Sinéad O'Connor interview: ‘I’ve never written love songs before’

The singer is finally letting love (and latex) into her career after 25 years. We find her in singular form

Sinéad O’Connor has been on fire for ever. Since her 1987 breakout single ‘Mandika’, she’s blazed an uncompromising trail, her political statements as incendiary as her music. Her new album, ‘I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss’, however, is all sweetness and light, the sound of someone in love with life. Over an afternoon ice cream, she explains why she’s laying her ‘warrior woman’ to rest. At least for now.

This album feels like it’s written from a place few would expect.
‘I seem to have changed the platform from which I write songs: they became character songs that weren’t necessarily autobiographical. The reason I was writing songs in the first place was the way I had grown up in ’70s Ireland, in a very abusive set of circumstances. There was no such thing as therapy. Music was my therapy. Had I been born in the “Little House on the Prairie”, I would have just started off making records like this. The object of your game when you go to get shit off your chest is that one day it will be off your chest. And I think that’s what happened.’

Did it take longer than expected?

‘No. It didn’t take very long really, in the great scheme of things.’

What’s it been, 25 years?
‘Yeah, but in the scheme of what it was I was recovering from, that’s not very long to be honest. I mean to get yourself free at all, creatively speaking, is quite miraculous. However long it takes.’

The whole album sounds like it’s made by someone in love with life. Is that where you’re at?
‘Yeah, I’m comfortable and free to a point where I can enjoy playing these characters and just rocking the fuck out and having a laugh. They’re characters but I suppose it is a fine line. Sometimes you take essences of situations and create something else with them. As songwriters, we kind of milk life for songs. But it was my intention to make a romantic record – all of the feelings are expressed the way I would have expressed them.’

During those 25 years or so when you were getting everything out of your system with your music, did it feel like catharsis? Did it work for you on a physical level?
‘It actually did, very much so. That’s the way singers are and that’s the way we’re built: we need to vocalise shit, and certainly for abuse survivors the issue is voice, that you didn’t get to voice yourself. So it was very lucky to be in a situation where one could voice oneself, because so much of what goes on with abuse also it isn’t verbal, and sometimes it’s pre-verbal. There aren’t words, only sounds. And if you’re a person who responds to sound as a recovery method – which I did, obviously, because that’s the way I’m programmed, and I didn’t have any option because I was in ‘70s and early ‘80s Ireland where there was no therapy anyway – yeah, it got it all out of my body. And the thing with abuse also is it’s the body that’s been wounded, so you can do all the therapy in your head but the last stage of recovery is getting it out of the body. Sound is a very powerful way of getting shit out of your body. So there definitely did come a point where it was gone. And that was quite wonderful. I didn’t actually expect it to be gone so soon to be honest. 25 years, that’s fucking no time [laughs]. That’s fucking no time. I thought it would take a very long time.’

There’s some powerful imagery on both this and your last album. ‘Take Off Your Shoes’ from ‘How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?’ is terrifying.
‘Good! It’s meant to be scary. The character in that song is supposed to be the Holy Spirit talking to the Vatican: the object of the game is to scare the shit out of them.’

Was there any reaction from the Vatican?
‘No. If you’re consciously thinking that the Vatican is going to hear your record, you’re fucked. The only reason you should ever make a record is if you’re going to go mad if you don’t.’

‘No one has caught on, perhaps including me, that underneath this I’m actually a woman’

You were extremely active on Twitter, but you seemed to have stopped. Is that connected to your songs being less autobiographical?
‘Insofar as I’ve deliberately decided to go quiet on all fronts other than music while I’ve got an album coming out. I’m sensible enough I suppose to keep all distractions out the picture.’

Was Twitter a distraction?
‘It becomes a distraction. Anything I wrote about anything anywhere else would be a distraction. I actually do write a tour diary most nights – there’s a section on my site called Tour Musings – but I don’t actually put it in there, because even those things would be a distraction. Somebody will be writing about the fact that you wrote about menstruating rather than writing about your album. There’s a lot about menstruating in my tour diaries.’

Is there?!
‘Yeah. It's a big issue for women like me. And when you’re followed by every fucking newspaper in town, they end up writing about the fact that you wrote about menstruating rather than the album. That’s why I keep off Twitter while I’ve got a record coming out. Otherwise everything will be about menstruation and not my great record.’

Has it annoyed you over the years that things other than your music have made the headlines?
‘Yeah, but look: I’m 50 percent responsible for that. There are two of us in that relationship, me and the media. We both have responsibility.’

The wigs and dresses in your recent press shots... firstly, is that PVC?
‘It’s latex. Get that right – the woman who made the dress is upset that nobody’s noticed. PVC is cheap, latex is very expensive.’

Good to know. Are you using that look as a shield perhaps?
‘It could be the opposite. I’ve never really written love songs before; 
no one has actually caught on, perhaps including me, that underneath this I’m actually a woman.’

That’s not true.
‘No, in my songs and performances I’ve always been the kind of warrior woman, and that’s great, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I never actually was the other woman. And I thought, “Let’s throw in some hair and some sexy dresses and we’ll get loads of publicity for the record.” It wasn’t originally meant to be the cover. But in a way it is: that’s the woman that made the record, and that’s me obviously. Those are aspects of myself. So in a way it could be the opposite of a disguise, it could actually be more a revealing of something. And this [gestures to herself] is a disguise actually.’

In what way?
‘For protective purposes. Soft girls have to act a lot tougher than they really are. So the shaved head, all of that – it’s been safer to wander the world as a female looking like this. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the latex woman is a disguise. The dresses are mine, put it that way.’

You’ve said the opening song on this album, ‘How About I Be Me’, is autobiographical.
‘I’ll tell you what that’s about. I wrote these articles three years ago for an Irish newspaper, because I’d read this piece about a woman who married her truck. And I had no boyfriend at the time, and I wrote this very funny article about was this gonna happen to me: I was gonna end up marrying my fucking truck because there were no fellas around. And it was such a scandal in Ireland that a woman would talk about sex and talk about such things, that the child in me got more bold the more scandal there was. So I wrote another one, and then another one, so there were these three articles that were actually very funny but got portrayed as if it was some lunatic, purely because women aren’t supposed to talk about shagging bananas or whatever. It did generate my favourite headline ever, which is ‘Sinéad Admits Sex With Popular Fruit,’ which I thought was fucking hilarious.

‘So yeah, there was all scandal and outrage and, “How awful it is that a woman would talk like that,” and that’s what I wrote this song about. It was a response to the kind of sexually repressed Twatterati in Ireland. But really it’s just a romantic song. It’s just saying, “Why would you be bothered writing about sex and love, and giving out that you haven’t got a boyfriend, and crying that you might have to shag bananas for the rest of your life?” It’s more about saying, “Look, whatever anyone might say you should be at the end of the day, you’re just a little five-foot-four female the same as any other five-foot-four female.” That’s what the whole record is really: it’s just love songs, just pop little love songs for some little tiny woman.’

‘I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss’ is out on August 11.

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