A 'Close Shave' With Sinead O'Connor
Updated: Nov 24, 2019
I had a 'close shave' with Sinead O'Connor when I was writing for International Musician & Recording World Magazine. This Interview was first published in back in 1990 (IM&RW Volume 16 No 4) - From The Archive -
"Been here long?" She smiles. The hair is still short, but this is a Hepburn crop, not the confrontational crew cut of yore. 'Softer' is the word that immediately springs to mind.
Then she grasps my palm, in what can only be described as a bit of a bone crusher. Trying my hardest not to yelp, I comment on the new image. Gone is the 'Bambi in bovver boots'. In front of me seems to be a quieter, calmer and more mature Sinead. Except my hand is still throbbing. Appearances can be deceptive.
So was her old image a conscious effort to shock people into noticing her (admittedly successful) publicity stunt?
"No not at all - not at all," Sinead reflects in her soft Irish drawl. "I didn't realise that there was such a thing as an 'image'. I didn't realise that people calculated their lives so much that it was important what image you should or shouldn't have. I didn't realise at that time that I was conveying an image that I did," she insists with clear-eyed sincerity.
“I'm not an aggressive person at all and I was surprised when people found me shocking."
"I'm not an aggressive person at all and I was surprised when people found me shocking. But now I realise they did, so I guess to a small degree I have to be careful."
"Yeah. Like, I won't put out pictures that are too hard or aggressive, I won't allow people to take pictures of me if they want me to look like that, etcetera. Because I am not that sort of person and I find it very hard to live up to that image... it's not something that I want to look up to."
The hair (or lack of) was never the whole story, of course. But the combination of her angelic vocals and non-existant barnet was powerful magic. The twenty-one year old from Dublin was an instant celebrity. Maybe too instant. Back in 1988 she booter herself into the singles chart with Mandinka, then stomped all over the album chart with The Lion and The Cobra which, says Sinead, "Covered my life from zero until twenty-one years of age."
But when an album has taken you a lifetime to write, a follow up can be tricky. And when the only thing everyone ever wants to talk about (me included) is your haircut... Well let's just say that sudden rise in media fame took Sinead by shock, That, and the risk of being last years' novelty hairstyle prompted an entirely sensible fade into self engineered obscurity.
The reappraisal of those last few years is shown for all and sundry on Sinead's provocatively-titled, soon-to-be-released album, I Do Not Want WHat I Haven't Got, which, with a certain logical inevitability, she describes as "....about my life from the age of twenty-one until the present."
Listening to the album you immediately notice that the angry 'Bovva Girl' has been disposed if, as Sinead defiantly states on the self-explanatory, unequivocal opening track, Feel So Different.
Soaring above the crescendo of real strings, she afforms, literally: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference." With another swirl of strings she sings "I am not like I was before I thought that nothing would change me...:
This is vinyl as public confessional. So what is going through the mind of the older Sinead? Have the last three years really changed her outlook on life? The irony is that Sinead in person is a lot more elliptical about her motives than Sinead on plastic.
"Well a lot has happened since I was twenty-one, I've done a lot of growing up. When I was younger I thought that I knew everything and that I was great. That's why I put Feel So Different as the first track on the first side, to warn people to expect something different... a different Sinead."
And a very different album it is too. Sinead mark two sports a polished sheen, an air of having some of the answers to the soul searching questions that were being asked on The Lion And The Cobra. But it leaves some up to date questions left to be answered,,,
Sinead is telling me she only writes her songs from personal experience, because "... that's what I'm into. It's just thinking about things that hurt in your head and I write them down, It's just learning, like you spend your whole life discovering yourself and recording the songs is just reminding me what I have learnt along the way."
She lights a cigarette
"Basically I don't write songs for anyone except myself. I'm just learning things, but it's my job as well. I am very lucky."
It's the polite, non-committal, non-sequitur of a seasons interviewee. Sinead has certainly learnt a few lessons since her debut. As it happens, deflecting over-intrusive journos is the least of them.
Far more critical has been the realisation of the importance of those two harmless-looking words 'artistic control' Unusually for any artist, Sinead claims, and the record company are quick to confirm, that she has total control of her career.
On this album, that translates into meaning everything, from writing the material, through what and how it was recorded, to the choice of cover artwork and what promotional support she does for it (including this interview!) is down to her personal decision.
Whilst its is usual for artists to retain some control - say, photo approval - why has she opted to involve herself so much more in the mucky minutiae of the business?
"I'm the decision maker," she stresses. "I was in the studio every single day and oversaw everything, I worked really hard..."
“Basically I don't write songs for anyone except myself."
"It's very easy to produce and album, but it is very important that you have got an engineer who can get what you want and can understand almost telepathically what you are trying to do."
That's why she used Chris Birkett, and recorded a lot of the album at Chris' studio called CB Sound, situated in a small shed at the back of his garden.
"His wife would make us fried eggs and stuff for dinner," says Sinead with a smile. "It wasn't like we were making an album, it was like we were just mucking around. I'm not very technical really... i know how to work my 12-track at home, but I'm very impatient. I want things to happen now, so it's easier if I get someone like Chris who knows me well and will just do what I want, even before I've finished the sentence. If Chris died tomorrow," Sinead adds as she looks to the floor, "I think that I would just have to give up working... we have great chemistry."
The less-than-glam surroundings suited Sinead just fine too.
"It's very important for me to be treated as a normal person, It's very important for me to be in a situation where I am not treat as a rock star, and don't start taking myself as anything other than someone doing a job."
Coming from anyone else, this would smack of false modesty, after all, whether she likes it or not Sinead is a star. A number one start , at that, thanks to the success of the Prince authored Nothing Compares 2U, a track written originally for Minneapolis outfit The Family. But Sinead is direct and honest, even allowing for her new-found media sophistication. Yet when she explains how she works in the studio it becomes apparent how far reaching her control of her career is,
Sinead At The Controls
Credited as Producer on the album, she is quick to insist that this is in fact the case, despite her admitted lack of technical expertise:
"You don't need to have technical knowledge to be a Producer, you don't need anything other than the knowledge of what you want on your record, down to every last note" Sinead states defiantly, "I can't understand why people have Producers, it seems to me, stupid. A lot of bands just want a name to help he record but what they should be thinking about is; we know what we want this record to sound like, we know what our art is and we therefore, are the ones that are going to be in charge of it. That's the way that I work.I want to say that this is my record. I can't say that if someone else Produces it. Production is an important part of the process of making a record... the situation with me is that I have complete control over everything that goes out," she firmly states.
"The record company's job is to sell records, it's the artist's job to do everything else."
"The record company makes no decisions about anything that goes out, wither pictures or record covers or what is on the record - any of that stuff. They have never expected to. They do that with other people but not with me, because I've got to stand there and say that I have done this record and that this is me, so I have to do all of it and they are very cooperative about helping me..." Sinead suddenly stops and laughs, realising that she might be going on a little.
"I don't mean all that to sound like 'Hey, I'm in charge and I'm the boss' and I'm on some power trip, 'cos that's not the case. The record company's job is to sell records, it's the artist's job to do everything else.
Did you have that freedom written into your contract?
"No, it wasn't necessary, They have always been very cooperative and very trusting. They just leave it up to me. They know I want to give them something that is good. I am amazed how understanding they really are."
SInead obviously made the right decision in the recording of I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, with the first single going straight to number one and the album, to be released in March, likely to follow. Was it expensive to record?
"I recorded the album dead cheaply, 'cos I did a lot of the recording a Chris' place, so I thought it was ok to splash out on a few things... like recording with real strings. I just love the sound of them, the feel of them; nothing can possibly compare to real strings, It's a real ego trip to sing with a 20 piece orchestra."
Incredibly for such a sophisticated sounding work, I Do Not Want... only took six weeks to record and mix.
"I am amazed at how well everything weent," she says. "We went into the studio with the ideas that we would record and then mix it after Christmas, but we started to mix as we went along and everything worked out just as I wanted it.
"I'm very minimalist, if it's alright at the time that's what we go for. I couldn't spend weeks and weeks doing one thing, I'm very impatient."
What do you think about people who spend a million pounds and use three different Producers to make an album?
"It could happen to a Bishop you know!... for the grace of God go I. Some people are happy working that way, and if they are, all well and good. I just want to do it, go home at the end of the day and forget about it."
With basic tracks recorded at CB Sounds, more work was done at STS Studio in Dublin and three Studios in London.
"I recorded the strings at a studio called Landsdowne, and another studio called...er" SInead subs out her cigarette out. "Oh I can't remember what studio I worked in; it isn't that important to me. I don't understand why people credit studios at the back of their albums. Yes some may sound better than others for certain things but I think that if you've got a good engineer any studio will do. You should record as cheaply as possible. People forget that the money that they are spending is their in the long run."
Letting Her Hair Down
As well as writing/producing the album, Sinead also wrote, produced and performed the music for Hush A Bye Baby, a film to be shown soon on TV. One of the songs, Three Babies, appears on the album. Directed by Margo Harkin and made by the Derry Film and Video Collective, Hush A Bye is Sinead's first step into the movie world. As well as writing the score, she acts, playing a 15-year-old schoolgirl whose close friend gets pregnant, The film explored the consequences for the pregnant girl and her family and friends who live in a community which is largely Catholic.
"I only had about three acting lessons, which were quite fun. They got me to pretend I was holding a cup and I had to be able to taste the drink, feel every part of it, like it was really there. It's really hard. I had to spend two hours pretending that this cup was real." SHe laughs.
Was writing the film score harder than music for an album?
"It was great freedom, I could do what I wanted... it only took a week to write and record, and I learnt a lot from it too. I gained a lot of confidence in myself. I realise now that I can write music, where before I felt that I couldn't. I'm very grateful to the co-op for giving me that chance."
In fact, including the film piece, all but two of the songs on the album were written by Sinead. It's an eclectic mix, with the strangest being a Hip Hop version of a traditional Irish Song, I'm Stretched On Your Grave, originally performed by Irish band Scullion. The question has to be asked: why?
"I just wanted ti do something original with it, something that someone hasn't done with an Irish song. People in Ireland at the moment aren't really open to Hip Hop. I wanted to show them that something of their own could be done like that. And for my own amusement as well. I get a great happiness when I listen to it, it's so funny 'cos it's so ludicrous," Sinead laughs.
So what made her (fortuitously, as it turned out) cover the completely different Prince-penned Nothing Compares 2U?
"Because I think it is a beautiful song, and it touched me personally, The first time I heard it, it made me cry."
Recording a song because it made her cry? Sinead has always had a heart, it's just that these days she is a little more Circumspect about wearing it on her sleeve; in contrast to the strong political thrust of her earlier work, there is just one overtly political song on the album, Black Boys on Mopeds, and it draws strength from the isolation. Sinead tells me that it's about how the police treat black people. Particularly, a young man called Nicholas Bramble, who was killed in a chase last year.
"I feel that I can wrote about that because I live in London and I've seen it going on, so in a way I have had some experience of racial prejudice. I felt very strongly about this case. This boy was riding his moped and the police chased him because they thought that he stole it, probably because he was black. He was very frightened and he crashed into something and died instantly. The police denied that they were there and said that they only arrived on the scene of the accident, even though that there were loads of witnesses. I never read about it in the papers, I read about it in the black newspapers. If you or I were driving that bike, we wouldn't have been chased."
She is impassioned now, angry. The new Sinead. The old Sinead. Softness, to borrow a phrase has always been her strength.
International Musician and Recording World was a music based magazine published from March 1975 to 1991. During the 1970's International Musician Magazine was one of just a few musicians magazines in circulation at the time. It published interviews with many well known rock, pop, jazz, metal & indie recording artists, such as George Harrison, David Bowie, Keith Richards, Sinead O'Connor, Frank Zappa, The Damned, Depeche Mode Iron Maiden and a host of others. Interviews focused on recording techniques, tour equipment and stage sets, lighting, recording equipment and instrumentation. Matt Wallis Joined the magazine in 1987 and was its Editor from 1990 - 1991