“Children say that people are hung sometimes for speaking the truth.”Joan of Arc, 1400s
“Put your fucking seatbelts on ’cause I haven’t finished yet.”Sinead O’Connor, SPIN 1992
Sometime in Fall 1987, in the dark, late night of a Manhattan short-term office rental, SPIN founder and editor-in-chief Bob Guccione Jr. was digging through trash. This was a common occurrence. Once his editors had gone home he’d rummage for promo cassettes of new music discarded as actual, literal rubbish. He played one particular tape, The Lion and The Cobra, its title taken from Psalm 19:13: “You will tread upon the lion and the cobra, you will trample the great lion and the serpent,” all night long while he worked, till five in the morning. The artist was a complete unknown named Sinead O’Connor.
The next day when he returned to the office, he called label publicist Elaine Shock, raving about her artist and hoping to get an interview, afraid he was already too late, that she’d been inundated with requests. He received a heavy silence. And then, finally, Shock said: “I sent those tapes out three weeks ago and you’re the only call I’ve gotten about her.”
SPIN named her one of their Top 10 Artists to Watch in 1988, not long after The Lion and The Cobra, recorded during the later stages of Sinead’s pregnancy with her first child, was released in November 1987. The cover portrayed the singer with shaven head, fisted arms crossed over her chest, mouth in full screech, the interpretation open. Fearing she would come across too harsh or aggressive, the U.S. and Canadian issues offered a prettier, less threatening mouth-closed-looking-downward-in-submission version. They thought a quiet, gentler Sinead would sell more records.
And that, in more ways than one, is where the story began.
“I didn’t have time to think about [becoming famous] before it happened,” she says. “I was singing in clubs and pubs, pubs and clubs…I was just singing for the sake of singing, ‘cause I had shit to get off my chest. I feel like that’s the only reason really [for anyone] to make an album is because they’ll go so fucking crazy if they don’t. If you’re making an album for any other reason you shouldn’t be fucking making it.”
The hits we most remember from Sinead’s debut are the ultra-catchy “Mandinka” and “I Want Your (Hands on Me)”, which, oddly, was featured in 1988’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. But another single, “Troy” peaked at No. 8 in the Netherlands and No. 12 in Belgium, and if it was discussed or appreciated in the States in 1988, it would have been through low whispers. The song, undoubtedly one of the best ever recorded anywhere at any time, features a haunting performance and a tragic story of familial abuse and betrayal. Like its subject, it’s complex and heart-wrenching.
Sinead went from being a complete unknown—and having a name no one could pronounce—to being one of the most successful and recognizable musicians in the world, selling millions of albums, with most-watched videos in an industrial nano-second. Each hit was bigger than the last. She toured and sold out stadiums. She was fascinated and adored. And then she started speaking out, particularly against the Catholic Church, and, in some less discerning eyes, fell from grace.
And so began Sinead O’Connor’s very public career walking through fire. Like her fated beginning, it’s so mythic it’s almost unfathomable. But her story is real, recorded, documented—and recent. When we look at our great heroes, they all have something in common: born with a mission too fierce for easy public perception, they’re a leader and not a follower, misunderstood and too early for their time, persecuted for their bravery and perhaps just for being unfiltered.
Let’s review this story: To not let her femininity define her mission, she cut her hair and wore what was considered at the time gender-neutral clothing. Raised with God, it’s her fierce faith in a better world—a more civilized humanity—that drives her, even to this day. She’d come to be labeled heretic, her message so misunderstood by the masses. Because, truly, how could a beautiful young woman on the verge of so much greatness, as she in fact was, take such crazy risks?
And this begs the question: What if Joan of Arc had lived? What if, by some force of miracle, she’d escaped being burned alive and carried on. She would have gotten older, she would have fought different battles. Better still, what if she had done it all in the modern age with TV cameras capturing her every word and move? Maybe, at some stage, her fellow warriors might have abandoned her, leaving her to fight battles on her own. Maybe she’s not actually “difficult” at all—but instead smart and funny. Maybe she’d speak openly, sometimes imperfectly, and throw the word “fuck” around like firey embers.
Maybe, just maybe, she’d live long enough to be astonishingly, shockingly against-all-odds, unabashedly human.
Over time, history is revisited and sometimes revised. Over time, the protagonists are reconsidered and appreciated and, occasionally, rehabilitated in the public memory and even revered.
Maybe it’s time for Sinead.
Death (By Media)
On Saturday, Oct. 3, 1992, weeks after the release of her third album Am I Not Your Girl?, Sinead looked straight into the camera after performing an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War” on Saturday Night Live, and ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II, closing the performance with the words: “Fight the real enemy.” She didn’t ask how she was going to lead the war against child abuse. She just joined it on live television.
How easy it would have been for her to sing, play nice, say what everyone wanted to hear and go off and sell some records?
That’s just not how Sinead does things.
Her persecution by a reckless, serpentine media is now an invaluable lesson, one we’d hope would be banished to history. The media tried to annihilate her. And to some extent, career-wise, they did. They may just have well bound her in shackles and locked her in a steel cage.
In her own words: “They were cunts.”
Like Joan of Arc, she was sold for the burning. So, why, if she was on the side of angels, was she on trial?
“When I was young, there was a little ageism…you were considered to be a little upstart if you were young, and of course a woman, and you dared have an opinion you got the shit kicked out of you. And being a woman, well that’s even fucking worse, and a woman with no fucking hair…”
In retrospect, it’s strange to think her fans would be shocked. In 1991, her second album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (March 1990), best known for its Prince-penned hit “Nothing Compares 2 U” was nominated for several Grammy Awards. Not only did she refuse to attend the event, but announced she wouldn’t accept her win for Best Alternative Music Performance. She just didn’t believe in the fanfare of it all, if you were going to make important, quality work.
No one had done that before. She was immediately on the media’s — and the industry’s — shit list.
“I suppose in one way I should be flattered, because in one way they wouldn’t have tried to put my light out if I wasn’t a bright shiny fucking light. They were just trying to put out my light, because that was a dangerous light.
“And the things I was talking about — child abuse — and writing about child abuse, at that time nobody talked about these things. When I came along…myself and Kurt Cobain and Rosanne Barr, we were the first to discuss child abuse without being overshadowed. The issue of child abuse was such a hot fucking potato, that’s why they didn’t want me opening Pandora’s fucking box.”
The Servant of God
Raised by her abusive and devoutly Catholic mother, Sinead’s mission wasn’t about religion. It was about the Catholic Church and their child abuse cover ups, something Sinead was attuned to in Ireland. It was too early for the then blinded American masses to fully comprehend, and Sinead became a lamb to the slaughter. And yet, somehow, her faith in God remained unshakable.
“I was born into Catholicism. I made my Holy Communion at the age of eight, and at about thirteen I made my Confirmation. That means I signed two contracts with the Holy Spirit before I ever signed one in the music business,” she explains. “So, my job was to keep those two contracts. The fact that I signed one in the music business, does not invalidate the one that I’d made with the Holy Spirit. So, I feel happy that I kept those contracts, but not to Catholicism, because I’m a Muslim.
“I’m happy with the way I was because I was sticking to the contracts that I had made which were, at that time, Christian principles, which were to reject the world and to reject material things.”
Though the Vatican doesn’t recognize women as priests, in the late-90s Sinead was ordained by the Irish Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, an independent group not associated with the Catholic Church. It was not a decision she took lightly. “I’m very proud of it,” she says. “It meant the world to me to do, for many reasons. I didn’t take no for an answer, just because I’m a woman. I’m proud of that. But I’m equally proud that I had the good sense to convert to Islam.”
So, how does she feel about Pope Francis? “Oh, he’s lovely, I like him. He’s an ordinary man. He’s funny, he’s always slagging off and taking the piss out of things. He’s just a man. I like him. I like him a lot.”
“People have to be willing to fight for each other’s rights,” she says. “There was a time when American people were willing to stand in the street and were willing to get killed for each other. You had characters like [Congressman and Civil Rights activist] John Lewis who were willing to go out and take a beating. Nobody gives a shit about each other enough to go out and do that anymore. They stay cleverly silent.”
“I actually blame certain different religions and Christian churches and the way they talk,” she says. “Christianity is completely different to what they were teaching back in the 60s or whatever. They made people unloving. They don’t teach us to die for each other and to love each other enough to die for each other.
“The opposite of that is…you have nothing to fear from taking a beating, you know?”
She admits it’s not a simple issue, it’s deep, it’s difficult.
“And then also, people are deliberately kept living just a paycheck away from being broke, too busy working two, three jobs just to fucking consider anybody else. They can’t afford to go out in the streets. They can’t pay the rent if they do. It’s very clever having everybody live a paycheck away from homeless, you know? And then nobody has any time to educate themselves or read a book or fucking be inspired. They’re too busy trying to feed their children.”
Her newest single, a cover of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of The World” (released Oct. 2), serves as a reintroduction to a powerful civil rights anthem and her response to the Black Lives Matter Movement. She recorded it both with music and as an emotive a cappella single.
Sinead’s 1990 song “Black Boys On Mopeds” has been relentlessly covered throughout the decades, and more recently in protest for George Floyd’s murder.
How important is it to give voice to the silent?
“That’s what music is for,” she says. “It’s for all the things that don’t get said. That’s what music is for. And even music itself, what is powerful is the silence between the notes, not the notes, it’s the silence.”
Her process of writing songs hasn’t changed much over the years. “I write from a different platform now,” she explains. “When I was young I was very political — I had a lot to get off my chest. I write from a different platform now. I got everything off my chest, and I can kind of invent characters for songs. The process of songwriting is the same, but the songs make themselves up inside me, over the course of time, that’s the best way I can describe it. That way, I don’t sit at the guitar and try to make a song, I wait until the song has made itself.
“I’m not writing from a platform of teenage angst. More 54-year-old lady angst. Post-menopausal angst.”
How important do you think music is now? In our society, in our world?
“God, well it’s vital. Obviously, it’s vital.
“But, I do see that a generation of songwriters have been groomed in violence by the whole Disney artists’ movement. These Disney kids that grow up and become stars and…all they’re singing about is…”Oooh, baby” or “don’t leave me baby” or “get on my dick.” You’ve got a whole generation of songwriters out there who are sexualized too young and groomed into violence. They’re writing songs about nothing. It’s very, very dangerous what’s going on.”
In the past, she even penned an open letter to Miley Cyrus about the dangers of the industry.
“American female artists, they look like Disney characters—they’ve got no pants on,” she says. “Nothing from the waist down, they’re all wearing leotards. They look like Donald-fucking-Duck. And then they’re trying to sexualize their audience. J.Lo, Madonna…they totally look like Donald Duck.”
She blames American Idol and the eternal quest for fame on the emptiness of today’s music.
“Everybody wants to be famous. They don’t want to be singers, they want to be famous. To win these things you have to be singing about nothing that’s going to make anybody cry or anybody fucking get angry or anybody challenged…
“Now people say, I really want to be famous, when it used to be ‘I really want to be a singer.’”
She warns of the dangers of creating art without a message.
“God is in the things that you fear,” she says. “You’ve got to stand for what you believe in.”
When asked what the proudest moment of her life is, she responds: “My babies.”
Sinead now lives a quiet life on a remote mountain in Ireland, surrounded by her four children and two grandchildren.
“I’m finding that a lot of the songs I’m writing have to do with my children,” she says. “The album that I’m working on at the moment is like a series of letters to my children.
“Also, where I live is very inspiring,” she says, living between two farms, happily enveloped by nature. “I live in a tiny little cottage with a tiny little garden, but where I live is farms. I live on the top of the mountain on the arse end of nowhere. It’s beautiful and so inspiring…the animals and the noise and the donkeys and the cows and the ducks and the whole orchestra of animals that make noise 24-7 up here. At night there’s an amazing orchestra that goes on. The cows call across the field and the ducks answer and the donkey answers…”
Does she understand the impact her music — and her story — has had?
“I probably don’t. I probably don’t, actually. And maybe that’s not a bad thing, because you have to have some humility if you’re going to survive…because otherwise you’d be going around with a big head.”
She shares that her oldest son Jake, 33, tells her she has imposter syndrome, like a lot of artists. That’s why she doesn’t understand why people like her songs. “When I was young I absolutely had imposter syndrome. I used to stand there doing these massive shows and be thinking, ‘these people have no idea these songs are shit. I’m crap. Why do you like my songs?’ I had no idea when I was young, definitely.”
She tells a story of having intense stage fright as a young performer. “Every fucking time I walked out on stage I would shit myself,” she says. “When I was young I was the kind of person who would deliberately go and do all the things I was afraid of. I was terrified every time I got on stage to do a gig.”
And then, she reminds us: Brave people are terrified, by definition. “They wouldn’t be doing the brave thing they’re doing if they weren’t fucking terrified of something.”
Looking at her early work now, she says she loves it. “I love it, I’m really proud of it. I’m chuffed, I’m like ‘oh my God, who’s that little girl?’ I’m proud of it, I’m really proud of it.
“I didn’t work for about six years, until last year. And I had to try to learn all my lyrics again, so I had to watch a lot of footage and stuff, and that’s the first time I said, “Oh, shit, these are really good songs!”
That was only a year ago. “She’s pretty cool that girl,” she says about her long-ago self.
She’s hoping, like many performers in these uncertain times, her postponed 2020 tour will resume in 2021.
When I tell her that her music — unearthing subjects of pain and abuse — has helped and saved a lot of people, she responds with humility. “I hope so,” she says. There’s an innate warmth and sweetness in her voice, balanced with strength and empathy. Her vulnerability pours through the same way it has with her songs — it’s what made her music so powerful.
“I really hope so.”
The Glorified (Living) Soul
The day I spoke with Sinead was just after the first U.S. Presidential debate. “It was a shitshow,” she says, and no one could rightly disagree, regarding the verbal mud wrestling carried out by these two men. “Poor Joe Biden, who I love, he had so much makeup on he looked like Ru Paul!”
“We were bloody traumatized [in Ireland] and it’s not even our country. We’re like, what the fuck did we just look at?” I ask her what people from other countries are thinking about America and she says: “It’s an embarrassment. It’s awful. The whole thing…it’s appalling. Trump has made America a third world fucking country, that’s what it looks like. It was the greatest country and now it’s a third world fucking country in many ways. And you’re on the brink of a civil fucking war.
“You know when the new president takes over and the ex-president goes off in a helicopter? They should just fucking fly him to Mars, don’t even tell him, just dump him on Mars. He would love it up there all by himself.”
She adds: “In Ireland people would be screaming. It’s shocking, really.
“And meanwhile, he’s separating children from their parents at the border…. There should have been a war over that. It’s shame on you all there wasn’t a war over it. On the outside that looks bad to Irish people, because if that was in Ireland, the first time he gave away somebody’s child he would have been ripped physically out of the office by people, and that’s what should have happened when he did that. But what I always say about American people is their greatest trait is kindness, and that kindness is killing them now.
“Americans are just too fucking nice. They’re putting up with this shit, you know? You need some dirty workers to come in and do it for you. You should hire a load of Irish people. They’d be very happy to do it.”
I thank her for the laugh, she says: “Some stuff you have to laugh at. If you didn’t laugh, you’d be crying.”
She doesn’t listen to new music much. “You know what happened to me…I got old or something, because all I want to listen to is chants and peaceful mantras. I’m terrible. I’ve fallen out of the habit of listening to anything.”
Does she have any regrets about speaking her mind? “No, I absolutely don’t, not in my artistic life. I do in my personal life, of course there are times when I wish I’d kept my fucking mouth shut, but not in my artistic life.”
Finally, she’s reached a point where she feels truly content. “I don’t think we’re here to be happy or sad, I think we’re here to try to be content. So, I’m content. I have a very peaceful life now, thanks be to God. Very peaceful and quiet. Boring and good. I’m content with my life.”
She mentions her dog, her first dog, is a “Schnoodle” — Schnauzer-Poodle mix — named Dua.
“It is the Islamic word for prayer,” she says.