Ireland’s bad girl, SinÂ©ad O’Connor, comes full circle on religion, politics, and loving women.
When Sinéad O’Connor hit the pop culture radar in the late 1980s, she was a bald-headed, controversy-courting, angry banshee whose vocal acrobatics could put most performers to shame. She thumbed her nose at conventional notions of female beauty and brazenly spoke her mind about child abuse, racism and war. She was the boldest, baddest Irish singer that America had ever seen — and lesbians couldn’t get enough of her.
O’Connor first stirred talk about her sexual orientation with a Prince-penned, male-voiced song, “Nothing Compares 2 U”. But the Irish-born, London-bred singer had a baby in tow and boyfriends galore.
O’Connor was the third of four children of an engineer father and a dressmaker mother. After a childhood of abuse at the hands of her mother, her father won a landmark case as the first Irish man to ever be granted sole custody of his children (a fact that would seem ironic in 1999, as O’Connor battled for custody of her daughter Roisin). At eight, she was expelled from Catholic school; a shoplifting stint led to reform school and, at 16, she dropped out to sing in coffeehouses while supporting herself by delivering “kiss-ograms” in a French maid costume. Her first CD, 1987’s The Lion and the Cobra was one of the year’s most acclaimed, as was 1990’s chart-topping I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.
The tabloids took every chance to deride O’Connor for her outspoken politics: refusing to perform if “The Star Spangled Banner” was played; boycotting Saturday Night Live in response to the misogynist host Andrew Dice Clay; withdrawing from competition in the Grammys and aligning herself with rap artists. (For the record, she was up for four awards.) Bucking convention again, her 1992 torch song release, “Am I Not Your Girl?” shattered all expectations — it tanked. And then she protested the church’s stance on abortion (among other things) by tearing up a photo of the Pope on national TV.
But while the media called her a has-been (VH-1 recently went so far as to label her a one-hit wonder), O’Connor continued to work: releasing a 1994 CD (Universal Mother), a 1997 EP (Gospel Oak), appearing as the Virgin Mary in Neil Jordan’s film, The Butcher Boy, touring with Lollapalooza in 1995, and — perhaps the accomplishment she’s most proud of — becoming ordained as a priest with the Latin Tridentine Church, a splinter group of the Roman Catholic Church. Plus, she’s given berth to a host of women performers — everyone from Courtney Love to Jana Gross to Alanis Morissette have benefited from the trails that O’Connor blazed.
Now, more than a decade later, and on the heels of a new album (Atlantic’s Faith and Courage), the 33-year-old says she’s finally at peace. O’Connor, who is raising her 12-year-old son Jake, and shares custody of her 3-year-old daughter Roisin with journalist John Waters, refuses to be reduced to caricature by pundits and she says she refuses to live a life that’s not rooted in the truth. And, not unlike Melissa and k.d. before her, she’s ready to tell the world, “I am a lesbian.”
Let’s talk first about the new album, Faith and Courage [Atlantic]. You sing “I know that I have done many things/To give you reason not to listen to me” in “The Lamb’s Book of Life”, which seems to speak a lot to forgiveness and redemption — as do a number of other songs on the CD. Was forgiveness meant as a theme or did it simply emerge?
Yeah … the songs, I think, are something which my soul sang to me. These were the messages my soul wanted me to hear, so I recorded them. But then by putting them out, I guess it’s to inspire other people to get into a relationship with their soul to see what their soul is saying to them — and sing that out, or paint that out, or dance it out, or however they do it.
Another theme that was threaded through the songs was about women’s independence. Was that something you were really feeling at the time?
Yeah, a lot of the stuff you do as a writer, though, is subconscious — it’s very much your soul or your subconscious doing the work, so often you won’t really understand what you were doing until afterwards. So I think I was, without realizing it, asserting an independence and dealing with independence and dealing with a lot of stuff that was going on which I may not have even been very conscious of; growing into a 33-year-old woman and becoming who I am.
Did you worry that the songs would be interpreted as male bashing?
It’s not male bashing. I mean, none of the [songs] are. The thing is, this album has been made with me by a lot of men who’ve poured their beautiful souls into this record and the song is not male bashing at all — ”No Man’s Woman.” It’s simply talking about not wanting to be a girlfriend or wife but preferring to have a relationship with the spirit of man. …
You’ve said a number of times that you’re inspired by and drawn to Rastafarianism. And you’ve been inspired by Buddhism —
But you returned to Catholicism.
Well that’s to do with my identity as an Irish woman. I’m also a Christian and I do believe in Christianity but I believe in all religions and I don’t shut out any of them; they all have something beautiful about them and we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. But my identity as a Catholic priest has to do with my being Irish. If I were in another country, I would be a priest of that country. It’s about reclaiming a place for women and for Irish women.
You’ve been ordained a priest by a splinter group of the Catholic Church but at the same time, The Vatican, of course, has reaffirmed that women cannot and will not ever become priests or even deacons.
Although they have put out only one statement about my own priesthood, which was that they are happy to see that someone wants to live a spiritual life. Which, I think, is wonderful of them. It shows a great tolerance.
Cardinal Piolaghi has said that women can never become priests because Christ was a man. Do you think that’s the real reason the Church has continued to put the brakes on women moving up in the hierarchy?
No, I don’t believe that’s the real reason at all. … There’s no reason why Jesus should not exist in all people. And there is no reason why God should not call any person to be a priest. If a woman is called by God to be a priest, then she has to obey that, despite what any man — including the Pope — has to say about it. I mean, to me, that’s just absolute horseshit; I think they expect people to swallow horseshit.
In the past, you’ve expressed concerns that Catholicism is cut off from the waist down. Is sexuality less important to you now than it was a decade ago?
No, it’s extremely important to me! I’m not a celibate priest, although celibacy would be a question and perhaps a calling for me — although not really, but I believe it should be voluntary. But sexuality is hugely important to me. I would be a highly sexual person; I think most creative people are.
Of course, you’ve been a huge icon to lesbian women for over a decade now.
That’s been a great honor.
Why do you think lesbians are so drawn to you and to your music?
Um, I think they see themselves in me.
Because you’re outspoken? Non-traditional in your appearance?
Yeah, and because I’m — what’s the right way to put it? [Pauses.] I think I’m very like them. I would say that I’m a lesbian. Although I haven’t been very open about that and throughout most of my life I’ve gone out with blokes because I haven’t necessarily been terribly comfortable about being a lesbian. But I actually am a lesbian.
You are a lesbian?
Yeah. So the thing is, I think that’s probably why they would see themselves in me, because they could see something in me that perhaps I hadn’t actually necessarily acknowledged in myself.
And is this something that you want to reconcile now?
It’s something I reconciled with a long time ago, really. But I think they can see themselves in me and had a representative in me.
But, I think for a long time women have probably wanted to hear you name it. And of course, when they hear about your husband or your boyfriends they just assume that you’re Well, yeah, well, see, I was Irish, I am Irish, so I was brought up in a culture where it wasn’t a good thing to be gay and so I was quite uncomfortable with it for a long time. And I didn’t really want people to know about it and a lot of my friends don’t know about it, you know. And I wasn’t necessarily comfortable about the whole world knowing about it because I hadn’t come to terms with it myself. Or understood myself. But actually there’s fucking nothing wrong with it and in fact it’s a beautiful thing.
So you feel comfortable with it now? You’re at peace with it?
Yeah, I’m much more at peace and much happier being myself.
Have you encountered homophobia in your career?
A lot of people around me don’t know that I’m a lesbian because I’ve never sort of flashed it around them. I’ve kept myself very private, so people like my manager and my friends — they wouldn’t know that about me. Only very few of my close friends would know. But, what was the question?
Well, I was wondering if you’ve encountered homophobia in your career? Because I think even people who aren’t gay encounter homophobia —
The thing is, I’ve been very private and secretive about it, but I may now encounter, in the future I may encounter, homophobia. It’s interesting, though. As a priest, I was afraid that my bishop, for example, would be upset or that my Order would be upset when they found out. But they were amazing, and I was really honored by that … they called, each one of them called and said, you know, they really gave me their blessing and said that they were totally cool with it. And my family, obviously, is totally cool with it.
Has it changed in Ireland?
Ireland is very homophobic, which is, again, another reason why it would have been very difficult for me. My younger brother also is gay and he’s been beaten up in the streets. There was one gay center in Dublin years ago, kind of a social drop-in center, and it was burned down. It is an extremely homophobic society.
You just went through a pretty difficult custody battle last year. So many of the elements of your situation rang true to lesbians, as many are parenting with friends or trying to work with donors, and fear losing their kids. What have you learned from that experience or what advice would you give to women in similar situations?
What advice I’d give is to honor the father of your child as best you can and to forgive him as best you can. As long as he’s not physically abusing you or your child, or sexually abusing you or your child, allow the father to have the child half the time. And to really ask — if necessary, pray — for the ability to forgive. But, most importantly, honor the father of the child, never shut him out of the child’s life. And to honor the child by honoring the father.
You said you had in mind that once you got to 30 you’d be able to leave your childhood behind. Has that been true?
Yes, very much so; well, more when I got to 33, actually, so it was a few years later.
Now that you’re 33, do you feel like you’re living the life that you thought you would?
It’s actually fucking much more incredibly amazing than I could have even imagined it would be. It’s really quite magical.
You really changed how female performers were perceived — in America at least — by asserting yourself as a serious artist rather than a sex object. Do you feel like you paved the way for female artists to be political and outspoken?
Well, I hope I can be a sex object now. [Laughing.] I was just saving it.
Well, these are your thirties — this is your prime.
I hope I have a few more months left. Sorry, what was your question?
Do you feel like you paved the way for female artists to be political and outspoken?
Yeah, but I think it’s equally important to have fun and I don’t think I necessarily paved the way for anyone, but other people paved the way for me. People like Aretha [Franklin] and John Lennon and Johnny Cash, even. All of those people were quite politicized, as well as understanding that love is politics. That love is really the only politics and the only rebelling and revolution. So I don’t think I was the starter of anything, but I was following in the footsteps and trying to do what I could, close to what my heros were doing.
You went through a time where you really didn’t want to be a pop star because pop stars play it very safe — has that changed?
Yes and no. I want to have fun now. I want to enjoy. When I was younger, I had very little self esteem and I didn’t feel like I deserved what I had … the chance to have fun. So now, I still want to be a soul singer, which is what I think I am. And I’m an album artist, I’m not a chart artist. But a huge part of me is just a girl who wants to waggle her butt and have fun.
Do you think your fans will be surprised to hear you say that? Sinéad O’Connor wants to waggle her butt now?
You know what I think they’ll think? I think they’ll be very happy for me … I was in recovery from a very severe, violent upbringing and so I was taking a journey in public view and I was recording it as a soul’s journey into recovery. … If they’re true fans, they will have seen that and they’ll be happy to see that I made the journey through to happiness. And the object of the game was to get to the point where I could just waggle my butt.
So you’ve moved through the anger and the denial and —
Well there was never any denial, but to move through the heartbreak, which is all that’s behind anger, and then get to just the girl. And to have fun. And also to talk about serious things, which is important, too. But it’s terribly important to acknowledge a huge part of why you want to do this is because you want to dress up sexy, and get on stage and put your lipstick on.
I think a lot of people expect women to do the opposite. They expect women — as they get older, as they become mothers — to actually stop doing that. How does it feel to do it in reverse?
Yeah. I’m kind of half pissed off that I didn’t appreciate myself when I was 20. I should have dressed sexier. But it’s actually quite nice to see, getting older, growing more into confidence as a woman, kind of. I was very in my “male,” I think, when I was younger because I was a very frightened person and I needed to act tough to protect myself. I was afraid to be tender.
Have you ever been as tough as your image has been?
Not at all. Not one bit. No. Perhaps I was angry, but that came from fear. And youth — because when you’re so young you have all this energy and you don’t know how to direct it. It panics you.
You really gave birth to the whole Celtic, hip-hop sound that we now hear pretty frequently from other artists. Even Bell Book & Candle’s new CD sounds like old Sinéad. Tell me what influenced your sound.
I think all the influences I’ve mentioned, musically, and also the traditional Irish singing. The fact that I’m Irish, I think, is the main thing. The fact that I’m such a religious person. But, my Irishness — that’s the core of it. The traditional Irish, the history of my country, the history of my people.
What about the hip-hop infusion?
That comes from my move out of Ireland into London and out into the world. … [L]iving in London for 13 years, I was exposed to a lot of West Indian culture and … different types of music and a lot of Indian music, as well, which I love.
On the Gospel Oak Tour, you didn’t do any of your earlier works because you said you didn’t want to summon up the ghosts of your past anymore.
Yeah, I didn’t want to do miserable shit because I didn’t want to be miserable.—
Is it different for you now? Can you do miserable shit and not be miserable?
No, I’ve moved on, really, from a lot of stuff from the past. I would do certain songs, which are just classic songs, like “Last Day of Our Acquaintance” —
But, “Troy” and “Mandika”?
No, because I don’t feel like that any more and I think what people respond to in a singer is truth.
You’re ready to put them to rest.
Exactly. If you can’t bring truth — people pay their money because they want to see truth — it’s better to keep bringing them what’s true now.
You told Time a few years ago that you still “have a little pool of sadness that needs working on.” Do you feel like that will always be with you?
No, I feel like that’s OK now. Yeah, I’ve just normal human sadness now.
Ten years ago you were one of People’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World.” Did you think you were beautiful, at the time?
No. [Laughing.] I don’t think anyone ever does think they’re beautiful.
Do you think you’re beautiful now?
No. [Laughing.] I’m trying to tell myself I am, though. It helps if you tell yourself you are.
Well, I’m sure most other people think you are.
Well, I ain’t Naomi, you know?
A couple more quick ones and I’ll let you go. Your song “This is a Rebel Song” was about the right to ownership of Ireland by Irish people — are people in Ireland less afraid to stand up and say that, now, than they were years ago?
Yes, thanks to America. To the fact that the war has stopped. It used to be, because of terrorism, people were afraid to stand up and say they wanted the country, because they might be perceived as being supportive of the IRA. The Irish people are so grateful to America for what they’ve done to help us. It’s really amazing. Bill Clinton can come live in Ireland any time he likes; so can Hillary.
A while back, you said you risked everything, including material success and your family, in order to speak out about child abuse, because as an adult survivor of childhood violence you could not bear the burden of pain. How much do you think things have changed, societally, in terms of how we view child abuse?
I think people are much more aware now. It’s important that more people came out and spoke about it … it’s important that everything that happened within the church happened and that now people are much more watchful.
Let’s make the Church our last question: How does it feel to perform mass — something women have not been allowed to do?
It’s the most amazing honor. That’s the only word I can use to describe it. Honor.