- 04 Nov 22
35 years ago today, Sinéad O'Connor released her debut album, The Lion And The Cobra, via Ensign and Chrysalis Records – featuring the singles 'Troy' and 'Mandinka'. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting Molly McAnailly Burke's classic interview with the legendary Irish artist, first published in Hot Press in the '80s, ahead of the release of The Lion And The Cobra...
It's a rainy day in London. Sinéad O'Connor's recording studio is hidden somewhere in a forest of council flats in the southwest city. I've woken her up ta the ungodly hour of half ten, and arrive to find this little bald creature slaving over a bowl of cornflakes and a cup of instant coffee. She's wearing a skimpy summer garment like a child's nightdress though the wind and hail is lashing outside. The complains about being cold. I was certain a nice, woolly Aran jumper would have been out of the question.
"My father has a really great tenor voice and I think always wished he'd been a singer," reminisces the wise old crone of 19. "He's from Crumlin and had a lot of old-fashioned Irish songs which he used to teach us, then we'd sing into a little dictaphone machine. He still has the tapes!"
It appears Mr O'Connor was courting disaster. Sinéad began making musical contributions to In Tua Nua at age 14, and after many unsuccessful attempts to keep her at school, including a stint incarcerated in Waterford boarding school, she placed an ad in this here paper looking for a band to join. She met Columb Farrelly of Ton Ton Macoute and began gigging regularly, never finishing school. It was a hell of a risk.
Sinéad wishes to stress that her relationship with the Ton Tons, while still presumably amicable, is finished in the musical sense. They are Columb's band, the vehicle for Columb's songs. "It got too heavy after a while and wasn't fun for me anymore," she explains. "We started arguing and soon I just wanted to go off and do my own thing - I just wasn't enjoying myself. Their reasons for being musicians and mine were just different - Columb wants to put forward his views of the world in a way which I respect in some ways and disrespect in others. He's into witchcraft and that completely freaked me out. I'm a singer who likes to have a laugh, to say what I want to say in a nice way, to have fun, to use my talents to please people."
If I can read between the lines of what was probably a rather uncomfortable story, it appears Nigel Grange of Ensign records encouraged Sinéad to part company with Columb's band. She got her own deal with Ensign a short time later and there were accusations that she had used the Ton Tons to launch her own career. Sinéad, however, claims this wasn't true, that she had given her notice to Columb several months before the deal. Hopefully it's all beer under the bridge by now. Sinéad bunked out of Dublin nearly two years ago and shows no signs of regretting her decision. Her album comes out on the first of the year.
She was no dummy when it came to chatting up the right people, and seems to have an endearing way with older men. U2 accountant, Ossie Kilkenny, introduced her to Bono, who introduced her to Fachtna O'Kelly, managing director of Mother Records and now manager of unmanageable Sinéad O'Connor. Sinéad adores him. "He's a very forceful kind of bloke - but not in a bossy way - he's really thrown himself into what I've been doing - he's insistent, and knows what I need and what I don't. I'm pleased that I met him - if I hadn't found the right manager I think I might have gone astray a bit."
"I love attention," bubbles Sinéad, as if admitting a sin. "When I came over here I was totally green. I'd only ever been singing for fun. But I'd like to stress that for bands in Dublin who are trying to get a deal, it's important that they try and instil more interest in British record companies. That doesn't necessarily mean moving over. It's just that the Dublin music scene can be very absorbing and if you want a deal you should break out of that. People don't try because they're frightened - I know I was terrified. I advise bands to demo a lot and keep sending out tapes to record companies, there's currently a lot of interest in Irish bands and people should take advantage of that. Sometimes you need to be cheeky, even rude to get anywhere, you have to force yourself on people. If you want something, ask for it. And ask the person directly. If I wanted Bono to do something I'd ask him out straight, not wait for my manager to do it. There's no point being scared. It's not rude, and I don't think people like Bono think it's rude either."
She burbles on like a bottle of Ballygowan, with indefatigable self-confidence. "You're going to die someday - so if you're any good, why not say it? After you've sent out demos, chase them up by asking for advice, what the person liked or didn't like about the material. Then they get to know you after a while. Ireland is a self-conscious country. I was that way myself for years, horribly so. But as long as you don't hurt anyone, or walk on them or stab them, do exactly what you want to do."
The band, you'll be surprised to learn, are five male musical veterans with a good few years on Sinéad. The drummer is John Reynolds, the keyboardsman Michael Clowes, Rick Finley does percussion and guitarist is Rob Dillon who used to play with Japan. Someone named Spike she describes as totally crazy and plays everything. "They've all been around for a while but they aren't fuddy-duddies - they're like my big brothers and they're all mental. You should see some of the antics that go on around here, food fights, the lot. The music is serious but we don't let it drag us down and make life serious as well."
Sinéad has a voice and vocal range that is absolutely haunting and one could safely say a future of mega-bucks if she chose the disco route. The low tones rasp with lust and the high tones would lure sailors to their doom - she uses a yodel type device to flutter between them. You'll need no convincing that it's top of the line.
What about the material? "I can honestly say that it isn't like anything else," dares Sinéad, though perhaps some of my ageing colleagues would suggest comparisons. Violins and synthesisers cavort in programmed rhythms, lyrics meander through atmospheric fantasies, and Sinéad tries her style on a variety of approaches.
"I admit it's a schizoid kind of sound," she ventures. "There'll be a couple of waltzes, a disco track and some heavy rock stuff mixed in with a Celtic sort of sound - operatic, you could even call it. It isn't shocking - it's emotional, heartrending, exciting."
Old friends come out for the tease. Babs Wickham slags the disco, 'put 'em on me' track as the Sam Fox number, but Sinéad defends herself with humour. "It's a tongue in cheek song about sex, basically - like when you meet someone first and you're just sort of lusting after them - it's called 'I Want Your Hands On Me'."
Hmmph, says I, the things young people can get away with, knowing a few poor souls who have been barred from the Pink Elephant for less. Ah well.
Most of the songs are more serious, however. One is considered by Sinéad to be typically Irish bordering on folk - it's called 'Jackie' and is about a fisherman drowning in the Aran Islands. There are also a couple of religious tracks. "Not the 'I Love God, Man' type of thing," she explains, "I'm not especially religious but there are certain aspects of things I read in the bible that strike me as very moving and inspire me to build a song around. One is called 'Sit Easy Beside Me', based on the line 'I made a promise to my servant that I would not let him die.' It's my emotional interpretation of the line."
Is she steering clear of lyrics of the occult type after her experience with the Ton Tons? I wondered if the concept of witchcraft offended her own religious perspective.
"I don't mind what people dabble in - it isn't necessarily wrong, but in my experience when people get into magic they become obsessed - their whole lives, even their music gets overrun with it. I believe in something I call God - something out there - but I wouldn't even try and say what I think it is. I haven't a bloody clue and I'll only find out when I die. I believe that heaven and hell are situations on earth that you create for yourself. I certainly don't believe that anyone is controlled by spirits or the devil or anything - that's bullshit. I believe everyone on earth is put here with a choice of going up or down and that everyone is in control of their own life."
She sounds almost unrealistically optimistic. "I'm not saying I don't have bad patches, but I know I'm in control because I can talk myself out of them. Believe me, I worry constantly. It keeps my weight down!"
Slight, she is, though with an athletic structure indicating advanced tom-boyish horseplay. Her body hair has been painstakingly removed leaving an alabaster glint on the delicate calves that disappear disconcertingly into Doc Martens. Everybody one earth wants to know about the drastic haircut.
"Actually it was something of an accident," she admits. "I went on holidays to Greece and had my hair dyed black at the time. It was starting to grow out and I went to an Italian barber and asked him to remove the dyed bits. He didn't have a clue what I was saying and just shaved away. I loved it and haven't looked back since. The record company loves it too - it gets a laugh."
Is the stage image different to the girl herself? Not at all, she hopes.
"I don't dress up for the stage - what you're seeing now is the whole Sinéad. I like trousers but with the skinhead there's a danger of looking too much like a member of the National Front and understandably people get afraid. With the thin little party dresses I'm sweet in the middle which looks pretty good with the Docs. I'm aware this image mightn't go down so well in Ireland where people aren't used to skinheads, but I'll chance it."
Sex? As to dragging it into stage imagery, she doesn't think it's for her. "I think I'd look silly on stage feeling my tits," she giggles. "Not that I'm a raving Catholic or have anything against people who do. I don't really feel I need a high profile sexuality - I know I'm a woman and don't need to flaunt it. Madonna's probably the only one who does that business properly, and if she fucked her way to the top, more power to her for that. I admire that aspect of her because she doesn't let anybody get it in first. But I'm not a pop singer, after all, I'm only 19 and it's just as well people look at me and say, 'doesn't she look funny.' They'll laugh, they'll think it's sweet, and that's good."
As to Sinéad's own taste in music, certain friends think she's almost obnoxiously eclectic and sometimes digs up real schlock to beat other people with. She claims herself to like everything except Barry Manilow. As to Dublin bands, she feels somewhat guilty that living in London she's cut off from the scene to the extent that she hasn't heard many of the Going Concerns.
"I don't mean to sound patronising at this stage in my career, but I feel I should know more because I hope someday to be in a position to help out Dublin bands the way I was helped by Bono, Ossie and the like."
She likes thinking of Ireland in romantic terms so that she doesn't get physically angry over the influence of religion. It's easier to do when you don't live there, I venture. She knows it's true.
"My family are all there, and I'd like to keep Ireland in my heart as a place I love and can be proud of. But to do that I need to distance myself from the politics. The failure to bring in legal contraception, abortion, and divorce leaves the place like it was 100 years ago, and many women - men as well, will be treated like shit because of it. I don't know what the solution is, I just know that these things will never get through, as long as the church continues to have the kind of power it currently does. I love Ireland, but to tell the truth, I don't think I could ever live there again."
As to marriage, certainly Sinéad isn't considering it at present, but likes to fantasise. She sets a far off and ancient date of, say 26, as perhaps a proper time for beginning a family.
"I suppose every girl dreams of a wedding day," she admits. I try to imagine the white dress and veil with the Docs and skinhead. The photographers would mutiny.
"But, well, I'd only marry a geezer if I was totally and utterly crazy about him. Even at this stage I would, knowing that my father would hit the roof. He'd get used to it if he knew I was happy. But you have to be realistic. It's easy to be mad about someone if you only see them a few times a week, but living together may be a different story. You might think the sun shines out of the guy's arse and the first night you sleep together he snores like a pig. There are certain things you can only discover by living together, which I think is totally advisable before anyone contemplates marriage."
But why bother at all, in the end, I ask?
"You're right of course - even for me the very word marriage implies a prison of sorts. I suppose most people worry about making their children bastards, but I don't think that's fair. The only bastard child is a neglected one, deprived of love and affection. I want children myself - lots of them. But right now I have to think of my career.
Music, Sinéad explains is a totally consuming force to which all other aspects of life become secondary. It can have a rough effect on love.
"I've seen it happen in my own band," she explains. "Their girlfriends don't like it. You can get home so late, too tired to shag, to entertain. It's something you have to sort out with your lovers in advance."
Are Irish men particularly difficult in this way?
"Irish men were a problem for me, I suppose - they can't handle their girlfriend wanting an independent life of her own. They don't come out and say it, but you sense it. They get so used to their women traipsing around after them. They're ignorant, but all the same they have an inbuilt sweetness. They wouldn't harm you deliberately, only sometimes out of stupidity. They speak by implication, and you have to learn to take that implication literally."
It is easy to see that certain things have improved for the younger generation of women - even in Ireland. No one's going to take Sinéad for cheesecake, that's certain. All people, but especially women in Ireland she believes, should learn to take bigger risks.
"Ireland's a country where people talk all the time, and gossip. In the music scene you can be overtly affected by that, and then everyone can become too self-conscious. People are afraid to try something in case of what people might say. But you have to consider that what you lose by assertion wasn't worth having in the first place - women especially need to understand this. Anything that keeps a person from discovering their own abilities just isn't worth it. You only regret it in your old age.
"There's only one commandment I really believe in, and that's to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. After that, presumably, it's plain sailing."