To most Americans, Sinéad O’Connor will always be the irate Irish girl with the shorn pate, the one who once tore a photograph of Pope John Paul II to bits on “Saturday Night Live.” But 15 years after that defiant act of protest, O’Connor is no longer so angry, and not at all a girl: She is instead a somewhat taciturn, 40-year-old mother of four. Her newest album, “Theology,” goes on sale Tuesday, the same day she’s playing a sold-out gig at Joe’s Pub in New York. She played a similar show in Los Angeles last week.
O’Connor long ago emerged from her early Nineties infamy, though she is clearly still wary of people’s dated perceptions. (“Sinéad does not talk about her ‘SNL’ appearance” is standard boilerplate from her publicists.) With her new record, she presents listeners with spiritual perspectives on peace and humankind’s relations with a higher power, the lyrics informed by her long-standing interest in Rastafarianism and Old Testament scripture.
“This album is a response to what’s gone on in the world in the last six years,” she explains. Her speaking voice is throaty and surprisingly lower than the register in which she sings. “The way I see it is that there are people claiming to represent entire theologies. They go around saying that somehow God justifies their use of violence as a means of sorting things out. That pisses me off.”
“Theology” is a double disc, featuring both acoustic and plugged-in versions of 10 songs. Most of the tracks are penned by O’Connor and her collaborators, though she offers two covers: Curtis Mayfield’s “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “I first heard ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ when I was eight, and I just knew then that it was my song and that I would record it one day,” she says.
Indeed, she has developed a reputation for her covers, having rerecorded hits by everyone from Abba to Nirvana. Her influences include Bob Dylan, Chrissie Hynde, the Sex Pistols and even George Jones. “I would love to do a country album one day,” she says. “I think I could sing the s–t out of it. I can be a total whore when it comes to genre. I like ’em all, every which way.”
This story first appeared in the June 25, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
But with such classic heroes as Dylan and the Pistols, does O’Connor have any affection for today’s pop music? “Well, I loved the song ‘Irreplaceable,'” she enthuses, singing a few bars of the Beyoncé Knowles hit. “There are a lot of charlatans in pop music at the moment, and it seems to be all about tits and ass.” Then she reconsiders: “That’s fine if you’ve got talent, of course. I don’t care if Beyoncé takes all of her clothes off. She’s incredibly talented and happens to have a great ass.”
Knowles notwithstanding, even O’Connor’s children seem to be on track to becoming old souls musically. “My daughter is learning guitar, and she loves Johnny Cash,” O’Connor relates proudly. “Her favorites are the murder songs. She’s just learned ‘Folsom Prison Blues,’ which I think is hilarious and quite eccentric for an 11-year-old girl.”
O’Connor is far from home at the moment, though, and when asked to choose a favorite between Los Angeles and New York, she deftly deflects the question: “They’re both lovely, but my favorite place is Dublin.” She does profess relief at being abroad at this particular moment, however. “The tabloid coverage I get in Ireland is completely and utterly ridiculous,” she says, referring to a legion of stories in Irish and British tabloids about her romances and weight fluctuations. “It’s just funny because [in] most places nobody gives a s–t about Sinéad O’f—–g-Connor!” (Don’t let her swearing fool you: Except for the blue bursts, she’s exceedingly polite.)
Indeed, a search of recent press mentions in the U.S. reveals that, in nine out of 10 instances, the words “Sinéad O’Connor” are used not in any musical context, but as a reference to people who have taken a razor to their heads. “I know that Britney Spears shaved her head because she’s a fan, so I was quite pleased about the influence I had there,” O’Connor jokes, before expressing sympathy for the off-the-rails pop princess. But for a woman who once said that “hair is a fashion statement and I don’t care to make one,” O’Connor concedes she has, in fact, become the standard bearer for a provocative, if rare, coiffeur.
As for style below the neck, O’Connor has always been similarly independent. She has said that she doesn’t “give a crap” about fashion, a statement she clarifies by way of her motherhood: “It’s impractical for a mother with four kids to own a designer outfit. She’s going to get puked on.”