Thanks to the Books & Culture email newsletter (well worth the free subscription: it's easy to sign up at their website), we've got news about a new cd from Sinéad O'Connor. I was moved by her first couple records (1987 "The Lion & The Cobra," a reference to Psalm 91, and 1990 "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got"), and still treasure her first recording, a haunting song she recorded with The Edge for the soundtrack of a film called THE CAPTIVE. When the storms of controversy she stirred up swamped her and her musical career, I couldn't help wondering if she was suffering from the same mental illness that was devastating a close friend, and while some dismissed the religious themes of her music as a symptom of that sort of mania, I thought about how real religious faith can be attacked by mental afflictions the same way everything else is, that her faith and her God might be just as real as my own, however confused by her apparent illness. Or that her faith is perfectly real, but different from mine - but with enough in common that her music moves me, which is probably the safest place to end up.
All speculation, of course: I hate celebrity-watching, and I'm very nervous about that impulse to justify and buttress one's faith by claiming famous folks as fellow travelers. But the music moved me, and while my friend's (possibly) parallel afflictions made O'Connor's music painful by association, neither was I inclined to write off the musician, her music or her faith.
So now that word is in about THEOLOGY, I'm going to post a whole pile of words here. (I know, I should just link to it all. But sooner or later the links go dead, so I'll play archivist: hey, if a thing's worth doing, it's worth overdoing.) Here's a rundown of what's included in the post, complete with links;
Sinéad O'Connor's Theology and 'Theology': Why you shouldn't be surprised that her new album is mostly passages from the Old Testament
Christianity Today, July 9 2007
Sinead O’Connor talks music, mental illness and men: The doe-eyed young woman who sang Nothing Compares 2 U is now 40 years old, with four children – and as brutally frank as ever
The Times, June 16 2007
Sinead O'Connor's Act of Love: The controversial singer talks about her new album 'Theology' and why she ripped up that photo of Pope John Paul II on TV.
Interview by Dena Ross for beliefnet
(You can listen to streaming audio of "Something Beautiful" and "If You Had A Vineyard" at the beliefnet site)
Sinéad's quiet return: The former pop star is mounting a spiritually informed, low-key comeback.
Orange County Register, Sunday June 24 2007
And since that's already more than enough, I'll just give you the link to a brand new christianmusictoday.com interview - in which the artist makes it perfectly clear that she's no orthodox Christian. But like we've said, that doesn't say the music won't speak.
Songs are also available at O'Connor's MySpace page (though it wouldn't open for me: probably too much traffic) and her official site. And of course there are videos on YouTube.
Sinéad O'Connor's Theology and 'Theology'
Why you shouldn't be surprised that her new album is mostly passages from the Old Testament
Ted Olsen for Christianity Today, July 9 2007
It has been 15 years since Sinéad O'Connor tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live and said, "Fight the real enemy." So it's little wonder she's tired of talking about it and other provocative things she has done over the years. In fact, she was so tired of it back in 2003 that she quit the music business.
"I was quite disillusioned, and also, I was tired of carrying the weight of the whole 'controversial Sinéad O'Connor' crap," she recently told the London Times (also included in this post). "That's a painful, difficult thing to carry, and I felt I couldn't work without having to deal with that."
Her retirement was short-lived, and now she's out promoting her new album. Which means she's patiently answering more questions about that Saturday Night Live appearance. But this time, the questions make more sense. Her new album, "Theology," is all about God, and almost all of it is based on Scripture.
An act of love
O'Connor once called tearing the pope's photo "a ridiculous act, the gesture of a girl rebel," but in recent interviews she's anything but apologetic about it.
"Sometimes we want to challenge the people we love, and sometimes we want to rattle the bars because we see them going down the drain unless they face particular issues. And they may not want to face those issues; for example, the issue of sexual abuse by priests within the Catholic church," she told Beliefnet (also included in this post). "Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't actually an angry act, although I can see, of course, why people would think it was. It was actually an act of love."
In that same interview, she lamented Catholicism's decline in her native Ireland as "the baby getting thrown out with the bath water."
Is this the revisionism of a 40-year-old woman who has mellowed in the past decade and a half? Damage control for sales of Theology? Probably not.
Two weeks after the show aired, O'Connor went on stage at New York's Madison Square Garden for the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration. She was booed off the stage. Too bad: The Dylan song she was going to sing was "I Believe in You," his psalm about trusting God amid hardship. (She also recorded it for A Very Special Christmas 2.)
Son of Man's woman?
It's tempting to see those actions and conclude that O'Connor is one of those "spiritual but not religious" types. But she doesn't go for that.
"I love religion," she told the Orange County Register (also included in this post. "But I think religion has weaknesses—the chief one being that it doesn't understand that it is not God a lot of the time. … There was a God before religion." (She similarly told Beliefnet, "I adore religion and love it.")
In her music, it's clear that she loves religion. Exactly what religion has not been terribly clear. Take, for example, her 2000 album, Faith and Courage. On "No Man's Woman," she sings:
I got a lovin' man but he's a Spirit.
He never does me harm never treats me bad.
He never takes away all the love he has.
And I'm forgiven—oh!—a million times.
Then, in the clearly autobiographical "Daddy I'm Fine," she identifies herself as a "strong independent pagan woman." On "Emma's Song," she sings, "The great goddess had us blessed." The final track, "Kyrie," is a lovely setting of the liturgical Kyrie eleison in Greek and English ("Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy") overlaid with Rastafarian phrases.
Christian and Rastafarian themes meet again in "The Lamb's Book of Life," a forerunner of many of the themes in Theology:
I bring these blessings with me
A strong heart full of hope and a feeling
That everything in this world would be okay
If people just believed enough in God to pray
But the world thinks that sounds crazy
And that's the thing that makes me sing so sadly
To think that we would leave God so lonely
To think that we would mess up our own destiny.
She means it. "God is underemployed, when there are a lot of problems in the world that could get fixed very quickly if people actually believed in God. I know that sounds very childish," she told Beliefnet. "I do believe a whole lot could be changed if we were to ask God to help. But because of religion, people often don't think there is a God—therefore they don't ask."
So, in Theology, she sets out to "rescue God from religion." At times, her God sounds awfully tragic, as on "Out of the Depths":
You're like a ghost in your own home
Nobody hears U crying all alone
Oh U are the one true really voiceless one
They have their backs turned to you for worship of gold and stone …
It's sad but true how the old saying goes
If God lived on earth people would break his windows.
Then again, the rest of the song is taken straight from Psalm 130:
Out of the depths I cry to U, oh Lord
Don't let my cries for mercy be ignored
If U keep account of sins oh who would stand?
But U have forgiveness in your hands
The rest of the album has selections from Jeremiah, Isaiah, Song of Solomon, Job, 1 Samuel, and Psalms 33, 91, 104, and 137. There's no trace of pagan goddesses on THEOLOGY, and Sinead's Rastafarianism seems not to be the kind that focuses on former Ethiopian king Haile Selassie as God but rather the kind that focuses on the God of the Eastern Orthodox Selassie.
What you won't find on Theology is much about Jesus—or anything from the New Testament, for that matter.
"I wanted it to be on the right side of the line between corny and cool," she told the Associated Press. "When it comes to religious music there is a very fine line between cool and very uncool. … If you start writing songs about the New Testament, you're doomed no matter how you say it; people have such a prejudice about it. If you start writing songs about Jesus you know no one is going to listen to you. Obviously, I do believe in Jesus, but I am not stupid."
Still, Jesus does appear on the album, just not by name, in the second of two cover songs. The first is Curtis Mayfield's "We People Who Are Darker than Blue." The second is Jesus Christ Superstar's "I Don't Know How to Love Him." It's a remarkable inclusion, not only because of its implicit confession, but also because its closing line, "He scares me so," provides a counterbalance to "Out of the Depths," where she sings, "I've heard religion say you're to be feared, but I don't buy into everything I hear."
Jesus, or at least Christian theology, also appears in Theology's first track, "Something Beautiful" — "You give life through blood, blood, blood, blood, blood, oh blood." The song provides a kind of introduction to the rest of the album:
I wanna make something
So lovely for U
'Cause I promised that's what I'd do for U
With the Bible I stole
I know you U forgave my soul
Because such was my need on a chronic Christmas Eve
The song then transitions into several passages from Jeremiah:
They dress the wounds of my poor people
As though they're nothing
Saying 'peace, peace'
When there's no peace
Now can a bride forget her jewels?
Or a maid her ornaments?
Yet my people forgotten me
It's not the kind of thing you hear on a typical Christian album, even one focusing on Scripture. Nor is it the kind of verse you hear taken seriously in liberal pulpits. O'Connor told Christianity Today sister publication Christian Music Today, "I don't think God judges anybody," but her music specifically says otherwise. The songs here are full of both the pain of sin and forgiveness from it.
O'Connor says Jeremiah is her favorite book of the Bible—not usually something said by those who believe God doesn't judge. Still, she knows the message of Jeremiah and the prophets is not "God will hunt you down," but "God is coming for you."
"I hope this record would make someone think that perhaps God is not an angry, punishing, warmaking God and is in fact a gentle and compassionate God who actually is upset at the loss of us," she said.
In the end, because it is so drenched in Scripture, Theology offers anything but a tragic God. It offers an active God who is tearing down kingdoms to bring people to him. He seems to be chasing Sinead O'Connor down, too.
"I adore U … and your journey toward me," she sings.
Sinead O’Connor talks music, mental illness and men
The doe-eyed young woman who sang Nothing Compares 2 U is now 40 years old, with four children – and as brutally frank as ever
Sheryl Garratt for The Times, June 16 2007
It’s a warm day, and when I arrive at her house in the affluent suburb of Monkstown in Dublin, Sinéad O’Connor is sitting on her front step opposite an icon of the Virgin Mary while some men haul out the equipment she’s been using to record her contribution to the soundtrack of The Water Horse, a children’s film due out at the end of the year. She’s wearing scruffy track pants and a paint-splattered fleece top, her head shaved into a soft crop as it has always been but her face older, more tired – thanks mainly to her four-month-old son Yeshua’s sleep patterns. She’s exhausted, she’ll tell me later, “But I don’t mind. He’s just so cute, smiling at you in the middle of the night. And because he’s the last one, you’ve got to appreciate it all, even if you are tired.”
O’Connor turned 40 this year, and if I needed a reminder of how much time has passed since she shot to global fame with Nothing Compares 2 U in 1990, it comes in the shape of the hefty, pleasant-looking guy with extravagant facial hair sitting in the front garden next to her. At first I think he is one of the roadies taking a break, but then I see his arm is in a cast. I ask him how he hurt it, and he laughs and says it was a skating accident, looking up at me with his mother’s huge blue eyes. At 20, Jake is the oldest of O’Connor’s four children, and lives in an annexe behind the large Victorian house where O’Connor lives with the new baby, three-year-old Shane, and her daughter Róisín, aged 11. The rented house has the lived-in look you’d expect of somewhere that houses two large dogs and three small children, but it’s also clean, comfortable and filled with toys, religious icons and trinkets: a home.
Talking to O’Connor, there are two things you notice immediately. First, there’s a vulnerability, despite her apparent toughness. She may be easy to attack from a distance – and indeed, that seems to be the default setting for most of the media – but as we sit down at a table in a sunny side-room just off the huge kitchen and I watch her fidget nervously with her fingers, my immediate instinct is to protect her, to look after her. The other thing you quickly learn is that she lacks an edit switch, and in an interview the main person you want to protect her from is herself. As always she answers questions with disarming honesty, leaving herself wide open to more of the attacks and criticism she so hates. It’s like watching someone complain they’re hot, while continuing to feed the fire.
“Nobody is telling you, ‘Don’t say this’, or ‘Don’t say that’,” she says at one point, explaining how unprepared she was for the fame that overwhelmed her at the age of 23, then adding more thoughtfully, “And you’d probably tell them to go f*** themselves if they were. You shouldn’t have to be in a situation where you can’t be honest if you want to.”
So she will tell me about the new coil she’s started using to ensure that Yeshua really will be her last child, about various ill-advised affairs, about faith, therapy, shoplifting and her frequent thoughts of suicide. Some of this, to be fair, was in answer to my questions; but when I asked about a line in one of her new songs about stealing a Bible, I was expecting to hear about some childhood folly, not to hear that it happened three years ago, and for her to tell me the location of the shop and the exact date. “My manager is completely freaked out about me telling anyone,” she laughs after finishing the story. “But I don’t give a shit.”
She is about to release a new album, Theology, her first to feature new songs for seven years. In 2003, a year after releasing Sean Nos Nua, an album of traditional Irish songs, she announced she was giving up music completely, and apart from an album of reggae cover versions, recorded over a couple of weeks in Jamaica, she has remained silent. When I ask why, she comes up with a variety of answers: her manager of 12 years, Steve Fargnoli, had just died and she didn’t want to replace him. “I got into the pop thing very young – I was 17 when I signed my deal – and I came to feel that I hadn’t formed an identity of my own. I was quite disillusioned, and also, I was tired of carrying the weight of the whole ‘controversial Sinéad O’Connor’ crap. That’s a painful, difficult thing to carry, and I felt I couldn’t work without having to deal with that. So I decided to just come away from it all. I didn’t have a nanny or any help in the house, I just looked after the kids. It was great!”
She occasionally pondered what to do with the rest of her life. But whenever she talked about getting a “normal, regular job”, her friends just laughed. Everyone but her, it seems, knew she’d come back to music eventually. And she has, but first she needed to find her way through something far darker. Ever since she was 23, she says, she’d had thoughts of suicide.
“I began to have this quiet little voice every now and then – although ‘voice’ is the wrong way to put it. It’s your own thoughts just gone completely skew-whiff: ‘Look at that tree, you might hang yourself on it.’ Until the volume went up so loud that I took myself to hospital. There would be nothing wrong in your life, but you’d think about suicide all the time. It was almost funny. But after Shane was born I was really ill, and I was really worried because I was close to actually doing it. So when he was about about five months old, I took myself to hospital.”
She’d been to hospital before, a couple of times, but says they just left her crying in a bed for a week or so before discharging her. She’d also been to various therapists – including one, in London, whom she saw five times a week for well over a year. But this time she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, or manic depression. O’Connor describes the illness as like having a gaping hole in the centre of her being. She took the drugs she’d been prescribed, she smiles, “And within half an hour it was like cement going over the hole.”
When she gave up music, she got rid of all her instruments. “I never even looked at a guitar, there was nothing in the house.” But straight after leaving the doctor’s office, she bought the piano that now sits in her kitchen. The diagnosis, and then the drugs, gave her back her creativity. It wasn’t all so immediate, she says. Full recovery has taken time, and there have been setbacks: while pregnant with Yeshua she stopped taking the drugs, and afterwards she didn’t go back on them. “I was hoping that perhaps the thing would disappear and I’d be grand, but I wasn’t. So I’ve been back on them now since he was eight weeks.”
It seems to me that her illness could explain much of the behaviour that has got her into trouble over the years. Subsequent revelations have shown she was right to link some elements of the Catholic Church to child abuse, but ripping up a picture of the Pope on live US television probably wasn’t the most career-savvy way to express those concerns, for instance. Yet she isn’t interested in wiping the slate clean. “I don’t want anyone looking at things that Sinéad O’Connor has done – the Pope thing, or any other f***ing thing – and saying that those are the result of being manic depressive, because I don’t believe that. Those are things that I stand by and am proud of and would do again if I had the time over.”
But the suicidal thoughts were part of her illness, she says, and the drugs have taken them away. I point at the tree outside the window. So when you look at that now? She smiles, and it lights up her whole face. “I think, ‘What a gorgeous tree!’” I wonder if she feels angry that so many professionals failed to notice that she was suffering from a treatable medical condition, and she shrugs and says that when she went into therapy she was young, and stupid – and famous, and rich. “I don’t so much get pissed off, I get sad about it.”
What seems clear is that she’s now in a far happier place. She dotes on all of her children, but Yeshua was born with life-threatening pneumonia and spent his first ten days in hospital, making him seem all the more precious. And while there have been conflicts with her children’s four fathers in the past, she says it now works surprisingly well. “We’re all really good friends, everybody is very casual with everybody else.” She doesn’t yet live with Yeshua’s dad, American businessman Frank Bonadio, but they see each other most days and spend weekends together. She says he was a strong support both through their son’s illness and her own, despite carrying on rather public rows with his estranged wife, the singer Mary Coughlan, at the same time.
“He’s got two kids as well; their marriage broke up a couple of years ago, and we don’t want to rush the kids into a family situation,” she explains. “We’re just taking our time. Letting all the kids get to know each other better. Plus we need to actually date and court each other. See, we knew we were going to stay together, so we just figured we’d better have the baby now because I’ll be too old in a few years. So it’ll be lovely to go to sleep with him every night, but it’s also nice not to live together, because you kind of miss each other.”
Over the years, the thing that has perhaps been most misunderstood about O’Connor – or most difficult to understand – is her exploration of spirituality, her search for a connection to a higher power. Since this is the theme of Theology, we talk for a while about growing up Catholic in Ireland, but also about her interest in Judaism and the idea of a more direct relationship with God. When she moved to London in her late teens, she met Rastafarians who read the Bible daily, saw reggae as an expression of their faith and were largely against organised religion. She has also studied Kabbalah, spiritualism, Gregorian chant, Sufi poets, and back in Dublin, enrolled in college to study theology. All of this emerges in the new songs, although the one thing she won’t discuss is her ordination as a priest of the breakaway “Independent Catholic” church in the mid-Nineties – “That’s something that’s mine alone,” she says firmly. But when I ask if she will ever preach, she is horrified. “God no! I don’t believe in preaching.”
If she calls her new album religious music, she explains, it is not because she was trying to convert anyone to her point of view, but because she was striving for the kind of feeling she once got when singing in the church choir as a child. “It’s a very gentle thing. I guess the best way I can describe it is total hippy talk, really. It’s as if you had a big warm belt of air around you. Rock’n’roll music is great, but you’re giving it out. When you’re doing this, you feel like something is actually coming into you, nurturing you.”
There are two versions of the songs, on separate CDs: the Dublin sessions were mainly recorded in a flat she rented close to her house, with O’Connor accompanying herself on acoustic guitar; the London sessions have been given the full studio treatment by R&B pop producer Ron Tom. What unites both versions is that they seem to be coming from a place of peace, rather than anger: they are songs for meditation, for contemplation, making full use of her pure, strong voice. “I wanna make something beautiful for you”, she sings at one point, and though the album is far from perfect, she largely succeeds.
It won’t be a huge hit, and O’Connor doesn’t expect or even want that. She talks happily about promoting it until October, then retiring back to be with her family, to write new songs and plan what might come next. She can do this because this time round she has kept control, financing the recording herself and licensing the album out to record labels in each territory. The music industry is changing radically, and while CD sales in general are plummeting, it has never been easier for an artist to find a niche and make a living by speaking directly to their fans. There’s still a place for her songs of quiet beauty and passion, and perhaps Sinéad O’Connor finally has found a place where she can be at peace.
“I love being 40,” she said when we were talking about her new maturity. “It’s funny because I wasn’t expecting to feel anything about my birthday, I didn’t care about it at all. But you know how people go on about life beginning at 40? That’s how I really felt. I was surprised about that being true. But it really did feel like a new beginning.”
Sinead O'Connor's Act of Love: The controversial singer talks about her new album 'Theology' and why she ripped up that photo of Pope John Paul II on TV.
Interview by Dena Ross for beliefnet
Long before Britney Spears shaved her head, there was Sinead O'Connor. Like Spears, the Irish-born O'Connor has generated her share of controversy. A Grammy Award-winning singer best known for her hugely popular 1990 hit "Nothing Compares 2 U," O'Connor created a furor when she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II on "Saturday Night Live" in October 1992. Although she is herself a Catholic, O'Connor declared that John Paul, who died in 2005, was "the real enemy." Since then, although O'Connor has put out a number of records since her breakthrough 1990 album "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," she has not had enjoyed continued success in the United States. All that may change, however, with her new release, "Theology," a two-CD set consisting of an acoustic and full-band version of 11 songs, most written by O'Connor herself, and based on passages from the Old Testament.
O'Connor recently spoke to Beliefnet about her fascination with the Rastafari movement, the other religions that appeal to her, and the problems she has with Catholicism.
You've had a very interesting faith journey. How do you define your spiritual life now?
Well, I would consider myself Catholic, by birth and by culture and by blood. But I'm extremely inspired by a number of other religious traditions and also extremely inspired by the Rastafari movement.
What do you identify so closely with Rasta?
What I admire and love the idea of is that they see themselves almost as soldiers for God. They have this concept of the idea of rescuing God—from all kinds of situations--and they have a tremendous excitement about God. They use music as a priesthood, and that's very appealing to me. I was interested in them because they were the first people I learned from that God and religion are two different things. I admire them and the idea of God needing to be rescued, from religion, for example.
Are you more of a God person or a religion person?
Well, I would say much more of a God person, but I love religion. I've been studying all kinds of religions since I was a child, literally all my life. I adore religion and love it. Obviously, like anything, it has all sorts of negatives sometimes, as we all do. But, I'm much more of a God person.
Are there any other religions or religious traditions that you embrace?
I wouldn't necessarily say I embrace, but I'm inspired by Hinduism, and Judaism.
What do you like about those traditions?
Well, in the Hindu tradition I love a couple of things. They have a completely different way of thinking than we do on this side of the world. They turn your head upside down when you get into their way of thinking. They have the tradition of yogis— these guys who, through meditation, can transport. That's kind of incredible. Another thing I love about them is that they often portray God as a female energy, and that's obviously interesting to any woman—the idea of the symbols for God's being allowed to be female. Also, the Vedas, their main scriptures, are just so colorful and so dramatic. They're kind of like the Old Testament, but it's all love and peace.
And I love the Sufis for the same reason, because I think they're pretty much the esoteric side of Islam. And the whirling dervishes. They are Sufis, and they have this thing that they call "God the Beloved," and this tradition of the most incredible kind of religious poetry, this kind of ecstatic poetry. My favorite is Hafiz. He writes this poetry about how he's so excited about God that he keeps chucking himself out the window and breaking his nose. They're crazy, ecstatic kinds of guys who are just completely in love with God.
You mentioned that there are positives and negatives with every religion. What do you think are the biggest problems with Catholicism?
The Rastas, interestingly, call Catholicism "Catholischism," which I think is funny, in a way, but it kind of paints a pictureof what's going on. There are roles within [the Catholic Church] which create separation, segregations, which I don't think are helpful for the church and I don't necessarily think are helpful for God. [But] there's a fine line because there's a lot that’s brilliant about the Catholic church. It's a beautiful religion— there's no getting away from that. But I think the boundaries are unclear sometimes, and that sometimes religion doesn't understand that God and religion are two different things.
Sometimes God can be almost a hostage—not just to Catholicism but to other religions—and kept behind these walls of prejudice, which keep God in and keep people out. Sometimes the hierarchies can be, perhaps inadvertently, in a situation where they are dictating to God. And that's contrary to even a three-year-old's knowledge of God. God loves everybody equally. In lots of religions, including Catholicism, there are people who are deemed less entitled to God's love than others. It's bad for business, and I wouldn't like to see the baby getting thrown out with the bath water, which is what I think is happening. Catholicism is really on the decline, certainly in my own country [Ireland].
Almost all of your songs on your new album "Theology" are based on Old Testament scripture, not New Testament. Is there a reason for this?
It's really that I love the Old Testament. Since I was a kid it was my particular area of interest. I love the New Testament also, obviously, but I suppose, from an artistic point of view, if you're going to write songs, the Old Testament is a little more artistic, very poetic, very dramatic, very emotional. It contains within it a whole lot of songs, not only in the Psalms but in some of the books. It's just more conducive to songs.
Is there a part of the Bible that you resonate with most, that you go to for comfort or inspiration?
My love is the books of the prophets. Particularly I love Isaiah and Jeremiah, but Jeremiah would be my favorite, above all. So, I'd read [Jeremiah], and just the language and the place it took me to would make me forget about anything that might be on my mind. It is a beautiful book.
You've said that your new album is "an attempt to create a place of peace in a time of war" and that it was a response to what was happening in the world after 9/11. How did 9/11 personally affect you?
I don't think there was a person on earth who wasn't extremely affected by it, obviously some much more than others. But that day did change the world—everything changed. Now, that act [the massacre] was performed by a small minority of people who claimed to represent a particular theology. And in doing what they did, they very badly misrepresented their religion and their theology, and more importantly, they misrepresented God. Obviously, it doesn't need to be stated that anyone who believes in God would never do such a thing.
And anyone who says they're a Christian doesn't send bombs to kill anyone. The world has become a very frightened and frightening place. The existence of war is proof of the absolute lack of contact with God, and that is something I see as having got a lot worse. We're all affected by what happened on Sept. 11 because all over the world there are countries at risk because of involvement in the war. In the case of the British people and the American people, they can't walk down the street without being frightened, with very good reason, that something dreadful might happen.
In the case of Britain, they've had [the violence]. A bunch of bombs went off [in London in 2005] and killed a lot of people and caused a lot of pain. If [the government of a country wants to go] to war, the people of any country should be asked and polled whether that is what they want, because they're going to be at risk. That's what has happened since Sept. 11--people all over the world have been put into a lot of danger by both sides, by Islam and by Christianity. I suppose musically that's what I'm saying-- that behaving like that, they've both misrepresented their God.
A Christian is supposed to say "What would Jesus do?" Jesus wouldn't be killing anyone and sending bombs on anyone. I do understand, of course, that people have to be protected. But while protection is going on, at the same time there should be Christian negotiations going on to see how can these things be fixed with love.
I suppose all of us are complicit in what's happening if we are doing nothing at all about it. All I can do is make records, and I hope this record would make someone think that perhaps God is not an angry, punishing, warmaking God and is in fact a gentle and compassionate God who actually is upset at the loss of us.
Where do you find God the most?
Everywhere. Everywhere, really. I don't think there's a place God isn't.
Your new song "Something Beautiful," is a prayer to God. What are you praying for?
The song was a prayer to be shown how I could go about making this record. I knew I wanted to make the record, and I knew which scriptures I wanted to use, but I was thinking, "Oh, my God, how am I going to do this? Will I be able to do it." It was really a prayer explaining what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it and in a way saying, "God, listen, I'm going to do this, but I'm not going to disrespect you or mess you about," and "Here's an example of what I'm going to do. Give me a hand to do the rest."
How do you feel about the current pope, Benedict XVI?
I don't know anything about him, to be honest. I actually couldn't tell you anything about him. I don't watch television because I've got four kids and they have the TV on the the whole time watching kiddie programs until 9 o’clock at night, so I don't get to see much of the world.
When you left the music business for a few years, you said you wanted to rejuvenate and spend time raising your children. How did you rejuvenate? Prayer, meditation, yoga?
Mainly looking after my children. I got rid of all of my instruments. I didn't even keep anything to do with music in the house. That was great--I just forgot all about music. I went to counseling, actually, for a couple of years, and that was great, in terms of just getting to know oneself.
What songs do you resonate with most off the new album?
What about it do you identify with so much?
It's the words. It talks to me about stuff like Sept. 11 and the situation we're living in now: "He frustrates the plans of nations and brings to nothing the designs of people." It's a very magical and powerful scripture.
Do you regret ripping up the photo of Pope John Paul II on "Saturday Night Live" in 1992?
No, I don't. Sometimes when you love a thing, such as the Catholic Church, it's really like a parent. Sometimes we want to challenge the people we love, and sometimes we want to rattle the bars because we see them going down the drain unless they face particular issues. And they may not want to face those issues. For example, the issue of sexual abuse by priests within the Catholic Church.
At the time that I did that, in Ireland—which was the first place where people began to come out and say that [molestation by Catholic priests] had happened, ten years before it happened in the States—the families of the victims were being silenced by the church, and the church wasn't able to face what had happened. Instead of facing it, they were trying to silence everyone.
Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't actually an angry act, although I can see, of course, why people would think it was. It was actually an act of love.
Love for the church?
Well, no. You see, I'm a God person—so an act of love for God, actually. But, also an act of rattling the bars of something that I do love, but I don't love it as much as I love God.
Sinéad's quiet return
The former pop star is mounting a spiritually informed, low-key comeback.
Ben Wener, for the Orange County Register, Sunday June 24 2007
Tuesday night, at the tiny, cramped Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles, Sinéad O'Connor gave her first SoCal performance since her brief appearance at 1998's Lilith Fair at the Rose Bowl. It was a loose, subdued affair, the Irish singer-songwriter, flanked by a cellist and a guitarist, starkly delivering thought-provoking songs from "Theology," her new double album that arrives this week.
Half of the release comes from acoustic sessions in Dublin, where she lives. The second half, recorded in London, consists of much of the same material in mild pop arrangements. And all of it, save for nods to Curtis Mayfield and "Jesus Christ Superstar," stems from Old Testament scripture, as filtered through O'Connor's post-Catholic, heavily Rastafarian sensibility.
It won't rocket up the charts like her music once could. Yet "Theology," like its predecessor, "Throw Down Your Arms" (a 2005 tribute to Jamaican artists), nonetheless solidifies the return of one of rock's most potent, if intensely idiosyncratic, voices. Consider it a stepped-up continuation of her quest for spiritual enlightenment through making records, the sort of path one finds Van Morrison, the former Cat Stevens and very few others treading.
O'Connor, you'll recall, burst into global consciousness 20 years ago with her dramatic debut, "The Lion and the Cobra" (an Old Testament-derived title). It instantly aroused critics while, in the press, the unrestrained O'Connor challenged (and alienated) her audiences via honest but controversial remarks. By the early '90s, flush with the success of a No. 1 single (the Prince-penned "Nothing Compares 2 U") and the widely acclaimed album "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," she was poised to become one of the most influential figures of her generation, an icon who could go beyond mere femme-rock and touch souls in ways Dylan and Morrison had.
Then came infamy: that "Saturday Night Live" appearance in 1992, when she concluded her performance of Bob Marley's "War" by tearing up a picture of the pope while saying "fight the real enemy." O'Connor wisely stopped talking about the incident long ago – in 1997 she labeled it "a ridiculous act, the gesture of a girl rebel." But that and one too many middling albums sent her career spiraling. By the time she was ordained a priest in a radical Catholic offshoot in the late '90s, even ardent fans had stopped caring.
Soon after, O'Connor stopped caring as well, announcing her retirement from music in 2003, with plans to teach religious school to young children.
Yet, quick to change course as she often has been, instead came the rejuvenating "Arms," and now "Theology," which relies heavily on the grippingly hushed feel of O'Connor classics like "Black Boys on Mopeds" and "The Last Day of Our Acquaintance." Both albums, she says, are in part an attempt to inspire people to peacefully protest the Iraq war and, more importantly, "save God from religion." Sample lyric from "Psalm 130 (Out of the Depths)": "It seems to me You're hostage to those rules that have been made by religion and not by You."
I sat down with O'Connor the day before her L.A. gig at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood. It was the first time she had been to California since the death of her locally based manager in 2001. "I arrived back home the morning of Sept. 11. I haven't been here since."
Now 40 and a mother of four, she seems content, and far less humorless. Her hair is still buzz-cut close, with flecks of gray near her temples. Smoking American Spirit cigarettes while lounging barefoot in a flowing, almost Indian outfit, she's still the epitome of androgyny, her beaming eyes and shy smile somehow not quite connected to the manliness she otherwise embodies.
ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER: Only a few years ago you had announced your retirement. What prompted that? What changed your mind?
SINÉAD O'CONNOR: I felt unable to carry the weight of the prejudices out there about me. I would see my name in a newspaper somewhere and get labeled this or that, but it wasn't me they were really talking about it. I had to discern my own identity. I came out of it really to spend time just being a regular person, look after my kids full time.
I was actually thinking of getting a real job. I got rid of all my instruments, didn't even keep a guitar. Bought a bungalow. Cooked a lot of meat. Got very fat. And I started to say to my family and friends, "I think I'll get a job." My kids all roared laughing at me. Nobody took me seriously.
OCR: What were you going to do?
SO: Housekeeping. I'm very good at cleaning. It was a bit mad, but there you go. But then my friends started to say to me, "You know, you're completely mental if you think you're not gonna make music. Who the (expletive) are you kidding?"
My father was one of them. He kept saying, "Can you go back and look at the reasons why you wanted to be a singer in the first place? Go back and retrace." And when I did I realized that actually it was religious things that made me want to be a singer. I had been singing in choirs in school. That was when I really first got interested in making this record ("Theology"). I was looking at scripture and thinking I would love to put some of that to music.
So it became apparent that I could get back into music but in an arena that was more suitable to me, 'cause I was really like a square peg in a round hole in the other (pop) one. That arena was something that was feeding upon me, rather than actually feeding me.
OCR: "Throw Down Your Arms" plays like a rebirth.
SO: Yeah, it was a turning point. As I had perceived it, I had left the rock and pop arena and then had wanted to come back in a more … what's the word … "inspirational" arena.
SO: Yeah. I don't necessarily like to use the word "religious" because it can put people off.
OCR: How do you define yourself religiously now – or do you?
SO: No, I wouldn't. Here's the thing: I love religion. I was born into a very religious society, so it's part of my DNA, you know? I admire a lot of different religions. But I think religion has weaknesses – the chief one being that it doesn't understand that it is not God a lot of the time. God and religion are two different things, and the blurring of the two that comes from those in power stems from the fact that they don't seem to know themselves that boundary – that there was a God before religion. There is a God despite religion, if you like.
In a lot of religions, rules and regulations have become kind of like walls. God gets held behind them, and the religious people say when It can come out to love someone, and when It's got to go back in and not love someone – which doesn't make any sense, if you understand that God loves everybody unconditionally.
So consequently a lot of people are rejecting the idea of God at all, or rejecting the idea of any kind of spirituality. They're throwing the baby out with the bathwater, if you like. God is underemployed, when there are a lot of problems in the world that could get fixed very quickly if people actually believed in God. I know that sounds very childish.
OCR: But can belief in God alone change anything?
SO: See, I wouldn't even talk about belief in God being the thing that changes things. Asking is the thing. I do believe a whole lot could be changed if we were to ask God to help. But because of religion, people often don't think there is a God – therefore they don't ask.
OCR: But some would say that those who are creating war, often in the name of God, also ask God for help.
SO: Well, yeah, but you know, to me, those people are (bleeping) completely blaspheming. … I reckon – and I know this is harsh – but I really think it's a crime, and it should be an actual listed crime, for anybody to make war or violence and claim God supports it. A Christian is someone who is supposed to ask themselves at any given time: What would Christ do? Christ wouldn't be bombing people.
Look even at the theology of the Crucifixion, for example. These warmongers say they're Christians. Well, look at Jesus: He knew that the Romans were coming to kill him. But he didn't set out to kill them. He could have gotten all his mates to go around and chop their heads off. But he didn't. These people claim to represent a particular theology they don't even understand. And it's treason of the highest level, because it's bringing God into disrepute.
OCR: How could that change?
SO: Well, I'm just a bug, you know. I'm in no position to know, and I can't do anything really to save the universe or change things greatly. But what I can do is make my own expression of how I feel about it, put forth my response to things, which we all need to do.
I think people need to understand how to protest, you know what I mean? We are all complicit in what's happening with this war because we're not protesting against it. Partly because people are afraid – will people get the (crap) kicked out of them if they do protest? Partly it's because of the contradiction that can enter into it – if you're going to protest against war, there's no point in doing it angrily.
So I think people are frightened – frightened of Bush, frightened of Blair, because they are running their countries almost like police states. When those two guys shift off the face of the Earth, I think people are going to be more likely to feel safe in expressing themselves. But again, we're all complicit in it. None of us have a right to complain about it if we're not doing something about it. And I include myself in this. I'm sure I should be sitting out in the streets as much as anyone else should be.
OCR: Last time we spoke, a decade ago, you mentioned you felt people had begun to see you not through media portrayals but strictly through your music. That owed a lot to you withdrawing from the spotlight. The lack of attention now – does that hamper your ability to have your message heard?
SO: No, I think possibly it can help me reach people even more, because I was the type of person I was while in that (rock) arena. I think I might be taken more seriously, because I'm not a Paris Hilton type. Having said that, I like Paris Hilton. I wouldn't want to get involved in the bitchery that's going on at the moment. I just thought it was disgusting, everybody laughing at her going to jail.
But because I'm perceived – and for once it's an accurate perception – as someone who rejected the pop stardom thing … and I don't think there's anything wrong with that, the pop world. It's probably much more valid to people than what people like me do. At the same time, say if Christina Aguilera made a religious record – people might not take it quite as seriously as something from someone who has actually stood for something other than fame and fortune over the years.
That's also why I stuck to the Old Testament for this album. In terms of religious music, there's a terribly spider-web-thin line between corny and cool, and you've got to try to stay on the right side of the line. You have to be clever about it.
SO: Well, one way is avoid the New Testament altogether, because unfortunately the J-word is off-putting to people. I do have a massive love of that energy – but I'm not stupid. If you don't want to send people running, you have to be aware of those prejudices.
OCR: But do you really think God can be saved from religion?
SO: I do, actually. I think it's something that's beginning to happen slowly but surely. It may not be obvious to people that that's what's happening.
But the real question is, after God's been saved from religion, can religion be saved from religion?
OCR: Sometimes it takes catastrophe to trigger such changes.
SO: Well, I have a feeling that when Bush and Blair get out of office, there will be massive changes. I think at the moment people feel really powerless, but in some ways there is a growing group who remember that the darkest hour is before the dawn. What we see going on in the world, people aren't going to stand for it, by the time this war is finished. People aren't going to put up with it – unjust war, unprovoked war. People are not going to elect people who are going to make war. I really believe that.