Sinéad O'Connor Biography
It should have been the most joyous small-town-girl-makes-good success story. Before many of her peers had left school Sinead had gone from busking the streets of Dublin to playing the Grammys – something no Irishwoman had ever done. But, far from home and coping with the recent death of her mother, the young singer balked at the sudden success. For her, music was not a ticket to 'the big time' but a springboard out of small-town boredom, a means of expressing her spirituality and a salve for the mental wounds, which were the legacy of a difficult childhood. When her then-manager, Fachtna O'Ceallaigh, broke the news to her that her second single, "Mandinka," has debuted inside the English top twenty the singer broke into tears. She knew the game was up. Music would henceforth be business.
And by January 1990 business had begun to boom like never before. Sinead's cover of Prince's cast off tale of love lost was released and shot straight to number one in every country with a chart. The stark, iconoclastic video for "Nothing Compares 2 U" featured nothing more complicated than a continuous close-up of Sinead's face, one moment twisted in anger the next, famously, crying a solitary tear. It became one of the most celebrated music videos of all time and won Sinead and director John Maybury a slew of awards. The groundbreaking album, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got (1990) featured songs so intensely personal that the record company had initially hesitated to release it. It went on to become one of the most successful records of the decade and influenced a whole generation of artists.
But the mantle of fame continued to sit uneasily on Sinead's slender shoulders. She found the spotlight of public attention oppressive and feared that the continual pressure to tour and promote herself as a commodity would stymie her creative progress. And, so with, as Buju Banton had it, "no regard for who she may tickle" Sinead set about sabotaging her success. Her third album Am I Not Your Girl? (1992), was a deliberate commercial sidestep and in the sleeve notes the singer hinted that her music would soon have a more overtly spiritual feel.
On October 3, 1992 Sinead appeared on Saturday Night Live with a Rastafarian prayer cloth wrapped around the microphone and sang an impassioned acapella version of "War" by Bob Marley, in which she altered the lyrics to make reference to child abuse. After crying "fight the real enemy," she then tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II. This controversial gesture was her protest against the Catholic patriarchy's contribution to the oppressive culture of silence that in turn lead to the child abuse scandals which were to rock America and her native Ireland. Predictably, this principled stand caused her to be pilloried in the press, but Sinead had taken a giant leap towards achieving her aim. She had publicly abdicated her status as mainstream pop star and allied herself with a more spiritual musical tradition.
That tradition was Rastafarian culture and roots music, which Sinead had fallen in love with during her first three years in London. Having experienced the worst effects of Catholic repression in her home country, Sinead wanted to "rescue God from religion" in her own life. Rastafarianism, with its emphasis on the struggle for self esteem and its teaching that God is a living presence on earth, appealed strongly to her as an Irish Catholic female survivor of child abuse. The educational prayerfulness, the controlled anger and the funky bombast of much Jamaican music were something Sinead was already striving for in her own work. Roots music (as distinct from the more commercial reggae which came out of Jamaica in the 1970s and '80s) was deeply religious but with without the po-faced saccharine overtones of many contemporary hymns.
And so, over the next decade Sinead would begin to weave roots influences into her work. Like the great Caribbean singers she would thenceforth sing in her own accent and dialect and incorporate more explicit spiritual overtones into her lyrics. Her next album, Universal Mother (1994) featured "Fire on Babylon," a song that, like the Saturday Night Live version of "War," had as its themes child abuse and the Rastafarian version of an earthly hell. In her live shows during the mid '90s, Sinead began to sing a gorgeously pared down version of Marley's "Redemption Song" and together with Bomb the Base and Benjamin Zephaniah wrote and recorded "Empire," a track heavily influenced by the Studio One greats of the 1960s, which would feature on her Greatest Hits album, So Far, The Best of Sinead O'Connor (1997).
On her next full studio album, Faith and Courage (2000), Sinead married the slack reggae beat, which now characterized much of her production, to prayerful self-penned songs and one Christian hymn, "Kyrie Eleison." Due to family commitments Sinead did not tour in support of this record but appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. This was also the last the last time that she has performed live in America.
By the time Faith and Courage was released Sinead had moved back to her native Ireland where huge changes were taking place. Rocked by child abuse scandals, the Catholic churches numbers were dwindling and there had been a huge influx of African refugees into the country. Many criticized what they saw as economic immigrants, but Sinead saw these new arrivals as an answer to the spiritual vacuum left by the Church's receding influence. On her next record, Sean Nos Nua (2002), she symbolized this converging of the old and new Irelands by taking traditional Gaelic songs and updating them with reggae dubs. She toured in support of this record in 2002/2003, playing to sold-out venues all over Ireland, Britain and continental Europe. Last year Sinead released She Who Dwells in the Secret Place Of The Most High Shall Abide Under The Shadow Of The Almighty (2004), an album of unreleased tracks and collaborations before stepping even further back from mainstream music by declaring she would from only record spiritual records.
Now in 2005, thirteen years after she stepped back from the brink of superstardom, Sinead has finally made the record towards which she has been building her whole career. In April of this year, she traveled alone to Kingston, Jamaica to record her brand new record, Throw Down Your Arms, at the world famous Tuff Gong and Anchor Studios. It's a collection of roots songs, which have inspired Sinead in her life and work for the past fifteen years. The legendary reggae rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare produced the album, and many of the musicians who played on the original record were enlisted to give added authenticity to the sound.
Sinead is already writing her own collection of spiritual songs to be entitled Theology, for release some time in 2007. In the meantime she will put out Throw Down Your Arms this October on her own label, That's why there's Chocolate and Vanilla (a favorite expression of her deceased manager Steve Fargnoli). As she pulls together the threads from over a decade of work, Sinead will this autumn, for the first time in eight years, tour in North America. "The shows are the whole point," she told me. "I can't wait to be onstage with Sly and Robbie. I want to pass on the teachings of the Rastafarai movement, sing the songs and have fun. It will be better than mass."
Some albums, as Van Morrison once said, demand to be made. Throw Down Your Arms is the record that Sinead has been building towards for fifteen years, and perhaps the finest work of career. It is the human voice used as an instrument of spiritual healing. Irish philosopher Mark Patrick Hederman wrote: "Singing is a way of proclaiming a better world, a refusal to give in to the grimness of the past." It is Sinead's hope that people find comfort and inspiration in these songs, as she does, and that, in making this record, she has gone some small way toward rescuing God from religion.