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Controversy never drowned out the astonishing songcraft of Sinéad O’Connor | Sinéad O’Connor

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Almost from the moment Sinéad O’Connor appeared in the mass public consciousness, she created controversy: her first release, a song called Heroine co-written with U2’s guitarist the Edge for the soundtrack to a largely forgotten 1986 film called Captive, was swiftly followed by the singer causing a furore by expressing her support for the IRA. Years later, she described her comments as “bollocks”, but further uproar would surround O’Connor on a regular basis: about her conversion to Islam (she called non-Muslims “disgusting”); about Prince, the author of her biggest hit, 1990’s Nothing Compares 2 U, whom she accused of physical abuse; and, most notably, about sexual abuse in the Catholic church, a subject which she took up long before it became a mainstream talking point.

Her 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live, during which she ripped up a photo of the pope, was described by the New York Daily News as a “holy terror”, and attracted the opprobrium of everyone from Madonna to Joe Pesci. Pesci threatened her with violent retribution on the same show the following week – incredibly, the audience applauded him. The furore permanently derailed her career in the US, where her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, had sold 2m copies and topped the charts.

The fallout from these moments occasionally threatened to drown out her music entirely – literally so at a Bob Dylan tribute concert two weeks after the Saturday Night Live incident, where she was confronted by a booing crowd, comforted by Kris Kristofferson and ultimately left the stage in tears. But it never quite did.

Pictured in Italy, 1990. Photograph: Andre Csillag/Shutterstock

Perhaps that’s because, although her catalogue was uneven, filled with pauses – six years separated 1994’s Universal Mother from its follow-up Faith and Courage, while her last studio album was recorded nearly a decade before her death – and unpredictable turns, her music was often of an extraordinarily high quality. Her 1987 album The Lion and the Cobra was one of the most striking debuts of its era, synthesising everything from rock to hip-hop to the global music-influenced atmospherics of Peter Gabriel into a style that was entirely her own. The guitar-driven roar of its big hit single, Mandinka, had a once-heard-never-forgotten quality to it, while her vocal on the track was audibly influential on another Irish singer who went on to briefly conquer the US, the Cranberries’ late frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan.

Her reading of Nothing Compares 2 U remains definitive, a single that manages to be both epic and startlingly emotional. The career resurgence that began with 2012’s How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?, and continued with 2014’s I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, demonstrated her ability to harness a pop framework to songs of startling candour and affecting power: on Reason With Me, she inhabited the character of a heroin addict, thieving to support his habit; I Had a Baby pondered the lot of her son, Shane, who would die by suicide in 2022 (“I don’t know why you should suffer instead of me over shit that’s because of me”); The Voice of My Doctor and 8 Reasons both picked at the subject of O’Connor’s own mental health. Given how unsparing, even harrowing, her lyrical approach was, the albums should have been hard work, but they weren’t: O’Connor set her words to lovely tunes and appealingly eclectic musical backdrops, sugaring the pill just enough.

She also demonstrated an unswerving ability to take musical risks that matched her ability to cause trouble outside the recording studio. You can hear it in her 1990 reading of I Am Stretched on Your Grave, which took a 17th-century poem that had been rendered into a hymn in the 1920s, and set it to a sample of the rhythm from James Brown’s Funky Drummer and a fat synth bassline: it shouldn’t have worked, but it did, the dancefloor friendliness of its backing somehow amplifying the starkness of O’Connor’s vocal.

And you could hear it, again and again, in O’Connor’s approach to cover versions. From the moment she unexpectedly placed a reading of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1977 chart-topper Don’t Cry for Me Argentina at the centre of 1992’s Am I Not Your Girl?, an album otherwise largely comprised material drawn from the Great American Songbook, it became apparent that O’Connor had a remarkable ability to take on the most improbable cover versions and somehow make them work.

That she was never hailed as one of the great – and certainly one of the most fearless – song interpreters of her era seems faintly astonishing. It takes a certain chutzpah for a white singer to perform Curtis Mayfield’s We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue – the song is an extended howl of pain, alternately urging African Americans on and excoriating them for their failings – but, unbelievably, O’Connor managed it, just as she managed to successfully essay the roots reggae songs that peppered her career: she recorded an entire album of them, Throw Down Your Arms, corralling the cream of Jamaica’s musicians into the studio in the process. Releasing a version of Nirvana’s All Apologies months after Kurt Cobain’s suicide looks like a dreadful idea on paper: its lyrics are filled with self-loathing and regret, the opportunities to come up with something that sounds mawkish seem endless. But O’Connor’s hushed take on the song is electrifying listening: backed by an acoustic guitar that barely registers, it sounds like a lullaby, albeit a lullaby of particularly distressing bearing.

Her ability to work successfully with an astonishing range of material had something to do with the sheer quality of her voice, which could shift and change to dramatic effect. At turns it could feel intimate and whispery, as on All Apologies, or strident and fierce, as it does rising above the noisy guitars of 2000’s Daddy I’m Fine, or take on an austere, elemental quality, a style she often used when performing traditional folk songs (she made an entire album of them, too, Sean-Nós Nua).

If you want evidence of her vocal ability, listen to This Is to Mother You, the charity single she recorded in 2009 with Mary J Blige. Blige is, by common consent, one of the great powerhouse singers of modern R&B, but O’Connor isn’t remotely cowed or overwhelmed by her presence. Instead, they sound perfectly, if improbably matched. O’Connor’s accent certainly provides an intriguing counterpoint to the sound made by Blige, steeped in a very different musical tradition, but it’s no less authoritative or commanding, a point proven as the chorus ramps up and she provides a harmony that soars over Blige’s voice.

It forms part of a catalogue of music that will be remembered long after the controversies – and the prurient interest in O’Connor’s mental health and her private life – are long forgotten. “I don’t want things to overshroud my records,” she told an interviewer 20 years ago. “I have had 13 years of a lot of issues. I deserve to be respected just as an artist … and not overshrouded by a lot of rubbish.”


Almost from the moment Sinéad O’Connor appeared in the mass public consciousness, she created controversy: her first release, a song called Heroine co-written with U2’s guitarist the Edge for the soundtrack to a largely forgotten 1986 film called Captive, was swiftly followed by the singer causing a furore by expressing her support for the IRA. Years later, she described her comments as “bollocks”, but further uproar would surround O’Connor on a regular basis: about her conversion to Islam (she called non-Muslims “disgusting”); about Prince, the author of her biggest hit, 1990’s Nothing Compares 2 U, whom she accused of physical abuse; and, most notably, about sexual abuse in the Catholic church, a subject which she took up long before it became a mainstream talking point.

Her 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live, during which she ripped up a photo of the pope, was described by the New York Daily News as a “holy terror”, and attracted the opprobrium of everyone from Madonna to Joe Pesci. Pesci threatened her with violent retribution on the same show the following week – incredibly, the audience applauded him. The furore permanently derailed her career in the US, where her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, had sold 2m copies and topped the charts.

The fallout from these moments occasionally threatened to drown out her music entirely – literally so at a Bob Dylan tribute concert two weeks after the Saturday Night Live incident, where she was confronted by a booing crowd, comforted by Kris Kristofferson and ultimately left the stage in tears. But it never quite did.

Sinéad O’Connor aged 24
Pictured in Italy, 1990. Photograph: Andre Csillag/Shutterstock

Perhaps that’s because, although her catalogue was uneven, filled with pauses – six years separated 1994’s Universal Mother from its follow-up Faith and Courage, while her last studio album was recorded nearly a decade before her death – and unpredictable turns, her music was often of an extraordinarily high quality. Her 1987 album The Lion and the Cobra was one of the most striking debuts of its era, synthesising everything from rock to hip-hop to the global music-influenced atmospherics of Peter Gabriel into a style that was entirely her own. The guitar-driven roar of its big hit single, Mandinka, had a once-heard-never-forgotten quality to it, while her vocal on the track was audibly influential on another Irish singer who went on to briefly conquer the US, the Cranberries’ late frontwoman Dolores O’Riordan.

Her reading of Nothing Compares 2 U remains definitive, a single that manages to be both epic and startlingly emotional. The career resurgence that began with 2012’s How About I Be Me (and You Be You)?, and continued with 2014’s I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, demonstrated her ability to harness a pop framework to songs of startling candour and affecting power: on Reason With Me, she inhabited the character of a heroin addict, thieving to support his habit; I Had a Baby pondered the lot of her son, Shane, who would die by suicide in 2022 (“I don’t know why you should suffer instead of me over shit that’s because of me”); The Voice of My Doctor and 8 Reasons both picked at the subject of O’Connor’s own mental health. Given how unsparing, even harrowing, her lyrical approach was, the albums should have been hard work, but they weren’t: O’Connor set her words to lovely tunes and appealingly eclectic musical backdrops, sugaring the pill just enough.

She also demonstrated an unswerving ability to take musical risks that matched her ability to cause trouble outside the recording studio. You can hear it in her 1990 reading of I Am Stretched on Your Grave, which took a 17th-century poem that had been rendered into a hymn in the 1920s, and set it to a sample of the rhythm from James Brown’s Funky Drummer and a fat synth bassline: it shouldn’t have worked, but it did, the dancefloor friendliness of its backing somehow amplifying the starkness of O’Connor’s vocal.

And you could hear it, again and again, in O’Connor’s approach to cover versions. From the moment she unexpectedly placed a reading of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1977 chart-topper Don’t Cry for Me Argentina at the centre of 1992’s Am I Not Your Girl?, an album otherwise largely comprised material drawn from the Great American Songbook, it became apparent that O’Connor had a remarkable ability to take on the most improbable cover versions and somehow make them work.

That she was never hailed as one of the great – and certainly one of the most fearless – song interpreters of her era seems faintly astonishing. It takes a certain chutzpah for a white singer to perform Curtis Mayfield’s We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue – the song is an extended howl of pain, alternately urging African Americans on and excoriating them for their failings – but, unbelievably, O’Connor managed it, just as she managed to successfully essay the roots reggae songs that peppered her career: she recorded an entire album of them, Throw Down Your Arms, corralling the cream of Jamaica’s musicians into the studio in the process. Releasing a version of Nirvana’s All Apologies months after Kurt Cobain’s suicide looks like a dreadful idea on paper: its lyrics are filled with self-loathing and regret, the opportunities to come up with something that sounds mawkish seem endless. But O’Connor’s hushed take on the song is electrifying listening: backed by an acoustic guitar that barely registers, it sounds like a lullaby, albeit a lullaby of particularly distressing bearing.

Her ability to work successfully with an astonishing range of material had something to do with the sheer quality of her voice, which could shift and change to dramatic effect. At turns it could feel intimate and whispery, as on All Apologies, or strident and fierce, as it does rising above the noisy guitars of 2000’s Daddy I’m Fine, or take on an austere, elemental quality, a style she often used when performing traditional folk songs (she made an entire album of them, too, Sean-Nós Nua).

If you want evidence of her vocal ability, listen to This Is to Mother You, the charity single she recorded in 2009 with Mary J Blige. Blige is, by common consent, one of the great powerhouse singers of modern R&B, but O’Connor isn’t remotely cowed or overwhelmed by her presence. Instead, they sound perfectly, if improbably matched. O’Connor’s accent certainly provides an intriguing counterpoint to the sound made by Blige, steeped in a very different musical tradition, but it’s no less authoritative or commanding, a point proven as the chorus ramps up and she provides a harmony that soars over Blige’s voice.

It forms part of a catalogue of music that will be remembered long after the controversies – and the prurient interest in O’Connor’s mental health and her private life – are long forgotten. “I don’t want things to overshroud my records,” she told an interviewer 20 years ago. “I have had 13 years of a lot of issues. I deserve to be respected just as an artist … and not overshrouded by a lot of rubbish.”

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