Sinéad O’Connor: An Incomparable Performer in Budapest

Analysis

Photo by Donal Moloney

David Holzer talks with sometimes controversial Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor ahead of her one-night show in Budapest, the second stop of her latest world tour.

Sinéad O’Connor. Photo by Donal Moloney
The career of Sinéad O’Connor has certainly had plenty of controversial twists and turns. But what’s perhaps most surprising, at least initially, is the sheer affection with which she’s regarded.

My research prior to interviewing O’Connor was mainly watching YouTube clips. I came across her performing “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the Prince song she made her own back in 1990 in Ireland at Feile 19. The audience greets the song with a mighty roar and sings along with every word.  

When I spoke to O’Connor recently, I was grateful that we were talking on the phone so she couldn’t see me wince when I asked about that song and how she felt about singing it almost 30 years later. She was unphased. “I’ve taken breaks from singing it when I can’t find anything in it,” she told me. “But I always come back to it.”

And how does she feel about the obvious affection with which she’s regarded. “I’m thrilled with that. It’s makes me very happy, to be honest. I find it very, very moving.”

O’Connor’s Budapest show is the second date on a tour that takes in Canada and the United States as well as Europe. It’s perhaps not surprising that she should be regarded so warmly in her native Ireland but what about the rest of the world? “I find it the same everywhere I go,” she said.

I’d suggest that one of the reasons O’Connor is fondly appreciated is that when she performs live, what you see and hear is exactly what you get. At Feile 19, she took the stage in trainers, shapeless trousers, a hoodie and a hijab, the Muslim head covering which she’s said she wears out of choice rather than because she’s obliged to.

On Fire

In these days of singers using things like Pro Tools to enhance their voices or even miming, frantic dancing, multiple costume changes, huge video screens and pyrotechnics, O’Connor believes “everyone’s doing big shows and everything to distract from the performance. You don’t need a big old production around you. You should be able to go on in your jeans and t-shirt and be fire. I can do that and it’s what I love to do.”

As she says, performing live is what O’Connor does. “I’m someone that was born to perform live. It’s the only reason I make records,” she said. That’s not to say that O’Connor hasn’t made some fantastic albums, most notably for me 1994’s “Universal Mother”.

Watching another impassioned, utterly focused, performance of “Nothing Compares 2 U” on Irish TV, I was struck all over again by the purity and power of her voice. How did she feel it had changed since she recorded the song aged 24 or so?

“I’m 53 so I can’t sing as high soprano as I could back then, but I still feel I sing better now than when I was younger. I think the biggest change is I’m much freer as a singer. Once I start singing in my own accent, I start being myself.”

Although she’s best known for that song, O’Connor has made 10 albums and been involved in many collaborations. She also has a large back catalog of deeply personal self-penned songs. How does she write?

Writing Muscle

“I just wait for something to come. It usually isn’t that long. Maybe I’ll wait a year. I write a bit more slowly than perhaps I used to. Touring helps to get the writing muscle in shape again. Once that happens, the songs arrive.”

Is O’Connor one of those people who believes, as songwriters often say, that the songs come through her? “No. I believe I’m channeling my true self. Some of the time, songwriting is quite conscious for me but mostly it feels like it’s my subconscious speaking to me.”

Talking to O’Connor, I get the sense that she’s honest to a fault. Did she have any kind of career game plan when she started out?

“I just had a whole lot of stuff I had to get off my chest. And I was doing that in the form of music. I didn’t really think about anything else. Which is why it was uncomfortable for me when all the other stuff happened. I wasn’t expecting that or aiming for it.”

By “all the other stuff” O’Connor means the various controversies she’s sparked throughout her career. The most recent of these is her embrace of Islam. But, talking to her, converting – or, as she puts it, “reverting” – makes perfect sense.

“I am a person who’s studied theology since I was very young,” she said. “I left Islam until last because I was quite prejudiced. But once I started to study the Koran, that was it. What I like about the Koran is that it confirms all the previous scriptures, the Judaism and Christianity which I find so inspiring. I’ve also been inspired by Hinduism, but I’ve had to leave that slightly behind, although I have Hindu pictures all over my house and listen to Hindu chants.”

To me, it seems that, although O’Connor’s faith is undoubtedly sincere, she really embodies the artist Jean Cocteau’s maxim that “Art is not a pastime but a priesthood.” Her devotion to her art and her craft are the most important thing for her and they should be for us.

Sinéad O’Connor appeared at the Akvárium Klub in Budapest on December 9.

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