Last Tuesday night, at the tiny, cramped Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles, Sinead O’Connor gave her first Southern California performance since her brief appearance at 1998’s Lilith Fair at the Rose Bowl. It was a loose, subdued affair, the Irish singer-songwriter, flanked by a cellist and a guitarist, starkly delivering thought-provoking songs from Theology, her new double album.
Half of the release comes from acoustic sessions in Dublin, where she lives. The second half, recorded in London, consists of much of the same material in mild pop arrangements. And all of it, save for nods to Curtis Mayfield and Jesus Christ Superstar, stems from Old Testament scripture, as filtered through O’Connor’s post-Catholic, heavily Rastafarian sensibility.
It won’t rocket up the charts like her music once could. Yet Theology, like its predecessor, Throw Down Your Arms (a 2005 tribute to Jamaican artists), nonetheless solidifies the return of one of rock’s most potent, if intensely idiosyncratic, voices. Consider it a stepped-up continuation of her quest for spiritual enlightenment through making records, the sort of path one finds Van Morrison, the former Cat Stevens and very few others treading.
O’Connor, you’ll recall, burst into global consciousness 20 years ago with her dramatic debut, The Lion and the Cobra (an Old Testament-derived title). It instantly aroused critics while, in the press, the unrestrained O’Connor challenged (and alienated) her audiences via honest but controversial remarks. By the early `90s, flush with the success of a No. 1 single (the Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2 U”) and the widely acclaimed album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, she was poised to become one of the most influential figures of her generation, an icon who could go beyond mere femme-rock and touch souls in ways Dylan and Morrison had.
Then came infamy: that Saturday Night Live appearance in 1992, when she concluded her performance of Bob Marley’s “War” by tearing up a picture of the pope while saying “fight the real enemy.” O’Connor wisely stopped talking about the incident long ago—in 1997 she labeled it “a ridiculous act, the gesture of a girl rebel.” But that and one too many middling albums sent her career spiraling. By the time she was ordained a priest in a radical Catholic offshoot in the late `90s, even ardent fans had stopped caring.
Soon after, O’Connor stopped caring as well, announcing her retirement from music in 2003, with plans to teach religious school to young children.
Yet, quick to change course as she often has been, instead came the rejuvenating Arms, and now Theology, which relies heavily on the grippingly hushed feel of O’Connor classics like “Black Boys on Mopeds” and “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance”. Both albums, she says, are in part an attempt to inspire people to peacefully protest the Iraq war and, more importantly, “save God from religion”. Sample lyric from “Psalm 130 (Out of the Depths)”: “It seems to me You’re hostage to those rules that have been made by religion and not by You.”
I sat down with O’Connor the day before her L.A. gig at the Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood. It was the first time she had been to California since the death of her locally based manager in 2001. “I arrived back home the morning of Sept. 11. I haven’t been here since.”
Now 40 and a mother of four, she seems content, and far less humorless. Her hair is still buzz-cut close, with flecks of gray near her temples. Smoking American Spirit cigarettes while lounging barefoot in a flowing, almost Indian outfit, she’s still the epitome of androgyny, her beaming eyes and shy smile somehow not quite connected to the manliness she otherwise embodies.
Only a few years ago you had announced your retirement. What prompted that? What changed your mind?
I felt unable to carry the weight of the prejudices out there about me. I would see my name in a newspaper somewhere and get labeled this or that, but it wasn’t me they were really talking about it. I had to discern my own identity. I came out of it really to spend time just being a regular person, look after my kids full time.
I was actually thinking of getting a real job. I got rid of all my instruments, didn’t even keep a guitar. Bought a bungalow. Cooked a lot of meat. Got very fat. And I started to say to my family and friends, “I think I’ll get a job.” My kids all roared laughing at me. Nobody took me seriously.
What were you going to do?
Housekeeping. I’m very good at cleaning. It was a bit mad, but there you go. But then my friends started to say to me, “You know, you’re completely mental if you think you’re not gonna make music. Who the (expletive) are you kidding?”
My father was one of them. He kept saying, “Can you go back and look at the reasons why you wanted to be a singer in the first place? Go back and retrace.” And when I did I realized that actually it was religious things that made me want to be a singer. I had been singing in choirs in school. That was when I really first got interested in making this record (Theology). I was looking at scripture and thinking I would love to put some of that to music.
So it became apparent that I could get back into music but in an arena that was more suitable to me, `cause I was really like a square peg in a round hole in the other (pop) one. That arena was something that was feeding upon me, rather than actually feeding me.
Throw Down Your Arms plays like a rebirth.
Yeah, it was a turning point. As I had perceived it, I had left the rock and pop arena and then had wanted to come back in a more ... what’s the word ... “inspirational” arena.
Yeah. I don’t necessarily like to use the word “religious” because it can put people off.
How do you define yourself religiously now—or do you?
No, I wouldn’t. Here’s the thing: I love religion. I was born into a very religious society, so it’s part of my DNA, you know? I admire a lot of different religions. But I think religion has weaknesses—the chief one being that it doesn’t understand that it is not God a lot of the time. God and religion are two different things, and the blurring of the two that comes from those in power stems from the fact that they don’t seem to know themselves that boundary—that there was a God before religion. There is a God despite religion, if you like.
In a lot of religions, rules and regulations have become kind of like walls. God gets held behind them, and the religious people say when It can come out to love someone, and when It’s got to go back in and not love someone—which doesn’t make any sense, if you understand that God loves everybody unconditionally.
So consequently a lot of people are rejecting the idea of God at all, or rejecting the idea of any kind of spirituality. They’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater, if you like. God is underemployed, when there are a lot of problems in the world that could get fixed very quickly if people actually believed in God. I know that sounds very childish.
But can belief in God alone change anything?
See, I wouldn’t even talk about belief in God being the thing that changes things. Asking is the thing. I do believe a whole lot could be changed if we were to ask God to help. But because of religion, people often don’t think there is a God—therefore they don’t ask.
But some would say that those who are creating war, often in the name of God, also ask God for help.
Well, yeah, but you know, to me, those people are (bleeping) completely blaspheming. ... I reckon—and I know this is harsh—but I really think it’s a crime, and it should be an actual listed crime, for anybody to make war or violence and claim God supports it. A Christian is someone who is supposed to ask themselves at any given time: What would Christ do? Christ wouldn’t be bombing people.
Look even at the theology of the Crucifixion, for example. These warmongers say they’re Christians. Well, look at Jesus: He knew that the Romans were coming to kill him. But he didn’t set out to kill them. He could have gotten all his mates to go around and chop their heads off. But he didn’t. These people claim to represent a particular theology they don’t even understand. And it’s treason of the highest level, because it’s bringing God into disrepute.
How could that change?
Well, I’m just a bug, you know. I’m in no position to know, and I can’t do anything really to save the universe or change things greatly. But what I can do is make my own expression of how I feel about it, put forth my response to things, which we all need to do.
I think people need to understand how to protest, you know what I mean? We are all complicit in what’s happening with this war because we’re not protesting against it. Partly because people are afraid—will people get the (crap) kicked out of them if they do protest? Partly it’s because of the contradiction that can enter into it—if you’re going to protest against war, there’s no point in doing it angrily.
So I think people are frightened—frightened of Bush, frightened of Blair, because they are running their countries almost like police states. When those two guys shift off the face of the Earth, I think people are going to be more likely to feel safe in expressing themselves. But again, we’re all complicit in it. None of us have a right to complain about it if we’re not doing something about it. And I include myself in this. I’m sure I should be sitting out in the streets as much as anyone else should be.
Last time we spoke, a decade ago, you mentioned you felt people had begun to see you not through media portrayals but strictly through your music. That owed a lot to you withdrawing from the spotlight. The lack of attention now—does that hamper your ability to have your message heard?
No, I think possibly it can help me reach people even more, because I was the type of person I was while in that (rock) arena. I think I might be taken more seriously, because I’m not a Paris Hilton type. Having said that, I like Paris Hilton. I wouldn’t want to get involved in the bitchery that’s going on at the moment. I just thought it was disgusting, everybody laughing at her going to jail.
But because I’m perceived—and for once it’s an accurate perception—as someone who rejected the pop stardom thing ... and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, the pop world. It’s probably much more valid to people than what people like me do. At the same time, say if Christina Aguilera made a religious record—people might not take it quite as seriously as something from someone who has actually stood for something other than fame and fortune over the years.
That’s also why I stuck to the Old Testament for this album. In terms of religious music, there’s a terribly spider-web-thin line between corny and cool, and you’ve got to try to stay on the right side of the line. You have to be clever about it.
Well, one way is avoid the New Testament altogether, because unfortunately the J-word is off-putting to people. I do have a massive love of that energy—but I’m not stupid. If you don’t want to send people running, you have to be aware of those prejudices.
But do you really think God can be saved from religion?
I do, actually. I think it’s something that’s beginning to happen slowly but surely. It may not be obvious to people that that’s what’s happening.
But the real question is, after God’s been saved from religion, can religion be saved from religion?
Sometimes it takes catastrophe to trigger such changes.
Well, I have a feeling that when Bush and Blair get out of office, there will be massive changes. I think at the moment people feel really powerless, but in some ways there is a growing group who remember that the darkest hour is before the dawn. What we see going on in the world, people aren’t going to stand for it, by the time this war is finished. People aren’t going to put up with it—unjust war, unprovoked war. People are not going to elect people who are going to make war. I really believe that.