The Irish singer, defiant performer, survivor of childhood abuse, former priest, victim of Catholicism, woman of Islam, Sinead O’Connor, has just published a memoir. With any luck it will help reverse several decades of misconceptions, abuse and ignorant derision heaped on her. Plus tell a few stories, such as the one of Prince getting violent, not just wacky.
While we wait for it to land here, Wind Back Wednesday recalls a lively, amusing and, of course, frank conversation with O’Connor in 2014 where dreams got weird, but life was still weirder.
Sinead O’Connor is 47 and fine with that. Well, mostly.
Provocatively, she appears on the cover of her new album, the tellingly titled I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss, dressed like some pre-packaged modern pop singer: full body latex, wig, hooded-eye come hither look behind an embraced guitar.
It works as a mockery of the sexualised norm these days – something like the way Miley Cyrus, who O’Connor addressed in an open letter warning of the way the industry would manipulate and abuse her sexuality, is presented. But it’s also a reminder that O’Connor, who shaved her hair when told on signing her first contract that she should play up her girlishness, has never been afraid of subverting from within an industry with which she’s battled since her debut, 1987’s The Lion And The Cobra.
But for all that this Irishwoman is hardly immune to body consciousness.
"I don't know if it's different for men than it is for women but for women that are older the truth is you do go through a massive grief about the loss of your looks. You go through massive grief about your body becoming unattractive and becoming sexually unattractive, culturally speaking,” she says in a voice far softer than you expect from the recordings, like her eyes are far softer than you expect from the tattoos and public directness.
"But at the same time, I love it because my most admired person growing up was my grandmother and I have never in my life wanted anything more than to be just like my grandmother. So at the same time I love it but I do struggle still with letting go when I look in the mirror and see I used to have a great arse and now it’s somewhere south.
“I never entered myself in rear of the year when I should have. Kylie used to always win it and I had a way better arse than Kylie in my day."
One of the benefits of getting older is you might finally stop worrying about what you are going to say, what you are going to do and to a certain extent about how you look. Now given how O’Connor can be as funny with her Kylie bum comparison as she was angry with her most famous appearance, ripping apart a picture of the pope while performing on national TV, you might think this mid life change wouldn’t apply to her.
However, O’Connor explains that “artistically, I did find, yeah, a great sense of focus in the last two years when the penny dropped and I went okay I know sure now what I am artistically and what my ambitions are and what I want to do."
The fruit of that is a new album both rockier, drawing on the blues she’s always loved, and poppier, unafraid of attractive melodies for her still striking voice. It also appears to be an album of characters falling love in love and lust, rather than personal tales which have always marked her work. Or at least that’s how she’s been telling it.
"I'll tell you something that I haven't told anyone else so far: they are not actually characters at all; they are completely autobiographical. Every single one of them,” O’Connor says. “If you choose to write love songs, you are writing about your personal life but that is also the personal life of other people who you love. My plan was to invent these characters and give everybody this big spiel so that everybody would fuck off out of my private life or the private life of people I love.”
But there is a change here, something more deep-seated than the creation of characters. She has moved from someone who spent most of her career “writing from a painful place” because “I had a whole lot of shit to get off my chest because of how I grew up ... and I come from an age where there was no therapy” to someone who now has a sense of freedom.
"The stuff I was writing about before was really recovering from abuse and quite painful,” says O’Connor whose relationship with her mother was tortured and damaging in so many other relationships. “Once that was off my chest I was able to focus on what type of songwriter would I be otherwise and what type of people would I want to write about otherwise?”
As she sees it, get the pain sorted and as you age on the outside you get younger on the inside and become the person you would have been “without all the shit on top of it”. And if that means inconsistencies, well so be it. After all, why do we demand that writers - novelists, songwriters, anyone – are consistent when there is no consistency in us.
"It's ludicrous,” she snorts. “Certainly when it comes to matters of love. Love is not a rational or sane or normal or considered thing. If you sat down and thought about it you never do it, it's completely contradictory and it's completely contrary and it's full of different emotions.”
On top of which, consistency is another word for acceptable behaviour and O’Connor rails against the notion that either notion is how she should live or create, seeing something more sinister in the thinking behind it.
“I always wondered when did it happen that rock'n'rollers were expected to be like so-called normal people? I always say, we're not crazy enough for the nuthouse and we’re not criminal enough for jail, we don't know how to contribute to 9-to-5 society other than the music. Of course we are not normal,” she says.
“Where would Little Richard had gone without the music business? I don't know when it happened that everyone expected us to behave like Cliff Richard."
There's always been a tut-tutting element in the media and now it’s near feral on social media, a constant need to disapprove of individual behaviour, good or bad. It's tedious for people just reading it so imagine what it must be like to have a couple of decades of people telling you how you should be living your life, from your hair and clothes to who you should “respect” and how to bring up your children (of which she has four, aged between 7 and 27).
"It's a complete pain in the arse, especially when they go about it by trying to make out you are crazy and humiliating you the whole time and set you up for people to treat you like shit. It's part of being an artist,” O’Connor says. “Like John Lennon wasn't murdered for nothing, put it that way. Artists are very dangerous people and artists are the heroes of the young so if you want to control the young and you want to get them to keep scaffolding and supporting the system, which has no interest in love in the world, you have to make sure that you have control of the heroes of the young.”
As she describes it, that control can come through vanity, immaturity or flattery and if that doesn’t work “you can crazy them” and diminish them.
“That's the next best thing, to make them powerless [because] the object of the game is to make the audience powerless,” says O’Connor. “It's also why there is all this sexualisation of music now. If you want sex and rock 'n' roll, that's normal, but if you push that it's the only thing, it's the only thing you can do or talk about with the audience who are often minors, you are silencing the power of music.
“No one believes anymore that music has any power to change the world. It used to be the case that that's what music was."
The problem with the so-called bad people we get these days is they are mild in their rebellion and set up to fall so we can say, “see, told you, this is what happens when you don’t follow the rules”. Real trouble and genuinely dangerous people are rare.
"Exactly. And they're really, really try to destroy it and the way they do that is by crazying you and that is very easy to do when you are a woman. And it's very dangerous because it doesn't stay on the page of the newspaper, it affects you right down to the people in your bed,” O’Connor says.
“People in your life begin to feel that they have a right to invalidate you, to treat you like you are some kind of crazy person. It sets you up for some really terrible situations, and fractious children, everything.
"But I suppose you have to consider yourself flattered that someone considers you some kind of dangerous artist in order to attract that.”
Is it true then what she says in one song on the new album that "everyone wants something from me, they rarely want to know me"?
"The best way I can describe it as I had a dream, years and years ago, when I first got very, very famous and in the dream I was a Golden Triangle. I had arms and legs but I was a Golden Triangle, walking around the streets of London people were grabbing bits of me, trying to take bits of my shoulders and bits of my arms and legs. So I had to wear a raincoat and hide the fact that I was a Golden Triangle. That's really what it's like."
That’s a little bit odd isn’t it? This is some odd way of life.
"People can be very very weird,” she says. “You might have a boyfriend and you have a disagreement, you might have been a bit of an arsehole but what will come back at you is on top of being an arsehole, you are Sinead O'Connor and you're an arsehole and they'll hit you with all this shit people say about you on the Internet.
“It affects people that way, literally the people in your bed. It's a fucked up job that has its hazards."