By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times
November 3, 2013 11:12PM
Sinead O’Connor makes music that is much like her: beautiful to listen to, but disconcerting for their stark inner truths.
Since debuting in 1987 as a singer with scorching vocal abilities and a bold look, she has not mellowed her musical instincts or outspoken convictions. Instead, she has quietly released a succession of albums, spanning Rastafarian music, electro-pop and Irish balladry, which combine personal catharsis, spiritual hunger and righteous discontent.
Her ninth album, “How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?” (One Little Indian), brings her to a three-night run at City Winery starting Monday. Chicago is the first on a nine-city club tour, a departure from the usual theaters and concert halls she has been accustomed to all these years. Only her booking agent knows the reason why, she says by phone recently.
What O’Connor knows is her seven-member band will likely be “squished” in such close quarters. “But it’s cool because we love each other,” she says, laughing.
They will perform under the bill “American Kindness,” which the 46-year-old O’Connor says was inspired by the outpouring of support, great and small, she’s received on these shores for years. “American people have a specific character trait, which is kindness. It doesn’t matter where they’re from,” she says. She admits that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan soured many of her friends back home on this country, but she believes that most people transcend whatever establishment is currently in office.
“The majority of people believe in peace and love even if we can’t manifest it at all times. So my guess is Americans get a bad rap because of a small few who have done a few things that are not morally correct,” she says.
Her new album is a revival of what made her most acclaimed works so special and sounds driven by a renewed focus on her songwriting. The majority of these are character songs — the junkie thief of “Reason With Me” and the excited young bride of “4th and Vine.”
O’Connor says recording her last few albums — “Throw Down Your Arms,” a collection of classic Rasta covers, in 2005 and “Theology,” a double-album in 2007 — were meant to “spiritualize” herself via confessional songs informed by the Scriptures. “Those were stepping stones” to this current album that, she says, “gave me more freedom as a songwriter.”
“Songwriting is subconscious. The songs explain themselves later. The characters, in particular, while they’re not you, perhaps they have things in common with you or they call you in some way,” she says. “I always say about music that if you can describe music or talk about music, you wouldn’t need music.”
Also on this album are what Bob Dylan once called “finger-pointing songs.” “Take Off Your Shoes” directly targets the Vatican cover-up of pedophilia abuse in Ireland and beyond, an issue O’Connor, who is Christian, has taken up in public, on television and op-eds.
The lyrics are in the voice of the Holy Spirit directed at the Curia. “In vanity you took the name of me … and now you’re so surprised to see me,” she sings via multi-tracked vocals.
“There was no voice for the Holy Spirit in that situation. It was being disrespected by the lies. You couldn’t lie about such important stuff in front of the Holy Spirit if you believed in him,” she says.
And then there’s Miley Cyrus. After the pop star created headlines for a hyper-sexualized performance at a televised awards show in August, O’Connor called foul and wrote a series of open letters on her website directed to the former Disney Channel star, warning her of being manipulated for her sexuality and asserting that women should value themselves more than being used as pawns in the pop world machinery.
The dialogue developed into an unintended debate on mental illness, provoked by Cyrus, who lampooned O’Connor on Twitter, publishing screenshots of statements O’Connor made a year earlier, suggesting she was unstable. O’Connor eventually removed the Cyrus letters from her website, replacing them with a guide to mental health advocacy from the British Institute of Human Rights.
O’Connor says she wants the word “crazy” outlawed because it has become a “term of abuse” that stigmatizes and harms mentally ill people who are already vulnerable.
“If people think you are mentally ill, they treat you like (expletive). Trust me, they actually use it as something to (expletive) all over you. It’s criminal,” she says. “Most mentally ill people are some of the most beautiful souls you can meet.”
She would not talk in specifics about the incident, but strangely, a new song, “V.I.P.,” written years ago, addresses the lure of celebrity and how it moves people away from God.
“When He’s presiding over you/asking you, ‘Did you love only you/or did you stand for something else/besides the hankering for fame and fame itself?’/the one who always was and always is/will show you what a real V.I.P. is,” she sings.
Pop music has always yielded to celebrity, but O’Connor says the holy grail of fame intensified soon after gangsta rap entered the mainstream, starting with the 1988 N.W.A. classic “Straight Outta Compton,” which she said was so dangerous and exciting, it couldn’t last. Being famous soon became more valued than having something to say.
“There’s nothing more frightening than pissed-off young people. But the establishment depends on the young people never making the world a great place so they have to (expletive) up the heroes of the young people by any means necessary. So that’s what happened: they shut up artists who had something to say and replaced them with MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. And everybody went silent. Because you made more money if you were the more washed-down version of what you once were and you said what everybody wanted you to say … and now rap has been totally taken over by bling, diamonds and sex,” she says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with bling, diamonds and sex, but it’s not about anything else.
“Non-violent anger is important and records are non-violent. It doesn’t matter what the words say, the person has gone into the studio and screamed into the mike instead of being violent,” she says. “People need to express themselves, and that has been taken out of the music.”