TIME OUT 2014
“Are you all right?”
Straight off the bat, talk-show host Graham Norton was showing uncharacteristic concern for one of the guests on his sofa. If they were expecting the usual fun and japes loosely tying in with whatever new release they were spruiking, they were hoping for too much. “People worry about you, because we’ve read all these things about you.”
“Oh, blah, blah, blah,” Sinead O’Connor rejoined, maintaining the good humour she had walked on stage with. “I don’t know what way I’m supposed to answer those kind of questions.”
O’Connor has been tolerating such enquiries into her mental health for decades, even as she releases one critically acclaimed album after another. No wonder the mother of four has taken to pre-empting gossip about her, with album titles such as How About I Be Me (And You Be You) and her latest, I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss.
The latter, released in 2014 and soon to get its first airing in Melbourne at Hamer Hall, puts the listener through the wringer of a new relationship – but beautifully so. The changes in mood are dizzying, from the defiant ‘The Voice of My Doctor’ to ‘Your Green Jacket’, which is at once hopeful and terribly sad. O’Connor immersed herself in the Chicago blues during the writing period, watching YouTube interviews with the likes of Buddy Guy and Elmore James to hear what they had to say about songwriting. “It’s improved me as a writer, because when you get into that genre the standard of songs are so high that your own standards rise,” she says.
But writing I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss has changed her in more personal ways, too. “The first half of the journey, the person – which is me, obviously – is very romantic in a young womanish way, then she matures. I’d now be less inclined to be starry-eyed over some handsome man and am now more realistic about when I’m having crushes on people as opposed to loving people.”
O’Connor can be an open book when it comes to romances, as a blog post last year will testify. In it, she advertised for a new manager, having (she says) had a regretful affair with the last. He may be the man whose initials she had tattooed upon her cheeks, he many not. One thing’s for sure, though – gregarious new manager Simon Napier-Bell, whose status as a gay man is assured, will not pose similar problems. In fact, upon accepting the role, he told Billboard that he was not the sort of manager who would ever muzzle an artist. “She must absolutely not change…” he said. “Otherwise you don’t have Sinead O’Connor.”
On the subject of Napier-Bell, whose reputation as manager of Wham! and the Yardbirds has awarded him legendary status, O’Connor brightens.
“He’s a lovely character, a real soft-hearted, reassuring person. He’s not the kind of manager who’ll be telling you to behave yourself and be quiet, because he’s a wild one as well. He’s written some brilliant books about the music industry and you can’t read them in public because you’re pissing your pants laughing.”
It’s of utmost importance to O’Connor that anyone on Team Sinead understands one thing that so many industry folk don’t seem to get: the artist is the boss.
“Musicians traditionally get treated as though we’re working for the people who are working for us. It’s perhaps a bit more exaggerated when you’re female. You might be employing a lawyer for two thousand quid a month but he’ll be ignoring your instructions, or you might employ a manager for four thousand and they’ll ignore you. You’re told not to worry your pretty little head and they’ll take care of everything, but when you do that and you get an accountant in you find that perhaps you ought not to have done that.”
O’Connor had her first smash hit, ‘Nothing Compares 2U’, in 1990. Had she found the industry quite intimidating back then?
“No, but your youth is exploited. They get you in from the age of 18 and they treat you as though they’re doing you a great big favour. That continues until you’re in your mid-forties and you wake up one day and think, hang on, no I’m doing them the favour.”
She decided to express this revelation in her album title, I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss – but in fact, it was instigated by a ‘Ban Bossy’ educational campaign in the US aimed at encouraging girls to be leaders. Calling girls “bossy”, it argues, puts them back in their box.
“It actually took that campaign before I was able to change and take my power as a boss,” O’Connor admits. “Even though the campaign was aimed at young girls, I found it was enough for me to take my power as a boss and get rid of anybody who wasn’t taking instructions. I found that slogan terribly powerful.”
At present, O’Connor is working on a memoir, to be published by Penguin in 2016, which she says she’s striving to keep as funny as possible. “Obviously there are some exceptions to the humour, like when it comes to my upbringing, but I’m hoping to focus on funny stuff and stuff that’s related to music.”
She will have to rely on memory, though, as she certainly hasn’t been keeping notes.
“I have a theory about people who keep diaries,” she says, rising to the topic. “The only people I’ve known who keep diaries with small, neat handwriting are proper psychotics. But I’m an odd person that way. I’ve been all around the world a million times and I never took one photo because I realised I would remember anything that was important. I don’t know why someone would want to keep a diary in their closet and then go back and read it. We all want to move forward like the universe moves forward. I’m probably being unfair, but Hitler kept a fucking diary.”
While there may not be a secret diary in the closet, there’s certainly a blog out in the open. O’Connor’s posts remind me of having a deep and meaningful with someone at the kitchen table, at two in the morning.
“That’s the idea, yeah,” she laughs. “I like to write the way I talk, so I hope it comes across that way. The book is the same way.”
A recent post was brimming with enthusiasm at the prospect of joining Irish republican party Sinn Féin, whose links with the IRA have made them public enemy number one with the British Government. Does she worry about what controversy a post will bring upon her shoulders before she presses send?
“I don’t mind what I bring upon my shoulders – I’ve got to be myself,” she retorts. “Whatever you do as an artist you’re going to get shit for it. If you rescued a drowning kid and you wrote about it somebody would have an opinion.
“I’m not here to win a popularity contest,” she points out. “If you try to edit your personality because you think that somebody might not like you, you might as well stay in bed. I think very clearly before I press send and I’m very certain that I’m happy to press send.”
Still, O’Connor has a special term for dudes on the internet who react to her every move. “I call them ‘the between wankers’. They’re these guys on a computer who’ve had wank and they’re waiting for the hard-on to come down 20 minutes later so that they can do it again. While they’re waiting for the next wank they just sit there abusing people,” she says. “My brother [novelist Joseph O’Connor] sent me a version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ that someone had done on YouTube, and the comments underneath… total strangers being just awful to each other. About a song! People are very brave behind a laptop, but not brave to your face.”
O’Connor is not one to be silenced. She’ll continue to fight for what she believes in – with recent causes being the respectful treatment of those with mental health issues and the defence of Band Aid 2014, which she was a part of. I ask if her social conscience is the result of nature or nurture, and she replies:
“It’s the fact that I’m Irish. They say, ‘You can always tell an Irish man, but you can’t tell him much.’ We’re a very opinionated people and that’s just Irish tradition. We’ve been raised to put our hand up and say something.”