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18 mars 2008

Sinead O'Connor

It is one of the fates of singers with high media profiles that their careers are often reduced to a couple of memorable moments. They, too, have their Andy Warhol 15 minutes.

In the case of Sinead O'Connor she will always be remembered as that elfin, angel-like girl with the amazing voice who sent Prince's Nothing Compares 2 U to the top of the charts around the world in 1990. Yep - 18 years ago. And, two years later, she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II while singing an a capella version of Bob Marley's War on Saturday Night Live.

Now that she is 41 and a mother of four, how does she look back on her wild, rebellious youth?

"I don't really remember it," she admits from her home in the south Dublin suburb of Bray.

"I have a 10-year period when I don't really remember anything. I ran out of disc space somewhere along the way. I feel disconnected from that time in my life - except musically. Musically, I can remember everything and connect with who I was at that point. When I hear about it, it is like a movie of someone else."

This, of course, isn't quite correct. Asked about the famous night at the Bob Dylan 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden when, two weeks after tearing up the photo of the Pope, she was booed by an angry audience, she remembers it with great clarity.

"Half the audience were cheering; half were booing," she says. "My main memory of that night was that it was the most incredible noise I had ever heard. I had never heard a sound like it before or since. It was a great clash of the two halves of the audience. It made me want to throw up, which is kind of interesting.

"Before the show Willie Nelson had asked me if I would meet him the following day and record Peter Gabriel's Don't Give Up. I had agreed. Then there was all the booing and as I exited the stage Willie, who was as cool as a cucumber, said, 'I hope this doesn't mean you're not coming in tomorrow.' The next day was great because I went to record with him."

Also at that concert Kris Kristofferson told her, "Don't let the bastards get you down," and comforted her. When this is mentioned, she says wryly: "Yeah. I think he probably wanted to get in my pants."

Today, sadly, when most people think about O'Connor, they recall those uncharacteristic moments in her career. It is hugely unfair because during the past 18 years O'Connor has established herself as one of the founders of the "girl power" movement, which was spearheaded by the likes of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper and eventually included performers as diverse as the Spice Girls, Alanis Morissette, Amy Winehouse, PJ Harvey, Britney Spears and Courtney Love.

O'Connor questions this assessment of her importance.

"I would disagree that I was charting a new path. I think I was on a path but I hadn't been the one to start it. There were other women like Patti Smith or even women like Barbra Streisand who I admired because of the way they asserted themselves artistically. I wouldn't say that I chartered a path. There was a path there.
"I suppose the only thing I chartered a path for was women shaving their heads. It saves you a lot of money on hair products."

The irony of O'Connor's career is that after a wonderfully rebellious few years in which she spoke frankly, sang with deep wellsprings of passion and opened up new worlds of possibility for female singers, her rebellion took her into places where her voice and her importance were greatly diminished.

Recently she has spent years embracing reggae and Rastafarianism: she toured with the great Sly and Robbie and recorded an entire album of reggae, Throw Down Your Arms. She has recorded a double album called Theology in which most of the songs were the words of the Bible put to music. She has released a single from Jesus Christ Superstar called I Don't Know How To Love Him.

In 2002, just to show she was in touch with her Irish roots, she recorded Sean-Nos Nua, a collection of traditional folk songs that she explains as "that's something that's in the DNA".

Also interesting has been her decision to pursue the independent path of the likes of Ani DiFranco and the John Butler Trio. Her latest album, Theology, was released on her own label, the eccentrically named That's Why There's Chocolate And Vanilla. The label name is an expression her manager used to use to explain why some people loved O'Connor's music while others were indifferent to it. She likes the freedom independence gives, saying with understated humour: "If I want to make a record of dog noises, I can."

The biggest change in her life, however, occurred 3 1/2 years ago when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

"The main way it manifested in my life was that I was very suicidal. I was acting suicidally in life, getting myself into situations that were self-destructive, acting in a manner that was symbolically suicidal. That kicked in when I was about 22. It just snowballed and got worse.

"It became almost a compulsion. It was a bit like those old vampire movies where the woman sleepwalks towards a graveyard. You can't resist the suicide. My children never knew that I was feeling suicidal. I would never have acted on it. I also had this guilt because of the kids. I felt guilty for even feeling suicidal. It was a relief to get diagnosed."

Now she has returned to touring. It has not been easy. She says that when she returned to the live stage last year she "hadn't played live for about 10 years. I wanted to look after my [four] children and spend some time with them."

This is not O'Connor's maiden trip to Australia but she has not done shows here before. "I've never actually played in Australia. I can't wait.
"I am bringing a guitarist, bass, drums, keyboards and violin. Five people. The material I will be playing goes back to the beginning of my career. We're going back to my first album, The Lion And The Cobra. It's an hour-and-a-half of songs from all of my albums but not the cover albums [which means no reggae covers from Throw Down Your Arms and no folk from Sean-Nos Nua].

"It is all Sinead O'Connor songs. We do only three songs from Theology. It is all the hits and misses. I am joking."

And when it comes to all that rebellion and those images of her ripping up the photo of the Pope, her answer is simple.

"It irritates me that anything comes between me and the music. It has always irritated me that the focus would not be on the music. I have to bear some of the responsibility for that, obviously."

Bruce Elder March 6, 2008

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