

“I realize,” she says, offering a shy smile, “that I’m in a very lucky position, and maybe something I pass along in my songs might be able to help somebody else. But that couldn’t happen if I didn’t have the experiences I’ve had.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Sinead O'Connor

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