- 01 Jan 21
As part of the The 12 Interviews of Xmas, we're looking back at some of our classic interviews of 2020. Sinéad O’Connor was in no mood for pulling punches back in September, as she explained why the success of the Black Lives Matters movement hinged on Trump being removed from the White House. In a searingly honest and impassioned interview, she also spoke to Stuart Clark about her own experiences of racism in the States; the musical heroes that provide light in the darkness; and her spine-tingling version of Mahalia Jackson’s ‘Trouble Of The World’.
"I actually do believe Donald Trump is the biblical Devil, the fucker.”
Sinéad O’Connor can be accused of many things, but pulling her punches is not one of them. What is very possibly the most important US General Election ever is less than two months away and the Artist Also Known As Shuhada Sadaqat is convinced that The Donald is covering up a pair of horns with that Walnut Whip hairdo of his.
“I know this may sound extreme – I don’t really give a flying fuck what everyone else thinks – but I am convinced the man is actually a Satanist,” she resumes. “I’m convinced of it. Klansmen were Satanists, it’s a satanic organisation. Whatever form it may exist in now, I don’t know and I don’t want to know, but its origins were satanic. All its rituals, everything about it. These people do exist. They’re butchers, bakers, candlestick makers. So why not the President of the United States of America? Did you ever read The Master And Margarita?”
I can’t say I have.
“It’s a fucking fantastic book by a guy called Mikhail Bulgakov, a Russian author. The Devil basically appears in Moscow because people start declaring there’s no God. He shows up and causes havoc all over Russia. But Trump is the Devil character in The Master And Margarita.”
Sinéad is quick to correct me when I say that Trump is furiously playing the race card at the moment.
“He’s not playing,” she insists. “Nobody should think he’s doing this just so he can get elected. He is devilish enough that he believes in this stuff. They should have dragged him out of the White House at the point he separated the first child from their parents at the Mexican border. American people; it’s a double-edged sword. Their greatest blessing is their greatest curse. Their national trait is kindness and now perhaps they’re being too kind. They should be non-violently dragging him out of the office. They should be going to him – like they did with Nixon – and saying, ‘You’re not fit for the fucking office, get out. Pretend you’ve had a heart-attack, a series of mini-strokes, whatever you want, but get the fuck out!’”
If Trump loses on November 4, you can envisage a scenario where he refuses to leave the White House and tries with the active participation of his white supremacist followers to engineer a coup.
“Can you imagine if the fucker was in Ireland and didn’t vacate the office?” Sinéad posits. “What do you think would happen? The people would drag him out.”
She’s worried that despite the healthy lead he currently has in most opinion polls, Joe Biden is going to fall at the final hurdle.
“Biden, you know… look, he’s very sweet and nice and all this shit, but in America it’s all about testosterone. The candidate has to have more testosterone than Trump, and unfortunately Biden doesn’t. We’ve got to find out if Kamala does. The person who should have run is Andrew Cuomo. He’s got more testosterone than Trump has ever imagined. But yeah, the problem is that it’s all bombast and testosterone, really, so in that regard it’s not looking good. If I were a Rastafarian, I’d be looking at the Book Of Revelation and saying this guy is the actual biblical Devil. In which case, this fucker’s got another four years in office.”
I’d love to see Melania go rogue and make a “My husband is a fucking monster” speech.
“I think she went rogue with that (I Don’t Care, Do U?) coat she wore,” Sinéad resumes. “Melania has that glint in her eye that looks a bit Satanic to me as well. Ben Carson has that same glint in his eye.
“I want to start something called the Melania Trump Taking It For The Team Award,” she adds mischievously. “She gets the first one, but every year someone else will get it.”
The way Sinéad sees it, the blame for Trump residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue doesn’t just lie with the people who voted for him.
“We all somehow created Trump,” she maintains. “He couldn’t exist without the zeitgeist. It’s a posh word, so maybe I’m using it wrong but a prophet appears in its time. We’re all, in a way, complicit. Musicians are also complicit if they don’t do something. To me, the Black Lives Matter thing has transcended itself. It’s not only about Black Lives Mattering, it’s about needing to get this man out of the fucking White House.”
A self-confessed 24/7 rolling news addict whose drug of choice is CNN, Sinéad was horrified but not surprised as she watched the George Floyd murder and subsequent rioting unfold.
“George Floyd timed with Lockdown and everybody being frustrated and broke, was the perfect storm. The fact of the matter is that he did something very powerful and, again, transcendent in calling for his Mother, you know? That’s what moved me to get involved with this. Before I was annoyed at the telly and everything, but I wasn’t thinking, ‘What can I do?’ even though I can’t do bloody much.”
Originally earmarked for her next album – more of which anon – Sinéad is giving an October 2 release to her version of ‘Trouble Of The World’, an African-American spiritual popularised in 1959 by the wondrous Mahalia Jackson. The song may be decades old but with such lyrics as “No more weepin’ and wailin’/ I want to see my mother/ Going home to live with my Lord”, it could easily have been written in response to the barbarity meted out to George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department.
“I fell in love with the song for the same reason that anyone would fall in love with it,” she reflects. “The lines about ‘I want to see my Mother’ – who doesn’t fall in love with that? So I was as tearful as the next man, frankly, listening to that. Once we did it, I realised it really suits the time now. I was also observing Public Enemy on CNN talking about their track ‘State Of The Union’. Chuck D was saying how important it is that artists get out there and make statements.”
Asked whether she thinks that there are any younger artists addressing the issues as powerfully as Mahalia Jackson did, Sinéad admits that, “I’m too old to know anything about hip-hop anymore. The last time I listened to a hip-hop record was probably KRS-One. I like the kind of Kendrick Lamar stuff my son listens to. But to be honest, it’s very hard to beat Straight Outta Compton. I’m a gangsta – I love gangsta rap. I love Rick Ross. You’re not supposed to like gangsta rap, but, as NWA would say, ‘If it ain’t tough, it ain’t me.’ It’s important that artists of all different races get involved with the Black Lives Matter movement, even if you only base it on the grounds that the white rock ‘n’ roll industry wouldn’t exist without the black and African-American contribution to the genre. We wouldn’t be here. We’re all waving around awards, thanking God for them whereas we should be thanking people like Chuck Berry and Mahalia Jackson. It’s important that we get involved and support them. Madonna, for example, going out in a Black Lives Matter t-shirt; these things have power. To some extent, it’s a bit like getting the atheist to pray for you. It makes more sense because God’s sick of hearing from everyone else all the time!
“My son and I had an interesting chat last night,” she continues. “He was asking me about racism and racists and I was saying that, ‘Thing is, that’s the culture they were born into as babies. They’ve had this shit bred into them. They don’t know anything else. Probably half of them are salvageable.’ I even feel sorry for George Bush Jr. I can’t believe I’m saying that but look at the family he was born into. How can you reject those ideals? So imagine if you’re born the son of the Klansman Chief of the Town? What the fuck are you going to do? You’re going to grow up believing what daddy beats into you.”
Stopping for the first time in around ten minutes to take a breath – nothing, repeat, nothing stops Sinéad O’Connor when she’s in full flight – she laughs and says, “But to answer your original question, every movement needs a soundtrack, right, and the soundtrack for this particular movement has already been recorded by people like Mahalia Jackson.”Sinéad is a subscriber to the John Lydon philosophy of anger, if properly channeled, being an energy that can bring about profound long-term change.
“A lot of young people have been on Lockdown and you have your agitators and it’s very easy to focus on the sideshow, which is violence and rioting. The media and Trump love nothing more than for the media to focus on that, but it’s a tiny minority of people.
“There’s a difference between anger and aggression, which is why as part of the little I can do I want to introduce Mahalia back into the picture. You can be angry – anger is the first step towards courage – but you really don’t need to lose your shit. When you have certainty, you don’t need aggression. I know that in my own life. The only time I’m ever losing my shit is when I’m not sure of my ground. Mahalia and the whole movement of that time were non-violent civil disobedience. It was a time when people were prepared to take bullets for each other. It’s a time when the churches taught, which they haven’t since, people to love and sit in the street with each other. People don’t have that kind of love anymore.”
Sadly, Sinéad has been here before with ‘Black Boys On Mopeds’ from 1991’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got – that’s the album with ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ on it – telling the grim story of two London teenagers who died when the bike they were riding crashed during a police chase. I Do Not Wan’t... itself was dedicated to the family of Colin Roach, a 21-year-old British black man who died inside the entrance of a London police station from a gunshot wound.
“I remember those boys, I remember Colin Roach, I remember Rodney King. There was that awful case of the man, James Byrd Jr., who was tied to a car and dragged behind a pick-up for three miles by white supremacists. I could barely sing my gig that night. This shit has been going on in America for centuries, and since I set foot in London in the middle of 1985. There were riots going on then in Brixton. None of this is new.
“The trouble is that in English and Irish culture, the anger is trained out of us,” Sinéad rues. “It’s not polite to be angry. Anger is looked on as being a terrible thing. It’s very repressed and we need to get over that.”
While Sinéad hasn’t officially released any new music since 2014’s I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss topped the Irish chart and reinvigorated her career everywhere else, last year saw her leak one of the demos, ‘Milestones’, that she’d been working on in Belfast with David Holmes.
After a middle section that reflects on her own personal battles to be heard and treated with respect, its denouement finds Sinéad “driving through the graveyards of Dickson/ Of which there are still black and white ones/ What a thing to happen in the nation/ Even in death, segregation.”
“Dickson is a little town in Tennessee,” she explains. “I often lie when I’ve made albums and said they aren’t autobiographical, and that perhaps they’re ‘faction’, half-fact, half-fiction, but these are very autobiographical. I didn’t mean to write an autobiographical record, I’m just letting the record make itself via-my subconscious.”
So when did this particular trip through Tennessee take place?
“It was when Dr. Phil flew in with his little fairy suit and wand, and whipped me down to this little town,” Sinéad says of the TV psychologist’s very public intervention in the mental health problems she was having in 2017 whilst living in New Jersey. “It’s the diary of my time there. I’m talking to two characters in the song – one of them being Phil and other the guy who ran the place Phil sent me to. Did you ever see the scene in The Simpsons where Ralph, the kid who’s in love with Lisa, has his heart torn apart? Well, that happened to me ‘Driving through the graveyards of Dickson.’ What happened was that I was finally getting out of the fucking place I was put in, not that they were… they did their best, or whatever, I’m sure I was out of order. I’m in a taxi, and there’s only one taxi driver in the whole of Dickson, who’s got a bullet in his fucking head from Vietnam, and he thinks he’s a fine thing because he’s on to all the women. We were passing this beautiful graveyard, a mini-version of Pere Lachaise in Paris, beautiful white stone… and on the other side is the animal’s graveyard with tiny stones and little black, very unkempt graves. So I said to this guy, ‘Oh, is that the animal graveyard?’ and he said, ‘That’s the black folks’ graveyard but I don’t hang out with them.’ And like what happened to that boy in The Simpsons, my heart just fucking cracked.”
It wasn’t Sinéad’s first time encountering institutionalised racism whilst traversing the States.
“I’d be going around stores with Robbie Shakespeare (of Sly & Robbie fame), and people would be following him thinking he was going to steal something, not knowing he’s Robbie fucking Shakespeare and he could buy the whole store. I’ve seen how every time you fill in a form in America for anything you have to say what colour you are. You’re always identified by your ethnicity. I couldn’t believe a human being could think or say what that taxi man said to me. There was only one black girl in the place Dr. Phil sent me to, and I went crying to her a couple of times. I’d literally put my face into her hand and fucking howl crying to her, and she was nearly crying saying she was really moved that I’d chosen to go to her. And I’m thinking, ‘Why is she that moved? She’s a lovely fucking woman.’”
Sínead is also acutely aware of Ireland needing to put its own house in order, starting with the dismantling of the obscenity, which is Direct Provision.
“Just Google the history of Ballinamore and its Syrian refugees,” she sighs. “I’ve never been inside any of these places, but it sounds to me that it’s exactly like what’s going on in Mexico at the border. You can’t invite people into your country to offer them asylum and then not give them genuine sanctuary. That’s not sanctuary. We can do better.”
Amen to that. Whilst this is necessarily serious shit we’re talking about today, let us not forget that Sinéad O’Connor also happens to be as funny as fuck.
When we last met in 2014 she had me howling with her story about Brian Eno unwittingly calling the Archbishop of Canterbury a cunt – look up the Sinéad Human Touch interview on hotpress.com for the full Archbishop of Cunterbury saga – and a couple of days back she ruled Twitter with her #KnittingCompares2U hashtag.
“I have to have something to keep me occupied while I’m in safe social distancing mode after being in London last week shooting a video with Don Letts,” she laughs before extolling the virtues of the British capital.
“I love London. I ache when I’m there because I miss it so bad. I went over I was 18 and lived in it for 17 years, so it was equal lifetimes there.
“Where we were making the video there was totally a buzz,” she says. “What I adore, which I haven’t seen in Dublin, is guys and girls going round with boom-boxes on the back of their bikes blaring hip-hop or roots reggae. Fucking fantastic! What really impressed me was that every fucker over there was wearing a mask. Around Peckham where I was, maybe 2% of the people I passed weren’t.”
How was Don Letts who, incidentally, gets 11 out of 10 in the hero stakes for introducing me to righteous stuff like Dr. Alimantado, Culture, Big Youth and I-Roy during the mid-‘70s when he acted as the middleman between reggae and punk.
“Ah, Don is a lovely man,” she coos. “The kindest man. Like David Holmes. I always say that David’s the sort of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back.”
As soon as Lockdown was lifted in June, Sinéad hotfooted it up to Belfast where Holmes has his own studio – and the biggest record collection you’ve ever seen.
“He sends me records to listen to a lot, and I don’t always get round to listening to them because I don’t want to be influenced to write in a particular way,” she says. “I met David when I sang at Shane MacGowan’s 60th birthday gig in the Concert Hall. He came up to me afterwards backstage and pretty much begged me to make a record with him. We work really well together because I go up once every three months when I’ve actually got a song, and we just bang it down for the whole time I’m there.”
Sinéad has been quite guarded in the past about her writing process, but on a serious roll today reveals that, “I’m very limited in my musical ability, by which I mean I can’t play an instrument well enough to sit… it takes me a long time to come up with songs because, basically, I’ve got two feet for hands and I only know about six chords and I’ve used a capo on those six chords to get a bunch of albums out. It’s quite slow but most of the time I get there.”
In addition to coming up with excruciatingly bad puns, Sinéad has also used her Twitter to flog an old motorbike of hers to Dundalk trad rowdies The Mary Wallopers, and direct her followers to such gems as Marvin Gaye’s ‘His Eye Is On The Sparrow’, Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘This Little Light Of Mine’ and Big Mama Thornton’s ‘Ball And Chain’, which she reckons to be the best live female performance in history.
“About seven years ago, I began to educate myself a bit more, musically. I went on a discovery journey through blues. There are little clips of Willie Dixon and Chuck Berry talking about songwriting. Chicago blues is my favourite because you can dance to it. I don’t really listen to sad stuff if I’m sad, do you know what I mean?"
I do. Another song Sinéad can’t get enough of is ‘Keep On Pushing’, the Curtis Mayfield belter, which fired up the 1960s civil rights movement.
“I love Curtis! Part of the initiation into manhood when each of my sons turned 14 was me giving them a Curtis Mayfield album.”
My first time saying “hello” to Sinéad was in October 1999 when she presented Nina Simone with a Hot Press Lifetime Achievement Award in Dublin. Did she get to pick Nina’s amazing brain at all?
“For all the sins I ever committed, the one thing I’m going to regret is that I had some shit on my mind about a man,” she sighs. “Somebody came down to me and said, ‘Miss Simone is upstairs if you’d like to go and talk to her.’ And I didn’t go up because I was so head-fucked. I wish to God that I had. You know the way they say that when you die, the people you love will come to get you? I have a bunch of musicians who I hope are coming to get me, so I’ve included her in my bunch.”
Of all the idols she’s met in this realm who were the most impressive?
“When I first went to the Grammys, I met Anita Baker who I was so into. She was wandering around with this rose, and she gave it to me and I kept it for ages. I met Al Green who is obviously Jesus Christ. That’s a whole other playlist – I love ‘Simply Beautiful’. The Grammys was also my first experience of meeting Sarah Vaughan. She was a chainsmoker so she was coughing, like me, throughout the soundcheck, and then her performance that night was stellar. So that reassured me about smoking. I met Dizzy Gillespie, and his face went out like a balloon when he was playing. That was killer. Al Green had a shirt on made out of real gold.”
As fab as Anita, Al, Sarah, Dizzy et al were, the person who, Sinéad says, “moved me most” was Lou Reed.
“I knew that I loved Lou Reed, but I didn’t know how much I loved him until I met him at The Who’s 50th birthday,” she reminisces fondly. “I’d been a bit naughty and asked someone to ask Lou if I could sing backing vocals with him. He came in and acting all fatherly said, ‘I hear you want to sing with me. Yeah, of course you can’. I could see his lips moving but I couldn’t comprehend what he was saying. I had to get my friend to hold my hand!
“That was the second time he was extraordinarily kind to me. The first was after the Pope business. I was a bit of a pariah among musicians and artists. I remember going to do the Channel 4 TV show The White Room and everyone was kind of treating me like, ‘Oh yeah, there’s that crazy bitch.’ Lou was on the show too and made a point in rehearsal of coming straight over and hugging me as if we knew each other really well, and saying ‘fuck you!’ to everyone. That was really fucking nice. He’s the person who moved me the most, definitely.”
Coming in a close second are Israel Vibration, a Kingston, Jamaica trio whose ‘Prophet Has Arisen’ was one of the classic reggae tunes Sinéad covered on 2005’s Throw Down Your Arms.
“Their music kept me alive at times when I seriously thought I might have died. Benjamin Zephaniah took me to one of their gigs. I thought we were going for a laugh, which we were, but the next thing I knew I was onstage with the band, holding the lead singer’s hand, singing all these songs that kept me alive.”
Sinéad being Sinéad, she’s also used her Twitter to ramp up her criticism of Trump whilst studiously ignoring the rent a bigot replies – we’re back to that thing about controlled anger – and generally having her say about causes, controversies and people close to her heart. Today’s going into bat is for Adele who’s been lambasted on social media for wearing braids.
“I don’t think it’s fair to call it cultural appropriation,” she ventures. “Adele grew up in areas of London where there are lots of West Indians, and West Indians are very inspiring people. It’s a sideshow; it’s a shiny object. It’s exactly what the Devil wants us talking about because it’s a distraction from the actual issue.
“Everyone on earth shares what’s called the Eve gene,” Sinéad says switching into mitochondrial science mode. “We’re all traceable back to one African woman. So the whole idea of racism is a fucking joke. And Africa is the First World. Inside Trump, in fact, is an African woman. Every time I think about that, I laugh.”
I just wish she’d hurry up and burst out of him Alien-style!
“Don Letts said I’m sticking my neck out doing this because I could be accused (of cultural misappropriation), and it kind of made me snort my tea out my nostrils,” Sinéad resumes. “All of my idols happen to be black rock ‘n’ roll musicians. There’d be no such thing as white rock music if the prophet Chuck Berry didn’t exist and there’d be no such thing as reggae if the prophet Lee Perry hadn’t come along. If you’re going to make the cultural appropriation argument, well then, fuck me, I might as well never get out of bed and sing a song. And I certainly may as well never have sung a Prince song!”
While the recording has been gathering apace – “I was up with David in Belfast the other day, it really is one of my favourite places in the world,” she enthuses – Sinéad still doesn’t know when her new album will be hitting the racks.
“I really want the shit out now,” she sighs. “I slipped out the ‘Milestones’ demo without asking anyone, and that’s not kosher. Everyone’s nervous I’ll do it again because I get very impatient, but I won’t. It all depends on when I’ll be able to go out and tour it.”
Also awaiting a release date is a new memoir, which will probably have one or two people quaking in their boots.
“I used to keep a tour diary/blog, so the publisher has asked me to write it in the present tense, which allows for humour,” she says. “It’s certain vignettes rather than every detail.”
The silver lining to the Covid cloud being that Sinéad will have more time to devote to the Fetac Level 5 Healthcare Support course she’s signed up for at the Bray College of Further Education. Is she excited about becoming what she describes as “more or less a death midwife”?
“Yeah, she says smoking a fucking cigarette!” comes the grinned reply to my final question. “I’m excited but also scared because I haven’t been to school since I was about fourteen. I hope I don’t have a learning disability or something. I think I’ll be fine because I love the subject. This is step one, really. It’ll be three years training before I work in the area I really want to work in, which is palliative care. I don’t know how to use a Word document. I’ve only ever used Apple, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to write an assignment to get the fucking diploma.”
We’re exchanging jovial post-interview good byes when Sinéad gets serious again.
“I just want to say – what’s the best way to put this? – I’m not preaching to the choir here. I don’t want to come across like I’m being patronising. You can’t grow up in an African-American household and not be exposed to people like Mahalia Jackson. My hope is to get everyone else out of their fucking chairs and dancing, which is what happened when NWA released ‘Fuck Tha Police’. We used to jump around the clubs in Stephen’s Green to that. You’re dancing whilst at the same time the message is sinking in. That’s what I’m trying to achieve with this.”