Say Zen

The angry Irish girl – the Sinéad of the savage crop and mouth to match – is a thing of the past. At 22, Sinéad is discovering the joys of marriage, motherhood and, not least, mysticism. You can hear this in the softer, more spiritual songs written for her new LP. It is, says Sinéad, like being visited by the Holy Ghost…

Sinéad O’Connor featured on the cover of THE FACE in February 1990, beautifully and boldly shot by Juergen Teller and with the coverline: Shorn To Be Wild.

When writer Sean O’Hagan met her in West London, she was on the cusp of a new phase of her life and her career, about to release the first new track from her second album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

But no one could have foretold what came next. Nothing Compares 2 U topped the charts in 18 countries, including Ireland, the UK and US, becoming one of the best-selling singles in the world that year. But all that, of course, couldn’t have been further from her mind at the time. As she told Sean:

The songs [on the album] are about where I’m at. They unfold chronologically, so there are still a few, er, slightly angsty ones at the start of the record. Otherwise, the record is quite placid. I write songs to convey texture and feeling [and] this one is about beauty, peace. I want to convey a feeling of prayerfulness. I don’t care if I’m coming over as a complete hippy because I’m being honest. It’s a very spiritual album. The songs are like prayers. Not literally, but insofar as they give off a religious feeling – spiritual happiness.”

We’re proud to present Sean’s interview, online for the first time since its original publication 33 years ago.

Up until very recently, Sinéad O’Connor confesses, her soft Dublin tones barely audible above the noise of the street outside, I was this desperately unhappy person. Unhappy and fucked up. That was the main reason why I was going around being bolshy and aggressive to everyone. I was totally obsessed with my own unhappiness to the extent that I was making everyone around me unhappy as well. It’s only since I’ve gotten happy, that I realise how utterly awful I was. Now, I look back and think, what a wanker. What an absolute tosser. Cos now I’m happy. Simple.”

There was a time, indeed, when Sinéad O’Connor’s middle name was Trouble. It seemed that every time she opened her mouth, controversy came crashing down around her unheeding ears. On the back of her critically-acclaimed 1989 debut album The Lion And The Cobra, she rose to fame, here and in America, as the biggest, baddest mouth in pop. For a while, the music – anger-ridden, unapologetically adolescent, slightly hysterical – seemed like an appendage to the larger-than-life, tougher-than-leather public image. In DMs and Number One crop, she waded in where others feared to tread, badmouthing U2 till the whole of Dublin seemed intent on litigation, openly expressing a pro-iRA stance that made her tabloid target of the week.

The music press loved her, of course. She was the nouveau punk they’d been waiting for since Rotten hung up his bondage strides and bought a one-way ticket to Bel Air. She had it made. She looked great. And she gave good copy.

In the two years since, Sinéad has had a lot of time to think about the process that turned a shy girl with a shaved head into a media monster, albeit with her willing, and wilful, co-operation. Mostly, she thought about the personal fallout, the depressions and confusion that settled after the dust of yet another controversy.

The whole U2 thing was the worst,” she admits, and I don’t really want to drag it up again except to say that I was very messed up by it all, both mentally and physically. I think I was a convenient mouthpiece for the things a lot of people said in private. I also think I was set up, used by the pop press to sell papers. They never take the human being into account or the grief that sort of thing can cause. I don’t regret the things I said cos they were true. What I regret is how I said them – cursing, screaming and shouting when I should have been totally clear.”

Clear” is a word that recurs throughout this interview, alongside spiritual” and happy”. These are the key words in a post-epiphany Sinéad O’Connor vocabulary. Across a glass of additive-free, organic orange juice, the transformation that began almost a year ago is described in suitably serene sentences that almost always tail off into a broad and blissful grin. Gone is the anger, replaced by a placid, guilt-free equilibrium that finds creative fruition in a batch of new songs which will surface in April on her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.

The songs are about where I’m at,” she says, and they unfold chronologically so there are still a few, er, slightly angsty ones at the start of the record. Otherwise, the record is quite placid. I write songs to convey texture and feeling so, while The Lion And The Cobra was a bit histrionic, this one is about beauty, peace. I want to convey a feeling of prayerfulness. I don’t care if I’m coming over as a complete hippy cos I’m being honest. It’s a very spiritual album. The songs are like prayers. Not literally, but insofar as they give off a religious feeling – spiritual happiness.”

She grins. Benign blissfulness incarnate. I gape back, mouth open, dumbstruck, preconceptions shattered. It sounds, I mutter, like you’ve been visited by The Holy Ghost. That’s exactly what it feels like,” she says.

When Sinéad O’Connor arrived in London, a bruised, disaffected 17-year-old, her only thought was escape. The breakdown of her parents’ marriage and a spell in borstal following a string of offences had left a psychological scar that is forever linked to her birthplace. When I go back to Dublin, the depression sets in as soon as I step off the plane. It’s like going back to a flat you used to share with an old boyfriend. I have nothing against the place or the people, but it’s just the personal connotations of Dublin. I don’t like it cos I was never happy there.”

In London, Sinéad hooked up with Fachtna O’Ceallaigh, another Dublin exile with a colourful music biz history that included managing The Boomtown Rats in their ascendancy from pub rockers to punk pop stars. After a messy departure from U2’s Mother Records label, gleefully-documented in the Irish rock press, Fachtna began managing Sinéad and, in retrospect, was an indirect catalyst for her anti-U2 tirades.

He’s my best friend and I look up to him,” she says, and my natural inclination was to do something about my friend being upset. I felt really hurt by what they’d done to him but, in retrospect, I should have been more careful and realised that he probably did things to upset them as well.”

The continuing closeness of their friendship/​business relationship is evident from the fact that this interview took place in Fachtna’s West London flat. But, less than a week after our meeting, news reached my ears via sundry members of the music biz Murphia that Sinéad had sacked Fachtna as her manager. (The record company admitted the same and asked if all references to him could be expunged from the interview as they were irrelevant”.)

Sinéad’s move from cult heroine to fully-fledged pop star has not been without incident. One has to wonder if her new found sense of calm might be only skin deep. I’m not the big toughie the music press make me out to be, but I suppose I could be accused of being my own worst enemy. Maybe I’ve been too open and honest in the past and, definitely, I’ve said things that were full of shit. But, who hasn’t? Lately, I’ve become a lot more adult.”

The Lion And The Cobra was not a particularly adult” LP. In fact, much of its power came from a sense of barely-articulated, emphatically adolescent anger. The mellower, blissed-out Sinéad nods her head in agreement with this description, even adding the term histrionic” herself. I don’t listen to it now cos it isn’t relevant any more. In many ways it was me getting 17 years of Ireland out of my system. I worry a bit cos a lot of my fans were drawn to the anger. I doubt if the new songs will appeal to them, but I have to be true to myself. I’m a different person now.”

The new songs, like the new Sinéad, owe much to the calming influence of her husband, John Reynolds. She married John last March after a period of separation following the birth of their son, Jake. We’d both been seeing other people, but no matter who I went out with, I always had this feeling of emptiness. I’d constantly feel unsatisfied. Lonesome. Then John started seeing this girl I know and that made me feel even more disturbed. I figured out that it was because I still loved him and I really wanted us all back together again as a proper family. It gives me such great happiness, the three of us together, that I wish I’d married him ages ago. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my whole life.”

So it emerges that the born-again Sinéad O’Connor is a guilt-free, vegetarian, holistic, spiritually-aware, happy housewife who likes nothing better than making little lunches for John” to take off to work with him; who finds motherhood and wifehood” the most fulfilling things on earth; and who reckons this all embracing sense of security” is what she was looking for all along.

There follows a long, involved breakdown of her current way of life, a day-to-day wisdom that entails sundry esoteric systems of self-knowledge, including numerology, reincarnation, colour therapy, sound therapy, chanting to cleanse the system, yoga for meditation and the study of the Kabbalah. I don’t want to sound like Terence Trent D’Arby, who’s pompous and arrogant enough to think he’s God’s special gift to mankind. I have no great message for anyone other than myself, so I don’t want to read that Sinéad O’Connor thinks she’s something great, OK?”

The roots of this new-found spiritualism go back to Ireland, where the young Catholic Sinéad pleaded successfully with her mum for a trip to Lourdes, a mecca for pilgrims in search of miraculous cures. When I suggest that all Catholics, lapsed or otherwise, are magnetised by the romance and mystery of spiritualism, her reply is as adamant as it is unexpected.

It’s not the romance of it that attracts me, it’s the reality of it. The truth of it. My life has a purpose now that wasn’t there before. I’m more sure of myself now and why I’m here. I like myself more now.”

Maybe, I venture, she believes in all these esoteric philosophies because they offer a sense of purpose, self-worth and belonging that has been absent ever since the rupture in her family life.

No, no, that’s not why I believe it. In fact, I know it to be true that God put me here for a purpose and it isn’t just to end up in the ground being eaten by worms. There’s a purpose in everything we do – even the bad things, like screaming at your husband or whatever… Good can come out of mistakes. Mistakes are great for alleviating the old Catholic guilt. There’s a real purpose to life and a whole other life after you die. I know that. That, to me, is pure fact as much as that chair you’re sitting on.”

Inevitably, we are drawn into a meandering debate concerning all things spiritual as I try to probe the amorphous nature of Sinéad’s faith. We discuss reincarnation (“you choose your life before you’re born”); hell (“you make your own hell”); and the prickly concept of pure evil (“I think someone like Hitler got unbalanced and, after he died, he had to face up to the utter hideousness of what he’d done and had to come back and fix it up”). Finally, I offer the theory, espoused by Norman Cehn in a study called The End Of The Millenium, that the final years of every century are a breeding ground for strange sects and esoteric philosophies of every hue.

Oh yeah, but that in itself is all to do with numerology. 1989 was a momentous year – the Berlin Wall, the rise of the Greens, the start of the end of Thatcherism and all the other big changes. In numerology, the number nine signifies change and humanitarianism, so there you go…”

I’m about to ask why 1979 was so unmomentous for her, but Sinéad anticipates my cynicism. I know you’re sitting there just dying to smirk, but that’s alright. It’s only my personal beliefs. Different strokes for different folks. I suppose you think I’m a complete hippy?”

The first recorded evidence of the new Sinéad O’Connor is the new single, Nothing Compares 2 U, a Prince song originally written for a Minneapolis outfit called The Family. In Sinéad’s hands it becomes a moody, almost melodramatic ode to the man in her life. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got generally fulfils the prayerful” description offered above, particularly on the title song’s serene testament of faith.

The Zen calm of that composition heralds the end of a journey of self-discovery that finally leads to contentment” and, fittingly, is the last track on the record. She is loath to talk in-depth about individual compositions, but describes the whole as a documentary of unhappiness turning into happiness”. Three Babies undercuts the prevailing sense of spiritual re-alignment with an earthy sensuality, while the provocative You Caused As Much Sorrow Dead As You Did Alive attests to some darker shades amid the white light of prayerfulness”.

There is also a song called Black Boys On Mopeds concerning the death of a local Ladbroke Grove youth, Nicholas Bramble. The police accused him of stealing a bike he had borrowed from a friend and in the ensuing chase he banged into something and died. Then they say they weren’t even involved,” she says. I live round here and I can’t help but see how badly Black people are treated. Same as America. Treated like pieces of shit. Mind you, in England, anyone who isn’t English is treated like shit.”

Which brings us, inevitably, to the subject of Northern Ireland, another thorny topic. I ask if she is a supporter of the IRA? Or, was that the old Sinéad talking?

Oh God! Look, let me make this clear. Somebody asked me, in America, if I could understand the depth of feeling that led to two British soldiers being dragged out of a car and killed by a Republican crowd. I said I could appreciate the depth of human feeling and anger and oppression that leads to something like that. I also said it wasn’t right, that it was horrible but, of course, it’s reported as Sinéad supports the IRA. Let me make this perfectly clear – I don’t support the IRA and I think blowing up a Marine band, or whatever, is a despicable act. I don’t support the IRA and never have. I have no respect for them at all at the moment.”

This isn’t strictly true. In a Melody Maker interview, June 1988, Sinéad is quoted as saying, I support the IRA and Sinn Feinn. I don’t like the violence, but I do understand it, it’s necessary even though it’s terrible.” She has also appeared at a Dublin Troops Out rally and shared a platform with Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams…

No. I appeared by myself, for myself, singing a song. I’m a Republican insofar as I think the British Army, and the British Government, shouldn’t be there, so Troops Out seems a logical thing to support. But, to be perfectly honest with you, I wish I hadn’t done that simply because I don’t want to be labelled a Republican slogan chanter. But let me just say that there are awful, horrendous things that go on in Northern Ireland every day – army raids where children are abused by 16-year-old British upstarts who joined the army cos they couldn’t get a job and end up harassing Catholic families day in, day out.

I saw a video in Derry where 250 RUC men surrounded the house of a woman who was trying to bury her husband just to prevent the Irish flag being put on the coffin. The woman was in shreds pleading with them to leave her alone and they were laughing in her face, laughing at her grief. That’s not shown on the news. And could you imagine if Irish soldiers did that to an English family? Jesus! Could you imagine the response?”

Sinéad’s gut level anger and frustration with the Irish war has found a focus in a film she has recently completed in Derry. Made by the local Film And Video Collective, Hush-A-Bye Baby was made for Channel 4, and features a cameo role for the pop star as the schoolfriend of a teenage girl who falls pregnant. Set against the real-life backdrop of Derry’s Creggan and Bogside estates, it is a low-budget, gritty and evocative glimpse of working-class teenage life, Northern Ireland style.

The film was inspired, in part, by the death of Anne Lovett, a young Irish girl who was found, alongside her dead baby, in a grotto to the Madonna in County Longford. (The incident, and the questions it raises about religious oppression and catholic hypocrisy in Ireland, also inspired a Sinéad/​Christy Moore song, Middle Of The Island, that appeared on the latter’s last LP.) The film, like the new songs, speaks for itself and she is reluctant to expand on the possibilities of her screen debut.

It was great but my subsequent dealings with people in the film industry have made me think twice about acting. I did an audition for a big film recently – I won’t say which one cos I’m still smarting from the rejection. But needless to say, the experience gave me a big kick up the arse as regards to any further films.”

The Derry film is also the first chance many of us have had to see what Sinéad O’Connor looks like with hair. Oh shit. My haircut’s become a huge distraction as well. Did you know that the American record company appeared in Billboard in bald wigs when the album crossed over? They make absolute tools of themselves and then they wonder why you hate dealing with them. I got my revenge though. One guy said he’d become a skinhead if my album sold more than 25,000. When it did 100,000, I turned up at the record company and performed a ceremonial shaving of his head.”

So it goes, from angst to anger, to acceptance to absurdity. The strange world of a contemporary pop star with her feet on terra firma and her head in the heavenly clouds of spiritual joy. At the end of the interview, she reaches for a smoke, a guilty frown assuaged by a strange rationale that encapsulates the essence of Sinéad O’Connor: I feel bad about the odd ciggie, but my teachers say it’s all right cos you should never try to live in the sky, you should always live on the ground, in the real world. It doesn’t stop me feeling bad, though. See, I really want to be a good person. I feel like I’m worth something now. But ultimately, I want to be the purest creature in the whole world.”

She laughs. But we both know she’s half serious.

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