In 1992, Sinéad O'Connor was at the height of her career following the success of "Nothing Compares 2 U" when, during a one-woman protest against sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, she tore up a pic of Pope John Paul II on "Saturday Night Live." Causing an uproar, and eventually thwarting her pop-culture presence (not that she cared), that defiance would come to define the Irish singer's life and career.
Over 20 years later, O'Connor found herself entangled in more controversy – this time with Miley Cyrus, who became the target of the Grammy winner's digs last year. The two famously feuded in 2013 over the music business, when Sinéad warned the twerker that it "will prostitute you for all you are worth" (per O'Connor's people, questions about the viral brawl were off-limits for this interview).
Does Sinéad have balls? Of course she does. Big ones. She talked about that region during our recent conversation, insisting that sex – whether it's with a man or a woman – isn't necessary for making her "dick hard." Still, she lets it all hang out on her 10th studio album, "I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss" (out Aug. 12), candidly revealing that, "Everybody wants something from me / They rarely ever wanna just know me."
The exception: this chat, during which Sinéad recalled her introduction to the gay community – and how that community gave her the courage to be herself, speak out and "take shit."
With regard to this album and your last, "How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?," released in 2012, you've been on a mission to find yourself. What kind of sacrifices and choices did you have to make on that journey to self-actualization?
Gosh, god, I don't know. I suppose it's the same for everybody. It's not like you're suddenly there and you don't have any more work to do; it's a life's work for all of us, isn't it? It doesn't finish until you get to the other side. I think, actually, the things that help you self-actualize are the mistakes – so-called "mistakes." I don't like that word. But the things that you get wrong is how you learn to get things right.
The album's lead single, "Take Me to Church," seems partly inspired by redemption. What mistake in your life was the turning point for you?
In terms of the song, I suppose the whole album really is a set of love songs. They're all romantic songs, and there are a number of characters on the record – three or four different female characters, one of whom turns up a lot more than the others – and there's a certain journey that that character is taking throughout the record. In a way, that's the answer to the question.
The character is someone who believed all her life that somehow a relationship would make everything wonderful, and that glorious man or woman would come along and carry her into the sunset, that everything would be wonderful. Those of us who have been wounded growing up want to create in our adulthood some perfect family situation or perfect romantic situation that we think will give us something back that we wish we had – that can mean we project onto people romantically. You can tell yourself that someone is just the most perfect, wonderful, glorious, la la la la, and they can be the most awful asshole that ever walked the face of the earth – and so could you! (Laughs)
The song is more about the idea of romance, and on the whole album that character in particular takes a journey through being a romantic – a pedestal-putting-upon type of a character – who matures when she sees the reality of the situation as opposed to the illusion. I don't know if that answers the question properly, but I think that's the point at which you can understand yourself – when you see the reality of your situation as opposed to what you want to see, the illusions we all want to see.
It's no secret that you have a history with the Catholic Church. So knowing that, and also being a gay man who grew up Catholic, I can't help but listen to "Take Me to Church" and think it's more than just a song about romance.
The song actually isn't about the church at all. I don't explain what songs are about because I don't think you should. I think you take away from the audience the experience of being able to imagine it's about them, so I shouldn't actually tell you what "Take Me to Church" is about – the reason you like it is because what it means to you. But to me, the church in the song symbolizes relationships. It's a reference back to that old song from "My Fair Lady," "Get Me to the Church on Time," where the father of Audrey Hepburn's character is getting married, and I'm trying to reference that song in my own song, where, really, the character is talking about relationships.
This is a person who, perhaps, has gotten very depressed about a particular relationship not working out because they completely idolize this person, but this person has turned out to be somebody frightening and not someone who could keep the character safe. It's the, "Oh, I want to die because he or she doesn't love me." The character is standing there with the rope around their neck about to jump off a tree and says, "Oh, now hold on, this asshole isn't worth it. Actually, I'm fucking great, and what am I thinking?" So that moment – it's not something that I've been through, but it's something I suppose I can understand when I've been with other people. It's that moment of understanding that actually you're perfectly all right without this person that you've completely idolized and imagined as the most wonderful creature on earth. She understands in that moment that love has to be safe.
Suicide comes up on another song from this album, "8 Good Reasons," except it sounds like it's coming from a more personal place.
Yeah, "8 Good Reasons" and "How About I Be Me" would be the most autobiographical songs on this record.
What are the "eight good reasons" that kept you alive when you almost took your own life? I imagine a few of them were your children.
They are my children's eyes.
During that song, you also hint toward a possible ninth reason. What would that be?
Well… that's a secret.
"I became the stranger no one sees" – that lyric seems especially telling. With that line, what are you reflecting on? When in your life have you felt invisible, like an outsider?
Let me see… I'm trying to find the best way to answer this. Yeah, there would be times that you are invisible – for the most part you are invisible, except when you're making music. It's really a song about being in the music business and the effects the music business – the business part of it – can have on you. It's not about the things that life does to you. There was nothing in my life apart from my job that ever made me want to run for the window. (Laughs) I can actually laugh about it now, thank god, but it's… I've lost my train of thought now. I've forgotten, really, what you've asked me. I suppose it's a delicate subject.
In your life and in your career, have you felt invisible?
Oh yeah. It's a very complicated thing to explain, but the price you pay for being a successful musician is your life, and the more successful you are, the more of a price you pay. That makes you invisible. People project onto you, and they see something that isn't really you, and the only time you're with people who are relating to you and who you really are is when you're with your family or friends, or when you're making music. The business of music is a really ugly business, and it's difficult that the price you pay metaphorically for being successful is your life.
Do you feel like yourself more now than ever?
Yeah, I do – certainly musically. I wasn't comfortable when I was younger for a myriad of reasons, but now I am very comfortable with who I am as a musician.
The LGBT community can certainly empathize with the struggle to be comfortable with who you are. When was the first time you felt a connection to gay people in your life?
I grew up in Ireland and there was no such thing as "gay" in the '70s. I had never even heard of "gay," except for there was a female impersonator who had a big TV show in the '70s, a guy called Danny La Rue. I used to love his show, but I never knew there was any such thing as gay until I was 17.
I moved to London and I had a totally straight but cross-dressing cousin who brought me to all these clubs in London. Hippodrome Nightclub & Disco was the first I went to, and it was full of guys dressed up as the most beautiful looking women – way more beautiful than any other woman was ever gonna hope to look! I thought that was incredible, and then I went to Kensington Market, and I thought, "Jesus, England is the greatest country on earth!" They were selling red stilettos – size 12! – and I was like, "Oh my god, that's the coolest thing ever" as far as I was concerned, because I had come from a completely sexually repressed place – repressed in every way, you know? So I had actually never heard of any such thing as gay until I went to the Hippodrome, and put it this way, I was really jealous that I was never gonna look that fucking good.
But in all seriousness, I'll never forget that moment, walking into that toilet in the Hippodrome and it being a real sort of glamorous scene – real posh toilet, all fluffed up mirrors and cushions like a boudoir type of place. In the country that I came from, you couldn't be you in any way at all. No one could've walked down the street dressed like those guys were. You'd have the shit kicked out of you, and not just for that, but a girl like me would have the shit kicked out of her if she walked around with a short skirt, if you expressed anything different at all. So it was real inspiring to me to see those guys able to walk around and be who they were. I actually find the whole gay community an enormous inspiration to me because, Jesus, I've never taken the kind of shit gay people take.
But you've taken a fair amount of shit.
No, I know, but I suppose in a way what I'm trying to say is that it's easier to take shit when you are inspired by people such as those in the gay community. Because if a guy is brave enough to walk around dressed up as a woman – if a man is prepared to do that – as far as I'm concerned, any of us can fucking do anything. I just admire that so fucking much.
You told Entertainment Weekly in 2005, "I'm three-quarters heterosexual, a quarter gay." What fraction of you is gay these days?
I'm 47 years of age and I hope, like the character on the record, that I've matured somewhat. Here's the thing: I think if you fall in love with someone, you fall in love with someone and I don't think it would matter what they were. They could be green, white and orange, they could be whatever the opposite of gay or straight is. I don't believe in labels of any kind, put it that way. If I fall in love with someone, I wouldn't give a shit if they were a man or a woman.
I can't say the same for myself, because I'm just not into the lady bits.
Obviously, yeah. What I'm trying to say is, I'm old enough not to be going by my dick. It's not about what gets my dick hard or not. I'm old enough for that to not be the point. But I think maybe females are different – what makes us want to have sex with someone is that we like their personality. Guys, whether they're gay or straight, you all just like to fuck and think later. (Laughs)
When you look out currently at the next generation of artists, what do you see? Who inspires you?
I'm old fashioned in that I'm not necessarily terribly inspired by anything that I hear on the radio that's getting made nowadays, and that's partly because I don't bother my arse, which is terrible and inexcusable. I'm so addicted to the kind of music that I like, which is pretty much Chicago blues. I don't hear anything on the radio that gets me as excited as that. Yeah, so I guess I'm a fuddy-duddy. There's nothing. Well, Adele, obviously, she's very inspiring. Amy Winehouse to me was extraordinary, as is Adele. I miss Amy Winehouse enormously; the bar was raised terribly high when she stepped in. I don't know, though… I'm inexcusably uneducated as to what's going on now.
Are you out of touch with pop culture by choice?
It's just that when I happen to be driving around in the car and hear any of it, it's boring to me. I'm not saying that that's a judgment on it – it's as much a judgment on me, perhaps. I just can't find anything that's as exciting as Chicago blues to me. It used to be that people used real instruments, made real music and wrote real songs about real things. People stood up in their jeans and T-shirts and moved people.
When you initially shaved your head, you were making a statement – you were protesting the objectification of women. What does that symbol of identity and empowerment mean to you now?
I guess it just means "me." You know, (for the cover of "I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss") I ventured into the latex and wig territory there for the laugh, and there's been quite a desire on the part of some people that I might continue down that line, but I'm quite pleased that I look the way that I look and I guess I associate the hairdo with me. I don't feel like me if I don't have my head shaved. And yeah, it does mean, too, I can put on a dress and I'm still not selling what everyone else wants me to sell.