Sinead O'Connor is just being herself
It's evening in Ireland and Sinead O'Connor is sitting on top of a mountain in her little cottage, discussing her forthcoming memoir Rememberings. The book, out June 1, sets to document the parts of her life she can still recall, and makes for a colorful and challenging exposition of her early childhood, growing up amid socio-political upheaval, poverty, and parental separation. O'Connor also writes about her developing passion for music, her discovery of Bob Dylan and Stiff Little Fingers, her quick rise to stardom, and the time she was forced to flee Prince's house. Throughout, O'Connor's approach to storytelling displays both a rebel spirit and her unrelenting lack of shame surrounding her mental-health battles.
O'Connor first made a name for herself more than three decades ago, with her acclaimed 1987 debut The Lion and the Cobra. Following its release, she was heralded as an urgent generational voice — a label she re-affirmed with her next album, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, which turned her into a global star thanks to the Prince-penned "Nothing Compares 2 U." But her predilection for bucking the industry soon came into focus, first with a boycott of the 1991 Grammys, and then, a year later, in which she tore up a picture of the Pope while performing on Saturday Night Live.
That moment on SNL would overshadow her music and life for years to come, and exacerbate the narrative around her so-called rebellious, troublesome behavior. Regardless, O'Connor has continued to record music and speak candidly about everything from pop culture to mental health. In 2007, O'Connor revealed to Oprah that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. By 2015 — the same year she began work on Rememberings — she was in the throes of a radical hysterectomy, which led to multiple suicide attempts.
"The book was finished before the pandemic was even a sparkle in God's eye," O'Connor tells me; she wouldn't work on it again until 2019. Of the four-year gap, she adds, "I lost my marbles. I had to go and find them."
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In the foreword, you note that you lost many of your memories from the early '90s to mid-2000s. Is that a source of frustration or regret?
SINEAD O'CONNOR: It's a source of great pleasure. I was saying to my son tonight that I'm looking forward to the point at which I'm so old and dotty that I don't remember anything. I think there's a very good reason that I can't remember. I joke in the intro that I've forgotten because of all the weed I've smoked. It's not the weed. The ten years after that Saturday Night Live performance, the way that I was dealt with was shocking. It was the fashion to treat me bad, whether you were in my bed, at a board meeting, a TV show, a gig, or a party. Everybody treated me like I was a crazy bitch cos I ripped up the Pope's picture. We know I'm a crazy bitch, but that's not why.
It's astounding that one performance defined your reality for so long.
Yeah and that's why I don't remember; it was a horribly painful time. I don't regret it in the f---ing slightest. I'd do the exact same over again. But it had a huge effect on me in Ireland. It meant you weren't safe going on a date. People would treat you like you were a f---ing piece of s--t. There was also the shock of fame. A person only wants to know you because you're Sinead O'F---ing Connor. People wanna hang out with you because you're famous. Your best friends are stealing off you.
Did it feel like you were two different entities?
In a way, yeah. I had to stop reading things good or bad. None of it was me. It was weird. I was very young. There were f---ing brilliant things about fame but it's a massive identity crisis. I could no longer just be an ordinary girl. I had imposter syndrome. I couldn't understand why people liked my songs. I was a protest singer. It was never meant to happen that I would become a pop star. It was a freak accident. I didn't want to do the things that pop stars had to do to continue being pop stars. It's like dying your hair. You have to keep f---ing doing it.
The way you write about your mother is complex: child abuse, anger, devastation over her death. You also note that you think about her every time you sing "Nothing Compares 2 U." Are you now able to reconcile your twin responses to your mother?
Well, a toddler can't afford to accept the reality of what the parent really is. I loved my mother despite her behavior because I had Stockholm Syndrome, which was a survival mechanism. The fact is that children are very complicated and love is like a planted tree. Nothing stops it. At least that is the case when I love. Sometimes if the person you love is the one hurting you, that doesn't drive away your love for them. That's the way I felt about my mum. I felt sorry for her, to be honest. And a lot of children who grew up like I did would say the same thing.
The picture of the Pope that you tore up on SNL was your mother's photograph. How much of that action was a personal outcry against her?
It was about my country. It was about Ireland as a father figure and the collusion between the Irish faith and the church way before I ever knew about sexual abuse. Faith was the real abuser. The action of ripping up the Pope to me was about the people who facilitate the monsters. The real guilty party are the ones who don't do anything and cover it up. My action was directed at the Irish state, and what the state represented to my parents and their parents — the colonization of my people by the Catholic church to the point where my granny and grandfather would have thought it was a sin to f---ing kiss each other.
Did you feel vindicated when the abuse of the Church was confirmed in the press decades after you'd been crucified for calling it out?
I didn't need vindication. The one who needs vindicating is God.
What do you mean?
God and religion are two very different things. I never let any of the negativity of Catholicism make me think that there was no God. The very purpose of that negativity is to make people think there's no God. They've achieved it so successfully that if you tell people you believe in God they think you're f---ing crazy. I never fell out of love with God. I never intended to practice any religion, but when I discovered Islam [O'Connor concerted in 2018] I found myself home. As a Muslim I still think God and religion are two different things. When you study the Quran, you see that God hates it. Religion is a f---ing tool of the devil as well. It's a smoke screen.
After your parents split, you were looking for a different father figure and you found it in Bob Dylan's music. Did music have a paternal quality for you?
Bob Dylan's did. Strictly Bob Dylan, with flashings of John Lennon, but only the angry John Lennon. Bob gave me permission to be angry because of his song "Idiot Wind." None of us would like to be the person he's talking to [in that]. That's why I love Bob Dylan. He's utterly honest. He can be real f---ing nasty. Most of us try to hide that. Later I got into Sex Pistols, "Pretty Vacant," Stiff Little Fingers, all the punk stuff. But "Idiot Wind" made me want to write songs.
You also write about the first time you went into the studio to record vocals and that your voice had this energy you didn't understand. Were you ever overwhelmed by its enormity?
No, I never thought about it. This morning I was thinking to myself, "Sinead you probably didn't write enough about music in this f---ing book, you know?" Do you know why? I hate [writing about my musicianship]. It's like washing the dishes. I was never overwhelmed by it or gave it a second thought.
Later, you recall a scary incident with Prince — who wrote your No. 1 hit "Nothing Compares 2 U" — in which you say he chased you at his L.A. home. Did you consider not performing the song after that?
No because the song wasn't his, it was mine. It's my song. It never crossed my mind before I met him, or after. I never heard him sing it before I recorded it. I didn't associate it with him at all.
In your early pursuit of a career, you were told horribly sexist things by people in your orbit. Did it take an emotional toll on you?
No it didn't. When it comes to how I look, how I sing, how I talk, I'm confident. I'd be more upset after Saturday Night Live by people saying I was a psycho bitch and not giving me a job. Nothing to do with how I look. We are all a work of art when we step out the door. I never let guys dictate to me about what I should say in songs, or what I should wear, or whether I should cut my f---ing toenails. There was a fella trying to chat me up a few years ago in America and he told me I needed a pedicure. That type of thing doesn't impact me. When people mistakenly believe me to be mentally ill and use that as something to invalidate everything I do, think, say, or feel, that impacts me.
Was that humiliation happening in the early days too?
It began not long after I put out my first single. They wanted to make me look crazy. A newspaper did a story about how I was crazy because I was walking around a hotel in Italy with no shoes on.
Why do you think they were keen to pass you off as crazy?
At that time, rap had just started and the records were being banned left, right, and center: Public Enemy, KRS-One. The media would stick microphones in my face and ask me what my songs were about and they'd try to make out like I was f---ing crazy [too]. I realized I fell into a similar category as these rap guys because clearly I was dangerous. It took me 20 years to figure out why. I found it a compliment, because in those days all musicians dreamed of getting the parental advisory sticker on their record.
Why were you dangerous?
I was talking about things people are not supposed to talk about. Myself, Kurt Cobain, and Roseanne Barr were the first people to come on TV and talk about abuse without [having our faces blurred out]. Up until that time anybody who'd been raped, beaten up, sexually assaulted, child abused, or kidnapped would have been interviewed in shadow like it was something to be ashamed of. They didn't kill John Lennon for nothing. The decade after John Lennon died, everything was fake. Ten years of crap f---ing music. Even Bob Dylan went in his room for a f---ing week, came out and was a different artist. He was still brilliant but he wasn't writing songs that could possibly get him killed. For the next ten years you have Duran Duran, Nick f---ing Heyward, and nothing's about anything. Everybody's safe, nobody's feeling. Then I came along and the songs were bringing up feelings that people were uncomfortable with. I was talking about s--t that's uncomfortable to talk about. And I wasn't in shadow.
Did you feel any kinship with those rappers or Kurt Cobain at the time? Did they reach out?
It wasn't like that. It was so heavy at that time and it was every man for himself. NWA's Straight Outta Compton changed the world. That record gave everybody who was angry about anything a chance to dance around. Me and my mates would scream and shout the lines that were most offensive to women and we didn't give a f--k because it allowed us to be angry. Rap gave people permission to be f---ing angry. In Ireland you weren't allowed to be angry, especially if you were a woman.
But the industry punished you and them for that anger?
It was a question of who was a c---ksucker and who wasn't. How do you control the world? You control young people. How do you control young people? Music. The industry silenced and groomed a generation of children and songwriters by pushing Vanilla Ice, a white artist who was a puppet. They put records out that meant absolutely nothing. Artists wouldn't get on the radio unless they wrote songs about sex, drugs, and f---ing diamonds. Anything else and you couldn't make a living. Some people went the c---sucker way like MC f---ing Hammer. Him and Vanilla Ice were tools of the f---ing devil. They silenced and groomed a generation of songwriters in the same way that Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga do. They've been used by the industry. She didn't have a childhood, did she?
Who? Miley? [In 2013, O'Connor wrote an open letter to Cyrus about, among other things, the risk of the industry valuing sex appeal over talent.]
Yeah. I mean her mother is her manager and lets her go onstage with dollar bills in her mouth on all fours with her f---ing knickers hanging out.
So you don't think Miley and Gaga are empowered…
It would take 100 years to answer that question. But the powers that run this world don't want to be put out of their position. They would be put out if the youth revolted. Music is always under attack. The industry is so frightened of music that they want to silence it. The industry was frightened of me. I was encouraging people — principally women and anyone who was fragile — to not be ashamed, to make the sounds they needed to make, to talk about the s--t they needed to talk about, to be who they really are. There'd been no such f---ing thing as a woman like me. I was this unusual bitch who slipped through the cracks. The industry asked: What do we do with her? Well, she's very strong so we can't kill her. The next best thing is to make it look like she's crazy. We'll hurt her so bad that nobody will want to risk doing anything she did because they wouldn't wanna get the kicking.
You've battled mental-health issues for years, sometimes publicly. In the book, You note a suicide attempt at the age of 33 but don't go into detail. Why?
I would not be able to tell it without breaking the privacy of certain people. I don't want to relive some really f---ing painful s--t. You don't spend all this money on therapy for f--k all. I must be careful. If it were only me, I'd tell you what color s--t was in my knickers, you know?
In 2015 you had a breakdown after your menopause. You filmed an Instagram video at that time that caught the world's attention. Do you regret it?
No I don't regret being myself. There's a thing about singers. We're a different breed. When we go into the studio and sing a song, at first all of us sound like cats being dragged through the f---ing bush, whether you're Barbra Streisand or whoever. We have to go into a studio alone in one room and see twelve people watching through a window while we make fools of ourselves getting the song horribly wrong until we get it right. Offstage singers don't do shame or embarrassment. My job is to be me.
What do you think the music industry could be doing better for people with mental health issues?
Step one: Artists with any medical condition, physical or mental, need to be in a direct relationship with the insurance underwriters for a tour. Not the broker, or the booking agents, but the underwriters. There's a huge scam in the business where booking agents are in cahoots with brokers and pull the wool over the eyes of underwriters so that pre-existing conditions are not declared. When musicians do have something happen — a diabetic episode, or a guitar player breaks his thumb — musicians are not covered and we have to pay up. If an artist is incapacitated and can't perform, they shouldn't have to pay. The insurance should cover it so we don't lose our house if we're too sick to work. Underwriters ought to have access to our medical records and teams before, during and after tours. Not only to protect them but to protect us, which no other f---er would do except underwriters. That's why Amy Winehouse is dead. She kept being pushed out on tour when she should have been in the hospital. I've met several fatherly guys in the UK who were her drivers to and from shows. They all said they wanted to beat the s--t out of her handlers.
Step two: Routing of tours is completely inconsiderate of any person with mental illness. Sleep being the number-one priority. I've often found myself in cars driving overnight on my own straight after a gig and arriving in the next town at 8 a.m. the day of the next gig. If you have any type of mental health condition, the number one thing you need is stability. I have a two-week rule so I won't go out for more than a total of 14 days on any month. Artists who have mental health conditions shouldn't be forced to tour in ways that prevent them from sticking to their medical regimen. I need to take my meds and sleep through the night. Part of my condition is post-traumatic stress disorder. I have fear in my body, so I need things to be very calm before shows. You're the first person to ever ask me this f---ing question and it's a crying shame.
Nobody's ever asked how the industry can take better care of you?
Nobody, in any area of my life. I've been trying to drill it into people for years, saying, "Would you please write the world 'sleep' on the top of your f---ing piece of paper there?" If I were diabetic or had cancer or a broken leg somebody would have asked me this question before this call. And I've been in the music business since I was 14. I'm 54 now. You're the first motherf----r to ask the most important question anybody's ever asked in my life.