Born in Dublin on December 8, 1966 (unhappily, John Lennon was murdered on her 14th birthday), Sinéad Marie Bernadette O’Connor is one of Ireland’s brightest stars, and one of those artists that will forever remain unforgettable, no matter the age or generation.
Given that her tumultuous public life has been filled with as many head-scratchers as it has head-turners — that Sinéad O’Connor converted to Islam (“reverted is a better word“, she says) and is now going by the name Shuhada’ Sadaqat should come as little surprise: ”I am the Imelda Marcos of hijabs,” she laughs. Whatever the moniker du jour, this feisty formidable is undoubtedly a strong-willed, outspoken woman, with her instantly recognisable singing voice as mesmerising as it is haunting.
With her trademark angst and uncompromising nature, certain themes that have been a recurring factor in her work. Indeed, the SOC has always spoken openly, and at times uncomfortably, about her experiences of physical abuse and struggles with her mental health. Yet her bold and brave decision to use her fame as a platform to speak out on a number of controversial issues shifted her narrative from global stardom to worldwide condemnation.
We’re looking at an artist whose defiance and tireless contrarian campaigning for justice is legendary. Defiance is a funny word, though, as it implies that somebody is above you to defy. I don’t think Sinéad sees the world in that way. The first time I really noticed her was probably Nothing Compares 2 U (Mandinka on Top Of The Pops pour moi, but then I am obstinately older – Ed.). It’s featured in this list (how could it not be?) so I will say more there but it was such a simple video with this stunningly beautiful, bald woman. It would usually be improper to write about a female artist and start with her looks but her distinctive close-cropped buzz cut is what grabbed a lot of people — myself included — and helped hugely with her high public recognition factor.
Seemingly a pseudo forerunner of her eventual, eccentric adoption of Islam as a religion, the skinhead hairstyle was initially adopted by the singer as a protest against traditional views of female beauty, in particular in response to male record executives who had tried to goad her into wearing miniskirts. Sinéad was also told she should grow her hair to look more feminine so the first thing she did was get the clippers out and go full bald bonce. She has since said that she’s tried to grow it back at times but doesn’t feel herself when her hair isn’t reduced to skinhead. It’s become almost like a personal manifesto: “I don’t feel like me unless I have my hair shaved. So even when I’m an old lady, I’m going to shave it.”
A lot of the things that people saw as shocking at the time would go unnoticed these days because she went there first. Everything she did stood out and stood proud, a tenderhearted contrarian with a knack for poking a finger in the eyes of the overly powerful. I will delve later into her meeting with Prince, it’s a funny, weird story that changes in the retellings but my favourite part is that she was summoned by him and told that she shouldn’t swear in her interviews, so of course the next words out of her mouth were “fuck off!”
In 1990, Sinéad was criticised in the USA after she stated that she wouldn’t perform if the American national anthem was played before one of her concerts in New Jersey. Speaking from the same stage the following night, none other than draft-dodging Jersey boy Frank Sinatra himself threatened to “kick her in the ass,” presumably after sending her a horse’s head to play with first. Sinéad’s father came to the defence of his daughter in brilliantly acerbic form, telling the press Ol’ Blue Eyes had no chance, because “at his age, he couldn’t kick his leg high enough.”
“I don’t do anything in order to cause trouble, she shrugged. “It just so happens that what I do naturally causes trouble… I sincerely harbour no disrespect for America or Americans, but I have a policy of not having any national anthems played before my concerts in any country, including my own, because they have nothing to do with music in general.”
With the Allies poised for conflict in the first Gulf War, jingoistic patriotism was at nauseating fever pitch, and many US radio stations unceremoniously banned Sinéad’s songs from the corporate airwaves. But that was mere chickenfeed to what came next. The singer’s public protest over the covering up of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church lead to an infamously incendiary scene when she performed an impromptu modified version of Bob Marley’s War on Saturday Night Live in 1992 and then ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II, imploring that we “fight the real enemy.”
This was a full nine years before the pontiff finally acknowledged the horrific historical abuse that had taken place. But still in ’92, Sinéad’s escapade was greeted by silence and pure disgust from the audience, while were racing behind the scenes making sure the applause cue stayed unlit. And trust me, the SNL audience needs to be told when to laugh and clap, the fucking dullards. Of course, when the plastic gangster clown Joe (Pesky) Pesci was on the next week and responded to it by suggesting he give that mouthy woman a back hand slap, the applause light was on and the audience went wild. I won’t bother mentioning Madge’s response either, as Spin magazine’s Bob Guccione, Jr. hit the nail on the harridan harlot’s head best at the time (Though nowhere near hard enough; he should have used Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer – Ed.).
“Madonna savaged her in the press, obviously to fuel publicity for the Sex book and sales of her new album, Erotica… But when the Sinéad controversy threatened to siphon some of the attention from the impending release of Sex, Madonna conveniently found religion again.”
Alas, the SOC had been subjected to run-ins with the stupidly self-proclaimed her Madgesty already, having this to say a year before SNL:
“Madonna is probably the hugest role model for women in America. There’s a woman who people look up to as being a woman who campaigns for women’s rights. A woman who in an abusive way towards me, said that I look like I had a run in with a lawnmower and that I was about as sexy as a Venetian blind. Now there’s the woman that America looks up to as being a campaigner for women, slagging off another woman for not being sexy.”
In 2019, the SOC extrapolated to the Belfast Telegraph and revealed there was more to Madge‘s monstrousness: “She was raging after Vogue was beaten by Nothing Compares” at the 1990 MTV Awards. Sinéad also claims Badonna told her that when she signed Alanis Morissette to her Maverick record label, the mistress from Michigan encouraged Morissette to commercialise O’Connor’s early-career sound for Jagged Little Pill, which, adorned with many a Sinéad-like yodel, went on to become one of the biggest selling records of the 1990s.
Not that she needs it. In 2022, Showtime aired a riveting documentary called Sinéad O’Connor — Nothing Compares that covers a lot of these early topsy-turvy years with a heavy focus on Popegate, and the fallout and exile from the pop mainstream that followed. But as we are here to talk about the music, this unique and fearless iconoclast can boast a ton of great moments on her CV, not to mention the illustrious names that have entered her career in some shape or form. Stand proud and tall, Prince, Peter Gabriel, Brian Eno, U2, Gavin Friday, Roger Waters, Elton John, The Who, The The, Simple Minds, Shane McGowan, Dave Stewart, Terry Hall, Ian Brown et al.
In other words, we couldn’t think of a better artist to be the subject of a Perfect 10 listicle for International Women’s Day. Take it away…
“In Dublin I was doing this show one night and somebody yelled out, ‘Troy, Troy.’ And I went, I’m fucking troying.”
Troy was the first single from SOC’s debut studio album, The Lion And The Cobra, a startling debut that ended in suitably spectacular fashion with Just Call Me Joe, penned with former Ants bassist Kevin Mooney and his wife Leslie Winer. Sinéad only performed the song live for the year of its release and refused to return to it until 2008 when she performed at the Night Of The Proms concerts in Belgium and the Netherlands. The song is intense and is accompanied by a very striking video of our gal bald headed and covered in gold and silver paint in front of a background of moving images.
Ultimately, Troy is an angry, virulent review of Sinéad‘s mother and her Dublin upbringing, who she has said was horrifically abusive to her as a child before she died in a traffic accident in 1985. It’s also the LP‘s defining moment, exhibiting all of the traits — vulnerability, fury, conviction, and lots of theatricality.
The Mandinka are a West African ethnic group scattered across parts of Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, and the Gambia. Sinéad was inspired to write about them after reading Roots by Alex Haley, and insists that to understand the song better you should read the book too.
In retrospect, it feels brash with indie-rock splendour, and you’re gripped straight away from the intro and pulled along until the end by her amazing voice. It all helped to showcase the SOC’s nascent vocal talents beautifully, and a style of singing that would become instantly recognisable. The 45 reached No. 17 in the UK singles chart (6 in Eire) and it’s remained a popular song over the years like so many on this list.
Nothing Compares 2 U (1990)
If people had missed the first album and singles, nobody missed this one. Nothing Compares 2 U was a worldwide juggernaut that sped to the top of the charts in Ireland, Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK and the US. The now legendary track was written by Prince for his 1980s protégé project The Family, but its author didn’t perform it in concert until after Sinéad made it a hit; the success of which also led to a meeting that has evolved in her retelling a couple of times but certainly sounds like it was eventful.
“I did meet him a couple of times. We didn’t get on at all. In fact we had a punch-up… He summoned me to his house after Nothing Compares 2 U. I made it without him. I’d never met him, and – it’s foolish to do this to an Irish woman – he said he didn’t like me saying bad words in interviews. So I told him to fuck off… He got quite violent. I had to escape out of his house at 5 in the morning. He packed a bigger punch than mine.”
She has since said that this version was exaggerated by the press and that Prince was a very sweet guy. Alas, then in her unputdownable memoir, Rememberings, she went into great detail on the meeting including his butler repeatedly serving soup even though she didn’t want any, and his Purpleness hitting her with something hard in a pillow case. So whatever the truth of the meeting. You know you would have loved to be a fly on the wall for it.
The video is beautifully simple and effective. There are some scenes of Sinéad walking around the beautifully manicured Parc de Saint-cloud near Paris and close up shots of her unsettlingly still, singing against a black background. Towards the end, two tears roll down her face, one down each cheek. She said the teardrops were triggered by thoughts of her mother’s passing.
The Emperor’s New Clothes (1990)
“The Emperor’s New Clothes is the album’s closest thing to a typical rock song. An up-front autobiographical song with even, somewhat gritty vocals and strong backing on both electric and acoustic guitars.” – Jodi Cleesattle, American Eagle
Following Nothing Compares, The Emperor’s New Clothes was the next single from the sophomore set I Don’t Want What I Haven’t Got. It reads as a song to a lover but is more about the oppression of the world around her. It seems to be somebody dealing with fame and expectations from those around her.
“Everyone can see what’s going on
They laugh ’cause they know they’re untouchable
Not because what I said was wrong
Whatever it may bring
I will live by my own policies
I will sleep with a clear conscience
I will sleep in peace”
As was mentioned in the quote at the top it’s a fun rocky tune with guitar chops courtesy of Adam And The Ants axeman Marco Pirroni, bass duties by The Smiths’ Andy Rourke and a more ragged vocal than a lot of Sinéad’s work. The video was again directed by John Maybury, and shows the singer on a small stage dancing awkwardly in front of a bemused audience.
You Made Me The Thief Of Your Heart (1993)
Everything David Bowie ever did after his 1980s all clear was, “the best thing since Scary Monsters”, and lo and behold, this Sinéad single is hit by that infinitely lazy “best thing since…” music journalist tag too. However this is roundly recognised as her most fabulous 45 since Nothing Compares for good reason. Written for the film In The Name Of The Father by Bono, Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer, it reached the top five on the Emerald Isle, and feels more mature and carefully constructed than anything that came before, as it would have to when created to push a movie narrative along. It wouldn’t feel out of place on a Tori Amos album like Boys For Pele or pretty much any Kate Bush record. If those three ever get to play together, I will die on the spot and the world will fall to its knees.
Despite drums by Bomb The Bass’ Tim Simenon, and bass by PiL legend Jay Wobble, Thief has a traditional folk song feel that Sinéad’s singing style feeds into. But it has something extra, evocative and quietly powerful. You can overproduce a song like this but it manages to sail the sweet spot that it isn’t excessively polished but also not as grungy as some of her other stuff. The video is gorgeous and cinematic for obvious reasons, and cleverly fuses clips from the film and newly shot Sinéad scenes that look like its all one and the same.
The Guardian’s Caroline Sullivan thought the recording “is the troubled Irish singer at her most stunning. Her well-publicised antics have distracted attention from the fact that she can sing, and beautifully. Here, she puts her angst to good use on a tense, Celtic-fiddle-accented piece of pop. It’s her best track since Nothing Compares 2 U.” Of course, it would have been much quicker for Caroline to just say “I’m a patronising gobshite” but that was the general gist of the reviews at the time. It’s available on Sinéad’s first greatest hits collection, 1997’s So Far… The Best Of.
Thank You For Hearing Me (1994)
“Passionate, emotive, firey, beautiful. This single is a wonderful reminder of why audiences fell in love with O’Connor before all the controversy. It conveys emotion with the sincerity only she can give, using a rising crescendo before slipping into a hushed whisper near the end.” Steve Baltin – Cashbox
After her tabloid fuelled controversies that could have ended a lesser artist’s career, this came at the perfect time. Following 1992’s songs for swinging covers project, Am I Not Your Girl?, the lead single from fourth LP Universal Mother, sounded almost like a hymn or a prayer. “That album was the first attempt to try to expose what was really underneath a lot of the anger of the other records,” O’Connor explained. “George Michael told me he loved that record, but could only listen to it once because it was so painful. He had to hide it.”
Placed as the set-closer, Thank You For Hearing Me is a stripped down vaguely trip-hoppy affair to show off what audiences had come to love about our Sinéad; an enchanting atmospheric voice that rolls over you in waves. Toledo Blade’s David Yonke suggested that this was her offering an olive branch to those that have given her chances.
It’s certainly sweet and gentle and less confrontational than much of her work. However, it’s a bittersweet tale, with SOC recalling in Rememberings that she wrote the song about her break-up with one-time genesis frontman Peter Gabriel, and who she duetted with on his contemporaneous Blood Of Eden 45: “I had had an on-and-off fling with him in which I was basically weekend pussy,” she confides. “That would be the kindest way to describe it. And once I got fed up with being weekend pussy, I wrote this sort of split-up song.”
Chiquitita (little girl in Spanish) is a cover of the soaring ABBA single from their 1979 LP Voulez Vous. Itself a philanthropist project for UNICEF’s International Year Of The Child, Sinéad recorded her remake for Across The Bridge Of Hope, a charity album made in support of victims of the Omagh bomb atrocity carried out by the so-called “Real” IRA, whose victims included six teenagers, six children, and a woman pregnant with twins.
The song is a message of comfort and hope. Sinéad’s voice and style slows everything down a touch and manages to both stay true to the original and be something completely different. The reason for the release of this version of the song makes you sit down and take in the lyrics in a way you may not have before.
The video is very simple just our gal doing some housework in the kitchen and making a brew but again pulls you in closer to the meaning behind the lyrics. The track would later be included on Sinéad’s own odds and sods double album, 2003’s She Who Dwells In The Secret Place Of The Most High Shall Abide Under The Shadow Of The Almighty, the title of which is the same psalm that gave The Lion And The Cobra its name.
Special Cases (Massive Attack ft. Sinead O’Connor) (2003)
“It was one of the easiest songs that happened on this album because it was very direct and simple and very quick and when we played it for Sinéad she just went ‘Yeah I really love that; I want to do something with that’ and she just wrote a song really quickly and it all just happened over night compared to the other songs” – Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja, 2002
As a comment on the state of the world and looking for something that you can trust and believe in, Special Cases, an evocative collaboration with Bristolian trip-hoppers Massive Attack, is pretty straightforward lyrically.
“Take a look around the world.
You see such mad things happening.
There are few good men.
Thank your lucky stars that he’s one of them”
The single and made it to 15 in the UK and was the West Country collective’s only song to chart in Canada, inexplicably, getting to 25. The promotional clip was put together using clips from documentary archives to form a cohesive story with only one scene in the middle filmed specifically for the video. Sinéad only provided the vocals live with the band a total of five times.
The Wolf Is Getting Married (2012)
Whilst this may not have been one of Sinéad O’Connor’s most popular songs, it is my favourite of all of them, delivered in her typically gorgeous way. The title was inspired by hearing a saying from a London cab driver: “The wolf smiles as he is on his way to his wedding.”
There are a couple of versions of this phrase online but are a variation of that, which is said to refer to having a patch of blue sky between the clouds. It’s joyful and celebratory, with the lyrics expressing things many people can relate to, like love and laughter and finding a place of stability after living a hectic and insecure life.
“I used to have no wolves around me
I was too free, if that’s possible to be
No safety, is what I mean
No solid foundation to keep me
But the sun’s peeping out of the sky
Where there used to be only grey
The wolf is getting married
And he’ll never cry again”
How About I Be Me (2014)
Taken from the tenth studio album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss, the music on its opening track How About I Be Me is easy, mellow and nothing too experimental, it’s but a perfectly good song all the same.
Sinéad’s lyrics could easily be about relationships with partners or her own relationship with fans or the media. But it doesn’t really feel like more of her autobiographical stuff. The delivery feels like she’s playing a character that deliberately sets it apart from her more sincere songs. The simplest reading of the subject matter explores the roles and expectations that people have of women and the desire to find someone strong enough to support them the way they are expected to support others.
“Always gotta be the lioness
Taking care of everybody else
A woman like me needs love
A woman like me needs a man to be
Stronger than herself”
In 2021, Sinéad announced her retirement from the music industry, a statement she later backtracked from. While her ‘final’ studio album, No Veteran Dies Alone, has been postponed innumerable times due to everything from COVID-19 to the tragic suicide of her teenage son Shane in 2022, one thing is crystal clear — you write Sinéad O’Connor off at your peril.
The Ensign label goosed a quartet of singles from the second set I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got but The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance wasn’t one of them.
Speaking to his editorship Steve Pafford, Adam Ant collaborator Marco Pirroni was involved with two of the 45s, providing guitar on The Emperor’s New Clothes and co-writing the LP’s first single Jump In The River. He remembers the recording session for Acquaintance like yesterday: “She went in to do another song, and while they were getting the sounds for that she basically wrote and sung it all the way through on the spot and that’s the vocal they used on the album. Very instinctive and totally from heart with her. I miss her.”
Also from that covers project is Sinéad’s surly stripped take on Nirvana’s All Apologies; while the lovely Scarlet Ribbons was subsequently used beautifully in arguably the most celebrated episode of The Royle Family, 2006’s The Queen Of Sheba.
From 1994, the ethereal Enya-like Tiny Grief Song, is delivered in a similar way and does what it says on the packet, while Famine is a hard-hitting Irish history lesson that quotes The Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby to devastating effect.
Following a hiatus after 1997’s Gospel Oak EP that saw the SOC survive a punishing custody battle, a suicide attempt, a self-outing as a lesbian, and a change of record label, 2000’s full-length Faith And Courage boasted a roll-call of notables from Brian Eno to Wyclef Jean and Dave Stewart. The Eurythmics mainman co-authored and produced several cuts including the second single Jealous, a lonely lament that could have easily been an outtake from Annie Lennox’s Diva album, and which Wall Of Sound thought ruminates on “loves lost, found, and, in most cases, fondly remembered.”
2012’s Take Off Your Shoes (OK, I will! – Ed.) is a further critique on the Holy See’s concealment of child sexual abuse. Sinéad said it was how “the Holy Spirit would address the Vatican.”
Upon the death of David Bowie in 2016, numerous performers had a crack at tackling his songs on stage, from from Madness to Madonna and Gaga to Springsteen. In Chicago, Sinéad ably tackled two of the Dame’s hits from 1973: the always elegiac Life On Mars? and the sixties cover Sorrow, with Young Americans backing vocalist Ava Cherry guesting.
Lastly, there’s far too many great collaborations to mention, but I suggest making a playlist of the best ones. Prime considerations include 2020’s team-up with Ulster’s David Holmes on Trouble Of The World, a traditional song made famous by exalted gospel singer Mahalia Jackson; 1000 Mirrors (2003) with Asian Dub Foundation is suitably hypnotic; All Kinds Of Everything is a kitschy cover of the Dana hit for 1998’s A Song For Eurotrash; while a decade earlier Sinéad sang on the 12” version of Monkey In Winter, a 1987 recording by Hall’s third band The Colourfield, and which appears on expanded editions of their self-titled second album.
Slán go fóill.
It’s been 33 years since Sinéad O’Connor took Nothing Compares 2 U to No. 1 is here
Exclusive: Gavin Friday talks about recording with Sinéad O’Connor and Bono is here