Voice An­gel of an

Ir­ish bad girl Sinead O’Con­nor is now singing to the glory of God. re­ports

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts - Iain Shed­den

SINEAD O’Con­nor is not crazy. She’ll tell you so her­self if you ask her, per­haps with a few ex­ple­tives thrown in be­cause you had the gall to sug­gest such a thing in the first place. At 40, the Ir­ish singer still gets tarred with the loony brush quite a lot by the me­dia, par­tic­u­larly in her home coun­try.

‘‘ You have to be ex­tremely care­ful,’’ she says in her soft Ir­ish brogue. ‘‘ There’s no point in be­ing hon­est or giv­ing away any­thing per­sonal about your­self. I have had peo­ple sit­ting in my own kitchen telling me what a crazy per­son I am while my kids are sit­ting in the next room. It was like that for years and that was a real bur­den, a real de­press­ing thing.’’

Rather than mad­ness, though, it’s O’Con­nor’s force­ful per­son­al­ity and out­spo­ken­ness that has made her an easy tar­get for the tabloids through the years, so much so that it dam­aged her ca­reer. Al­most all of those me­dia mo­ments in the 1990s, at the height of her fame, had some con­nec­tion with re­li­gion, most no­tably her ill­con­sid­ered de­ci­sion to rip up a pic­ture of pope John Paul II live on Amer­i­can television in 1992.

Her pub­lic protest against the Catholic Church’s stance on child abuse back­fired. She later asked the pope to for­give her for the ‘‘ ridicu­lous act’’ of ‘‘ a young girl rebel’’, but by then her ca­reer in the US was ef­fec­tively over.

Up­set­ting the Catholic Church, to which she be­longs, didn’t end there. In 1999 she was or­dained as a priest by the Or­der of Mater Dei, a small re­li­gious body not recog­nised by the Vat­i­can. Four years later she de­clared that she was re­tir­ing from the mu­sic in­dus­try and would in­stead teach re­li­gion to Catholic school­child­ren. She also de­clared her­self a les­bian, then changed her mind.

All of this has tended to over­shadow the wo­man with the voice of an an­gel who has sold mil­lions of al­bums dur­ing the past 20 years.

O’Con­nor thinks she knows her way around God now, or at least she be­lieves she has a greater un­der­stand­ing of re­li­gion than when she was hav­ing hits and hit­ting out in the ’ 80s and ’ 90s. The­ol­ogy has in­ter­ested her since she was a child. She would like to write a book about it, ex­cept she doesn’t know how to write books, she says. She does know how to write songs, though, and how to sing them in a way that can be more af­fect­ing than any po­lit­i­cal or re­li­gious tirade.

On her new album, The­ol­ogy , she com­bines her dis­tinc­tive voice with songs that at­tempt to ex­press her feel­ings about re­li­gious faith, Catholic or oth­er­wise. The album comes in two forms: the first ver­sion was recorded in Dublin with just her voice and gui­tar; the sec­ond ver­sion fea­tures a full band and was recorded in Lon­don with pro­ducer and DJ Ron Tom.

Many of the songs on The­ol­ogy are re­work­ings of the Psalms. Out of the Depths , for ex­am­ple, in­ter­prets Psalm 130 as O’Con­nor sings: ‘‘ Out of the depths I cry to you Oh Lord/ Don’t let my cries for mercy be ig­nored.’’

O’Con­nor’s ver­sion of Psalm 33 fea­tures her own lyrics: ‘‘ Sing all ye righ­teous to the Lord/ It’s right that the up­right should ac­claim him/ Sing to Jah with your gui­tar/ Turn up your bass amp/ Whack it up all the way to save him.’’

This may sound flip­pant, but it is O’Con­nor’s voice, her way of per­son­al­is­ing her be­liefs. She does this just as ef­fec­tively, and af­fect­ingly, else­where by in­ter­pret­ing the works of oth­ers, such as Cur­tis May­field’s We Peo­ple Who Are Darker Than Blue , the tra­di­tional folk song Rivers of Baby­lon ( it­self adapted from Psalm 137) and, on the full band album only, a breathy, elec­tro- pop treat­ment of Andrew Lloyd Web­ber and Tim Rice’s I Don’t Know How to Love Him, from the mu­si­cal Je­sus Christ Su­per­star . The track has hit writ­ten all over it.

‘‘ I re­mem­ber hear­ing it and think­ing: ‘ That’s my song,’ ’’ she says. ‘‘ I wasn’t a fan of Je­sus Christ Su­per­star, in fact I thought it was ter­ri­ble apart from that and one other song, but I al­ways wanted to record that song at some point.’’

The de­ci­sion to record two ver­sions of the same ma­te­rial came about by ac­ci­dent. O’Con­nor was hop­ing to make her next album af­ter The­ol­ogy with Tom and went to Lon­don to dis­cuss it with him. While in the stu­dio, he con­vinced her to re- record the acous­tic songs she had al­ready done in Dublin.

‘‘ I’m glad we did two ver­sions be­cause that came to sym­bol­ise some­thing for me. It came to sym­bol­ise some­thing to me about how you can put two dif­fer­ent slants on the same scrip­tures,’’ she says.

It is also her way of bring­ing peace into a world of war. ‘‘ I’m al­ways struck by how an aw­ful amount of vi­o­lence goes on in the world, and war, be­cause of how dif­fer­ent peo­ple in­ter­pret dif­fer­ent the­olo­gies,’’ O’Con­nor says. ‘‘ I’m talk­ing about the Jewish and Pales­tinian prob­lem, the prob­lems in Le­banon and with Amer­ica and Iraq.’’

The 10 songs on the Dublin Ses­sions album are slightly more emo­tional, as they al­low the sub­tleties of O’Con­nor’s melan­choly to shine through. It’s the first time her voice has been al­lowed such free­dom across an en­tire album.

‘‘ Do­ing shows over the years, I would al­ways do 10 min­utes or so just with an acous­tic gui­tar and that’s what the au­di­ence would go mad for,’’ she says. ‘‘ So for years I thought I’d love to do a record with just gui­tar and voice.’’

‘‘ Th­ese songs are the­ol­ogy, but done in my private and silent way.’’

* * * PRIVATE and silent aren’t terms that have been com­monly as­so­ci­ated with Sinead Marie Ber­nadette O’Con­nor. Since her teenage years she has been re­belling against one thing or an­other and get­ting her­self into bother as a con­se­quence.

O’Con­nor was born and grew up in Dublin, the mid­dle child of five. Her par­ents di­vorced when she was nine and she lived with her mother. Years later she claimed her mother had been vi­o­lent to­wards her. Her mother died in a car ac­ci­dent in 1985, just at the point where the young singer was con­sid­er­ing a ca­reer in mu­sic. It was when she fled Dublin for Lon­don, dev­as­tated by her mother’s death, that her ca­reer got off the ground.

She cre­ated a stir with her de­but album, The Lion and the Co­bra ( 1987), partly be­cause of her boy­ish good looks and her ex­tra­or­di­nary vo­cal ac­ro­bat­ics on songs such as Mandinka and I Want Your ( Hands on Me). The real break­through, how­ever, came in 1990 with the re­lease of her sec­ond album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got . Her treat­ment of Prince’s Noth­ing Com­pares 2U — the ac­com­pa­ny­ing video fea­tured her face and noth­ing else — was an in­ter­na­tional hit and the album went on to be­come her big­gest suc­cess, sell­ing more than seven mil­lion copies.

Al­bums such as Uni­ver­sal Mother ( 1995) and Faith and Courage ( 2000) fol­lowed but en­joyed much less com­mer­cial suc­cess, partly be­cause O’Con­nor’s com­mit­ment to her chil­dren rather than the in­ter­na­tional stage. She has four chil­dren. The old­est, Jake, 20, is the same age

she was when she made her first album. Her other chil­dren are Roisin, 11, Shane, 2, and Yeshua, who was born last De­cem­ber. Each child has a dif­fer­ent fa­ther. In the case of Yeshua, it is mu­si­cian Frank Bona­dio, O’Con­nor’s for­mer part­ner. They split up in Fe­bru­ary.

De­spite her ma­ter­nal du­ties, O’Con­nor is out of re­tire­ment and is tour­ing dur­ing the Ir­ish school hol­i­days and a lit­tle be­yond that, un­til Oc­to­ber in fact. We won’t seen her in Aus­tralia un­til next Easter.

‘‘ The shows are the fun part, but to do that you have to do all the things that take you away from home,’’ she says. ‘‘ I think it’s hard on any­one, but es­pe­cially hard on moth­ers. I find that part agony, be­ing away.’’

Her set for up­com­ing shows in­cludes some tracks from the The­ol­ogy ses­sions plus a se­lec­tion of older ma­te­rial, some of which she hasn’t sung for 20 years. She’s still in good voice, though, she says: It’s amaz­ing that you can be in your prime vo­cally when you’re ap­proach­ing mid­dle age.’’

Just as The­ol­ogy is a per­sonal state­ment, O’Con­nor’s voice is some­thing she had to find af­ter she had em­barked on her ca­reer as a singer.

I moved back to Dublin to work with a singing teacher,’’ she says. He taught you how to sing in your own voice, to use your ac­cent. If you sing in an ac­cent that is not your own, you ac­tu­ally con­strict your voice. The mus­cles that form to af­fect your ac­cent are formed by the time you’re about 14. So you end up chok­ing your­self in one way.

When I was grow­ing up in Ire­land it was very un­cool to sing in an Ir­ish ac­cent, so what you did was you sang in an Amer­i­can ac­cent. What I didn’t like was that on those first cou­ple of al­bums I was singing in this kind of fake Amer­i­can ac­cent. What I love now, af­ter do­ing that work as a singer, is singing those songs in my own voice.’’

As she talks you can hear her pas­sion for the topic take over. You can hear that same pas­sion on The­ol­ogy. It sounds like an album and an idea with heart, soul and his­tory, but also one that wasn’t made by an an­gry young rebel.

I don’t think I could have made this album 15 years ago,’’ she ad­mits. I’ve had the de­sire to make it for a long time, since I was eight or nine, but no.’’ Not that she is deny­ing her bol­shie past.

You have to go through all your stages,’’ O’Con­nor says. You have to be young and an­gry be­cause that’s part of your growth, in the same way that learn­ing to crawl is in ba­bies. You have to get rid of your own emo­tions out of things. And you need to get rid of is­sues be­fore you can com­pre­hend your own spir­i­tu­al­ity.

What that means is that I’m 40 and a cer­tain ground­ing comes with that, that shows in your mu­sic.

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