Everyone has an opinion on Sinéad O’Connor. From the taxi driver to the teacher, the name Sinéad O’Connor elicits a slew of standpoints, ranging from the bewildered to the condemnatory. There’s the Miley Cyrus spat to ponder, the online dating, the brief fourth marriage, the breakdowns and the infamous 1992 Saturday Night Live appearance, in which O’Connor tore up a picture of the Pope. Drama seems to follow O’Connor around or – if you prefer another interpretation – she often courts it herself.
And so it’s a surprise to walk into a tiny recording studio on Westland Row in Dublin, (picked because a musical environment is comfortable for her, her publicist explains), and see O’Connor looking placid and serene, a veritable sea of calm in the storm. The 47-year-old is here today to talk about the music. She is about to release a new, vivid and strong album called I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, the name inspired by a high-profile Sheryl Sandberg campaign, and she looks every inch the title.
O’Connor is tiny these days. Clad in a black-fronted waistcoat, with a leopard-print back, black trousers and pumps, the first thing you notice are those beautiful woodland doe eyes, still as striking as they were in the video for her star-making Prince cover, Nothing Compares to You. But O’Connor herself is uncomfortable. “I went for a facial,” she explains regretfully. “And my face reacted to the fruit acids, right before these interviews.”
I reassure her that she looks great. Her face is a little red, true, but hardly a big deal and – as always with O’Connor – far more prominent are the tattoos that sprawl all over her body, her chest, her arms, present even via tiny red-inked lettering on her cheeks. But she doesn’t seem totally convinced.
O’Connor has been worrying a lot about her image lately. Some weeks back, her record company released a shot of O’Connor in a black wig, a latex dress, holding up a guitar, her mouth wide open and sensual. The picture made it into newspapers all over the world. “I knew it would draw attention to the album,” O’Connor says with satisfaction, noting that a previous press release about the record had been ignored. “The clothes are mine. I got it [the dress] on Amazon. You have to lube up your whole body – you get this special lube.”
For all that O’Connor was flattered by the admiring publicity, it had a corrosive effect. “It became a bit of a head fuck. I became dreadfully conscious about how I looked and what I might wear. It just became so fucking stressful. You find a dress and you think, ‘Grand, I don’t look like a total twat’, but then you have to find a bra, you have to find Spanx.”
O’Connor wants attention; she always has. She might need it now more than she used to. She has four children. She’s 47. She worries about how she looks, but doesn’t think it’s right she should worry. She doesn’t want to be forgotten. “I’m not ageing sexually, I’m going the other way,” she says. “I love getting older and I don’t want it to mean that I have no sex life after the age of 50. I’m not going to do anything fake. But I’m still going to be a sexy bitch until I’m 80.”
This last comment is delivered in a quick, low undertone, like a dry alcoholic taking a sneaky nip of vodka when no one’s looking – and no wonder. This interview is supposedly being conducted entirely on the grounds that we are only meant to discuss the new album. According to her publicist in an email beforehand to agree the parameters of the interview, O’Connor wants the music to take centre stage over any commentary on her life.
But both of us know this is an impossible, ridiculous constraint. O’Connor being O’Connor, an interview with her is a necessary sprawl across multiple subjects. Though she’s serious-minded – passionately holding forth on everything from theology to the plight of refugees in Ireland – she’s got a spark of mischief in her eyes on the supposedly forbidden subject of men, too. As she pops open the window to have a cigarette (“I swore I’d smoke by the window”), it’s clear that sometimes even she can’t decide where exactly this interview censorship lark is supposed to start.
“I’ll say if I’m not comfortable,” she suggests, as a possible solution. She gets nervous surprisingly easily, often punctuating difficult disclosures with the lighting of cigarettes. She speaks in a rapid low mumble – and, although she’ll often crack a joke, she describes herself as shy. “I’m a closet exhibitionist, and that’s a really strange thing to be. I’m extraordinarily shy, but inside myself I’m an exhibitionist.”
In an effort to put us both at ease, I tell her about the first time I met her. I was 19 years old, a cub reporter for my university newspaper at the Hot Press Music Awards in Belfast. At 2am, Sinéad O’Connor strolled into the toilets of the Europa Hotel, the only area which stars and ordinary folk shared space. I was there and asked for an interview. “Did I do it?” O’Connor asks. She did, I tell her. She just asked if she could use the toilet first.
She laughs. Now, as then, she’s a likeable presence, albeit an extremely complicated one, bright, but also burnt out by the media. O’Connor has given tons of interviews in the past few years: she regrets many of them, but also seems to react to them with the same combination of horror and fascination as a budding fetishist in an S&M chamber.
Mention the Late Late Show, for example, and her reaction is scathing, even though she has appeared on the show many times. “I usually regret having done that show unless it’s been a musical performance. It depends on whether they’ve got me there to take the piss out of me – if I’ve been tricked into believing that I’m there for any reason other than to be treated like a buffoon.”
O’Connor doesn’t seem to mind talking about herself, but she’s cautious about discussing her loved ones. She doesn’t talk directly about her ultra-brief marriage to therapist Barry Herridge, whom she met after advertising for a boyfriend online, but he’s clearly on her mind. “I learned something dreadfully important in the past two and a half years,” she says. “It was that things have changed in this country, that if one discusses one’s loved ones, even remotely, then one’s loved ones become targets. I vowed I wouldn’t create that situation for people I love.”
O’Connor fiddles with the bracelet on her left hand, a woven affair with a plastic pink star hanging from it that might have been robbed from a Barbie doll. It’s an accessory at odds with her rocker outfit. “It’s a friendship bracelet,” she explains. “Shane’s father, Donal Lunny, gave me that. I tied on the star today to remind myself to sit straight.”
O’Connor tends to speak about her ex-partners with affection. Her enthralling new album was recorded in the north London home of her ex-husband, her long-term producer John Reynolds, where O’Connor sang the songs in her pyjamas and slippers. “It’s a home environment,” she says. “A great producer creates an environment where the artist doesn’t even realise the red light was on. You’re making a record with your tea and jammies.”
Typically for O’Connor, the songs have attention-grabbing titles (The Voice of My Doctor, Eight Good Reasons and Take Me To Church), but she’s quick to claim they are largely not autobiographical. Instead, they’re written from the perspective of a number of imaginary characters, women finding their way in life.
One exception is the standout track Eight Good Reasons. A plaintive, beautiful torch-ballad, O’Connor sings, “If I could have gone/Without it hurting anyone/Like a bird I would have flown.” The chorus describes refusing to give in to suicide. It’s about a woman who says she has “eight good reasons to stay around”. Those reasons, O’Connor has said, are her children’s eyes.
The song brings up so much that is painful – O’Connor was diagnosed as bipolar in 2005, she has been hospitalised for depression and attempted suicide in the past. Have her four children, aged between 7 and 27, heard the track? “I probably wouldn’t want them to,” O’Connor says. “One doesn’t like one’s children to have to deal with one’s shit.”
But they’re in the world, I point out. Capable of listening to the radio. “I know but you wouldn’t want them to think you were upset any more than necessary,” O’Connor says. Does she worry about the burden it might place on them? “I suppose it’s more that a minor shouldn’t be exposed to some subjects unless absolutely necessary. I’d be careful about what I’d want my kids to hear.”
O’Connor lives with her children in a sprawling Georgian house in Bray. Originally the house had some of its brickwork painted in the colours of the Irish flag. But O’Connor no longer feels so warm about being a citizen of this country. Maybe it’s the events of the past few years. Maybe it’s the sense that she has given too much and received too little. But when she speaks about Ireland, it is with anger and a touch of bitterness.
“I don’t identify with being Irish at all,” she says. “I researched if there was any way I could renounce my Irish citizenship. I can’t unless I marry some idiot. For the Children’s Referendum, only 33 per cent could be bothered to get off their arse and vote yes or no. From that night, I renounced my Irishness. I had an Irish flag painted up outside my house. I had it painted Rasta colours the next day. The only reason I live in Ireland is for a safer place for my children. If they were adults, I’d fuck off somewhere else.”
As she says it, I can’t help but think what a shame it would be. For all that O’Connor gets caricatured, her frailties held up to magnifying glasses, she’s an important presence. The picture she tore up on Saturday Night Live of the Pope destroyed her career in America, but has come to look like an important foretelling of the wave of repulsive crimes that would be exposed in the Church. Not that she feels the need to be vindicated.
“It’s not about me,” she says. “There are people running the Church who behave as if either they don’t believe in God or they don’t respect it. Musicians are always waving their awards around, thanking God, but, as I saw it, there was a battle in the streets for the honour of God. Lee Perry says that music is the Holy Spirit and I guess I feel that way.”
Now she’s fighting for her own music to be heard. The sexy dresses. The interviews. She mentions in passing that she’s even considering changing the bass line on Eight Good Reasons to garner radio play. “I’ll go along with it, but it’s ridiculous,” she says. “As far as radio play goes, it’s impossible – unless you’re 25 and you’ve got your tits out. I can get my tits out – they’re still that good that I could, if I have to – but for the next single, not for Eight Good Reasons.”
A jumble of contradictions, a contrary spirit, O’Connor is her own world of a person, an idiosyncratic queen of her domain. Queenlike, we’re halfway down the stairs when she tells her publicist that she needs a taxi to Bray, but has no money with her. Thinking of her later, some lines from the album stand out:
You know I’m not from this place, I’m from a different time, different space, And it’s real uncomfortable, To be stuck somewhere you just don’t belong.
I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss will be released on August 8