“It’s basically the shit that women think when they’re in love” – An interview with Sinéad O’Connor
The title of Sinéad O’Connor’s tenth studio album – I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss – may sound like the title of a brash and typically opinionated record from a brash and typically opinionated artist.
First impressions are notoriously unreliable, however, and digging beneath the surface reveals quite the opposite – it’s a character-based record that’s more as thoughtful and introverted as it is confrontational, as typified by lead single Take Me to Church.
Speaking in Dublin’s Westland Studios – formerly Lombard Street Studios – where, fittingly, she made her very first recording as a 15-year-old, O’Connor explains that she is enjoying the freedom being afforded to her by the new, more detached writing style.
“It’s not autobiographical. There are possibly three or four female characters on the record, and then there are three songs that are about me personally: 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.”
The spine of the album centres around this one particular, unnamed, character, for whom the songs are an expression of her gradually coming to realise that sometimes the reality of love and illusion of love are very different things.
She says: “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 but at the end of the day they’re just pop songs.
“If you could describe the album, it’s basically the shit that women think when they’re in love.”
O’Connor’s decision to switch from the highly personal and visceral style of songwriting that resulted in classic albums like The Lion and the Cobra to working with characters came about in a rather unusual way.
“It started with the last record,” she says, referring to 2012’s How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, which is also the title of the opening track on I’m Not Bossy.
“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 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.
“It’s brilliant because it’s all completely imagination. Somebody compared it, 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.”
The freedom to broach traditionally difficult or forbidden subjects has been a life-long battle for O’Connor, beginning at the age of 14 when she started to write songs as an outlet for feelings she wasn’t able to express openly.
She says: “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.
“It was out of necessity – I had a lot of shit to get off my chest. The Ireland I grew up in is hopefully unimaginable to the younger generation, 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.
“[Music] 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.”
Organisations in Ireland and further afield, such as First Fortnight, have done a lot to put musicians at the forefront of the movement to promote awareness about mental health issues, and O’Connor can see a clear difference between the attitudes expressed by her children – aged from seven to 27 – and those of her own generation.
“Somehow, and for some reason, the worst thing to be considered in this world is mentally ill,” she says.
“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 is that 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.”
I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss is scheduled for release on August 15th and plays the National Concert Hall in Dublin on August 16th.