The outspoken and controversial singer-songwriter—whose new CD is “How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?”—explains why she wrote such a romantic album and shares who her muse was for this project.
Singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor
Tavis: Sinead O’Connor has been one of music’s most outspoken and high-profile artists for the past 25 years now with a number of critically acclaimed albums, including 1990′s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.”
Her latest CD is called “How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?” I love the title. From the project, here is some of the video for the song, “The Wolf is Getting Married.”
Tavis: Oftentimes difficult to get unanimity amongst critics, but I think pretty much everybody I have read writing about your new project agrees that this may be your most romantic CD to date.
Sinead O’Connor: Yeah.
Tavis: That was intentional?
O’Connor: Well, it wasn’t so much intentional, but, yeah, kind of half intentional insofar as I think often it’s the subconscious that does the writing of songs. So a part of you can have an intention and the other part of you doesn’t know that, you know. Yeah, I guess it was the first time I ever wrote romantic songs, yeah.
Tavis: So most artists – I don’t mean to put you in this bag – but most artists will tell you that, when they write songs or an album has a theme to it, there’s something happening in their life that ushers that into existence. So why this romantic CD now?
O’Connor: Well, you know, the funny thing is that people are kind of linking it to now, but actually I wrote the songs between 2007 and 2009 when I was going out with this wonderful man who is still one of my best mates, who’s the father of my youngest child.
He’s actually an American guy called Frank Bonadio who’s still my best mate who lives with my other best mate who lives in Dublin just two minutes down the road from me.
He asked me would I advertise that he’s now available and I’ve written these great songs about him [laugh]. He’s very happy that, you know, I’ve written these songs that have bigged him up. He’s available, ladies. He’s a wonderful man, an absolutely wonderful man. So he’s the muse.
I’m slagging him off like they’re laughing at him about he’s a muse because he has one other ex who writes songs. She wrote him a song that wasn’t so, what’s the word, wouldn’t put him in such a great life, so I’m kind of encouraging him. I’ve written maybe four or five songs and put him in everything I tried to do [laugh].
Tavis: I just want to meet a guy who inspires every woman he dates to write music about him [laugh]. That’s what I want.
O’Connor: Exactly. Interview Bob Dylan, you know. He’s that way about women.
Tavis: If he’s such a wonderful guy – since you went there, I’m gonna follow you in. If he’s so wonderful, why is he the ex?
O’Connor: Well, you know what? I always say, because the relationship doesn’t last forever, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t successful actually.
Tavis: I agree with that.
O’Connor: Because it’s not always romantic or the romantic part wears off doesn’t mean the friendship or the love wears off. Do you know what I mean? I mean, if you really ever love someone, in fact it’s quite annoying that this is true, if you really ever love someone, that doesn’t go away, although you wish it would. We just get on great.
We’re great mates, but it’s a bit like the same with my eldest child’s father, who’s my other best mate, but we’re more like brother and sister. You can’t make love with your brother or your sister. It’s a bit like that. But we get on just fantastically. He is available and he did ask me to spread the word.
Tavis: How’s that working out for him, by the way? Is he getting mail now?
O’Connor: It’s not working out well, no. That’s why I thought I’d hit America. We’re not talking about my album at all. We’re talking about my ex-boyfriend.
Tavis: It’s not working out in Ireland. Maybe an American woman will…
O’Connor: Yes, I think so because he’s American as well and he has a particular style about him that I think he needs an American woman, yes.
Tavis: You keep saying stuff I want to explore. They fall in love and marry people from around the world with different cultures and ethnicities and background and races. So what is it about him that makes you think he needs an American woman, given his style?
O’Connor: Because I guess he has a certain sense of humor. He’s quite funny. It says in one of the songs, there’s this line that says, you know, even when something terrible is happening, you laugh and that’s the thing I love about you most. That describes Frank, and our son is very similar. They just see the entire world through this prism of humor, you know.
So he finds certain things funny that other people wouldn’t find funny and probably Irish women of his age, let’s say, might be a little timid compared to him. Do you know what I mean? He’s quite brash and unusual.
Tavis: If Frank and your son together look at the world through the lens of humor, through the prism of humor, through what lens, through what prism, does Sinead O’Connor view the world?
O’Connor: Well, certainly a lot of humor, definitely, a lot of humor, definitely. I suppose everybody has a few different ones, but I guess the last people to know often – see, if I said to Frank or my little son, do you know that you do that, they’d be astonished. So often the last person to kind of comment on ourselves in ourselves. I don’t know. What do you think?
Tavis: Is the process different for you for writing music that comes out of a romantic place versus music that comes out of a political, social, economic place?
Obviously, you’re very outspoken in your beliefs and in your lyrics. I’m glad about that. But does it require tapping into a different place to write that music? A different kind of truth? A different kind of…
O’Connor: Yeah, it does. That’s a great question actually because I love answering this question. It rarely gets asked. I like to talk about the process of writing.
What happens for me is that, yeah, different songs get written in different manners. The more what Bob Dylan would refer to as finger-pointing songs, which I think is a great expression. In the 60′s, they used to call them finger-pointing songs.
The songs like that, like, say “V.I.P.” or “Take Off Your Shoes.” “Take Off Your Shoes” is supposed to be the Holy Spirit talking to the Pope basically in the Vatican about some of the cover-ups. Then “V.I.P.” is more of a kind of discussion about art.
With a song like that, I’d be very consciously trying to write a song. I would think to myself a few months previously I don’t really want to write a song about that kind of thing and I’d sit down.
But the love songs and with what I would call character songs or a couple of characters appeared in my mind suddenly, as I started to write songs about on this record, like “Reason With Me” or “Back Where You Belong.”
So with the romantic songs and the character songs, they were more the way I describe them…I’m sorry I’m taking a long time through this question.
Tavis: We got time, yeah.
O’Connor: Some artists, I think, mistakenly describe the process like some songwriters say that they feel like they’re channeling someone or something that isn’t them or isn’t part of them.
I identify with what they’re feeling, but I don’t agree that it’s not part of them. I feel what it is with these types of songs that you just asked me about is it’s the subconscious actually.
If you like, you could call it your soul or your higher self or just your subconscious, but we do have so much more going on than we know we do. So the way I would say it’s the finger-pointing songs, the conscious writes those.
But with the subconscious, you know, I’ll just start hearing tunes while I’m doing the dishes or whatever and then I know not to pay too much attention ’cause it’ll come back with a bit more. So the following week, I’ll be walking the baby out or something and I’ll hear a bit more. I know not to get away with an area.
If I take a guitar and sit down and try to send out in that direction, then I’m not letting it do its work. Do you know what I mean? So, yeah, it’s a very different process. The finger-pointing is more conscious and the other is subconscious.
Tavis: It makes sense. I know you’re a great writer. I know you’re a great artist. How good are you at washing dishes? Are you a pretty good dishwasher?
O’Connor: I’m a very good dishwasher. I’m a terrible cook. I’m an awful cook.
Tavis: Not a good cook, but a good dishwasher.
O’Connor: I’m a great cleaner. I’m actually kind of addicted to cleaning. I could clean anything. I’m a great cleaner.
Tavis: You and I agree on that. I can’t cook, but I can clean.
O’Connor: Yeah, I’m great at washing dishes and I’m great at cleaning the house and all that kind of stuff. I don’t like doing it, but I’m…
Tavis: [Laugh] I want to talk about some of the projects on the album that you just mentioned a moment ago, particularly “Take Off My Shoes” and “V.I.P.” I want to come back to that in a second.
But since you mentioned Bob Dylan now already three times without my asking about Bob Dylan, it underscores, and I been on your website, so I know what a huge Bob Dylan fan you are, of course. You were on their 50th anniversary album, the tribute to Bob Dylan.
I’m sure there are a thousand answers to this, but what is it about Bob Dylan that makes him, for you, your favorite artist?
O’Connor: Well, I have a couple of favorite artists. There would be him and there would be Curtis Mayfield kind of equally.
Tavis: You know, that never ever gets said. I’m so glad to hear you say that. For as great an artist as Curtis Mayfield was, he never ever gets his props.
O’Connor: He doesn’t get talked about often, no, not really. I mean, everyone swept him off, but nobody can rip off his soul obviously because he had this heart. To me, that was the thing.
What I love about Curtis and Bob Dylan, and lots of other artists as well, I love Bob Marley as well, they are artists who, if you watch, say, the life of Curtis Mayfield and Bob Dylan, they are artists who, and the same with Bob, they all have this kind of commercial success in their youth which was based on sort of poppish kind of records.
You could, with some exception, say Bob Dylan because he was writing finger-pointing, but what happened to the three of them was that, at some point in their lives toward their midlives, they became almost someone else. They went under a spiritual journey.
Some type of spiritual death and rebirth happened, you know, and the person that was then born was a much more spiritualized person who was focused on what I call being alive, which I often think an artist should be or at least we shouldn’t all the time because shaking the booty and all is important as well.
But I think there are times when artists need to just represent without saying anything that there is something more than what we just see in front of us. Do you know what I mean?
Like when I see Bob Dylan or Bob Marley or see Curtis Mayfield, I know there’s a God. It doesn’t matter what they’re saying actually. It’s the sound of their voice, the conviction of their soul, the fact that they’re just standing there, you know there’s a God.
It’s the same as Muhammad Ali is. One of my biggest heroes in life is Muhammad Ali, probably even bigger than Bob Dylan.
Tavis: Just turned 70 the other day.
O’Connor: Oh, God, I love him. But he’s the same. Again, obviously he’s a boxer and I didn’t like that ’cause I was a little girl. I didn’t want to see anyone getting beaten up. Why is anyone like that? It doesn’t make any sense to me at all. But, again, he’s a character who underwent this transformation. He became this other person, Muhammad Ali.
I loved him when he was Cassius Clay and then I was little and he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. I went “Where’s he gone, where’s he gone?” I didn’t know it was the same, then I understood. Actually, it was a spiritual transformation he went under. So they are four very interesting characters to me because they did that.
Again, I read an interview with Muhammad Ali’s daughter and they asked her did she believe in God. You know, the girl is a boxer. I think Laila is her name.
Tavis: Laila, um-hum.
O’Connor: That’s how much I’m fond of him. I know his daughter’s name, but I’m not creepy over her, I swear. They asked her did she believe in God and she said, “Look, all I have to do to know there is a God is to look at my father.” All I have to do is look at her father too. But I feel the same about Bob Dylan and Curtis, you know.
Curtis wasn’t so overtly kind of religious, but I think Curtis wrote the best song about Jesus ever, which is on that record called “There’s No Place Like America Today,” just called “Jesus.” It’s the best song about Jesus ever. But in Bob Dylan’s case also, I’m not a religious maniac, I promise, it was particularly the Christian songs I loved.
I love loads of other stuff as well, but my brother came home when I was about 11 with this record that Bob Dylan did which was his first kind of Christian record called “Slow Train Coming” and I had grown up in a country where all the religious music would really make God just want to jump off something.
Tavis: [Laugh] God’s like, “Please don’t sing that.”
O’Connor: You know, acoustic guitars, “Kumbaya,” just the same, just awful, awful, awful, completely uninspiring. Then my brother came home and put this on.
In my heart, I’d always wanted to make some kind of music that was – you know, Lee Perry says music is a holy spirit, and I always feel there is a link between music and spirituality. To me, there is between it and God or the Holy Spirit or whatever. So I was really relieved when I heard God had served somebody in “Slow Train Coming.”
Thank God, like somebody can make religious music. It’s sexy, it’s cool and, you know, God wouldn’t be wanting to slit his wrists listening to it [laugh]. The kind of thing, you know, God needs to get rescued from religious music.
Tavis: So you got God singing “rescue me.”
O’Connor: Well, it’s like being in the wrong club. Imagine if you had to sit in that club all night listening to the worst music that you hate. You know what I mean? You’re stuck in it for eternity.
Tavis: When you say that you’re not a religious maniac, I think I know what you meant by that, but I’m looking at – let me get your shirt. Jonathan, you got this? Can you zoom in on this? Do you see that? There you go. So you got a t-shirt on today that says “My God Rocks.”
Tavis: I just saw the cover recently of the Calendar section of the “Los Angeles Times,” a huge cover story about you with a t-shirt you were wearing that day that says “Property of Jesus, John 3:16.”
O’Connor: And then I’ve got my beautiful – I’m not getting my breast first.
Tavis: Got your tat there. Do you see that? There you go. But you’re not a religious maniac. Would you like to unpack that for me, please?
O’Connor: Well, yes, I’ll unpack it, the hymn thing if you got 100 years. You know, the way they say you can tell an Irishman, but you can’t tell him much.
I really believe that God and religion is two different things. I think there’s a lot that’s beautiful about religion and very inspiring, obviously, but I do think that God needs to be rescued from religion actually.
When people say to me, “What do you mean they’re two different things?” well, there’s a difference between, you know, God loves unconditionally in my feeling and religion loves conditionally. Religion spends an awful lot of time dictating who God can love and can’t love, for example.
So this is why I love the Rasta people and I kind of identify with the Rasta movement which, again, is not a religion, but it’s more of a movement and it’s not so much an anti-religious movement because we respect religion and love it and be inspired by it, but we kind of feel that God needs to get rescued from out of it. You know, it can do an awful lot of damage, really.
Isms and ists, once it starts, put things into boxes and you end up in trouble. In my belief, there’s one spirit. I prefer to call it the Holy Spirit. I don’t think it matters if you call it God or Allah or Jesus or Fred or David or too early in the morning or whatever.
So I guess I’m a Holy Spirit maniac. I’m not a religious maniac. I love religion, but I don’t like it. Is that the way to put it? Yeah, but I’m a Holy Spirit maniac, yeah. When I say maniac, to me, a maniac is a person that goes around telling you what you should believe. You know, you have to believe what I believe, and I don’t believe that.
I used to be in the closet about believing these things because I was afraid. This is how you know religion is failing because people think you’re bonkers if you believe in God and also because it’s so uncool believing in Jesus and everything.
All of my life, actually, I had a real strong relationship with God, but I was always in the closet about it. The only distance out of the closet I really want to come there is having my tattoo or wearing my t-shirt.
Beyond that, I don’t want to go shoving what I believe down anyone’s throat. Whatever I believe about Jesus too is a personal thing, but it doesn’t exclude all the others. You understand? We’re all one being.
Tavis: How would you explain to someone that your protestations about the Catholic Church – whether one agrees or disagrees is not the point or likes or loathes you as a result of it is not the point.
But how would you explain to someone how your protestations against the Catholic Church are not prosethelytizing or not telling them what they should think about the Catholic Church?
O’Connor: Well, you know, in my feeling, I am someone who really does believe very strongly in the Holy Spirit. I feel I’m someone who, since I was a very, very small child, of being engaged in a very strong relationship with the Holy Spirit.
There are times in my life that I believe I’ve been asked by that spirit to do particular things as an artist, not terribly often. There are other times in my life when I’m asked to do something which has nothing to do with art, i.e., helping a lady across the road or whatever.
I felt that my tearing the picture and subsequent things was really something that I was asked to do and that it wasn’t required of me to make anyone else understand this. You know what I mean? What was required was that I would be doing what I was told.
Tavis: I get that. Since you went there, though, for what purpose do you think you were asked to do that on Saturday Night Live, since you raised it?
O’Connor: As an Irish female Catholic survivor of child abuse, I think it was very important that I be the person who did that. We knew in Ireland ten years before everyone in America what was going on in the church.
Partly we knew because in 1987, the church in Ireland took out insurance policies in every diocese of the country against claims that they foresaw were gonna be made. So I understood why everyone here was so upset because, of course, the idea as abhorrent. How could it possibly be true?
But in Ireland, we knew it was true. Really we record the tearing down of the church and we still do, lots of us. It’s very 50-50 now in Ireland. But my feeling is, look, I respect the Holy Spirit, I love the Holy Spirit. I understand that it’s a sin to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.
The people who are running the church, who presided over, and therefore endangered recklessly the thousands of children, presided over cover-ups really are now lying about it, are disrespecting the Holy Spirit.
It’s very simple. You don’t stand in the presence of the Holy Spirit and lie and, worse, if you’re claiming to represent that spirit, you stand there and lie over something so important as the rapings of little tiny children.
So to me, I love Jesus Christ. I love the essence of Catholicism, I love all the others as well, whatever you want to call them, Allah, God, whatever you want to call them.
I love the Holy Spirit. I can’t stand to see it being disrespected. It’s been there for me at times when I really needed it. Therefore, I have a duty to stand for it is how I feel. So that was really what it was about.
I suppose in a way it was, how would you put it, it was kind of an artistic way of saying, you know, this is the beginning of the end. We want our church run by people who believe in Jesus Christ, who have it run by people who actually believe in God.
Tavis: All of the subsequent years since that appearance on SNL, I do, but I’m curious as to whether you do, do you think that you’re better understood now? Do you think that, in retrospect, people understand that moment better now?
O’Connor: I do, I do. But the thing I always say is, look, it really wasn’t important or required of me that anybody else understand this. The victims now have a voice which they didn’t at that time and it was important that artists stand up and represent.
Irish artists have a tradition of being very heavily engaged in what is happening in their own society. So it was important that they had a voice.
But, you know, there’s someone in all of this who hasn’t had a voice and that’s the Holy Spirit. Nobody has spoken for the Holy Spirit and the very people who claim to be aren’t. Like for us, what proof do you need? You can’t have a church run by people who don’t believe in God.
So I think a lot of artists go waving their Grammies around thanking God for their Grammy, but when it comes to a pitch battle in the street for the honor of God, none of them is anywhere to be found.
Tavis: I’m glad you went there. I want to ask you a question about that. There’s a song on the new project called “V.I.P.” Without going into all the details, you really do have some statements to make about artists who don’t use their platform, who don’t raise questions. I think that artists are the gatekeepers of truth.
O’Connor: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it.
Tavis: So what’s your sense of artists who never find a way to say anything about what’s going on in the world?
O’Connor: Well, here’s what I would say. I don’t believe in any kind of artistic snobbery or musical snobbery, for example. You know, to me, the sexiest and the most spiritual words ever uttered in rock and roll are wop babaloo balop bam boom, right [laugh]?
You know, it’s all the same thing to me. So what I’m trying to say is, a, the shaking the booties is as important as the other stuff. You can’t have one without the other, so you mustn’t get rid of that.
But what’s corrupt at the moment is that, you know, we’re living certainly in Ireland, and I can’t comment on any other country, but we’re living in circumstances where our spiritual system is absolutely corrupt and our country is completely economically corrupt because, when you look back to the root of our spiritual problems, people behave in a manner that didn’t consider other people and consequently people are starving. Do you know I mean?
Tavis: Little secret. We got the same problem here in the United States.
O’Connor: Exactly. Well, where you have war, unfortunately, it has to be said. You’ve got a spiritual problem and you can’t solve a spiritual problem with politics. You may as well as throw the Parliament to a drowning man.
So in a way, at some point the entire population of the earth is gonna have to look back at the kind of essence of spirituality which is basically caring about each other.
Tavis: I want to ask you one last question before my time runs here about another song on here called “Old Lady.” Tell me about “Old Lady.”
O’Connor: Well, that’s a song about having a crush on your boyfriend’s best friend [laugh], not acting on it. It’s writing the songs that you don’t act on. Well, not that I would act on it. Yes, I had a crush on my boyfriend’s best friend which we all knew.
How I met Frank was through this guy, Neal, who’s his best mate, but I knew Neal since I was 20. I only met Frank when I like 40-something. I must have been 38 or 39 or whatever. So everyone knew I had the crush on Neal anyway the whole time.
Tavis: I didn’t know this conversation was gonna be book-ended by Frank [laugh] at the top and the bottom. But, Frank, you have gotten your American shout-out and, if you don’t get mail now…
O’Connor: Exactly. Frank Bonadio, Bray, Irland, B-R-A-Y.
Tavis: [Laugh] The new project from Sinead O’Connor. I’m glad she’s back. It’s called “How About I Be Me (And You Be You?” I said at the top I love that title. That about sums up life. If you can just be your authentic self, yeah.
O’Connor: You’re not gonna be able to use this, but I was gonna call it “How About I Be Me and You [bleep] Off?”
Tavis: No, we would not be using that [laugh], but I take your point though [laugh]. I like Sinead O’Connor. Again, the new project, “How About I Be Me (And You Be You?),” the new one from Sinead. Good to have you on the program.
O’Connor: Thank you.
Tavis: Thanks for coming to see us.
O’Connor: I’ll have to come again. Thank you.
Tavis: I enjoyed this. That’s our show for tonight.
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