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Sinead O'Connor: 25 minutes with the most misunderstood woman in music

Andrea Warner

Sinéad O'Connor is ready to be heard.

Actually, more than that, she demands to be heard. At almost 48 years old, and after three decades in the music business, O'Connor is just now finding her voice and it's a beautiful thing.

Sure, probably nobody ever considered O'Connor a shrinking violet. After all, she did tear up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. And while that got her labelled crazy or hysterical by some, as well as essentially running her career off the rails, there is no arguing that she started an international conversation about abuse in the Catholic Church that's still going on to this day.

O'Connor has always seemed a bold, bracing character, and certainly she's never opted for silence. But that's not the same as truly being heard. That's not the same as being taken seriously. And O'Connor, more than most musicians, has paid the price for lashing out without anybody really listening to what she had to say.

Well, with her brand new album, I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss, streaming right here on CBC Music, O'Connor has made peace with her past and is ready to move forward. She's also stronger, more knowing, and more protective, perhaps, of herself.

But she's just as fiercely honest and self deprecating, too. CBC Music spoke with O'Connor over the phone from her home in Ireland for a candid and emotional discussion about love, men and women, loneliness, self esteem and suicide.

Album cover reads: I'm not bossy, I'm the boss.

Your album was originally titled The Vishnu Room, but you changed it to I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss. Why did the Ban Bossy campaign resonate for you?

It really resonated for me as a female boss within the music business. Musical art is female and male, but we’re treated as though we’re working for the people who are working for us. That is the way it works from the time you sign up as a teenager and acting as a boss or expecting to be treated like one is not encouraged and in fact it’s actively discouraged. That can be exaggerated when you’re female. You can experience not being at all heard or validated as a boss in all kinds of ways. For example, calling up your accountant and asking for documents and they’ll tell you you don’t need them. Or people will try to talk you out of doing internet banking because you might click the wrong button and spend all your money.

People don’t take you seriously and they can utterly ignore important instructions, so when the campaign came about, I was dealing with these issues around that. What happens is when you do act like a boss, you get treated like you’re being difficult if you’re not going on with everybody else’s agenda. Sometimes it might be a disagreement on matters that are of personal principle to you, and that can be a problem for everybody else if they’re going to lose out financially. So I was dealing with issues around being respected as a boss. Although the campaign was aimed at young girls, just as a female boss, I was inspired — actually because of the campaign, I was really able to take my power as a boss and start, for the first time in my life, acting as a boss without feeling bad about it.

I think this is really fascinating because in my mind, I’ve always thought of you, particularly, as this voice of action.

Yeah, but see, that’s the way it is with music: behind the scenes you’re voiceless. That’s the irony. But because of the campaign, I was able to take my voice as a boss and state the way I wanted things to be and I was able to not feel guilty for behaving like a boss.

Why then haven’t you decided to do it alone? You could release your music on your own, you have a pretty big fanbase, you don’t necessarily need a label.

I wouldn’t have the time. If I was to do it myself, I’d have to employ so many people to help me that by the time I was done, I may as well have gone with a record company anyways. So what I do is 50/50 license deals.... This way I don’t have to worry, I’ve got a bunch of people who know what they’re doing. Nettwerk are fantastic, they know what they’re doing. I like to have the support of a team around me who know what they’re doing. Also, I love Nettwerk in particular because they always helped me to make records. They gave me backing tracks, a piece of music to write to, they put me with other songwriters. They’re just human.

How does this new feeling of empowerment make a difference in your daily life?

It actually did! My issue, which I’m sure a lot of women have, was being heard. I couldn’t get heard. You might speak, but you may as well be pissing in the wind...Even with the kids now, I’ll say something twice and that’s the end of it. There’s no more conversation [laughs]. I used to tolerate not being heard, I used to put up with it, but it made me depressed to know that I was voiceless. But now absolutely in no area of my life do I tolerate not being heard. I’ll give somebody two or three chances and then I’ll just walk away and say, "Listen, there’s something wrong with your ears, there’s nothing wrong with me."

That’s such an important thing for people to realize: someone else’s issue doesn’t have to be your own.

No, and I think for females, it’s a huge issue, not being heard. It’s a huge issue. People just dismiss what you say and a man can say the very same thing and everybody will go, "Oh yeah!" But a woman will say it and everybody will ignore it. I think a lot of women will identify with that, just being completely and utterly unheard, and there’s nothing more demeaning to a person than speaking and never being heard.

The first song on the record, “How About I Be Me,” is a nice jumping off point for what we’ve been talking about. In the song you talk about always taking care of other people. Have you figured out a way to create a space for yourself where your needs and desires are met?

Well, I think a lot of women will identify with this, a lot of my needs centre around taking care of other people's needs and desires. I’m happy, well, this is natural, but I’m happy when my kids are happy. My main need is to be a good enough mother and then my own personal, sort of selfish needs, I suppose, get satisfied with music. But then I suppose when it comes to romance, what the song is talking about really is when you’re an extraordinarily strong female, it’s very hard to find a male who’s stronger than you. You’re always going to be in this situation where you’re the mother. The song is really talking about, I think all women, it’s fantasizing about how we all want to be the little woman sometimes, or at least I do.

Even though I’m a warrior woman in lots of ways, I’m also just a five-foot four-inch fragile little woman so I fantasize about the fireman type. You know, the guy who’s going to pat you on the head and tell you everything is going to be fine. When you are so strong, you are like a lioness and in the lioness tradition, they’re the ones who hunt and take care of everybody and I suppose you want a break from that sometimes ... To be fair though, the age that I’ve gotten to, I don’t seek that from romance anymore. I have great friends around me and I have great male friends and I have great males that I work with ... I know I wouldn’t be as strong as I am without the support of these real strong men ... I’m nearly 48, I’ve grown beyond the point of believing or wishing that romance with a man is the ultimate.

Throughout the record, it feels like you really explore all different types of love. You’ve just mentioned that you’re approaching 48. Does love mean something different to you now?

When I was younger, possibly like a lot of people, I perhaps thought that — well, not that I thought, certainly in the age that I was born, females from the word go — in Ireland, the wording is still in the Irish constitution, which says that a woman’s place is in the home. When women got married, they couldn’t work and it was tradition, from the time that you were a small girl, that your whole life depended on marrying a guy and this guy would come along and make everything wonderful and everything would be great and all over the world, that is the condition: marriage and some magic man will come along. When I was younger, I bought into that and I thought that salvation, if you take the world literally, salve, with every wound would come some great romance.

I think, possibly, the most important thing that ever happened to me, even though it was painful to go through, was understanding that that’s not true. If you’re looking for romantic relationship to be your salve, then all you’re going to do is blow it. You should never really be with anyone for any reason other than you enjoy their company. It shouldn’t be because you need anything from them or you need anything plastered over or you need any old wounds fixed or you’re lonesome. You should never be with anyone for any reason other than they make you laugh and you enjoy their company. Now that I’ve grown older, I’m not in a panic. I can just enjoy the company of my friends. I don’t feel like I need to be with a man. I used to go out with guys because I was lonesome. That was not the right reason. As you get older you find healthier ways of dealing with loneliness. And then if you find a guy, it’s because you like him, it’s not because you needed him.

You just mentioned moving away from loneliness. “Kisses Like Mine” is a pretty sassy, funny song and it packs a lot into 2:28. What’s the silliest thing anyone’s ever done to try to convince you to stick around?

To stick around? The funniest thing? Gosh, I don’t think anyone has tried particularly hard to get me to stick around. I think they’re usually pretty glad to get rid of me [laughs]. I think they’re pretty glad to see the back of me, to be honest.

Picture of Sinead O'Connor

You make an impression at the very least.

Yeah, and if there’s a character in one of the songs I can identify with the most, at least romantically the way I am, it’s the “Kisses Like Mine” character. I fall in love with everybody, have crushes on everybody. I can’t possibly be 100 per cent anything because I love everybody. Having said that, I’m not a cheat, I never cheat, but I get crushes on people and then I feel like I cheated. I don’t commit myself particularly or tie myself down. Consequently I stay very well behaved. But yeah, I guess I’m a wild one. Actually, I’m not a wild one at all. I’m not! I’m a romantic. I fall in love with people. Which is probably good otherwise I’d never have anything to write songs about.

All of these songs, there are characters and aspects of you, but in “Green Jacket,” the character talks about being caught between two or three different worlds. Does that resonate for you as well?

Yeah, very much so. “Green Jacket” is actually my favourite song on the record and if you could encapsulate the spirit of the record in one of the songs, it would be that one ... I identify enormously with that character, I think all women would, maybe men, too, but you know when you’re in love with a guy or a girl or whatever, you want to smell their clothes.

I think “Harbour” will resonate for so many people, particularly young women. What were you thinking about when you were writing this song?

I was really thinking about a bunch of songs on the record ... there’s a character in each song and these are a series of conversations she’s having with this man she’s in love with. “Harbour” is just part of the conversation. This character has been a fatherless woman and she’s explaining — what I did, in my mind, is I invented this character and he’s come along and asked her to explain some marks he found on her body and the song is her answer to him, why she has these marks on her body.... What I suppose I’m trying to talk about in this song and within the context of all of the conversations that go on between her and this guy, is about safety. Because this girl didn’t have a father, she doesn’t know how to choose safely as an adult, the types of men she conducts relationships with and consequently has these marks on her body. The character’s learning about safety, culminating in “Street Cars” at the end of the record, she’s learned how to make herself safe in the world of men. She’s a fatherless female, that’s really what the song is about, and that’s not at all biographical, I had a great father.

One of the things I was thinking about on this record is it feels very much like a woman figuring out her own agency, but the songs are largely responses to men and figuring out men in her life. It’s interesting to have it articulated this way, figuring out one’s agency in response to the men in one’s life.

Yeah, well, that’s certainly the journey of the central character, the one who appears the most often, is just really getting clarity about what is healthy and what is the difference between illusion and reality. The illusion being everything we as females have conditioned into us about romantic relationships, where we can bring a whole lot of projection and baggage on some innocent man and decide that he’s the worst person on Earth because he wasn’t our fantasy. Or we can put ourselves in dangerous situations. I think that, ultimately, inspired the message at the end of the record, if there is any message, it’s about safety.... The most important thing we can teach our daughters is how to be safe in the world, is how to be in love with themselves first. I consider myself a woman of the past, of the '70s and the '80s, we were raised to long for a man, we weren’t raised to long for ourselves. I think that’s the message of the record, if you’d like one, for younger women: long for yourself.

I want to touch on “Eight Good Reasons” as well. I cried listening to it, and it feels so important.

There are probably three very personal songs on the record: “How About I Be Me,” “Dense Water” and “Eight Good Reasons.”

In terms of couching things within your personal experiences and creating characters, obviously people are going to gravitate towards this song. You open the song with the line, "I don’t know if I should sing this song." Did you have reticence with releasing this song?

Yeah, this is not a character. This is me. What’s the best way to put it? Songs come true in your life, that’s what I meant, and that’s what — “Take Me To Church” is also a song that comes true in your life. Also I suppose, writing a song, tackling a subject like suicidal ideation, you wouldn’t know as a writer if that’s OK to do. You have to be so careful, you know, if you’re going to write a song about such an issue, you must resolve it positively. I suppose I had the questions, "Is this OK to address this subject musically at all?" I just wanted to utter that. I was very intent on creating a song about ideation but which ended positively, that had an uplifting conclusion. And I actually find myself, when I’m singing it live, jumping around like a child quite happy. To me, it’s a quite happy song, ultimately, because it’s declaring whatever happens, you have these great reasons to be here no matter what.

Don’t get me wrong, it does feel like a celebration even though it’s painful. I think suicide has touched a lot of people's lives and I think it’s important to see it confronted.

Yeah, and I suppose what I wanted to get out of — when I say there are “eight good reasons to stick around,” I think the trouble is — it’s quite common for people to think suicidally. Most intelligent people would at least once or twice in their lives; acting on it is a different matter. But I think when anyone’s inclined to act on it, apart from anything else, they have forgotten that there’s anyone who adores them. That’s what I like about the song. The eight good reasons are the eyes of four people who would be very upset if I wasn’t here. I think if any of us, when we’re in the place where we think everybody would be better off without us, if we could actually remember the eyes of the people who do love us — there are always people who love us.

That’s what I was trying to get at with the song. If there’s one way to save someone, it’s by letting them know you love them. If there’s one way to save yourself, it’s by imagining the eyes of the people who love, even if it’s only the man in the shop down the road who likes you. Somebody whose life would be less without you in it. And I suppose it’s important, the first line, the fact that it addresses the issue, "I don’t know if I should sing this song," that also addresses another issue within society is part of why suicide is such a problem, is suicidal ideation isn’t talked about. People don’t feel safe telling people when they’re feeling that way because you get labelled crazy. Of course, most suicidal people aren’t actually mentally ill, so we all have an issue of is this OK to talk about this? I think there would be less deaths if people were able to say to each other, "Look, I feel a bit weird."

This song might free a lot of people to be able to talk about it.

I hope so. I’m glad it ends positively.... Oh, and the eight eyes refer to my children, just in case you didn’t know.

I thought so. Do you feel like you’re really in love with yourself at this point?

Yeah. I don’t always agree with myself, but I accept and love myself absolutely. I don’t feel anymore that I’ve got to have a boyfriend to be happy, I’m content with myself. I mean, I have a boyfriend as it happens and I love him very much, but if I didn’t I’d be fine.

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