‘I just love songs. I’m a hoor for songs‘ – Dave Donnelly talks romance, the stigma of mental illness, and UFC with Sinéad O’Connor
Sinéad O’Connor’s tenth studio album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss, finds the Dubliner in as joyful a mood as we’ve heard her in years. The light and airy collection of pure pop songs – headed up by the single ‘Take Me to Church’ (not to be confused with the Hozier hit, coincidentally written around the same time) – sees O’Connor shy away from writing personal songs and instead, in her words, playing ‘puppet master’ to a small cast of characters.
Dave Donnelly caught up with O’Connor at Westland Studios in Dublin as she prepared for the album’s release.
The new single, Take Me to Church, are you happy with how it’s been received so far? I haven’t really been paying attention, to be honest. I’ve been touring and promoting the album and everything, so I haven’t really been here much in Ireland, for a start, so I haven’t paid much attention.
Have you been playing much of the new material? Well the set is about half an hour and we’ve been playing about four songs, because traditionally you can’t be doing too much of a new album.
When I first saw the press release, I assumed it was a cover of the Hozier song, but obviously it’s not – was that a coincidence? Pure coincidence.
The cover image of the single is obviously a bit different for you. From what I understand, the original decision to shave your head was to counter being sold on your looks, so was the cover a commentary on that? No, originally it wasn’t supposed to be the album cover. It was supposed to just be two shots and I was supposed to just throw two shots out there basically in a dress with a bit of hair because I knew everybody would run it, it would get printed all over the world and everybody would have to say ‘look at the state of this one – you’ll never guess who this is!’ and they’d have to mention the album and the album title. So it was just to draw attention to the album. It wasn’t supposed to be the cover but the record company wanted it to be the cover, so it was purely just to draw attention to the album.
Do you find that a bit depressing? It’s very clever of me. It’s extraordinarily clever of me. It did the trick. It would be pointless if there wasn’t an album strong enough, if you did something like that and the album was crap it wouldn’t really stand up. But obviously I don’t look like that – I look like ET and I will always look like ET.
Do you think it’s a problem for women in general in music that they’re forced to sell their music on their looks? I don’t know because I don’t know what it’s like for other girls, but I know that’s what it was like for me when I was starting, but it didn’t last very long.
There’s a common theme on the album of having lost somebody but drawing strength from it rather than being depressed. Well it’s not autobiographical. It’s a pop record with pop songs. There are possibly three or four female characters on the record, and then there are three songs that are personally, and those are Eight Good Reasons, How About I Be Me and Dense Water Deeper Down. The rest are these characters, and a particular romantic journey of one of them. There is one character who is perhaps learning the difference between projection and reality as far romantic matters go, and Take Me to Church would be her ‘Eureka!’ moment.
Is that something you enjoy doing? Yeah, very much so. It started with the last record. When I was younger I had a different platform for writing songs – I guess they were very personal and I had a lot of stuff to get off my chest – but with the last record what happened was that a bunch of movie people had sent me scripts and asked me to write songs for movies, and what I used to do was write the songs and not give them to them. Because of that, the character in the movie would be the person singing the song, so that suddenly became my favourite way of working. Not that I wouldn’t write a personal song as such, but you don’t really need to if you can manage characters.
Is that a very different way of writing then? It is, it’s brilliant because it’s all completely imagination. Somebody compared it earlier, which was really accurate, to being a puppet master. To some extent it’s you and to another extent it’s not – you can be much more free, and the puppet on the string or the character on the end of your arm can be a lot more free, and do things and talk about things that you couldn’t.
Then you have the problem with people like me coming in and thinking it’s autobiographical… Ah no, that’s normal. I think everybody assumes that songs are autobiographical but they’re not necessarily, and there are parts of you that might identify with characters but you might not have had the experiences.
Are all the songs, then, interlinked? They’re separate and they’re all part of the same character in some ways. There’s one particular character who first appears in a song called You’re a Green Jacket, then the song called the Vishnu Room, the Voice of My Doctor, Harbour, to some extent 8 Good Reasons but not the entire thing, Where Have You Been and Take Me to Church. She seems to be the character who appears most often.
There’s a nice contrast between the character having lost somebody and then drawing strength from it… Well it’s more what’s happening with the main character is that she’s had a set of illusions about someone – beer goggles, for want of a better expression – and she’s come to realise the difference between projecting onto somebody what she wants to be there, and the actual reality. She’s coming to understand the difference between love and desire – if you have only desire, that’s like a bird with no feet, and if you’ve only love that’s like a bird without wings. It sounds a bit deep and meaningful because at the end of the day they’re just pop songs, but it’s the whole idea of what is illusion and what is reality when it comes to romance.
Lyrically, it seems quite self-deprecating at times in contrast to the confidence and strength. One line I’d quote is ‘I’m not the keeping kind’… She’s not the central character. She’s quite pleased with that – she wouldn’t be deprecating herself at all by not being ‘the keeping kind.’ She doesn’t want to be – that’s the whole point of the song. She’s a wild one.
Even though the subject matter can be a bit deep, they’re still very relatable pop songs. I hope it’s not too deep, it’s just the shit that women think when they’re in love – that’s the basic thing. If you could describe the album, it’s basically the shit that women think when they’re in love.
In the UFC the other night, Conor McGregor walked in with you singing the Foggy Dew, do you have any thoughts on that? I didn’t watch it, but a couple of mates of mine told me about it, and I loved it. I like the idea of being associated with warriordom, or warriorhood, and I like the idea that a man can draw strength from a woman’s warrior. I thought that was lovely. Usually we draw strength from men, so I loved the idea that a big strong man was drawing strength from me. It was sweet.
Is that something that drew you to the song to become with? No, I just love songs. I’m a hoor for songs.
I was listening to the Lion and the Cobra last night and what always struck me about the album, apart from your really powerful vocals, was that it was really well-written for somebody so young. I was about 15 when I wrote some of the songs – it came out when I was 20, but I wrote the songs between 15 and 18.
Was writing music a constant part of your life growing up? It kind of was. It became that at about the age of 15. It wasn’t that when I was younger – I didn’t write my first song until I was about 14, and I recorded it in the studio here. I was about 14 when I realised I could make money from songwriting, but I didn’t become addicted to it until later, when I was about 15 or 16, and I got more addicted over the years.
Did it become a lifestyle then? It was out of necessity – I had a lot of shit to get off my chest. The Ireland I grew up in, hopefully is unimaginable to you, but the place I grew up was a theocratic place. There was no such thing as therapy, no chance of recovery for people like me who came from child abuse or whatever, so music was really a therapeutic platform – it was a place to say the shit I couldn’t say anywhere else, that was forbidden anywhere else, whether it was ‘I love you’ or ‘I hate you’ or whatever. It was really a form of therapy until, really, the last record when I started to write about other shit.
One of the issues you’ve brought up a lot is mental health, and it seems now more than before musicians are taking a role in promoting it, but as a nation we still seem to be stunted – do you see anything different now? No. It’s not just an Irish thing – it’s a thing that exists all over the world. Somehow, and for some reason, the worst thing to be considered in this world is mentally ill. The reason that is the most frightening thing to be considered is because people get treated like shit, if they’re perceived to be mentally ill, so their illness is used as something to beat them up and discredit them. That’s something that I don’t understand and I don’t think we can necessarily change, but it won’t be until everybody over the age of 35 has passed away and the theocratic way of thinking and conditioning will pass away at the same time.
What I observe from my children – my eldest is 26, my next is 17, then they’re 10 and seven – they think differently. When they’re hanging out with their friends I can see they think differently. They’re much more compassionate and they’re much more understanding. They wouldn’t dream of using the word ‘crazy’ as a term of abuse, or using somebody’s illness as something to beat them up with. It’s a disgusting world, really.
The other thing about L&C, compared to your later albums it’s a lot less polished, a lot more raw sonically and emotionally, do you think it’s a lesser album that it’s not as polished as your later music? No, it’s just the sound of a person. Whatever age I was writing it, between 15 and 18, and recording it aged 19, I was raw as a person and not fully formed as a person, and I like that about it. I like it doesn’t sound like anything else and that there are uncomfortable things about it.
So, sonically, you wouldn’t make another record like that? Well I would if I wanted to. I’d make any type of record if it struck me to make it. There’s no record I’ve made where I’ve been like, ‘oh, I wish I hadn’t made that record.’
If there’s one thing you’d like people to take from this record, what is it? It’s fun, I guess. Ultimately it’s a fun record. I know there’s some serious stuff on there, but there’s quite a lot of funny stuff on there. The first half is certainly quite light – it’s just pop. What I would ideally like is if people came to our shows. All musicians perform better live and that’s what I like to do.
I’m not Bossy, I’m the Boss is scheduled for release on August 15th. Sinéad O’Connor plays a sold-out show at the National Concert Hall on August 16th.