“It’s the bald woman from Ireland,” writes Sinéad O’Connor in an email. She’s following up on our last conversation, expanding her thoughts on romance and monogamy.
Three days earlier, while discussing her new album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, at London’s posh Kensington Hotel, I asked O’Connor, 47, about her infamous roller-coaster relationship to Barry Herridge, the drug counselor she met online in 2011 and impulsively married in Las Vegas a few weeks later. It was O’Connor’s fourth marriage, and troubled from the start — only 16 days later she announced the two had split.
The singer-songwriter explains that the two are indeed separated but still legally married, and that she is single. Dressed in a black, form-fitting three-piece suit, her colorful chest tattoo of Jesus cresting atop her vest, O’Connor says over coffee, “I’m still best mates with him,” before an anxious-looking rep from her label, Nettwerk Records, politely steers the conversation back to the new album. In subsequent days, however, O’Connor reaches out by email to volunteer “some help” about her romantic life.
“If I were to be most similar in romantic spirit to any one of the female characters on the album,” she writes, “it would be the woman who sings ‘Kisses Like Mine.’ ” Over a spare, driving guitar lick, she boasts, “See, I’m special forces/They call me in after divorces/To lift you up.” But in the last verse, O’Connor warns the object of her affection: “I have a heart that flies away/Betrays me every day/But don’t let it stay heavy on your mind,” she sings. “I’m just not the keeping kind.”
“I gave being a ‘regular’ woman a good few tries,” O’Connor tells me. “There is pressure to be a ‘regular’ woman from the minute you’re born, so I was duty-bound to try. But I’m ‘irregular.’ I don’t try not to be irregular anymore.”
Her embrace of the unconventional in work and life has led to the notion that O’Connor is “bats.” She throws out the term herself, and says she’s half to blame for that perception because she has given the media plenty of ammunition by living a remarkably open life. Her marriages, political views, disdain for the record industry, suicide attempts, struggles with mental illness and even her quests “to get laid” are all public record. Still, O’Connor has no regrets. “I don’t do embarrassment,” she says. That same unflinching openness that makes her a media target is also what makes her a beautiful, haunting and authentic singer whose work transcends musical fads. The open question is whether she can get her life and her career back on track.
In the autobiographical song “Eight Good Reasons,” on I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, O’Connor sings, “You know I’m not from this place/I’m from a different time, different space.” It’s true: As she emerged as an artist, O’Connor seemed to have been beamed down from an alien world whose inhabitants had a great ear for pop music. When she released her searing debut album in 1987, The Lion and the Cobra, the world had not seen or heard anything like her. Head shaved in defiance of the music industry’s stereotypical expectations for female artists, she possessed a high, clear seraphic voice that could morph from a sensual whisper to a primal scream.
The album reached No. 36 on the Billboard 200 in April 1988 and spent 38 weeks on the chart, but she was about to do much, much better.
In 1990, O’Connor crossed over to the mainstream when her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, topped the Billboard 200 on April 28 and its hit single, a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” rose to No. 1 on the Hot 100 for four weeks.
Success did not curb O’Connor’s outspokenness. On Oct. 3, 1992, just weeks after the release of her third album, Am I Not Your Girl?, she sang an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War” on Saturday Night Live, altering the lyrics to speak out against child abuse instead of racism. At the end of the song, she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II. (The picture belonged to her mother, a violent kleptomaniac who did time for shoplifting and died in an automobile crash when O’Connor was 19.) “Fight the real enemy,” she said, throwing the shreds at the camera. The audience’s stunned silence foreshadowed how this act of bravery would go down as the rantings of an unbalanced woman.
Today, O’Connor describes the moment, which got her banned from SNL, as her “proudest night ever” and “an artistic gesture made by an Irish female Catholic survivor of child abuse,” she says. “There was a battle in the streets for the honor of God. And in the musical community there was f— all but tumbleweed.
“I knew shit would hit the fan,” she says, and it did. She was cast as a villain, branded a “Holy Terror” by the New York Daily News, booed offstage at a Bob Dylan tribute concert weeks later and criticized even by notorious envelope-pushers like Madonna. Her record sales began a downward trend. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which was released before Nielsen SoundScan began tracking album sales, shipped more than 2 million albums and is certified double-platinum by the RIAA. Her well-received 2000 album, Faith and Courage, has sold 219,000 copies, according to SoundScan, while her last album, 2012’s How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? has sold 18,000.
In retrospect, O’Connor was ahead of her time, condemning the Catholic Church for sexual abuse and other crimes. In 2013, director Alex Gibney won three Emmys for his documentary about this very same subject, Maxima Mea Culpa: Silence in the House of God. But in 1992, O’Connor was scorned for her conviction. “It became fashionable to call me crazy,” she whispers over her coffee.
Then again, this is a woman who wrote three columns for Ireland’s Sunday Independent — and posted on her website — in August and September of 2011 in which she advertised she was “desperate for sex.” O’Connor says she intended to write only one piece “because I was looking to get laid,” but adds, “The more scandalized people were, the funnier the child in me found it.” She ended up publishing two follow-ups that left nothing to the imagination, with such passages as, “Let me now take time to make VERY clear that yes I ‘do anal’ and in fact I would be deeply unhappy if ‘doing anal’ wasn’t on the menu.” Not surprisingly, O’Connor’s Twitter feed gained thousands of followers as women and men (including future husband Herridge) emailed her and O’Connor got the action she had been seeking.
Oddly enough, those columns, and the predictable media response, inspired the new album’s beautiful first track, “How About I Be Me.” Sweetly melancholy, yet resolute, O’Connor defiantly sings, “Don’t stop me talking about love/How am I going to find what I’m dreaming of.”
The songs that follow on I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss make up a cycle about love, romance and the pitfalls of desire, and it ranks among O’Connor’s best work. The album is a sexy, poppy and commercial guitar-driven rock record with enough hooky singles to vault the singer — who hasn’t had a single on the Hot 100 since “The Emperor’s New Clothes” peaked at No. 60 in 1990 — back into the upper reaches of the charts. An international tour currently budgeted at $1 million, according to her manager Simon Watson, is underway, and the 15 to 20 initial dates that O’Connor will play in the United States should aid the cause. But if the stars don’t align, O’Connor says the record has already served its purpose: It saved her. “I have never had a better time making music in my life,” she says.
O’Connor’s frank and unapologetic admissions through the years that she has battled mental illness has played into the off-her-rocker persona the tabloids and blogs have nurtured, and at the beginning of 2012, she was having a particularly hard time of it. On Jan. 11, despondent over cruel media coverage of her relationship with Herridge, O’Connor tweeted a cry for help. In order to lose weight for her tour behind How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, she says her doctor abruptly took her off medication prescribed for bipolar disorder instead of weaning her from the drug and she suffered badly. (O’Connor says she has since been told she was misdiagnosed.) After a suicide attempt days earlier, she tweeted on Jan. 11 that she was “really un-well … and in danger” and desperate to find a psychiatrist. “I realize I will be in trouble 4 doing this, but … ireland is a VERY hard place to find help,” she wrote.
Weeks later, she found more trouble on the road. O’Connor had been prescribed a medication to help her, but, unbeknownst to her, she was having a rare reaction to the drug that amplified her suicidal thoughts. “It’s like you’re a bucket with holes in it. Your whole body is crying and you don’t know why,” she says. She managed to perform until mid-April before canceling the remaining dates, and parting ways with her longtime manager, Fachtna O’Ceallaigh, whom she accused of not taking her illness into consideration when scheduling her live dates.
O’Connor returned home exhausted, only to have to deal with another crisis brought on by the cancellation of the tour. “That’s when the real ugliness started,” she says. “People were trying to sue me.” In the ensuing legal jockeying, O’Connor brought in a forensic accountant and, choosing her words carefully, she says, “Within the week it was being alleged that people I would have leapt in front of a bullet for had been financially f—ing me over.” The singer says she was so crushed by the experience that she considered “jumping off a cliff,” but ultimately resolved “to make myself fall more in love with music and songwriting and performing.” O’Connor calls it “a defiant reaction” to the businesspeople in her life who had done her wrong. “If I didn’t do it,” she says, “these motherf—ers were going to have my soul.”
“John Reynolds saved my ass,” says O’Connor. The drummer-producer, who operates his own recording studio, New Air Studios, in London, has known O’Connor since she was 19. He was her first husband and is the father of the oldest of her four children, Jake, 27. Reynolds also has either produced or co-produced four of O’Connor’s albums and her 1997 EP, Gospel Oak. In the aftermath of her canceled tour, O’Connor says he stepped in to help her pick up the pieces and, ultimately, to find the inspiration she needed to write and record I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss.
O’Connor says Reynolds turned her on to Chicago bluesmen like Buddy Guy, Magic Sam and Howlin’ Wolf. “I got so into what they were saying, writing the facts of life and keeping things very simple and not sugarcoated,” says O’Connor. (She even created a Spotify “Idols” playlist featuring these musicians that can be heard on her website.)
As O’Connor’s creative impulses returned, Reynolds came to her with snippets of melodies and O’Connor paired them with lyrics, and the album emerged. Its first few tracks deal with idealized and naive love fueled by passion before giving way to disillusionment and, later, something much darker. Enlightenment follows, most pointedly in the powerhouse single “Take Me to Church.” “I don’t want to cry no more/I don’t want to die no more,” sings O’Connor, concluding, “I’m the only one I should adore.”
She originally planned to call the album The Vishnu Room, a reference to one of the new songs as well as the bedroom of her home in Bray, Ireland, where she had a large image of the Hindu deity painted on the wall. In the end, however, I’m the Boss’ title and provocative cover art were sparked by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” campaign, which asserts that branding little girls as “bossy” discourages them from vying for leadership positions. True to form, O’Connor added her own twist by focusing on the disparaging labels endemic to the music industry. “The day it dawns on you that [this business] is pimps and hos — and that you’ve been the ho and didn’t even realize it — can be a bit head-wrecking,” she says. “And then you realize, ‘OK, I’m a ho, and maybe I can do something useful with that,’ like slap on a wig and a latex dress and get a lot more attention for your album than you would have if you had gone on there with your E.T.-looking bald head.”
O’Connor’s views on industry “pimps and hos” should be familiar to those who recall her public feud with Miley Cyrus in 2013. Cyrus was quoted as saying that her “Wrecking Ball” video was inspired by O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” clip. O’Connor responded by taking Cyrus to task for allowing herself to be “pimped” by the industry. Cyrus then linked on Twitter a number of O’Connor’s anguished tweets about her failed marriage to Herridge and her desperate search for a psychiatrist, commenting, “Before Amanda Bynes… There was…”
The post infuriated O’Connor, who threatened legal action and railed at Cyrus for mocking “myself and Amanda Bynes for having mental health issues.” But she has zero interest in providing an update. “Well, you know, I’d love to marry myself a multimillionaire rapper,” she says, “but it ain’t going to happen any more than me engaging in a conversation about that.”
Further enlightenment may not be possible on that touchy topic, but O’Connor is wide open to discussing her personal growth during the past two years, a topic she alludes to on “Take Me to Church.”
“I have learned to love myself unconditionally,” she says. “When people used to say that thing to me about ‘You have to love yourself before you can love anybody,’ I had no idea what they were talking about. But I’ll be 48 in December, and I think that as you get older, it becomes obvious. Sometimes we have to find out by f—ing up. You know what I mean?”