Sinéad O'Connor is a name that has made numerous headlines as of late — some good while others have been controversial. But for fans who have followed the GRAMMY-winning singer/songwriter's career dating back to her 1987 GRAMMY-nominated debut album, The Lion And The Cobra, there is no doubt the Dublin native is a singular talent. Strong-willed, principled, idealistic, passionate, and gifted, O'Connor is the true definition of an artist.
Her 10th studio album, I'm Not Bossy, I'm The Boss, was released Aug. 11 and is a reminder of the depth and conviction O'Connor delivers on every note she sings. Produced by her ex-husband John Reynolds (Glen Hansard, Damien Rice), the album features 12 tracks written or co-written by O'Connor, including "James Brown," which features saxophonist Seun Kuti.
Currently in the midst of a U.S. tour, with select dates scheduled through October, O'Connor recently participated in an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview and discussed how songwriting can be prophetic, brandishing a fake Public Enemy tattoo at the GRAMMYs in 1987, borrowing album-sequencing tricks from Aretha Franklin, and the two famous actors she'd like to marry, among other topics.
I love the line "I'm the only one I should adore" in "Take Me To Church" on I'm Not Bossy, I'm The Boss. At what point did you realize you should adore yourself?
The album is very specifically romantic. There are four female characters on the album and then there's me. Beginning with my last album, [2012's How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?], I began to change the platform from which I write songs. When I was younger I had things to get off my chest, much more personal things. I had grown up in a very abusive situation and so music became the platform for me to work things out. And then what happened with the last record is people had begun to give me movie scripts and I'd begun to write songs from the point of view of other characters. And I enjoyed that, so I started to do that with this record. There's one central character that appears [on] this record quite a lot, and I wanted to [develop her character through] a series of songs, of which "Take Me To Church" is one. It's really just her eureka moment. What I wanted to [illustrate was] the thing that we all do — we perhaps project certain longings onto people we think we're in love with. And I wanted to really show that often underneath it all it's ourselves that we're longing for. And what happens with my central character is she writes a lot of songs previous to "Take Me To Church," [in] which [she is] telling this man that she loves him and wants to be with him. Then she gets what she wants and she finds out he's quite a frightening person and that fear is what causes her to ask herself a lot of questions about how she [got] herself into that situation. And she begins to assess what it was she was really longing for. She understands it was herself, so I suppose the turning point for the character [is] the fright she [feels] when she gets the guy, [for whom] the song "Where Have You Been?" [is written].
Would you ever want to turn the album into a play or movie?
No. It's a bit of a play, I suppose, but it's in musical form, it wouldn't translate otherwise. I'm very interested in sequencing on albums and I was referencing the Aretha Franklin album [1967's] I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You. I love that album. To me, it's the greatest sequencing of an album of all time. And people know the songs from that album as being sort of separate songs, but actually when you listen to that album there's the story of [the] journey of the female character through [a] relationship. And in fact, the songs are all conversations that she's having with this man she's in love with, and the man is very present on the record by virtue of the fact [that] it's him she's talking to. When you hear the songs you see him, and I suppose I was trying to achieve the same type of feeling.
I remember an interview I did years ago with Jackson Browne during which he spoke of how prophetic his songwriting was.
Songs come very true in your life. That's what my character is talking about in "Take Me To Church." She understands that she has written a ton of songs that then came true. She got what she wanted, which was the man, [but] it turned out he was very frightening. So she then [she declares] in "Take Me To Church" [that] she is [going to] be very careful about the type of songs she writes in [the] future because songs come true in life and they make things happen.
Are there scenarios you've written about in songs that have come true?
I'm sure there are. I can't think of any off the top of my head, but I think more of other artists like Amy Winehouse [and her GRAMMY-winning song] "Back To Black." She made that video [in which] she saw herself buried in the grave, [and] it happened. Kurt Cobain used to talk and sing a lot about death and being shot, [and] it [happened]. A lot of artists will tell you songs they've written have happened. … I [am] very careful of what I write. If I want a particular thing to happen in my life, I would write about it.
Why do you think this happens?
There is that old saying, "I think, therefore I am." What you think is what you create. Words are dreadfully powerful and words uttered are 10 times more powerful. The spoken word is the science [in] which the entire universe is built. And I think songwriters have an understanding of the power of the spoken word, and we find it out the hard way, by things coming true, and then we start to be careful what we write. There's the famous story of [actor] Jim Carrey. When he was young he sent himself a letter saying, "Ten years from now I'm going to be the biggest comedy actor of all time, I'm going to have $10 million," and it came true. Bruce Lee did the same. So there are people who have a conscious understanding of words and how they work and how intention works. Songwriters are people who deal with intention, that's what we do. I could stand on the stage and sing "A, B, C," but it's the intention behind it. If I want to make you stop in your tracks I can. It's not about the words, it's about my intention.
If you were to write yourself a letter to read 10 years from now, what would it say?
It would say that I am going to be writing songs for many other artists and that I'm going to leave a legacy of fantastic songwriting, and not just for myself, but lots of other people. I'm also going to marry Robert Downey Jr. and Dave Chappelle.
Why the two of them?
Well, Robert Downey Jr. just because he's gorgeous. And Dave Chappelle is somebody I really idolize, admire and love. It's not just lust with Dave. I really admire him because of his principles, the fact that he walked away from all of the temptations of show biz that would have disguised important truths of his and important truths of the stories he was dealing with. And he walked away from what he knew would dilute truths and stories and he got [criticized] for doing that. And I can identify with that because I, in ripping up the Pope's picture, was pretty much doing the same thing and I got [criticized] for that. And I suppose I identify with Dave Chappelle from that point of view. And I just really admire him, not just because he is funny and extremely good-looking, but that he is a man of enormous spiritual principle.
Are there artists in other fields you have that kinship with?
I have obvious idols and heroes. The first person that sprang to my mind when you started speaking was Muhammad Ali. He [has been] one of my biggest heroes since I was a child. I [admire] him [because] he was a rule-breaker and he was ahead of his time in terms of [self-affirmations], jumping around saying, "I am the greatest, I am the most beautiful," which were forbidden things to say. … Muhammad Ali I admired because he walked away from war. The fact that he risked everything and lost everything in order to stand for principle, he was the true heavyweight champion of the world. … And really the symbolism in everything he did was so inspiring to people like me. He was able to reach across the world into the sitting rooms of tiny girls in Ireland and change their lives just by being principled. And John Lennon I admire because he used his platform as much as he could for things he believed in.
What is your favorite GRAMMY moment?
[One of the only times] I've been [to] the GRAMMYs was in . The whole night was an incredible experience. I met Anita Baker, who I love, Al Green, and Michael Hutchence [of INXS]. When I got back to my hotel room it was full of balloons from my record company. I'd never seen that. There were balloons inside of balloons. I had never seen that, it was quite the party. And I remember Al Green had on an incredible shirt that was made out of pure gold, it looked like a watch strap. And that was quite incredible, just being at the GRAMMYs was incredible. And also the fact that Public Enemy asked me to collect their award, that was a huge honor to me. That's why I had their emblem tattooed on the side of my head for that night. It was not a permanent tattoo.
Who would be your dream person to perform with at the GRAMMYs?
There are probably a ton of them. The American artist I would like to work with most is [Dr.] Dre, actually. I've always wanted to work with him. Right from N.W.A. I've just been in love with that man, musically speaking. I love his records. I've always wanted to work with him. And then from the UK there's a record producer called Mark Ronson, who did the Amy Winehouse record and I would love to work with him.
(Steve Baltin has written about music for Rolling Stone, Los Angeles Times, MOJO, Chicago Tribune, AOL, LA Weekly, Philadelphia Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and dozens more publications.)