“Theology is an attempt to create a place of peace in a time of war and to provoke thought,” says Sinead O’Connor about her new studio album, the artist’s first since her 2005 reggae collection, Throw Down Your Arms. The events of September 11, 2001 contributed to the writing of the songs very much so, as did events subsequently as they have panned out all over the world. The whole world became a very dangerous place on that day. I simply wanted to make a beautiful thing, out of something beautiful, which inspires me. Theology, the record, apart from being a place of peace and meditation, is a very personal emotional response.”
Influenced by a wide variety of musical and literary sources which have helped shape her aesthetic consciousness since childhood, O’Connor composed the majority of the songs on Theology, the first album to be comprised mainly of her own material since her fifth full-length album, Faith and Courage, was released in 2000.
Theology premieres eight new songs written, or co-written, by Sinead O’Connor as well as three covers: Curtis Mayfield’s soul-searching “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” a ferocious interpretation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “I Don’t Know How To Love” (from “Jesus Christ Superstar”), and the traditional reggae spiritual, “Rivers of Babylon,” with new lyrics written by Sinead.
Sinead’s new song, “Something Beautiful,” the first single from Theology, is emblematic of her current aspirations. “To be honest,” she says. “It’s a very personal song. I had come out of the rock and pop arena for a few years. And I never even looked at a guitar or any instrument, nor opened my mouth to sing. I spent a few years denying my desire to be a singer because I felt really like I didn’t belong in the rock and pop world. I really had convinced myself I would get a job and not bother with music any more because I was such a square peg in a round hole. After a couple of years though, I began to want to approach music again and asked myself how could I protect myself from the things I found hard to cope with in the entertainment industry. I didn’t know how I was going to come up with songs, so I wrote ‘Something Beautiful’ as a prayer for assistance and as a prayer saying thanks. That’s really how the idea to actually make the album kicked off. So the song is a statement of intention and of gratitude. It also is a statement of the desire to be of assistance in such a way as to provide warmth through music.”
Each disc of Theology presents Sinead’s new songs in different forms. The minimalist acoustic “Dublin Sessions” disc was produced by traditional Irish musician Steve Cooney (In Tua Nua, The Chieftains, Mary Black), who, along with Sinead, plays guitar on the stripped-down recordings. The “Dublin Sessions” were co-produced by Sinead O’Connor and Graham Bolger and feature a “hidden track”: Sinead’s haunting rendition of “Hosanna Filio David.”
The second disc of Theology, dubbed the “London Sessions,” showcases the songs in electrifying full band arrangements produced by Ron Tom. Instrumentation on the “London Sessions” includes drums, bass, guitar, piano, harp, violins, celli, French horn, flute, backing vocals, percussion and programming. Guest artists include reggae bass legend Robbie Shakespeare.
“Originally, there was only going to be the acoustic version,” Sinead points out as she describes the process behind the decision to make Theology a double album experience. “Over years of doing shows, I used to do fifteen minutes or so as an encore, with just an acoustic guitar. And that was often the audience’s favorite part of the show. So I’d been thinking for years that I would love to do an acoustic album because I figured that’s what my hardcore audience would like. Then, what happened is, Ron Tom and I had done some demos just to see how we got on working together. I only demoed these songs because I had no others and I wanted to see how we worked and I explained that I had already committed to the acoustic versions of the song, but Ron really wanted me to let him produce the album. So, in the end, I said I would do both versions because I wasn’t going to abandon the acoustic one, as I loved it, and I equally loved what Ron was doing with the songs. Then I liked how the two records came to symbolize the different slants that can get put on theology.”
Both icon and iconoclast, Sinead O’Connor has been making music, rejecting stereotypes and defying expectations for more than a quarter century. At the age of fourteen, she wrote and recorded the debut single for the Dublin-based Irish band In Tua Nua, then left the band because she was too young to tour.
In 1987, she wrote, recorded and released “The Lion and The Cobra,” which Rolling Stone called “easily one of the most distinctive debut albums of the year,” and charted with her first alternative hits “Mandinka,” “Troy,” and “I Want Your (Hands on Me).”
In 1990, her sophomore album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, peaked at Number One on the Billboard Top 200 while her Prince-penned single, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” reached Number One on the Hot 100 and earned her a Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance. (Over the next few years, she would later withdraw her name from Grammy consideration despite multiple nominations.) Her groundbreaking video for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” featuring Sinead’s unforgettable performance in single-shot close-up, took home the Best Video trophy at the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards, marking the first time a woman had ever won the Best Video category.
Her clean-shaven head, ferocity of intelligence and intent, dignified persona, and penetrating aesthetic acuity established a new template for women in popular music and culture. Her uncompromised image obliterated objectification while the unprecedented potency of her music demanded that she be taken seriously as an artist.
While her third album, 1992’s Am I Not Your Girl?, presaged the current resurgence of torch songs and standards by nearly a decade, a series of well-documented controversies led to her withdrawal from the music business while she continued to refine her art and pursue her own spiritual path.
“The whole ‘Sinead O’Connor’ experience had made me very sad,” she says today. “I was also dealing with other, more private, feelings which would have prevented me attempting to make a record like Theology.”
Following the release of Am I Not Your Girl? and a cover of Cole Porter’s “You Do Something to Me” for the Red Hot & Blue AIDS/fundraising album, Sinead retreated from the glare of public scrutiny and retired to Dublin to devote time to her family and study the art and science of Italian Bel Canto singing, among other personal pursuits.
In 1994, she released Universal Mother, her first album of original material since I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which featured the hit single, “Thank You for Hearing Me,” and an astounding cover of Kurt Cobain’s “All Apologies.” Her mini-album, Gospel Oak, which presaged Theology in the intensity of its acoustic arrangements, was released in 1997. Faith and Courage, a 2000 album of mostly new Sinead O’Connor compositions, featured production and musical contributions from variety of artists including Wyclef Jean, Brian Eno, David A. Stewart, and Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, among others.
In 2002, Sinead released Sean Nos Nua, a vital reinterpretation of familiar Irish traditional material, which was warmly welcomed by critics and fans alike, and once again illustrated her ability to reinvent herself irrespective of prevailing fads and notions. She followed up in 2003 with She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty, her hand-picked compendium of B-sides, rarities and covers coupled with a riveting live performance recorded at Dublin’s Vicar Street.
Following her interest in Rastafari culture, Sinead traveled to Jamaica in 2005 to record Throw Down Your Arms, a collection of reggae classics. Recorded under the tutelage of Sly & Robbie with some of Jamaica’s finest musicians, the album peaked at Number Four on Billboard’s Top Reggae Albums chart.
Twenty years after she first began transforming the pop cultural landscape with the release of her debut solo album, The Lion and The Cobra, Sinead O’Connor continues to delight and surprise, challenge and inspire with the sound of her voice and the power of her music on Theology. The album is being released by Koch Records on That’s Why There’s Chocolate and Vanilla, Sinead’s own label imprint.
Lest the world dare forget who Sinead O’Connor is, it’s about to be reminded once more. Twenty-five years after her debut, 1987’s The Lion and The Cobra, she returns with How About I Be Me (And You Be You) (2012), her ninth studio album and as show-stopping a performance as her silver jubilee deserves. Produced by long-term collaborator John Reynolds, its ten tracks play like an encyclopaedic definition of O’Connor’s oeuvre: songs about love and loss, hope and regret, pain and redemption, anger and justice. “I kind of realized I’ve spent a lot of my life as an artist being told what I should be,” says O’Connor of the title. “Being told you should be this, you should do this, you shouldn’t do that. You get to a certain age when you realize no, it’s perfectly OK for me to be me, thank you very much, and you to be you. But it’s very much an Irish thing. It’s really a comment about Ireland and what it’s like to be an Irish female artist, and particularly this Irish female artist.”