With her doe eyes, close-cropped hair, and perennially otherworldly appearance, Sinéad O'Connor today looks very much the woman she was at 23, when her fearless rendering of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" lit up MTV for months in 1990. She looks the same, save for a few wrinkles and a couple of pounds, all doubtless the result of raising four kids, enduring three divorces, and speaking out earnestly for more than two decades under the harshest media spotlight.
But when O'Connor begins to sing, "If I love someone / I might lose someone," as she does in "Reason With Me," a track from her new album, it is as if time melts away. Sure, she's made headlines by talking of suicide, bashing politicos, and searching for marijuana on the night of her most recent wedding, but ironically, when she belts out that sparse and haunting song about addiction, O'Connor seems like a woman who finally has it all together. The song, she says, isn't about her. It's about someone she knows or, rather, an amalgamation of people she knows.
This record's slightly different," she says of the album, How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? The album varies from her previous recordings, not in melody (in fact, one of the standouts, "Take Off Your Shoes," has the fire and clarity of one of her best early songs, "Mandinka") but lyrically, in that much of the music was not based on her own experiences. "I don't know why it happened, it's pure accident. I think it's because maybe I've dumped off a lot emotionally already, singing all over the world for 20-something years. So I got to a point where I had to write songs from a different place inside myself. Once I finished having to write songs for the purpose of healing myself necessarily, I began to be able to write songs about other shit, other people."
The new album was originally titled Home, but after a very public year, O'Connor realized the name needed to change. The musician had been particularly visible, writing about sex and relationships on her personal blog with such frankness that she garnered thousands of fans who weren't familiar with her before.
An unfiltered O'Connor has blossomed in social media. "I was trying to get in touch with that part of me, actually. Perhaps it is easier just to share who the real you is nowadays because you can do shit like Twitter and blogging and everything." For O'Connor, this meant spending a lot of 2011 talking about sex, a topic that's still rather taboo in her home country. This new platform brought out some critics in the Irish media who attacked her for humorously discussing anal sex, masturbation, and her theory on how mandatory interracial sex could solve racism in Ireland.
When did she decide that it was OK to just be herself? "I was 44," laughs the 45-year-old crooner.
"It was actually as a result of writing those articles about sex...and people's response to it," she says. "I had another title for the album originally, but when I was dealing with all of that, I was lying in bed at night and it just seemed to cross my mind. I am just [tired] of opinions of what one should be and one shouldn't fucking be, you know? And everyone's busy ramming them down your throat and no one knows how to be themselves, and I'm figuring, well, there can't be any harm here [in being myself]."
"Can I tell you a really funny story?" she asks, on a break during her recent U.S. tour. "One of my friends has a sister who...was about 68 at the time. She had this horrible husband, and he had a job in Copenhagen and he'd come home on weekends. He came back one weekend, spent the weekend shagging her, and then announced he had another woman in Copenhagen and he wouldn't be coming back. So she's all brokenhearted, but eventually she got her shit together...and she met another feller. And the next thing you know she's having a heart attack. They get her into the fucking hospital and she's in there for about a week. They've got her hooked up to everything, done every test they can, they cannot find any evidence of a heart attack or what the fuck's wrong with her." O'Connor pauses to laugh, an unbridled chortle.
"Finally, by the end of the week, [the doctors] realized she had an orgasm. Her first! She had never had a fucking orgasm in her entire life and she thought she had a heart attack. Welcome to Ireland."
O'Connor, whose mother was taught that a "girl should never get into a chair that a man just got out of because it will still be warm from his arse," isn't going to miss out on any more orgasms in her own life. She's had a storied relationship with her sexuality, coming out as a lesbian in 2000, later retracting it, then telling Entertainment Weekly that she's "three-quarters heterosexual, a quarter gay." Why not call herself bisexual and be done with it?
"Well, you know, even hearing that, I'm not sure if it's accurate. In my youth, I did some exploring of bisexuality. And perhaps I said things, put labels on things, and put measurements on things that actually you can't put measurements on. I wouldn't put labels of either gay or fucking straight or any other thing. I do believe people often explore their sexuality."
Coming from what she calls a virulently "antisex" Ireland, O'Connor "was brought up to believe sex was a shame, so I was determined I was going to fuck my way beyond that. I was going to explore my sexuality. So there was maybe three occasions where I had sex with women that I fancied."
Though more comfortable being open about those experiences today, O'Connor isn't sure what that makes her, in terms of labels, nor does she care. "I always believed that whatever kind of sex, as long as it's consensual and no one is getting hurt...is a sacred thing. No matter how filthy or sweet it might be."
Though O'Connor is married again — to her fourth husband, Irish therapist Barry Herridge, whom she met after blogging about her need for sexual satisfaction last fall — she says that if she were single and "I fell in love with a woman or I fancied a woman, I wouldn't have any shame about it."
Living without shame is a mantra Sinéad passes along to her kids: Jake, 24, Róisín, 16, Shane, 8, and Yeshua, 5. She's been intent on raising them without the baggage of her childhood.
"I say to my daughter all the time, 'God put me on the fucking earth for one reason alone, and that's to be me. There's no other me, and me is exactly as God requires it to be.'"