Back from hell: the return of Sinead O'Connor
As she prepares to mount her comeback, Sinead O’Connor spoke to Donal Lynch about her conversion to Islam, her problem with Dr Phil, and her four years of hell
Photography by Kip Carroll
I have learned I will rise And you'll see me return Be what I am There is no other Troy For me to burn - Sinead O'Connor, 'Troy', 1987
It's dusk in Bray, and on a porch overlooking the seafront, Sinead O'Connor's pink hijab almost seems to glow against the deepening dusk. From an iPad, the rhythmic lowing of a Buddhist chant - nam myoho renge kyo - competes with the sound of lapping waves. And inside the cavernous house, decorated with pictures of Hindu and rock gods, Sinead potters about, fixing a coffee and a spliff.
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Despite the new look, and the cataclysmic interlude, she sounds very much back to her old self, making mischievous little jokes, plotting out her comeback and testing a little karaoke machine with the power of that heart-stopping singing voice. Even the hijab, after a few moments, seems quite quintessentially Sinead; as iconoclastic and sincere for this moment as the priest's collar was a decade ago. Another reinvention is complete and, more importantly, family peace has also been restored. Her two youngest kids pass in and out as we sit chatting. The horror of the last few years seems to have passed like some kind of fever dream.
"I didn't know there were seven hells, but there are, I've seen them," she begins between thoughtful tokes. "There is a Muddy Waters song that goes, 'If I don't go crazy I think I'll lose my mind' - it was a bit like that. Throughout it all, it wasn't that I was chemically crazy, I was crazy because of the situation and the things that were going on, which I can't go into. I had chronic endometriosis and had a hysterectomy which I reacted very badly to. They took out my ovaries, which sent me into surgical menopause, which made me mental. I only had paracetamol to get me through it, and I lost my fucking marbles. I was behaving like such a monster that nobody wanted anything to do with me, and so I fucked off to America."
Once there, her descent played out in a blaze of voyeuristic headlines. She moved from treatment centre to treatment centre, and was, at one point, reported missing after going on a bike ride in Chicago; she was later found unharmed. In the late summer of 2017, while living in a motel in "the arse-end of New Jersey", she made a long, distressed Facebook video in which she said, among other things, that she was suicidal. It was uncomfortable to watch such a beautiful, talented human being at the limits of her terror, but she says now that she has no regrets about the video.
Rational in madness
"I was quite rational in my madness," she says. "There are often things where I think, 'Oh god, I wish I hadn't said that', but that isn't one of them. Singers don't do embarrassment in the same way other people do. I made the video because I was trying to get through to my family, or anyone who was in my proximity who would come and get me, because I had a kidney stone too, and you'll do anything when you have a kidney stone." She adds: "I would have done the video for me as much as for anyone else, but I don't know how it affected my family, because at the time, we weren't talking."
The video brought her to the attention of Dr Phil, who spirited her from New Jersey to Texas, where he interviewed her on his show. This, she says, is the only bit of the whole ordeal in which she regrets her actions. "Dr Phil is on the phone and you sort of feel like Cinderella - to begin with," she explains. "When you are desperate, like I was, you will reach out to anyone. He went on [The Tonight Show with] Jimmy Fallon afterwards and he said I contacted him, but that's not true. He tracked me down after I put that notorious video on Facebook. After the interview, I never saw him again and I am bringing proceedings against the facility he sent me to, from the trauma I went through there. He was like the Wizard of Oz. He said to me; 'I never fail', and I was like, 'You are gonna fail'."
Eventually she returned to Ireland, where she took up residence in St Patrick's Hospital in Dublin. There, she says, she learned better coping skills for the pain she has always carried from childhood abuse at the hands of her mother. "There is no fixing it, but you learn to live with it," she says. "I can, however, update myself and how I treat people. I'm not different from someone dealing with physical pain. The doctors taught me how to live with it and then add in other things. I just have to accept that sometimes I'll feel like shit, or maybe even suicidal for a minute or two, but I know that impulse is bullshit."
Last year she converted - "reverted" is a better word, she says - to Islam, and took on a new name, Shuhada' Davitt, which she will use only in her personal life, while she will use her birth name for her work (she says she will not be wearing the hijab on stage). Her interest in Islam is, she says, the culmination of her lifelong theological studies, and while some might see dilettantism, there can be no doubting her sincerity. "A Muslim believes that nothing should be worshipped in this world other than God," she says. "That is something I hold true. I've been a theologian since I was a child, and I kept Islam until last because I had all the same prejudices that everyone else had about it." She has a wardrobe full of hijabs, which she purchases on Amazon, she tells me. "I am the Imelda Marcos of hijabs," she adds, laughing. And of her hair: "It's still shaved underneath. And the carpet matches the curtains."
Looking back on the American travails, she says she has "both a feeling of, 'I stand over it', and, 'Oh god, what was I saying?' - like any human being would. In public or in private, there are things I regret saying. I regret that it became necessary to communicate the way I did, and that there was a war, and that in the war I became a terrorist. But you have to understand someone only becomes a terrorist when all else has failed. But good wins in the end - in the family, I mean."
If she has regained an equilibrium in her personal life, there has still been a career fallout, however. After a number of gigs were cancelled, booking agents became reluctant to work with her, she says. "There has been a massive price to pay. I haven't worked for four years. The music business is cruel if they think you've cancelled for reasons of mental health, whereas I had reasons to do with physical health and the health of my child. People don't trust you're going to show up, even though you showed up for 99.9pc of all the other gigs you ever had."
This seems a particularly cruel price to pay because Sinead is probably the best live performer this country has ever produced. You could talk endlessly about technique - her effortless flips between head and chest voice; the bell-like belts; the sotto voce desolation - but more than any other singer, she always seemed able to pour her emotions right into the microphone.
While Enya, the Irish female singer who achieved worldwide renown right before Sinead, could hardly perform live at all because of her complex, layered, processed sound, Sinead bedecked the studio switchboards with Post-it notes reading "no compressors" (a machine for adjusting the raw sound of the vocal). This untouched sound came into its own on the stage. Even right before her breakdown, The Guardian recorded grown men leaving her London gig, with "tears of catharsis" in their eyes.
Music has always been her own salve for herself. Her father once said that, as a child, she could hold a note for 30 seconds, and she was writing songs even during her teens, which were marked by expulsions from schools and rebellion against an unhappy family life. As has been well documented over the years, she suffered serious emotional and physical abuse at her mother's hands, and her father, Sean, would became only the second man in the country to gain sole custody of his children.
Unable to cope with Sinead, he would later send her to An Grianan, a corrective school in Dublin that had once been one of the most notorious Magdalene laundries for unmarried mothers, and other 'fallen women.' Life wasn't all bleak there, however. One of the nuns, realising her talent, bought Sinead a guitar and found her a teacher. From then on, singing was her life; and while still in her mid teens, she won a recording contract and moved to London, where fame and fortune awaited. In her name and her art, she was both a link to the past and a break from it. Waif and punk; new Ireland and old.
"I was in the present in those years," she recalls. "I didn't think further ahead than the moment I was singing in. I had a whole load of shit to get off my chest. Music was the only place I could bring all the rage I needed out of me. I remember I got 5,000 pounds a year when I signed."
Her first record - The Lion and the Cobra - was recorded when she was seven months pregnant with her eldest son, Jake (his father is her long-time collaborator and 'best friend', John Reynolds). Barely 20 years of age, and showing incredible assertiveness, she insisted on large parts of the album being re-recorded after she wasn't happy with the original production. This turned out to be an important move, as the record, whose influences swerved from Yeats to punk, was hailed as one of the most original debuts of the decade.
Sinead was nominated for a Grammy and, with the Public Enemy symbol shaved into the side of her head, she belted out the album's lead single, Mandinka, at the awards ceremony, drowning out the backing track. "I remember the record company had sent balloons inside balloons inside balloons - I had never seen that before. I cried my eyes out at the nomination, though, and I knew people would say I was a whiny bitch. But it was because I knew deep inside me that things would never be the same again."
Her intuition could not have been more prescient, as she had already entered the studio to begin recording I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, which topped the charts in virtually every country in the world and produced a single that has stood the test of time like few others: Nothing Compares 2 U. Its success made her a megastar, and, already unsure of her own identity, she struggled. "The part of me that was older and more mature understood the success, but another part of me felt like an imposter. I didn't think it was so much about the quality of my voice as much as the force of my intention. I started as a busker, and my goal was to stop people in their tracks."
The success of Nothing Compares, with its iconic, tear-stained video, saw her caught in the crosshairs of two icons: Prince, who wrote the song; and Madonna, on whose head the 'Queen of Pop' crown did not rest easy. "I thought Prince would fall in love with me and it would all be lovely, but he was the most frightening human being I ever met in my life, even more frightening than my mother," she says. They got into a physical argument at his house, she recalls.
Madonna was "raging after Vogue was beaten by Nothing Compares" at the 1990 MTV Awards. Sinead also claims Madonna told her that when Madonna signed Alanis Morissette to her record label, Madonna encouraged Morissette to commercialise Sinead's early-career sound for Jagged Little Pill, which, adorned with many a Sinead-like yodel, went on to become one of the biggest selling records of the 1990s. "I got even, though," Sinead explains, smiling mischievously. "I can't tell you how, though."
If Alanis owed an artistic debt to Sinead, an even more frequent comparison was made to the late Dolores O'Riordan. "I was furious with Dolores," Sinead recalls. "But I'd never spoken to her a day in her life. When she got in trouble on the plane [in late 2014, Dolores was involved in an air-rage incident which saw her removed from an Aer Lingus plane], someone put her in touch; sort of like, two crazy girls can help each other. Up to then, I was immature in how I dealt with her, and I'd haughtily move past her in studios. She was the well-behaved Sinead, and maybe there needed to be one. Honestly, I think she was brilliant. And look: I was imitating the people who influenced me, too. Eventually I came to the realisation that she could stand up and sing any way she fucking wanted, and that I could go fuck myself. Which is how it should be."
The legacy - Adele is another who has publicly said she owes a debt to Sinead's vocals - jars with the persistent narrative that Sinead committed what is often referred to as 'career suicide' with the ripping up of the picture of the Pope [on Saturday Night Live in 1992] and the subsequent less commercially popular albums. In fact, these post-Nothing Compares years contain some of the artistic high points of her career, and the sense that she wanted something other than success seemed like a part of her allure.
"I'm proud of all the work I've done - and how well it did or not doesn't define that. The second album made me 10 million, and I gave away five million of it. I continued to survive for the following 20 years from whatever else I made. I raised my kids quite comfortably.
"Now and again I think I wish I was Mariah Carey and I'd shut my mouth, but that's horseshit - I don't wish that. I still wish I had millions of quid, though. I got a letter from my record company saying I wouldn't be recouped [start making money from royalties] for 20 years. So it's terribly important that I can do shows."
At the moment, the plan is that she will do a covers album first, and her record company are going to organise other artists to cover her songs, to be released at the same time. "Realistically, my own album will come out in about two years, because you're looking at someone who is rebuilding their life," she explains.
For the last few years, she has been working on her memoir. Her legal troubles - she was recently sued by former manager and boyfriend, Fachtna O'Ceallaigh - are behind her now, she says.
The Buddhist chant that accompanies our interview is improbably redolent of the Tina Turner biopic, What's Love Got To Do With It, where it forms a soundtrack to Turner's own late career resurgence. Perhaps talk of phoenixes and flames is premature - after all, Sinead's last record did top the charts in this country - but it is impossible not to be in awe of her resilience, particularly given the nightmarish few years she has had.
The artist Jim Fitzpatrick, who has painted rock stars from Thin Lizzy to Sinead herself, recently wrote that "Her work will endure long after we have all gone" and long, one might add, after the tabloid sideshow has been forgotten.
As I prepare to leave, she quotes Bob Dylan: "'I was [so much] older then, I'm younger [than that] now'. I'm trying to approach things like I'm 18 again,' she explains. "It's time for a new chapter in my life. I just want to get back to work, and I'm doing this piece because it's the first and last time I really want to talk about it all.
"Whether right or wrong, lots of things happened and there were reasons. I think if I hadn't gone through all that stuff, I wouldn't be sitting here alive today. And I am grateful to be alive."
Sinead will perform at Vicar Street in October, and the gig will be followed by an Irish tour
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