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