Sinead O’Connor is onstage in a London church. It’s an intimate show – she’s joined by only her regular guitar and keyboard players – and one that allows her to complete her latest resurgence in striking, yet also comfortable circumstances.
At one point she looks at the crowd to reminisce. “Someone once asked me what I did” she recalls, “and I said: I try”. Then she steps back and starts to chuckle – “I’m trying! I’m trying!” – and her voice rings out and everyone laughs.
Late afternoon. A London private members club. At the end of a long press day, Sinead O’Connor is certainly trying. Throwing herself into a heavy promotional routine, the Irish singer is seated in the corner of a small room patiently delving into questions fielded at her by the press. Ostensibly she’s here to promote her new album, with ‘How About I Be Me (And You Be You?)’ representing her sweetest, most acutely pop statement in a decade. Sadly, a recurrence of ongoing mental health issues meant that the singer was forced off the promotional trail on its release, something which clearly stings. “People really hold it against you if you’ve had to cease work because of a mental illness – you have to prove yourself the whole time” she explains. “Even the other day, doing interviews, I’m almost having to prove to people that I’m not mental. You don’t know if you’re going to get any work or a career or anything”.
In the end, though, she needn’t worry. ‘How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?’ is far too strong to be knocked off its course by societal stigma, no matter how deep seated or mis-placed. A beautifully constructed record, it matches some effervescent writing from Sinead O’Connor with former husband John Reynolds’ immaculate arrangements. Buoyed by a real, palpable zest for life one of its recurring themes is love, lust and romance – something that the Irish singer insists is much of the hardest topics she has faced. “Y’see, oddly enough the simplest thing on Earth is romance but it’s the hardest thing to write songs about” she explains. “The greatest songs about romance are actually the simplest. But it’s very fucking hard to write about it!”
Contrasting love with religion, O’Connor notes the fine line which separates the classics from the ephemeral. “It’s such a fine line between corny and cool; more so with religious songs and probably more so nowadays because you don’t want to say the J-word or anything offputting” she says. “Certainly, when it comes to romantic songs, too, you have to be very careful. It’s very rarely you meet Adele detractors – obviously, because most people are intelligent – but I can’t stand when I met these people – usually fellas – complaining that all she does is talk about romance because she just does it so brilliantly. I think she’s a phenomenal artist. I think Ann Peebles is in the same mould as her – there’s millions and millions of women singers but they don’t all necessarily come across.. I’m sure they mean it but they don’t all sell it – like they’ve really fucking lived it”.
And Sinead O’Connor has certainly lived it. Whilst undoubtedly footloose and fancy free, her new album is nonetheless the work of an experienced artist, one that knows exactly how the creative process has to work. “My experience of songwriting is that the subconscious is in charge of it” she insists. “By which I mean that I might be doing ordinary tasks around the house and I’ll feel music inside of me. Then I know not to focus on it so much or try to sit down and write about it. I’ll get on with whatever task I’m doing and the next week it’ll come back with a bit more”.
“I usually try to keep it quite subconscious and get it out in my own way, but I did make a conscious decision that I wanted to write romantic songs – which I had never done before – or I wanted to write songs from the point of view of other people, rather than just myself” she continues. “The place from which I was writing was different. I was writing about other people whereas before it had always been introspective or extremely autobiographical”.
Which isn’t to just that there isn’t a lot of Sinead O’Connor – the character, the person – in this record; as the singer readily admits, it’s not quite as easy as airbrushing your own thoughts, feelings, textures out of the picture. “My brother, who is a novelist, always refers to what he does as faction: Half fiction, half fact. Even in stuff which is not actually autobiographical... it sneakily is. Accidentally” the singer says, before adding: “It’s a bit like, if you’re an actor and you’re playing a part then it’s your mannerisms at the same time”.
On the surface a very natural, fragrant album to get to grips with, ‘How About I Be Me (And You Be You?)’ does retain its secrets. Although the production is quite immediate there are sonic flourishes which take time to reveal itself, while Sinead O’Connor’s lyrics can be dense, challenging – the product of lengthy spells in the throes of creativity. “I never sit and try to write songs. I just let them come, which is why I’m a slow writer” she admits. “I probably make a record every two years, generally, because I’m a slow writer. I think the minute you sit and try to write then you’re screwed. I am, anyway, other people might enjoy that. Unless I’m doing what Bob Dylan calls a finger pointing song, then it’s much more conscious, you sit down and go: I’m going to write about x, y or z”.
Largely written before the studio process began, the material for the new album – once it had been completed – fell into place remarkably easy. A fact that, as Sinead O’Connor readily admits, is a testament to the seemingly boundless creativity of producer John Reynolds. “I feel a bit guilty, everyone thinks that I made this great record when I didn’t – John did. I wrote some songs and I turned up at the studio and sang them - I probably did about three weeks worth of singing but the rest of the time John was the one working on the record 24 hours a day. So how it sounds is down to him. The chord changes and whatever are down to me but how the record sounds, entirely, is down to John. In a way I feel John should be in on the interviews, because he’s the one who really made the record. I’m just the singer” she pauses, before laughing: “He calls me Acker Bilk!”
This isn’t to suggest that ‘How About I Be Me (And You Be You?)’ is a happy, lightsome record, though. It does have its moments of darkness, of genuine despair and anger – such as ‘Take Off Your Shoes’ which once again finds Sinead O’Connor protesting against child abuse in the Catholic church. Noticeably shifting mood when the topic of the Catholic Church is raised, the singer bows her head to focus her thoughts. “If anything it’s regressed. They have a list now of the most grievous sins a Catholic can commit and equal number ones are paedophilia and female ordination” she sighs, head dimming even further in the process. “How they’ve reacted to the scandal is by regressing... But I think people have progressed – people understand now that we don’t need them, it doesn’t matter.. let them regress. I even feel that now, I don’t need to listen to what they do or say, I don’t feel the need to fight them. I don’t give a shit”.
Listening to her, you can’t help but feel that Sinead O’Connor is being disingenuous by saying that – that she wants to believe that she doesn’t “give a shit” purely to remove this anger. Still a believer in something resembling spirituality, the Irish artist reflects on shifts in her homeland’s relationship with the church. “I don’t know what different it’s made, particularly, to us. It’s good – we’re not quite as fucking depressed as we were before, perhaps we feel like we can have sex without feeling too guilty about it” she chuckles. “We’re still in a space where we haven’t replaced it with any other spiritual thinking or feeling or giving a shit about each other - which is how I think about spirituality.. it teaches us to give a shit about each other. We haven’t got to that point yet, we’re still materialistic people”.
Sometimes prone to controversial statements, Sinead O’Connor’s public image – so often distorted in the press - is at odds with the character which comes across during our meeting and, indeed her shows. Onstage at St. Lukes in London, her towering vocal performance is matched by a carefree, infectious spirit which matches jokes about nuns to a passionate, distinct knowledge of the Psalms, their culture and heritage. Admitting that she remains a profoundly introverted person, Sinead O’Connor still struggles to look at the audience during performances. “I’m actually an extremely shy person – I’m very good at coming across like I’m not – but actually I am quite cripplingly shy” she explains. “So the only way I can go onstage is to go into my own world, it’s the only way I can handle it. I close my eyes and if I look at the audience then I’m screwed. In fact, I’m going to the rock school in Dublin for a day or two’s work on how to open my eyes when I’m singing and actually stay near the microphone. You’ll notice a lot of the time when I’m live because I’m shy I stay away from the microphone. Pure shyness really”.
Finishing, she acknowledges that this technique – however unorthodox – is something which can produce quite spectacular results. “I have to go into my own world. Then I know that I’m delivering what the audience have paid for, which is some kind of honesty. Something spiritual – I don’t quite know how to put words on it but I have an intention when I get onstage to make people feel when they leave that they’ve been at mass... only hopefully better” she insists. “It isn’t necessarily about the words of the songs it’s about the sound and the presence and what your intention is onstage. I know this sounds corny but I actually do a lot of praying inside myself during gigs, to focus myself spiritually. That’s the other reason that I close my eyes and go off into my own world, I have to focus on that and manage everything else. It works, because when people leave they often say: Jesus, there was something spiritual about that...”
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'How About I Be Me (And You Be You?)' is out now. New single '4th & Vine' drops on February 18th.