Sinéad O’Connor, the outspoken Irish singer-songwriter who went to the top of the charts at a dizzying speed with her biggest hit, the Grammy-winning “Nothing Compares 2 U,” died on July 26, 2023. She was 56.
O’Connor roared into view in 1988 releasing The Lion and the Cobra, which garnered rave reviews and topped alternative music playlists. With her shaved head and doe-eyed stare, the 20-year-old Irish singer generated an auspicious aura when she performed at the Rainbow Music Hall in Denver. She claimed that she was simply a novice albeit precocious talent.
“I’m trying very hard not to be mysterious,” she said quietly between sips of coffee and drags on a cigarette. “Before they even hear me, people tend to think I’m a rather dramatic, fiery person because I’m Irish and I’m a woman. But I’m not.”
Yet she readily admitted to an independent streak, wanting to be a source of conflict. She first recorded at age 14 with the Irish band In Tua Nua. She worked with U2 guitarist The Edge on his soundtrack for the movie The Captive, although she was careful to downplay any affiliation with the famed supergroup. She co-produced The Lion and the Cobra herself after an aborted effort with an outside producer. “I didn’t feel I could explain to anybody else exactly what I wanted,” she shrugged. “A complete fool could produce an album—I think I’m proof of that. As long as you can punch the right buttons…”
The Lion and the Cobra was indignant and angry, her attempt to exorcise the effects of her turbulent childhood. She wrote the majority of songs, vehicles for her remarkably flexible voice. The spacy atmospheric textures of her music had drawn uninvited comparisons with Laurie Anderson and Jane Siberry. “It’s bound to happen because I’m another girl artist,” she sighed. “But it bothers me when I’m compared to people I can’t stand. I’m not saying I’m better than anyone else, but I’m certainly not like Suzanne Vega.”
O’Connor was touring America with her nine-month-old son in tow, striving to keep the experience “as normal as possible—I can’t understand why the album has done so well,” she admitted. “It never occurred to me when I was writing the songs that any of this would be happening. It proves that it’s not a problem to do what you want to do. I don’t want to be considered a poet or a genius, and I don’t try to convey any image in my music. I just write songs for myself. I’m just Sinéad.”
Then came the massive success of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” her cover of an obscure Prince ballad that became a No. 1 hit and MTV staple. In singing intimately about her quest for serenity, she sounded like she’d learned a lot in her 23 years—her seductive commentaries about philosophical transformation and personal exorcisms were sensitive and straightforward. At Red Rocks Amphitheatre, her voice covered a symphonic range, shifting octaves in mid-syllable from banshee wailing to a child’s whisper.
But the only thing greater than her magnificent voice was her talent for being at the center of controversy. Audiences were outraged when she refused to allow the national anthem to be played before a concert in New Jersey (Frank Sinatra said she deserved a “kick in the ass”). The following year, she tore up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live, making front-page headlines around the world. The incident led to a demonstration in New York, where protesters hired a steamroller and drove over a stack of her records. Two weeks later, she was booed off stage at a New York Bob Dylan tribute concert.
O’Connor’s Universal Mother album expressed her sadness, and it coincided with a near-nervous breakdown. After intensive therapy, she retreated from public view to quietly put her life back together. She concentrated on loving herself, her son Jake, 10, and daughter Roisin, 1.
“I remember that I was voted the ‘most loved’ and the ‘most hated’ in Rolling Stone, which is really an achievement,” she said prior to a concert at the Paramount Theater in Denver in 1997. “America is full of people who are jumping out of every doorway dying to have a fight over something. How the media writes does not reflect how people feel. I’ve never experienced anything but the utmost respect from people on the street with regards to the actions I’ve taken in public. The only hassle or disrespect I’ve ever gotten has been from the media.
“But that’s been all across the globe. It’s worse in England, to tell you the truth. It’s just that in America, people are more inclined to come out and march, or hire a steamroller. In a way, you have to admire it. In England, they wouldn’t have the courage to do that. Basically, I think an artist’s job is to create conversation about things which need to be talked about. I’ve done a good job there.”
At age 30, the confessional singer-songwriter had reached a turning point. She was preoccupied with motherhood and spirituality, as indicated by the sweet, comforting tones of her Gospel Oak EP. She’d started a healing process toward her abusive mother, the Catholic Church and those who had victimized her in the past. She considered herself more of a Rastafarian than a Catholic. “Catholicism teaches that God is dead, that he was crucified on the cross. Rastafarianism teaches that God is a living creature, some sense that lives in all of us and is present in every moment of every day in every conversation.”
At the Paramount, she didn’t perform any songs from her debut album or “Nothing Compares 2 U.” “I do the songs which don’t hurt me—I don’t do miserable songs because I don’t feel like that anymore,” she said. “I always wanted to be 30. The 20s were a very fearful time, and I figured that when I got to be 30, I’d acquire a certain serenity. And that’s how it turned out.
“Fame is a curse. It’s a weird ol’ thing, because there you are and the world thinks you’re great and you think you’re a piece of shit. It was the worst phase of my life, which I thank God I’ll never have to go through again. I think we all have to go through that dark night of the soul, and I’m just grateful I got mine over with when I was young. The only way to handle it is to learn by your mistakes.”