Still in one piece

Geoff Edgers

THE WASHINGTON POST – Sinéad O’Connor’s office is a glass, pentagon-shaped porch that’s also the entryway to her house.

Most days, before the sun rises over the Irish Sea, she’ll be sitting there, nursing a sugary cup of coffee or shuffling through her iPad. She may even pick up a guitar.

When the water ripples in the wind, the spot can be hauntingly beautiful, Ulysses sprung to life. Not that O’Connor, born just four stops up the train line in the Dublin suburb of Glenageary, feels particularly romantic about the setting.

“I hate living in Ireland,” she said. “My spiritual home is America. I know that my stork should have dropped me in America. It’s freezing, it’s miserable. Everything’s really expensive. I love America, but I can never leave Ireland. I wouldn’t leave my grandchildren or my children.”

There are four children, a pair of grandchildren, four ex-husbands and an ex-boyfriend, Frank, who lives a short walk down Strand Road with their son, Yeshua, 13.

This February 9, 2020 file photo shows Sinead O’Connor performing at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Sinead O’Connor converted to Islam in 2018

There is her father, a sister and three brothers, all within a drive. They know her not as the pop star who rose to fame singing Nothing Compares 2 U, but as a witty, compassionate, difficult, fearless, playful and unpredictable woman who has struggled, personally and professionally.

In 2015, doctors in Ireland performed a radical hysterectomy to relieve O’Connor’s chronic endometriosis. But the procedure pushed her into premature menopause, which went undiagnosed and unmedicated, she said, and made her go “completely mental”.

She moved to Chicago, where she had friends, then moved to nearby Waukegan, Illinois, lived in a motel and volunteered at a veteran’s hospital.

As her depression deepened, she headed to San Francisco and checked into a well-respected treatment centre. She eventually landed in a New Jersey Travelodge, where, in August 2017, O’Connor posted a 12-minute plea on Facebook referencing intense loneliness. That led to an ill-advised appearance on Dr Phil.

John Reynolds, her first husband and long-time producer, flew to the States and brought O’Connor home to Ireland. And with that, one of contemporary music’s greatest and most original artistes seemed to vanish. But last month, O’Connor, 53, quietly travelled to the West Coast for the opening leg of a mini tour, eight shows spread over 12 days.

They were a first step to reclaiming a career virtually abandoned during the years of turmoil, familial conflict and cancelled gigs.

All seemed forgiven. Crowds were spellbound as O’Connor, in bare feet and a hijab – she converted to Islam in 2018 – mesmerised them with a 17-song set that stretched across her career.

“To say it was religious would be an understatement,” said Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, who saw the February 9 performance at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles.

Backstage after the show, booking agents huddled with O’Connor, plotting a potential fall tour to mark the 30th anniversary of her influential album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which included her number one cover of the Prince-penned Nothing Compares 2 U.

She sat there quietly. Even as O’Connor finishes a memoir aimed for the spring of 2021, starts work on her first album in years and awaits the second leg of a tour – a string of sold-out East Coast shows, which have been postponed due to coronavirus concerns – there is a bigger project underway. How to live.

There are still moments when O’Connor will break down, either in fury, tears or a kind of self-loathing. But during her most recent hospital stay, which ended last May, she learned an important concept, which has become her mantra: radical acceptance. As a girl, she suffered abuse from her mother that remains with her decades after her mother’s death. In the past, she’s tried to fight and deflect it, sometimes by lashing out at others. She’s learned that this doesn’t help.

“Because that kind of pain doesn’t go away,” O’Connor said. “You only learn to live with it. Music is where I can manage it.”

She can be incredibly calm and patient. She can also explode. She can speak eloquently about the Al-Quran or go blue enough to make Amy Schumer blush, sometimes in the same conversation. She can be shy and insecure. And yet she didn’t hesitate to stare down the cameras on television to call out one of the most powerful men in the world.

“It’s all soul,” said Bob Geldof, the Live Aid co-organiser and Boomtown Rats frontman who grew up in the same neighbourhood as O’Connor.

“It’s a troubled soul and it ekes pain and an attempt to find an understanding through her voice and through her music. The pain gives rise to a great anger, which may not be understood at all. (People) don’t quite understand the intensity or how a personal pain translates into a sort of empathetic rage. The point is, you don’t have to. You can just listen to one of her songs.”

Michael Stipe remembers being deeply influenced by O’Connor in the late 80s. He ended up adopting her mannerisms for his own performance in one of REM’s videos.

“In my timeline, there is a direct line from Patti Smith to Sinead O’Connor,” said Stipe, invoking the 1970s punk poet laureate. “She’s one of our great, living icons.”

It may be hard, today, to understand just how shocking it would have been to encounter O’Connor when she first landed in the late 1980s. This was before Courtney Love, Alanis Morissette, riot grrrls, Liz Phair or Lilith Fair. With rare exceptions – Madonna, Annie Lennox – the women on MTV either played candy pop or served as eye candy for creepy, hair metal bands. O’Connor, still 20 when her debut, The Lion and the Cobra, arrived in 1987, could sing with anyone, sliding from the most delicate phrasing to full-throated, octave-leaping howls. She wrote one of the most heartbreaking political songs of the moment, Black Boys on Mopeds and set a 17th-Century poem to the beat of James Brown’s Funky Drummer. The stunning video of Nothing Compares 2 U, largely a close-up of O’Connor’s expressive face, made her the first female artiste to win MTV’s video of the year.

And her appeal was about more than music. There was also the look. Buzzed head, Doc Martens, eyes steely and intense except when she broke into a mischievous, dimpled smile. As if there was a joke that only she understood.

“Her voice made me feel like I existed in the larger world,” says Hanna, a college student when she got her first O’Connor tape. “She could sing something with lots of pretty parts but also you could hear rage and humour.”