theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Sinéad O'Connor | reviews, news & interviews
theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Sinéad O'Connor
theartsdesk Q&A: Musician Sinéad O'Connor
Ireland's national treasure discusses her new album, God, pharmacology and Bob Dylan
The first thing to say about Sinéad O’Connor is that she has a voice like pure, running water and is a fabulous singer. She radiates a rare integrity and is unusually honest (often that gets her into a lot of trouble). Now 46, she is re-promoting her latest album, her ninth, How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? By general agreement it's one of her very best, featuring the new upbeat African-influenced single, the jolly “4th and Vine” (see video, below), the acidic “Queen Of Denmark”, written by her “soul brother" John Grant, and some superbly well crafted balladry.The reason she is re-doing the album promotion is that she had to cancel gigs last year when she became mentally ill after, as she explains below, she came off her medications for her bipolar condition.
Her life hasn’t been easy – she was bought up by an abusive, kleptomaniac mother. She was, however, devastated by her early death. Sinead was also a teenage shoplifter and truant, which led to her being placed in a fiercely strict Magdalene asylum. She transferred to a Quaker school, where her music was encouraged and she made a demo of songs which appeared on her first album,1989’s The Lion And The Cobra. But it was her 1990 album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, with its worldwide number one hit version of Prince’s "Nothing Compares 2 U”, accompanied by that extraordinarily moving close-up video by John Maybury, which made her a star (see video, over).
Her fame was only increased by her celebrated act of subversion in ripping up a picture of the Pope on American TV's Saturday Night Live (the front page headline on the New York Daily News was “HOLY TERROR”). Other outrages followed, including being unwilling to go on stage in New York if the national anthem was played, and being ordained as a priest by the independent Irish Orthodox Catholic Church. She has been married four times, with three children from different partners, despite claiming at one point that she was a lesbian. The last marriage’s ups and downs were played out very publicly on Twitter.
While the flame of fame flickers elsewhere, in Ireland she is a big figure, somewhere between Katie Price and Sid Vicious, always in the news for her latest outspoken comment or complicated love life. In the last decade she has released assorted albums of varying quality, including a "spiritual reggae" album called Theology, and she is always a fascinating artist, but it’s in live performance that she really shines. As theartsdesk said of her last show in London: “I’d recommend anyone who has never seen this woman in concert – even if they think she’s not their bag - to take any opportunity to catch her. Onstage, Sinéad O'Connor is truly one of the greats”.
I meet her in a members' bar in Soho. The third thing to know about Sinéad O'Connor, which doesn't come over in cold print, is that while she doesn't do small talk, she has a twinkle in her eye and has a wicked sense of humour. The fact that her new tour is called Crazy Baldhead is a clue.
PETER CULSHAW: You must be pleased by the reaction to the album.
SINEAD O’CONNOR: We lie and say we don’t care when people don’t like it. You usually instruct your manager to show you the good reviews, not the bad ones. If you genuinely were a rock’n’roller you wouldn’t want to see either. Which I was, up to this album - I never used to look at anything good or bad. This album I did want to see the good ones. It came out in March. We did a bunch of gigs, a few raucous nights. Then I got quite sick and had to postpone the tour, so we are not quite re-issuing the album but kind of going again as if starting from scratch.
You look well now, bouncy, smiling.
I feel fine. How are you?
Not bad. I just finished a book about Manu Chao.
Wasn’t he the dude who rejected his Grammy? I think I was the only other one. When I read about it I thought – we have to meet. Brilliant.
Krishnamurti put it: 'It’s no measure of mental health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society'
Manu did an album with psychiatric patients in Buenos Aires and did a radio show with them, called La Colifata (“the crazy ones”) as a kind of therapy. They don’t get the chance to express themselves. Part of it was to question the idea of madness. In Argentina, you had the psychotic leadership who disappeared people by throwing them out of planes, and the inmates of the asylum who were mostly neurotic and lost.
Krishnamurti put it, and I used to have it on my webpage: “It’s no measure of mental health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
That was almost the motto of La Colifata’s radio show. You are someone who is judged as a bit unstable and mad, does that get to you? To what extent is your craziness an illness, and how much a reasonable reaction to an insane world?
Even today I was at the BBC I was aware, as they admitted, they were frightened of me. They didn’t understand bipolar disorder and they thought I might be leaping around the studio doing mental shit. People are so frightened of mental illness because it never gets talked about. They don’t understand the different mental illnesses. People think schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder is the same thing. Even I, up until recently, thought that about schizophrenia. But I did find it wounding today, there is a prejudice because everyone is expecting you to act mental. You are being watched all the time. It’s a bit like trying to act like you are not pink when you are pink, or whatever. Bipolar has a relation with having too much intelligence - it doesn’t mean you are stupid or everything you do is irrational and everything you say can be disregarded. Quite the opposite sometimes. But as I said to the BBC guy, though, there’s no smoke without fire. I do find it painful that we live in a world where crazy is a term of abuse and I think that’s very dangerous, it doesn’t really help anything. People do use the fact that I’ve got an illness to beat me up, often for perfectly sane things I’ve done. Like ripping up the Pope’s picture, for example - they say you are a religious maniac because you have bipolar disorder. I do find it wounding - you are in a bit of a prison because people are frightened, and you find yourself thinking I'd better not say anything about anything, it’s a bit depressing.
People thought ripping up the Pope picture was crazy, but so much has come out, with abusive priests and so on, that has proved you pretty much right, actually.
I wasn’t actually officially crazy until about eight years ago but already labelled crazy 20 years ago - they already had it in for me as crazy Sinead then. I was wondering today whether I should have told anyone I had bipolar disorder. Often I have to convince people not to be nervous when I’m working, it’s a weird thing.
Can we smoke?
We are supposed to stand outside the door. There’s a guy, he’s a bit frightening, I don’t want to completely disrespect him.
Just disrespect him a bit [we go outside for a smoke]
It’s always the first question - am I mad or not mad, am I troubled? The music business was created for people like me who are not criminal enough to go to jail, and not mad enough to go to the nuthouse, at the same time not ready for normal nine-to-five living. That’s why they made the music business. We’re allowed to live by rules that are slightly different. And we are slightly different.
I think we do your madness for you. We do the mad thing so you can get on with your normal life
There’s the romantic idea of great poetry, of the thin line between madness and genius, also...
I think we do your madness for you. We do the mad thing so you can get on with your normal life and we can express it, then you can put on the record and pretend to be mad. If we weren’t doing it everyone else would be in the nuthouse.
People say music is a therapy, is that right?
Listening to music as much as making music. We all put on music when we are fucked up or happy - music is there. Music is like ropes, it gives you something to hang on to.
There’s a type of craziness that is to do with sensitivity. You seem a very sensitive person, not a lot of defences. To be an artist you have to peel the skin off a bit.
Especially when you are a singer, because your job is to be emotionally absolutely honest 100 per cent at all times. Singers do feel things more than other people by their nature.
If you are a drummer, you don’t have to be so sensitive.
Well, you don’t because you don't have to expose yourself in quite the same way.
In fact this last record seems quite personal, and honest and grown up at the same time. I suppose we should talk about it.
It’s the best fucking album ever, it’s fucking great. It’s better than Bob Dylan. No it’s not - aren’t you supposed to say something about it? It’s a mature album.
Musically and lyrically it’s grown up, it’s quite moving. You plug into the sort of things everyone goes through. How do you feel that probably a million people have cried to your music?
I love it. At my gigs it’s the men crying, you can hear them. Sounds that they never let out before. I know I’ve done a good job if the fellas are crying.
Perhaps you are quite a dangerous person.
You need artists that can open up certain blocked emotions. It’s not always sad crying, sometimes it’s something spiritual.
In the middle ages would you have been a saint or a witch or....
I probably would have been burnt at the stake.
So, there’s progress. The whole pop cliché is about sex and romance. Your songs are also about ageing as well, about families. What happens after the romance.
Songs tend to come to me, while I’m doing shit around the house. I don’t have a conscious plan. Often I can’t answer questions about the songs, because the subconscious does the work. Often you have to be careful, because songs come true. The subconscious is very powerful.
They say when you hit 40, you become much more away of mortality. Did that happen for you?
I’ve always had a transcendental attitude towards mortality. I have the sense there is no such thing as life or death.
Do you have a religious practice as such?
I separate God and religion, they are two different things. I’ve studied the theologies of all the religions and taken bits of all of them. Wear symbols of all of them. I consider myself an extremely religious person, but not subscribing to any one religion.
Do you meditate or pray?
I do pray a lot, yes. Especially while I'm singing. At gigs that’s what i’m doing all the time. I listen to a lot of Islamic chants to prayer, Hindu chants, shit like that.
You should go the Fes Festival of Sacred Music, you would go down a storm there.
I’d love that.
I’ll get you a gig. As it's personal stuff - are you married at the moment? Or don’t you want to talk about it?
It’s not really relevant to the record.
You do talk about personal stuff in the record.
They were mostly written in 2009. Some of the songs are autobiographical, but there’s character songs, story songs too. In that way, it’s different to other records. It’s not all about me.
So you see the album as more novelistic?
My brother Joseph, who writes, calls it faction. He writes fiction but some of it seems like fact. It’s fine line.
I love it that the first line I sing is 'I wanted to change the world, but I couldn't even change my underwear'
Fact is stranger than fiction, but fiction is truer. The “Queen of Denmark” song you didn’t write though. Why did you pick that song? Because you like the cursing?
That’s John Grant. The whole song is brilliant and funny. Me and John are like brother and sister. I sang backing vocals on his album and was credited as Mrs John Grant. We’re the female and male version of each other – I’ve never met someone more like me in the world. I love the song because John has this brilliant ability where he can take you to a dark emotional place and then lift you out of it with something so funny. He’s queeny, he has a bitchy sense of humour. Fun to sing - I like to do it as the first song we do - I like doing it as the first song we have to do after leaving work with a mental illness. I love it that the first line I sing is “I wanted to change the world, but I couldn’t even change my underwear”. I like that.
People don’t get that you are quite funny. There’s quite a bit of humour in the album.
When people see me live they can sense I have a sense of humour, because I get giddy. It’s a bit like getting an email, you can’t get the emotion.
Your haircut makes you look severe, also you are always serious in photographs.
That’s because I’m like a rabbit in the headlights when I’m being photographed, I’m mortified. Bob Dylan is the same, when you meet him he’s actually a very childlike character, a generous spirit in a beautiful way, but all his photographs make him look awfully serious. He’s like a smiley child who freezes up in front of the camera because he’s so shy. I have one of those faces where if I’m not smiling I look dreadfully serious.
Do you want to have another hit record?
I would like to make a living, put it that way, but mostly my interest is in playing live - that’s what I love to do and what I’m good at, and that’s where I can make a living. I always discount the idea of hit records - since the Pope picture -ripping incident I haven’t been an artist anyone will play on the radio. So I factor that out, but I’d fucking love a hit record and I wish someone really famous would cover my songs. I want to make shitloads of money like anyone else, but what got me into music and I’m passionate about is playing live. If I do that I’m happy really.
Does your illness mean people are nervous about booking you? Or at least far in advance?
No, and where they are it’s unfair, because if you look at my career I’ve turned up to every gig I was ever booked for, apart from this year, and I only missed 10 gigs. They are the only ones I’ve missed in 30 years of working. I’m very old school about all that. When you miss work for a mental illness there’s more prejudice against you than there would be for a physical illness. What people don’t realise is that for weeks I was touring last year when I was sick and I really shouldn’t have been. I had to deal with a bit of that, like I’m a diva who won’t turn up, but it’s not like that.
Do you treat it with drugs?
That was what the trouble was. There are two types of bipolar disorder, the manic type and the depressed type, which is my type. I was put on toxic doses of the meds for the wrong type. What happens is I had put on shedloads of weight, so I went to my doctor, so for some reason she completely took me off meds. I didn’t know any better. The trouble was also that she was involved in the church struggle, but from the other side, so we fell out and I was unsupervised. It can take months to get sick, so the person might not realise they are. The first symptom was the inability to get any sleep. So I was going for months without sleep, just taking something to knock me out.
Mental illness has physical symptoms, something people don’t think about. It was like walking through treacle. I was taken off meds in July and it took me until maybe May of this year to find a proper doctor and get back on meds. The reason I had to leave the tour was because I was on a med called Tegratol which can cause a reaction, which it did with me, where it quadruples your symptoms. And the main symptom for me was this suicidal compulsion. It was like in the cartoon where you see someone following the ghost. It was only when I googled meds of how to top myself that this box came up and warned me I could be having this reaction. It was a matter of life and death - people don’t realise, it’s not just being difficult, but you will die if you don’t get help. When you're on the right meds, you still have to watch how tired you get and the kind of people you hang out with, but if you are not on meds you will die at some point. By your own hand, that’s the way it goes.
You can still drink alcohol?
I was always allergic, it made me vomit – you can’t drink on the meds anyway.
I don’t like to call it an illness actually, I prefer to think of it as a teacher
The other thing people say is that when you are melancholic it can be the best time to write songs, when you are happy not so much. People think there could be some creative benefits .
I don’t find that. Melancholic is not the same thing as a compulsion to fucking kill yourself. I found that when I was sick I was not creative at all. The person I am, I would always write from a place of pain because there were things I needed to recover from. That’s what is different on this record, it's written from a different place. The last three records have been more moving away from that approach, because I was clear of those things and was free to write about other things, other characters.
Less self-obsessed, if that isn’t a rude way of putting it.
It wasn’t that I was writing from a place of pain, I don’t any more find that suffering is a creative place for me. In fact I find the opposite. There are benefits - if you are a musical person. There was some magazine article about bipolarity which said that the fact that we have the illness makes us relate to music in a different way with a real deep connection. I don’t like to call it an illness actually, I prefer to think of it as a teacher. There are many great things about it too - you can have a very intense relationship with music. You can think of a hundred things at the same time, create 10 albums at the same time. It’s not all negative. Once you are on meds, there are mostly positive aspects to it. The artist has to go to the edge of the psyche to bring back what’s useful. It’s like going for the flower that lives on the top of the mountain that’s going to heal the princess. We have to not be frightened by what’s perceived as madness.
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