An interview with Sinéad O’Connor
by Helena Mulkerns,
first published in
Hot Press magazine, Dec. 1990:
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Due to overcrowding in JFK and strong headwinds, the plane is late touching down in LAX. Although the inevitable tinselly Christmas decorations are in evidence all over, it hardly feels like Yuletide to photographer John Francis Bourke and me. In New York we shivered in the icy winds belting down Broadway as we waited for a cab, here we roll down the car windows and laugh at the palm trees. Bikers zoom along in open jackets, helmetless. At the “Cat and Fiddle” on Sunset, people are eating at tables outside on the patio. In December.
The splendid, glittering tackiness of the West Coast boulevards at night is countered the following day by a pristine, cloudless sky and unusually hot sunshine, which scalds into the hotel bedroom where we’ve scheduled an interview with America’s favourite diva, Sinead O’Connor. Or just “Sinead”, as they’ve taken to calling her. Americans have even finally succeeded in pronouncing it properly, a sure sign of acceptance. LA Weekly has a centerfold spread advertizing “RED, HOT AND BLUE” that lists the performers on the album: “U2, Sinead O’Connor, David Byrne” etc. Sinead is at the very top of the list, as she has been on most lists in the U.S. for most of this year. Until the January release of “Nothing Compares 2U”, she was respected high-cult Princess, the prized choice of the connoisseur. With the subsequent smash hit of the single, video and album “I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got” she went straight up there alongside Madonna and Whitney, outclassing and outselling both.
Having decided against something brashly rock’n’roll like the Sunset Marquis, the small Ermitage Hotel tucked in behind Sunset Boulevard is perfectly anonymous and very friendly. Maria at the reception desk smiles without fuss as Sinead comes in, and apart from one man who nearly drops on the spot when he runs almost straight into Sinead in the elevator, all is comfortably low key. By 9:00 am, we’re camped out on the bed, Sinead, Ciara and Hot Press – fuelled with Cappuccinos and toast. We chat a bit, an amusing starting point being the discussion of the fact that it’s still very much taboo for women to curse in America – a habit Irish and particularly Dublin women are addicted to. Sinead seems in fine form, having passed her driving test the day before and in the process of buying a car so she’ll be able, finally to drive around her newly adopted city.
I didn’t know that it was going to be as huge as it was, I knew that something fairly heavy was going to happen. But I didn’t know this was going to happen!
How did it feel from your end to suddenly have this massive worldwide hit?
It was very exciting and everything, but it was very stressful, it threw me suddenly into certain situations which were extremely stressful and I had to think about things I had never expected I would have to think about. I had been recording an album since October and that had been under very difficult circumstances because I had split up with my manager and so basically since October last year, I’d been working all the time. Then this happened and you could notice how skinny I was for a start. It was very weird. I suppose that basically I got really exhausted right at the beginning of the year and I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into. I didn’t want to be viewed as being some kind of “superstar” and to be put into that category. Although, I suppose I am in it!
What is it like to be recognised practically everywhere you go?
Mostly it happens in a very friendly, affectionate way. But there are some places that you just can’t go, like shopping malls, for example! I get worried when people start to follow us in their cars and stuff like that. Or if they’re driving along beside you on the freeway and hanging out the window, you’re scared they’re going to get creamed …
Is everyday living in LA easier, since there are proportionately more stars per square mile than most other towns?
No, I think the opposite. I think London is probably the best place, really. People are too cool to pretend to notice.
You loved it from the first time you came here and finally decided to move here after the Video Awards in March. Yet it seems like a rather unlikely place for you to be attracted to …
How can anybody say whether a person be suited or not be suited to a place? It’s all the same to me wherever I live. I’d be exposed to the same stuff here as anywhere else. People who have never been to Los Angeles before have a sort of idea about it that just isn’t correct – like that it’s shallow or whatever. People can be just as shallow in Dublin, or London or Paris. In fact, over here they’re more honest about it. They’re the first ones to tell you they want something from you, there’s less pretence.
It must be very hard to deal with that fact.
It is. I can deal with it alright, on a certain professional level, but on a personal level I can’t deal with it. It invades every area of your life. I can’t even go out with somebody I think is nice – I know he’s not going out with me because I’m a nice girl, but because I’m Sinead O’Connor. I find that since becoming famous it’s very, very difficult to communicate with people.
In a year of the glitzy Video Awards and American National Anthem furore (both already much-covered and now jaded), you also travelled to Chile to perform at an Amnesty International Gig there, along with Sting and Peter Gabriel – what was that like?
Well, the strongest thing that happened while I was there was meeting the Mothers of the Disappeared. Those women have been through some awful shit. They’ve been tortured, they’ve been raped by dogs. They’ve been beaten up, their husbands and sons and uncles and lovers have been taken from them and they don’t know where they are. And yet they are the strongest women, the most proud women, they’re really supportive of each other, they pull together, very loving of each other, very respectful of each and very dignified and very happy. They say they don’t want any sort of revenge or bitterness or anything like that, they forgive the stuff that was done to them but that they want to know where their people are and they want it to be acknowledged what was done to them. They walk around wearing photos of whichever member of their family is missing – Ciara and I were in bits – crying our eyes out. And they were telling us not to cry!
At the end of the concert they got up onstage with Sting when he did that song “They Dance Alone”. They did a national dance, which involves a man and a woman dancing, flirting with each other – performing it by themselves to signify their aloneness. There were these old women onstage – just dancing in a very dignified way. Then this little old woman with a really tiny voice got up and screamed into the microphone that there was no way they would ever give up their fight until they were acknowledged. It was so sad – her voice was so brittle and small, she should never have had to scream for anything.
It just made me think very much of Ireland, of Irish women. I really wish all Irish women could go to Chile and have a look at the women there for inspiration, because think of it, these women are under threat of death, worse than death – there was a concentration camp there until last year – and yet they are not prepared to give up fighting for what they believe to be the truth. I realised for the first time while I was there the power I had as a woman and the strength and dignity and pride that I have as a woman, and the things I can achieve because I am a woman. I just thought of how much shit Irish women put up with – they can’t have divorce and they can’t have abortions. They should go on strike. Imagine if every Irish woman said, ‘fuck you, get your own dinner.’ It just made me think, I’m never going to do anything but stick my neck out for what I believe and what I am entitled to. If those women can do that under threat of being raped by dogs, I can do anything I like.
You recently contributed to the ‘Red Hot and Blue’ album, benefitting one of Ireland’s most controversial issues – AIDS. What does that contribution involve?
With ‘Red Hot and Blue’ we are allowed to designate the destination of where the money goes from each song (we are releasing them all as singles as well). I want to set up something in Ireland, but I want it to be something that covers everybody affected by AIDS. I just want to give the whole fucking system a kick up the arse at any available opportunity.
How do you feel about the appalling handling of the disease in Ireland by the powers that be?
Ireland has enormous problems sexually. I don’t think it can confront its AIDS problem until it acknowledges that people are having sex, for a start, and that it’s perfectly natural. Look at the amount of people who have illegitimate children, who get pregnant and don’t know what the fuck to do. They’re not even helped. That’s another thing about the church. It doesn’t tell you or teach you how sacred a baby is. How brilliant it is. They make you feel bad about it, they hide girls away and make them feel bad, it’s horrific … Ireland needs to be dragged behind a bush and fucked.
And when the people who are supposed to be doing the job are not doing it, that’s where it’s up to people like me, and people who are in a position to communicate information. As far as the AIDS thing is concerned, I would consider doing anything basically anybody wanted me to do, within the boundaries of human decency. Politicians and everybody else will do nothing, because it’s not in their best interests to, they won’t get elected if they seem to be showing sympathy for drug abusers or gay people. How many people came out and said that this was God’s punishment on Gays? I think it’s funny, because they will be the ones who will suffer. They are ignorant. You reap what you sow. It’s true that people have used AIDS as an excuse to sneer at and look down on Gay People, and that’s very dangerous, not just from the point of view that it’s ludicrous to be so horrible to people because of their sexual persuasion – but also because it encourages the idea that AIDS doesn’t effect anybody else. Which is very dangerous.
It’s so horrendous. It makes me ashamed. Irish people are capable of such spirituality, capable of things that other societies are not. I mean, of all nations Ireland should understand what it’s like to be oppressed and treated hideously. They have been shat upon by England for centuries and it just sits there and puts up with it, which I just don’t understand.
You’ve been quoted, misquoted and misunderstood on that issue before.
Yeah, I got into a lot of shit over that because I said I supported the IRA. I don’t. I did at the time, and I meant it and I understand why people feel the way they feel and I don’t mean any disrespect. I don’t think that the answer is to blow people up – that just lowers us to their level. I think that the idea at first made sense, if you like, if somebody has their hands over their ears and they’re not going to listen to you, then you punch them in the face. But if it doesn’t work, you’ve got to try something else. Instead of politicising and intellectualising, I think people should emotionalise a bit more. Maybe now that that bitch Thatcher isn’t in anymore something will happen you know?
How do you feel that while Maggie steps down, Mary Robinson takes over the Presidency at home?
I cannot believe that a woman is president in Ireland. That’s amazing. There’s a woman that recognizes the power of woman and the rights of women. It hardly needs to be pointed out at this stage that the whole point is not whether you’re for divorce or for abortion. It’s whether you’re for acknowledging the fact that no man or woman has the right to tell you what to do with your body or your marriage. So I think she’ll do something about it, I really do. The fact that she got elected is great. A lot of women must have voted for her. She’s a woman who right from the beginning said that these were the things she stood for. Heaven has opened as far as I’m concerned. I’m not a raging feminist, and I wouldn’t go out of my way with anything else, but with Ireland I feel very strongly.
Do you miss Ireland?
No, I never missed Ireland. From the second I left it I never missed it. It’s not the place for me. I have a lot of respect for Ireland, it’s not that I have a problem with Ireland as such. It’s just I was never happy there. My circumstances were there were not happy ones, so I was never unhappy to leave.
A while back you mentioned Irish spirituality – it’s actually an interesting issue, especially when it comes to Irish artists. One of the most pointed-out aspects about a lot of Irish music (and one which apparently never ceases to amaze Rolling Stone or SPIN), is the spiritual quality of Irish artists’ material, the “Celtic Soul” thing they never quite handle without cynicism. Yet that spirituality is almost inextricably harnessed to the stranglehold power of the Catholic church – what is your own approach to it?
The Catholic Church has an awful lot of blood on its hands. All its power has been accumulated by wiping out other religions and entire cultures. It wiped out spirituality, fact, the power of women, all the native religions, went to Africa and put clothes on people. They also contradict themselves. Jesus was an ordinary man. The things that he did we are all capable of doing, and that’s what he bloody told us when he said we were made in God’s image. We are all exactly capable of doing what Jesus did, but we are told that he is something way above us and we can’t attain that.
They don’t even encourage you to read and analyse the bible, to see exactly what Jesus actually said.
They teach you that you have no power, and at the same time tell you that we are made in God’s image. We are all aspects of God. The whole point of existence is to learn that. You’re supposed to develop and learn and go on and understand more. But they don’t want to discuss it. They don’t want to learn themselves. You are taught that there is no such thing as reincarnation, which is wicked. To teach people that they can only learn what they want to learn in one life is shocking, do you know what I mean? In order to reflect God you have to experience everything that God is, and that includes a blade of grass. You have to be a blade of grass, you have to be a horse, a cat, a tree. Who’s to say that we weren’t all trees at one stage.
What you just said is fairly essential Buddhist thinking. Have you explored that philosophy?
No, I haven’t really.
Although you say that you are not a raving feminist there are many women who think that you have made a whole new statement for women, in the sense that you’ve dispensed with almost all stereotypical form, coming across more essentially as a “person”, in your look and approach, in a very stark and genuine way. You very much seem to combine both sexual energies, at times very forceful and at times soft.
I’m a very soft person, I’m not an aggressive person. I’m a very feminine person. I worry, I cry, I get pre-menstrual tension! I want to find some nice man just like any other woman does, but I’m not prepared to be anything other than myself. I don’t think that because I speak my mind or stir a bit of shit now and then means I’m just some sort of troublemaker.
It is weird the way male journalists for some reason seem to be inspired more than anything else to utilize the word “aggressive” at almost every turn when writing about you.
That’s because I’ve got no hair. And because people have no imagination. If I had hair I wouldn’t be called aggressive.
You’re doing what most women are afraid to do.
I am afraid to do it. It’s a very fucking scary thing. You are on your own. You are on fucking own. You are up against everybody else. It sometimes frightens the shite out of me. I’m up against an entire wall of people by myself with no armour except what I know to be the truth. That’s very scary.
Did you consciously consider the female role and rebel against it?
No, I didn’t. Everybody says I did, but I did not. It just never occurred to me to be any other way. It was never an issue – it never occurred to me that I didn’t have the right to speak my mind, even though I was always harassed, from the time that I was small because of how I behaved. I wasn’t prepared to change, although I suffered a lot over the fact that people seemed to not like me or think that I was some sort of horrible person. But it never happened that I sort of quieted myself, or put on a pair of stilettoes – although, if I wanted to I would, I would feel perfectly entitled to as well.
You once said that any bloke you’ve gone out with, you’ve always asked him out.
It’s always been like that.
I often think that with three men to every woman in New York or whatever, I’d like to ask fellas out, but in actuality, I think you can’t.
You can’t. You can’t do it. It’s very, very foolish. America is full of very weird people. And men are very strange about it. If you ask a man out, he thinks you just want to fuck. He doesn’t think that you actually might be into him and might want more than that, like some love or affection, even if it’s only for an hour, or a night.
Yeah, or else they’re terrified you want to fuckin’ marry them or something. But the other aspect of it is that sex is no longer safe anymore.
I don’t think there is ever such a thing as safe sex, and I don’t just mean AIDS. I mean, psychologically, emotionally, physically etc. there is no such thing as safe sex.
That’s actually very true!
With anybody it’s fuckin’ trouble (laughter). There’s all these rumours here now that I’m supposed to be having Peter Gabriel’s baby, or Lenny Kravitz’ baby – as well – both at the same time, don’t I look very big? (indicates her very flat abdomen, laughing).
Myself and Peter Gabriel are just good friends. I’m not going out with anyone and I’m not interested in going out with anyone ever again!!
Ah, sez she …
I’m serious! (laughs)
So what about alternatives?
Hmm … straight but curious.
At this point the man comes in with a platter of Cappuccinos – items Ciara and Sinead both consider high points of the universe, especially at this early hour. The man turns and salutes Sinead warmly, “it’s nice to see you” he says. Sinead flashes back a stunner smile and returns the sentiment softly. The quality that is disarming about Sinead is not aggression, but honesty. There is a directness about her manner that is striking. In a world of multi-facades, probably intimidating or off-putting for many.
How will you spend Christmas?
Drunk! No, I think it’s going to be Jake Reynolds day. This is the first Christmas that Jake can really appreciate Santa Clause. His father is coming over for Christmas, so that will be great. He’s got a long list, but he wants Ninja Turtle gear. He’s completely obsessed with Ninja Turtles.
What about resolutions for 1991?
I want to get back into being healthy, start looking after myself again. I used to eat really well and never drink, I want to do all that. I want to educate myself, study things that interest me.
At this point you can take a rest, you don’t have to respond to record company dictates.
The record company do not dictate anything, and they never have a right to and no band should let them. The band should be in control.
Very often they’ve no choice – like breaking bands brought over here by record companies …
Most bands starting off – and I was as well – are treated unspeakably badly. I know bands who were over in Los Angeles recording their albums and their girlfriends were having babies, and they weren’t even allowed to make phone calls. If they wanted to make calls they had to pay for themselves. At the end of the day, whatever money the record company spends the band have to pay back anyway, so it’s not as if it’s the band’s money. There was a time when I was recording the first album when we used to be given ten pounds a day each to eat. It used to never be sent over, and I used to have to phone up. And I was pregnant, like, so I had to fuckin’ eat. So I used to have to phone up and hassle them. I phoned up one day and the money was finally sent around on a bike, with three quid docked out of it for what the bike delivery had cost. Three quid! I just wanted to send it back and tell them to shove it.
The record company only exist because the band exist. The record company make far more money out of the artist than the artist makes, and it’s completely unfair. My record company will make ten times what I will make out of this album having sold as much as it sold. I think it’s unfair that I have to undergo what I do and live the way I live and they should make all the money out of it. That means, as far as I’m concerned that I should be entitled to say how things should be and how they shouldn’t be, know what I mean? Their job is to sell what I give them and that’s their only job, they have no right to suggest anything, to come to the studio, to have any idea or input, it’s not their place. I think they understand that very well.
Is it true that Ensign at one point got cold feet about the new album specifically because of its highly personal aspect?
Well, Nigel Grainge and Chris Hill freaked out when I played it to them and told me I couldn’t put this out because it was too personal and they used the reference – which is quite a nasty one – that it would be like Terence Trent d’Arby’s second album which stayed in the warehouse because nobody liked it. I knew it would do really well – I didn’t know it would sell as much as it did, but I knew that it would be appreciated. I told them they were wrong, and it appears they were. So I think they probably would have a different attitude in future. Of course, now they think it’s a wonderful album. They couldn’t get it because they are not emotional people, it’s not what they do for a living. Men can’t stand displays of emotionWhen I played the video “Nothing Compares To You” they were squirming.
You’ve since met and become friends with Prince, what does he think of his song being covered by you?
Myself and Prince are not friends by any means. I think it would be true to say that we dislike each other intensely. Each one stands for the things the other one despises.
That’s interesting – in what sense? I always liked Prince, from what I saw.
I always liked him too until he threatened me with physical violence. I went to see him recently and it turned into a huge argument because I went to leave his house and he had a limousine driver who sits there all night waiting to bring somebody home. I normally don’t like limousines, but at 5:30 in the morning I don’t really give a shit. But I went out and the guy was asleep and I said I didn’t want to wake him up. He for some reason took this as meaning that I had a problem with the fact that the guy was there and we ended up having a huge argument in his house. He sent the guy off, he started roaring and screaming at me, I was sitting there roaring crying because I was completely frightened and I didn’t know what was going on. I asked him for a number for a taxi and he wouldn’t give me the number to get one, he said he didn’t know his address, so I couldn’t even call Ciara to come and pick me up and then he started laughing at the fact that I was crying, saying that my big mouth had got me into trouble again. I ended up having to run away from his house because I was frightened of him.
What a fucker.
I think he should be able to sit down and discuss any argument he has with me, but he threatened me with physical violence, he continually said that he was going to beat the shit out of me. And I fully believed that he was going to. I think it would be fair to say that I dislike Prince profoundly.
His problem was that I did a song of his without him being involved in it. And he did say to me that he wished I’d never done his song, so fine. I’ll never do it again.
Is there anything there that you don’t want me to mention?
I wouldn’t have said it if I didn’t want you to print it. If a person like that wants to take the risk of physically abusing somebody, then they also have to take the consequences for it. Who knows who the hell else he’s done that to. I’m sure I’m not the first person.
It’s incredible as well that Sinatra came out too and said he’d like to “kick your ass”.
It’s obvious that he’s kicked a lot of asses in his time.
In one way, we think that things have changed for women – but this is so very indicative of how, if we try being independent ….
Men want to control women because women are very powerful, and they surround themselves with women because it makes them seem to be powerful. They have a problem with a woman that succeeds without their help or without them being involved in any way. The guy is fuckin’ raging that I did one of his songs without asking his permission to do it.
After the Garden State Parkway incident, there was also one DJ who called you a “Nazi”. Are you going to sue him?
No, I was but I’m not now. The guy got into big trouble, and he’d probably lose his job and I’d feel like a real bastard.
But he is the bastard.
Yeah, but so what. It’s just not worth it.
It must be really difficult to find time to just have space by yourself and let everything go … When do you have time to yourself?
Well, that’s what I’m going to do now. I haven’t for the last year. Now I just want to read books, go to classes and stuff like that.
What about film?
I want to be, and I think I probably am more of an actress than anything else. That’s what I want to do much more than I want to do singing, which I will always do, but my starting point was that I wanted to be an actress. I want to do that. But I’m going to study for that. I’m not going to do anything until I can do it extremely well.
This is a good town for it.
Well anywhere is. L.A. is a big myth as far as I’m concerned. This is a good town – a lot of people will tell you – for meeting producers or selling yourself. But I don’t really need to do that, I’m kind of sold already. This whole year has been quite good training in that regard. It’s a good time for educating myself I suppose.
Does that indicate a definite rest from recording, or have you got plans?
No, I’ve no plans, I just want to do nothing for a while. I want to just exist for a while, recharge my batteries, because the stuff that I write – I write about my life. It’s like a diary, I suppose. I have to live in order to write. I don’t define myself as being a musician or a recording artist or anything. That’s just the result of my existence. It’s not the most important thing.
There’s no doubt but that your material is really gut stuff. The have a really pure emotional feel which comes across most strongly, I think, onstage.
Yeah, I actually like the sound of the stuff live better than I like the album, to be quite honest. I don’t like to listen to the album now, I think it sounds shit.
Do you ever regret writing anything you’ve written?
No, I never regret writing anything. It doesn’t occur to me to write any other way. That’s what I do. Somebody has to do it!
The newest song you performed on this last tour was inspired by your son, Jake. What’s it like being a mother in this business?
It’s difficult being away from him for a long time when I’m on tour. I worry about that. Although he doesn’t seem to mind, he always seems fine when I get back. But I worry about him. I was away from him for five weeks when I was in America and I physically missed him. But that was what saved me. If I didn’t have a family and I didn’t have a son I don’t know what it would be like …
As it happens, by now its time to head off to pick up the very same Jake Reynolds at school, and bring him back to join Sinead for photographs, taken today by New York based photographer, John Francis Bourke. Meeting this little person – one of the most charming and fun individuals I have had the luck to meet in a while – proves the second highlight of the day, which turns into a highly unexpected adventure in babysitting involving Bambi, Thumper, Tigger, Santa and of course, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I certainly can’t think of any more worthwhile way to be grounded for Christmas.
New York, December 1990
Hot Press Magazine