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'90s: Lion's daughter
One of Ireland's most revered singers looks back at a turbulent decade during which she was never far from the headlines [pic Myles Claffey]
Sinead O'Connor, 26 Jun 2002
The ’90s began, for me, with the release of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, my second album. On one level, I felt a bit disconnected during that period: I certainly had no idea how much it had apparently gotten into people’s imagination. I knew it was selling a lot of copies, but it didn’t really strike me that it actually meant a lot to people. I was quite surprised, actually. I thought it was okay, but I didn’t really understand how huge everything had got. I didn’t think it was that good.
I was 22 at the time, which is quite young, really. It’s strange: if you’re very young and that kind of, inverted commas, “success” happens to you, it can take you off your little life path, in a way. You become something other than what you know you are. People around you think of you as a star, or, worse, a product, and you’re not really around people who can see you, the actual person. So you lose a sense of yourself. As well, I had come from a difficult background, growing up, and the success of my records meant that my recovery from those things was delayed – until I was about 28, in fact. When there’s a constant pressure to do things – to tour or whatever – your own personality gets put on hold in a lot of ways.
Having said that, that whole period was great. I was very lucky. Not least, because, frankly, to get financially safe was a great thing, especially as a young mother.
I still get told that the video for ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ is a ‘landmark’ in videomaking, that it still stands up. Which is amazing… and quite funny, because the concepts we had for it were not remotely what happened in the end.
What happened was, during one of the setups – we originally had about 15 – all the emotion of the song kinda came up for me. All the associations I had, and all the things I’d been thinking about, that linked me with the song, suddenly came together at once. ’Cos, you know, I guess I’m the sort of performer where the stuff I do is quite emotional and all. I only sing songs that mean something to me personally. I’m not really, if you like, an “ooh, baby baby” kind of singer.
So I was sitting there, doing this one shot, and suddenly all the emotion of it occurred to me, and… I couldn’t help having a little cry for a minute. And in the end, when they looked at the rushes, they decided to just go with that one shot, which had never been done before. But it wasn’t in the plan. Mind you, it wasn’t in the plan to be crying, either.
I think the only thing I wanted more than being a singer – much more, actually – was to recover from the violence of the circumstances of my childhood, and to be a voice for others who had gone through, or were going through, the same thing. So there were a few tiers to the entire ripping up a picture of the Pope on live television thing, from 1992. One of them was, I wanted to rip up my own image as a “pop star”, which is not what I wanted to be perceived as, and which is not what I was, or am. But the other thing, obviously, was very directly linked into all this invisible child abuse, that was tacitly condoned by the Catholic Church. And it was linked to this idea that someone should be a kind of a whistle-blower, for want of a better fucking word.
Sadly, American people are only discovering this history of abuse and violence within the Church very lately. So in that context I can understand why people were so outraged by the whole thing at the time, because they knew absolutely nothing about it. But we in Ireland at that time, did know. And that’s why I did what I did on SNL – I wanted to draw attention to that fact, and to announce, in a way, a sort of war.
As far as I’m concerned, I’m so fucking proud of it. I’m almost as proud of it as I am of either of my children, to be honest.
Musically speaking, I think the most important movement that coloured the ’90s was rap. NWA’s Straight Outta Compton, I think, is the most important album of the 20th century. There was a huge controversy over it, because people didn’t like what they were hearing – but I identified with NWA hugely, because although we were coming at it from different angles, we were talking pretty much about the same thing. These were really young people – Ice Cube at the time was 17, which is fucking frightening – and some of the stuff he was writing was unbelievable. They were talking about the shithole that their lives had been, and what their lives had made them into. For me, that album is the ’90s, and also the fucking 20th century. It’s the most honest and powerful record I’ve ever heard, way above Bob Dylan or any of those records.
Another ’90s band I felt a big connection with was Guns’n’Roses. Axl Rose was someone who had been very severely abused growing up, who had a very traumatic childhood, and I felt I could hear a lot of that in the songs he was writing, and in his voice. And then of course there was Nirvana, who made an impression big time. I mean, Kurt Cobain had an appalling upbringing, his home situation was extremely abusive. He spent time living under a bridge when he was a child. He would be alive today if not for that fact.
I got to do loads of amazing collaborations over the last ten years. My favourite one was with a woman named Karen Finley. She was this mad performance artist who, before I met her, had been escorted out of the city of London by the police for stuffing yams up her hole at a gig. As it turned out, on a personal level, she was really normal – but as an artist she was mad, completely mad. So we did this version of ‘Jump In The River’, with MC Lyte, and it was very funny, cos Karen’s just completely insane.
The other one I loved was the track I did with Willie Nelson: it was ‘Don’t Give Up’, the Peter Gabriel song. We met on the night of the Bob Dylan 50th anniversary show, and before the gig, he asked me would I do the thing the next day. And then, that night, there was all this kerfuffle over the Pope’s picture thing. Afterwards, he came up to me, and all he said was, “I hope you’re still gonna turn up tomorrow.” Which was great.
Another cool thing I got to do, was: I got to play the Virgin Mary in Neil Jordan’s film The Butcher Boy. I got the best line in the movie. “For fuck’s sake, Francie.” I just thought about my son when I was doing it – at the time it was made, I hadn’t had my daughter yet. So I was just thinking about how I would speak to my own son, and how I would relate to my son. Basically, she’s a mother, isn’t she.
I became a Catholic priest in 1999, largely, I think, because I’m the type of woman that doesn’t like to get told what to do by men, and I wanted to demonstrate that we don’t have to take no for an answer. There are an awful lot of women out there would would like to be priests, and the Pope says they can’t be, but there are a number of bishops who will ordain women regardless. And, given that it’s a magic ritual, once a bishop ordains you, you are a priest, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. (And I do believe in magic, obviously.)
Watching Ireland change these past ten years, though the whole Celtic Tiger thing, has been a weird one.
In a lot of ways, we’ve always been materialistic – in the sense that the famine had a huge impact on the psychology of the Irish people. I do believe, still, that we have a sort of famine mentality, insofar as we set great store on material goods. Even among my own girlfriends, we’ll often sit around gossiping about it: so-and-so has a new carpet, and how much it cost. Or, if another friend of mine is going out with someone who is really well off, and all the other girlfriends are jealous, it won’t be because he’s a good man, but because he’s wealthy.
On a very basic level, what I’ve noticed is, the more money comes into the country, the more people are living on the street. Which doesn’t seem to make any sense. If there’s all this money coming in, then where is it going? Who has it?
I had a great dream a while ago which I loved, which was that An Post were using posters of pregnant African ladies to advertise themselves – and that this became the symbol of Ireland: pregnant African women. I just loved that. And I think this whole thing has been a miracle that we should be very grateful for. It’s fucking disgusting to see how against it a lot of people are, and how racist we are. I think we should be so grateful to these immigrants, for deigning to grace us with their presence. We should be on our knees thanking them.