TRUTH IN CHARACTER
Sinead O’Connor’s Musical Catharsis: I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss
By James Campion
While visiting Dublin in early June, the wife and I came upon a mural painted on
the side of the city’s Hard Rock Café tucked within a phalanx of ancient pubs in the Temple Bar district. It was a beautiful rendering of a doe-eyed Sinead O’Connor peering from beneath a shawl, appearing as if a stricken Madonna. Above the image, damaged slightly by what looked like a heavy object having been hurled into the cement by her neck, was written; “Sinead you were right all along, we were wrong. So sorry.”
What Sinead O’Connor may have represented or said that at first came off as “wrong” but was later seen by the artist or her fellow Irish citizens as “right” is left to the imagination. But it matters little. For Sinead O’Connor has never been timid about speaking her mind, in song or in person, embodying the deviant contrarian that many of us at first may bristle – How dare she!, but later wonder how we missed being stricken by the same passionate outrage.
Sinead O’Connor. The mere name conjures controversy. For 30 years her career as punk provocateur, spiritual radical, unflinching feminist and social marauder has set her apart; for good or ill. The siren vocalist of poignant songs that pierce through the treacle of most rock sentiments never sought refuge in art; instead she draped her music about her personal and public life as a second skin. Perhaps it was always the presentation that preceded her – defiant glare of those enormous green eyes that leap from beneath the shimmering bald scalp extenuated by a menacing scowl that occasionally gives pause for a child-like giggle, as if half the bravado is act and the other id.
This is why Sinead O’Connor is a hero of mine, for her life collides with her art; her persona a canvas. Whether emotionally charged performances or combative interviews, hers is the complete package. There is no gimmick. If it were then her enormously zealous heart-over-mind sense of expression would not have needed a painted apology nor would it have at times rendered her a pariah despite an otherwise impressive run of success on the charts and inside pop culture.
But it all pales in the wake of her incredible work, the most striking, 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (Yeah, the one with “Nothing Compares To U”, which is Prince’s finest song, but only a glimpse of what explodes from that record). There is not one time in a hundred spins of the gut-wrenching, “Three Babies” that chills don’t shoot through my nervous system as she clutches the high notes for “The face on you/The smell of you/ Will always be with me”. It may be the most haunting eight seconds ever recorded and only begins to lift the veil on a complicated soul.
Over the years, O’Connor has openly discussed and written extensively about the abuse she suffered as a child leading to her expression of disgust with the Catholic Church’s refusal to root out pedophiles – specifically in Ireland, which might explain the mural – which led to her infamous ripping up a photograph of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in October of 1992, the first of many very sudden and very public heart-over-mind moments that has overshadowed her music.
The title of O’Connor’s new album, I Am Not Bossy, I’m The Boss says it all, well, almost. The record echoes like a clenched fist opening into a blooming flower; a return to fierce introspection; the insolent woman looking for tenderness. The first verse from the album’s opening song, “How About I Be Me” reveals a vulnerability behind being “the boss”: “Always gotta be the lioness/Taking care of everybody else/A woman like me needs love/A woman like me needs a man to be/Stronger than herself”. She sings time and again on several tracks about transcendent kisses and “making love”, as if hidden salvation.
I Am Not Bossy strips bare the public persona of the angered rebel, but not entirely. It strategically traverses the tightrope of irreverent brashness and tender yearning on twelve compelling numbers ranging from seductive ballads to confessional angst.
The great bowery poet, Charles Bukowski once wrote, “My days, my years, my life has seen up and downs, lights and darknesses. If I wrote only and continually of the “light” and never mentioned the other, then as an artist I would be a liar.” And it is in this search for the duality of truth in art that I sat down for a chat with O’Connor, some ten years in the making.
This is something of a Holy Grail for me, speaking with you. For some reason our planned interviews always seemed to get derailed. You’re my hero because you never dismiss the human condition in your work or philosophy, even when considering politics, religion or social issues. That is an enviable trait.
Let’s start with the record. It appears after several listens to be a combination of catharsis and introspection, much like most of your work, but this time it has an exhaling quality to it; a sense of relief – for instance many of the songs are short and sweet, barely running three minutes. They get right to the point, as if shoved out of your psyche. What was your frame of mind when you wrote and then recorded this material?
There are three songs that are personal/autobiographical; “How About I Be Me”, “Dense Water Deeper Down” and “8 Good Reasons”. The others are not my frame of mind, but the characters’. In the same way the Aretha Franklin album, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You is the story of a relationship, when you listen to it in sequence, I wanted to echo that. And so there are perhaps three or four female characters on the record, but there is one that appears more often than the others. She’s the cathartic one. She’s on a journey to learn the difference between illusion and reality when it comes to discovering love, and her catharsis comes when she discovers it was herself she was longing for the whole time. The earlier songs where she is longing for this particular man are conversations between her and this guy, but she comes to the conclusion at the end of it all that it is not him she is longing for but her. (laughs) That’s a bit of a longwinded explanation, but you hit the nail on the head in terms of it being a catharsis. It’s just not mine. It’s a character that I’ve created.
She’s on a journey to learn the difference between illusion and reality when it comes to discovering love, and her catharsis comes when she discovers it was herself she was longing for the whole time.
You play around quite a bit with Hindu references on this record, “The Vishnu Room” being an obvious one, but I am interested in your use of Maya in “Harbour”. You sing;“And they said call it Maya/Go ahead call it Maya/But it’s not all Maya” – Maya being a Hindu word or symbol for illusion or delusion, to overcome the foolishness of posing or hiding and find the “true self”, which appears to be another central theme to these songs.
Yeah, it is the central theme. These characters…if you like, you can say represent every woman or every man, indeed, but there are a set of characters which represent the psyche of the main character, who is the female character that turns up on “Your Green Jacket”, then “The Vishnu Room”, ‘The Voice of My Doctor”, “Harbour” and ends up with “Streetcars”. And through this song sequence there is this journey of longing for this guy whom she has projected all this stuff on and I suppose he is Maya, as he is always present, the same way the man in the Aretha Franklin record is always present throughout the album. And she has an experience with him, which leads her to understand he is not the man she thought he was, which doesn’t mean he’s a bad person, but she got a fright because he wasn’t what she had deluded herself into thinking he was. But instead of taking this as some dreadful thing, it leads her to discover that in fact it was herself she was longing for. So that description there of Maya…yeah, that’s it. That’s what the central character is going through.
The song also evokes something I know you have used your career to shed
light upon and that is child abuse, mostly institutional child abuse, and I couldn’t help thinking of that theme when listening to the lines; “Fumbling to get back what’s stolen/Thinking pain could be plastered over”.
Yeah, those conversations between characters set off something in my mind,
because I’m what you might call a Stanislavski “method actor” singer/songwriter. What happened with the last album, some of the songs were written when people had given me movie scripts and I started then to write songs from the point of view of these characters. I enjoyed that, but I didn’t give the movie people the songs. So I created a scenario in my mind and based the character on someone I met in Holland, a young girl, and invented this story where the man on the record asks her about the marks she has on her and the song is an explanation of how she has these marks on her. It’s supposed to be left to the imagination. It’s part of her explaining to him that she is beginning to understand that she has been projecting this longing for things that she didn’t get growing up and she had perhaps projected onto men or the idea of a man who will come and rescue her and make everything wonderful. She realizes that’s not how things go, which ties up with the whole Maya thing.
Speaking of this Stanislavski “method acting” style of getting into character to sing; your voice sounds as strong and emotive as ever; it still gives me chills. There is always a moment or two or three in every record where you go to a place deep inside to get to that intense vocal expression. Where does that come from?
It’s very hard to explain, because if you could describe music you wouldn’t need music. It’s kind of second nature, so it’s hard to describe to someone else. It’s like taking a breath. You do what you do. I’m sure every singer would tell you how much they wish they could put words on that, because there’s nothing more interesting to talk about than singing. For me, I just go into a world of my own and if you go into the Stanislavski method, as I call it, you get into the character – the who, what, where, when and why – and you forget you’re on a stage and forget there are people there and you get to who you are in the song, where you are, what is it you’re trying to say, who is it you’re trying to say it to and how you’re trying to say it. (laughs) But the big difference between this and actual method acting is you only stay in that character for three minutes, because you’ve got to sing another character in three minutes. (laughs)
Speaking of characters, the record’s cover photo of you in the shiny black dress and the black wig evokes a visual way to depict a character or maybe it reflects your foolish side or perhaps your true self.
Yeah, exactly. I think that’s a very important aspect of it. It’s a poetic aspect, and what I mean by that is it’s a subtext, and I’ve done about 150 interviews already and you were the only one who managed to pick that up, although one person asked me if I was trying to disguise myself and I said, “Well, maybe the other has been a disguise.” (laughs)
I have to compliment you on your confronting suicide on “8 Good Reasons”, which is such an arresting song that within it you actually question the idea of broaching it. You sing; “Don’t know if I should quite sing this song/Don’t know if it maybe might be wrong/But then again it maybe might be right/To tell you ‘bout the bullet and the red light”. It’s a beautifully harsh sentiment.
In the case where songs are very personal it becomes subconscious when you write them. You don’t really know why you wrote it, you just had to write it. I was working with a guitar player named Graham Kearns and he wrote the music for the song and sent it to me. I don’t know…I just felt I had to write it. (chuckles) My favorite way of writing is when someone gives me a piece of music. When I hear the music I see pictures or think of things, whether they’re personal or imaginary things, and once I heard what Graham had given me I was immediately inspired by it.
When I hear the music I see pictures or think of things, whether they’re personal or imaginary things.
Can you reveal the 8 good reasons that are worth sticking around for?
They were my children’s eyes.
Ha! That’s fantastic.
I recently saw a television interview with you where you discussed the dangerous vagaries of the Internet, the meanness of it, the random, anonymous vitriol of it all. I wonder if that kind of bullying is something that hits home with you.
Well, Jesus, look what’s going on in Israel. It goes on in people’s sitting rooms because it goes on outside and vice versa. It’s not only on the Internet, is it? People aren’t very nice to one another.
I saw a mural of you on the street in Temple Bar when I was in Dublin last month. On it was written, I presume by the artist, “Sinead you were right all along, we were wrong. So sorry.” Can you shed some light on this?
I wonder who painted it! (laughs) I’ll tell you what, if John Paul II or Ratzinger (Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger aka Pope Benedict XVI) did it I’d be real happy. It’s lovely. I’ve seen it. It’s very special to me. I’d really love to know who did it.
I have framed and hanging in my office the cover of the NY Daily News the day after you tore a picture of Pope John Paul II and that was, for me, a touchtone moment of speaking truth to power. And later we learned it was your vehement protest against the Church’s cover-up of decades of child abuse. I wonder if you believe this is a battle that will ever be won or will it rage on long after we’re gone.
No, I don’t think it will be a battle long after we’re gone because I believe in the Christian scriptures and it’s all written down exactly what’s going to happen. So, to put it briefly and more in a metaphorical form: Rain falls from the sky, stuff comes up from under the ground. As Jesus said; “Nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed and nothing is kept secret that won’t be made known.” I think we can all sit back and relax, because I believe in the scriptures and all will eventually be revealed.
Will you be touring the record here in the states?
Yeah, we’re coming there in October and again in November. You know – one side of the states the first time and another side the second time. (laughs)
Well, it really is a wonderful record and seems to be a creative rebirth for you; new label (Nettwerk) and all. I wonder if you feel that.
I really do. Very much so. Brilliant record company. Brilliant record. John Reynolds being the most fantastic producer ever and I think very strong songs and a great songwriting team we have together. It’s another beginning for me as a songwriter.