INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut SEPTEMBER 2014 - by Michael Bonner
SINÉAD O'CONNOR: I'M NOT BOSSY, I'M THE BOSS
Staunch tenth album finds O'Connor flexing her songwriting chops.
When Sinéad O'Connor tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live in 1992, she brought into focus her gifts for music, controversy and self-publicity in one fairly explosive package. Since then, O'Connor's career has followed a singular - often heartbreaking - trajectory encompassing ordination into the priesthood, misdiagnosed bipolar disorder, an eighteen-day marriage and, most recently, an online spat with Miley Cyrus concerning the perceived exploitation of the former teen pin-up. Nevertheless, in amidst such hullabaloos, O'Connor's voice - a thing of silvery, haunting splendour - has remained a constant reminder of her exceptional talent.
O'Connor's recorded output has also followed an idiosyncratic path: there have been albums of traditional jazz standards, Irish songs and reggae covers. But on I'm Not Bossy, I'm The Boss - named after an awareness campaign to promote women's empowerment in the workplace - O'Connor shoots for the pop vibes of her last studio album, 2012's How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?.
On this, her tenth studio album (produced by her former husband and longterm collaborator John Reynolds), O'Connor explores the perspectives of a number of different female characters. The opening track, How About I Be Me?, foregrounds O'Connor's voice against a minimal backing - a persuasive reminder of her natural abilities, certainly, but also perhaps a subtle nod to Nothing Compares 2 U. Here, O'Connor's narrator claims she will only find fulfilment in the arms of a man: "A woman like me needs love / A woman like me needs a man to be / Stronger than herself". Soon after, one of the album's more empowered characters emerges in the playful Kisses Like Mine. "See, I'm Special Forces / They call me in after divorces / To lift you up", she teases, buoyed along by some cheerful guitar riffing. This early run of songs finds O'Connor tapping into the bruised intensity of her early days: but fortunately not at the expense of her sense of humour.
The album's dramas, complications and conflict continue with one of the album's standout tracks, the gentle Your Green Jacket. In this vignette, we experience one character's unrequited love - "Even though I know I'm not for you / Is it OK to say I really do adore you" - before O'Connor telescopes in on a moment of extraordinary intimacy. "Smelled your jacket / When you left it on its lonely post / Wrapped it 'round me / Like it was the holiest of ghosts".
She ups her game further for the album's centrepiece, Harbour: a gruelling account of abuse, where "A broken fourteen-year-old girl / Hasn't been allowed to tell / What actually happened in hell". However fictional the narrators of each individual song are, it seems likely that in this instance, O'Connor is writing from her own experiences. The intensity and drive of the guitars - when they hit - matches the passion and righteousness of O'Connor's mesmerising delivery.
There are lighter moments, too. James Brown - featuring Seun Kuti on horns and Brian Eno on bass - is mischievous Afrobeat funk, complete with O'Connor essaying the occasional JB-style "yowl". Take Me To Church and Where Have You Been?, meanwhile, are upbeat if fairly unremarkable rockers. She exits the album with Streetcars, her voice cast against an airy keyboard refrain. In this suitably valedictory note foran album that has addressed love in various guises, her narrator wryly concludes, "There's no safety to be acquired / Riding streetcars named desire".
RECORDED AT: New Air Studios, London
PRODUCED BY: John Reynolds
PERSONNEL: Sinéad O'Connor (vocals, guitars), John Reynolds (drums, keys, programming), Clare Kenny (bass), Graham Kearns (guitars), Graham Henderson (keys), Brook Supple (acoustic guitar), Tim Oliver (keys), Rupert Cobb and Fred Gibson (trumpet arrangements), Caroline Dale (cellos), Justin Adams (guitars), Seun Kuti (sax), Brian Eno (bass)
The songs are told from the viewpoint of different characters. Why?
On the last album, I started writing songs in the voice of different characters. This record is about a series of female characters, and the particular journey of one of the characters, who matures from romanticising girl to sensible woman. I consciously wanted to make a romantic record. I love the nature of the type of love songs. It's a very womanly record, from that point of view.
What are the key songs for you?
My favourite is Voice Of My Doctor. I love what the character has to say. The song was inspired by a painting I came across, which had this giant stone head of a man and this tiny little Buddhist priestess leaning against him snuggling, and he had a big old tear running down his face. I don't know whether it was the woman in the painting suddenly became the character or not, but the moment I saw it, I had the character. I love Your Green Jacket, where the character manages to find a few moments alone with his jacket.
How did Seun Kuti come to play on the record?
John Reynolds, the producer, also produced Seun's last album. I wanted horns on two tracks on this record, Dense Water Deeper Down and James Brown. There's a line in The Aristocats, "A square with a horn makes you wish you weren't born". And it's true: not everyone can play horns in a way that is not fucking dreadful. So we were very lucky John knew Seun, otherwise we'd be reduced to white people horns, and they don't work. Brian Eno played the bass parts on James Brown. I think he was attracted to the character, who's a bit naughty.
Where do you think the album fits into your discography?
It's the first self-consciously pop record I've ever made. There's a strength in the record. I see it as a cornerstone for how I want to go forward creatively.