A Conversation With Sinéad O’Connor

“Great and beautiful places to be,” says Sinéad O’Connor when the subject turns to islands. She’s talking about travel, but the metaphorical value of geographic isolation can’t be lost on someone who’s spent stretches of her turbulent career cast away from her peers and her audience—sometimes by choice (as when she announced her retirement two years ago), sometimes not. The controversial singer says she feels as much at home in Jamaica as in her native Ireland because both are surrounded by water and rooted in spirituality. O’Connor spent three weeks in Kingston, Jamaica, last spring making Throw Down Your Arms (released on her That’s Why There’s Chocolate And Vanilla label) with producers Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. That’s right: It’s a reggae album, one that credibly recasts O’Connor, an incisive songwriter and bracing singer, as a laid-back medicine woman.

Speaking with MAGNET, her words are soft and quick, though not relaxed.

So this is retirement.
The way I view it is that I am retired from the rock and pop arena. I’m in the religious/spiritual arena. I didn’t think I was ever going back into music. But over the course of a few years, I found something that I wanted to say. I still get pressure from my own people to make pop records, though. Making Christian rock would horrify me. I want to create modern spiritual music. Religious songs with bad words, I call it.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in making spiritual music?
The biggest challenge in writing any kind of religious music is not to be corny. How do you say something that will open up someone rather than shut someone down? You have to get through to people’s souls.

Who rises to that?
I think I do, fucking brilliantly. I’ve been writing a record called Theology, all songs of my own, which will be out in 2007.

What drew you to reggae?
You have to understand that these are Rasta songs, as opposed to reggae. Growing up in a Catholic country, I’ve always been interested in rescuing God from religion. When I moved to London is when I first came across Rasta music and Rasta people.

There are some heavy hitters aboard, including Sly and Robbie. Was anyone wary of working with you?
Not at all. These songs have saved my life a thousand times. I’m someone who’s a sister of the Rasta community because of certain artistic acts I’ve carried out.

Such as?
Being someone who has stood up for things they support and what they believe in. You wouldn’t even have to believe in God to enjoy the music. It’s a compliment to them. The thing about these songs is that they’re normally sung by men. [Dunbar, Shakespeare and the musicians] were lovingly amused and delighted.

You’ve recorded albums of standards, Irish traditionals and now reggae. You’ve cast yourself as an interpretive singer.
I have two little careers. One is that I’m a singer, the other is that I’m a songwriter. I’m most known for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which is someone else’s song. I’d be stupid not to perform other people’s songs.

Except for perhaps the Irish album (2002’s Sean-Nós Nua), your interpretive work has centered on unexpected choices. What else do you like to sing that would surprise people?
The Sugababes, this English girl band (that’s best known in the U.S. for its appearance on 2003’s Love, Actually soundtrack). I never go to shows, ever, but I would go see a Sugababes show and scream.

Girl groups are another kind of interpretive singing: an expression of the non-performing songwriter and producer. Are you conscious of trends?
We’re going to see more crossover to the spiritual. Fame is quite ill. People say they want to be singers, want to be famous. The more that people get famous and successful, the more spiritually bereft you become

When were you most bereft? Do you remember a specific moment?
Jesus, there have been 10,000 of them. Everyone tries to talk you out of doing anything other than singing. It took me 10 years to decide to come out of that. I was a square peg in a round hole, if you like. People couldn’t understand I was in the wrong arena. I wasn’t behaving like a pop star, because I’m not a pop star.

Can you say most of what you want to say through other people’s songs?
Sometimes you can. You can better say things in your own songs. There’s the Bob Marley song “War,” but sometimes when you sing other people’s songs, you’re built in such a way that you have to just sing it. You may not be trying to tell someone anything.

When do you know to take liberties with a song?
When you think you can make a song better, like “Nothing Compares.” The process of singing is similar to acting, in that you have to draw on different things, but acting is about lying whereas singing is about telling the truth.

Is that the fundamental problem with pop music, that it doesn’t tell the truth?
Pop music is valid, and there’s no fundamental problem with it. But American Idol and whatnot is evil. In Ireland, an equivalent TV show had someone smash a contestant’s guitar. They’re not allowed to be themselves.

Michael Stipe has occasionally sung “Last Day Of Our Acquaintance.” How would you direct someone covering your songs?
I wouldn’t instruct them. I’d say I was happy about it because I could use the money.

You took Kate Bush’s part on Willie Nelson’s cover of Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” back in 1993. What did Willie teach you?
How to carry weed and not get caught. I’m not going to give away any of his or my secrets. I love him.

You’re very recognizable. What are your interactions with people like?
People are lovely. I’ve never had one negative vibe from anybody. People treat me like a sister in a lot of ways. In Ireland, everybody is used to me. I’m not as recognizable here. I do have this really funny hate-letter writer. He keeps calling me a bad ride, which is slang for a bad fuck. And a whore, spelled H-U-R-E.

You were ordained as a priest a few years ago. Was there a vow of chastity?
The order that I’m ordained into is unconventional. I wouldn’t keep the vow anyway, because it’s bullshit.

It’s tempting to see you as a kind of Joan of Arc figure in the music industry. Are there people in history or biblical characters or literary figures to whom you feel close or analogous?
Tons. I’m extremely inspired by Joan of Arc, St. Bernadette and Muhammad Ali. John Lennon. Martin Luther King. I like the idea of a warrior woman.

Does our culture martyr people?
We don’t love each other. That’s proof that religion isn’t working. But we don’t martyr one type of person; we kill everybody. There need to be prophets, with a small “p,” to challenge the spiritual state of things.

What is the easy part about being Sinéad O’Connor?
Apart from my kids … I’m much more funny than people would give me credit for. I’m extremely crude. And I know it’s corny, but I have a huge heart.

Tell me a joke.
Of course, what comes to mind is offensive. Nobody thinks this is as funny as I do, but I fucking piss myself. Princess Anne is on TV, and she has to ask questions to guess what photo the audience sees. And it’s a horse’s dick. She asks if it’s edible, and the audience titters, and the host says, “I guess.” And Princess Anne’s second question is, “Is it a horse’s dick?”

Is there anything an artist knows about parenting that the rest of us don’t?
Just adore your children. I think as long as your child has access to your body all the time, as long as you can physically hold them, that provides all the other tightness. And be able to apologize to your kids when you’ve been an asshole.

Other than with your kids, do you have an easy time saying you’re sorry?
As an artist?

I was really right about fucking everything. I didn’t do anything that hurt anyone.

—Scott Wilson