I don’t know no shame,” Sinéad O’Connor sang in “Mandinka,” her first hit song, from her 1987 debut album The Lion and the Cobra, “I feel no pain.” If the first claim was true—which for anyone raised Catholic anywhere is a skyscraper-sized “if”—the second was demonstrably false. Sinéad O’Connor’s life and career and art were about pain: exorcising it, escaping it, endlessly searching for ways to transcend her own and to spare future generations theirs. Yet, relief and reprieve eluded her as loss and abuse repeatedly struck her life, persisting until the very end. The news of her passing today, at the remarkably young age of 56, just a year and a half after her son Shane's death, comes as both a shock and an inevitability."
As an artist, she was the voice of an Ireland summoning the power to shake off a theocracy. At the time of her birth in 1966, the Catholic Church maintained such sway over the Irish government that divorce and remarriage were forbidden (and remained so until 1995), so her father had to emigrate to America after leaving her mother. Such a thing as a “home for fallen women, operated by nuns” existed—a “Magdalene laundry,” as they were known—and Sinéad was sent to one at age 15 for shoplifting. It gave her a chance to work on her music, which is the bright side.
She made her American debut as a backup singer for World Party, a group that was formed by members of the renowned British-Irish band The Waterboys. She’s there in the video for their first single “Private Revolution,” and she steals the show with the shaved head and the joy she expresses. You can’t hear her exactly, but there is ecstatic release in the dancing.
This content is imported from YouTube. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their website.
The next year saw the release of The Lion and the Cobra, and while "Mandinka" became the album's first big single, it wasn't the album's first single; instead, it was "Troy," whose video appeared on an early episode of MTV's 120 Minutes. It’s a six-and-a-half-minute song, one that has movements, none of which would have gotten played on the radio. “Troy” is a howl of a song, the arrival of a singular artist. A statement.
“When I moved to Dublin in the late ‘80s, Sinéad O’Connor was the only cool Irish person I could think of,” says Irish actor and writer Tara Flynn. “Maybe Phil Lynott, but that was it. She was the coolest, most outspoken, most beautiful person you could think of.” The Lion and the Cobra also contained “I Want Your (Hands On Me)” a song that speaks to her coolness, a song whose remix was way ahead of the “pop songs with rap breaks” curve.
She broke through globally with a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” but you know that already. You have heard how she turns a breakup song into an expression of pure mourning, how she goes through all five Kubler-Ross stages of grief and then goes back and adds three more. It was huge in 1990, inescapable really, in a way no artist could replicate.
All but the very smartest artists would try anyway.
Sinéad didn't hold back. In 1992, she released "Am I Not Your Girl?," an album featuring jazz standards, and during its promotional tour, she appeared on Saturday Night Live where the unforgettable moment you're familiar with occurred. You’ve seen the big moment, the “fight the real enemy,” the ripping apart of the photograph of Pope John Paul II. But have you watched the performance? The pure, clear-eyed rage? The determination? The absolute bravery of going on SNL to do this song at all, much less a cappella? Legendary.
And as for the ripping of the picture: we knew she was right, even then. “When she got international fame, she spoke out against the Catholic Church,” Flynn says, “and that’s something not many of us were ready to do. I wasn’t.” The global press tortured her, Frank Sinatra said “For her sake, we’d better never meet.” You got the impression that was pretty much it for her commercially in the States and that it was perfect for her. She continued to put out albums, some of which combined catharsis with pop perfection, like "No Man's Woman" from the year 2000.
She also continued to look for relief from the pain of her abusive childhood and her perhaps more abusive relationship with fame. Though she was outspoken in her criticism of the Catholic Church, she never fully left faith behind. She was ordained a priest in the Irish Orthodox Catholic Church and called herself Mother Bernadette Mary for a time, before changing her name to Magda Davitt, then converting to Islam and changing her name yet again, to Shuhada Sadaqat. Ten years ago, having heard that Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” video was inspired by her own “Nothing Compares 2 U,” O’Connor wrote Cyrus an open letter that deserves to be read in full. But here’s a representative sample:
None of the men ogling you give a shit about you, do not be fooled. Many's the woman mistook lust for love. If they want you sexually that doesn't mean they give a fuck about you. All the more true when you unwittingly give the impression you don't give much of a fuck about yourself. And when you employ people who give the impression they don't give much of a fuck about you either. No one who cares about you could support your being pimped … and that includes you yourself. Yes, I'm suggesting you don't care for yourself. That has to change. You ought be protected as a precious young lady by anyone in your employ and anyone around you, including you. This is a dangerous world. We don't encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals and less than animals, a distressing majority of whom work in the music industry and its associated media.
She was candid and open about the impact the Pope incident had on her career. “People say ‘oh, you fucked up your career,’ but they’re talking about the career they had in mind for me. I fucked up the house in Antigua that the record company dudes wanted to buy. I fucked up their career, not mine. It meant I had to live my life playing, and I am born for live performance.”
Ireland on the day of Sinéad’s death is vastly different from the country she was born into. Abortion is legal, and gay marriage is the law of a land where homosexuality was illegal until 1993. A once-repressive country has become one of the world’s most progressive. “There is no Ireland moving away from the Church as we have without Sinéad,” says Flynn. “There is no me speaking out about abortion, there are none of the many ways legislation has changed in this country.”
“It’s almost impossible to put into words what Sinéad meant to Ireland,” says Hugh O’Conor, who directed her 2015 video “8 Good Reasons.” “She was a true artist who sang from her raging soul, she was perhaps our most gifted songwriter and musician.” O’Conor recommends the recent O’Connor documentary Nothing Compares, directed by Kathryn Ferguson, streaming now on Hulu and Paramount+. “It’s worth seeking it out to witness her fierce strength and unforgettable fire. It’s such an immense loss.”
“The Church that she bucked against is still very vivid in this country, the secrecy and the control of it is still revealing itself in people’s family lives,” Flynn says. “The bullshit is still unfolding. She stood up square against it. People laughed, people ridiculed her because they weren’t ready to stand up to the misogyny of the Catholic Church. But everything she said about them, everything that she said about mental health, it was true. Everything.”
Tara Flynn and I get off the phone, and twenty minutes later, she sends me a WhatsApp.
A single word.
Interviewed by Cal Fussman, August 21, 2014, originally published in the November 2014 issue of Esquire.
I've been very fortunate. I'm doing what I love and I'm getting away with it, you know?
Fame comes and goes. Longevity is the thing to aim for.
If music sounds dated, it means it wasn't very good in the first place.
Music teaches my painting and painting teaches my music.
I was sketching in a slit trench, hiding out, waiting for the Germans. All of a sudden, I heard a whistle. I knew immediately that it was coming right at us. The noises that it made were unbelievable. It overcame me. So I ran as fast as I could from that trench. I was twenty-five feet away when the shell hit exactly where I'd been sketching. What did it teach me? it thought me to be against war.
Sing like it's an opening night.
Never open with a closer—that comes from Count Basie.
Emerson wrote about how ignorant it is for people to be religious and say My God is better than yours. That was 1841. We still haven't learned.
Respect eliminates hate.
I did a show once with Louis Armstrong—a television show. and It was one hell of a show. All of a sudden, as Louis was playing, a fly landed on his nose. So he blew it off. He kept singing, and the fly came back on his nose. So he blew it off again. It was being taped, and everyone in the audience was holding their stomach, laughing. They didn't want to let their laughter out and ruin his performance. When Louis finished, everybody broke up. And then the director came out and said: "Let's do one more take without the fly." But that was the take they should've put on TV.
When the uncreative tell the creative what to do, it stops being art.
When I was starting out, I used to stay onstage too long. Instead of criticising me, Fred Astaire told me, "What I've learned is when you get a set together that's absolutely perfect, go in and pull out fifteen minutes of it." That was his way of telling me that less is more.
I can't live in San Francisco—I'd never have an ounce of privacy. When I go to San Francisco, I know how the president feels.
Jazz is so fabulous, because you do the same song you did the night before differently than you did the night before.
My mother was a dressmaker. We were very poor. But she said: "Always have a clean suit, a white shirt, and a black pair of pants and you'll be always dressed."
You can go anywhere in black and white.
Ella Fitzgerald used to say "We're all here." Three words. That really says it all. That's the way to treat people. "We're all here."
Luck is something that happens at the right time.
Any great performer I've ever met has been frightened to go on.
If the artist doesn't give a shit, why should the audience?
I got that from a cabdriver years ago. He said: "You singers, you're all losers compared to the singers I grew up with." I said: "How come?" He said: "Years ago, Al Jolson and Ethel Merman and people like them came out onstage and they hit the back of the house! They didn't have a microphone." He said: "You guys are faking it." So I said to myself: Let me try it. When I'm in an acoustical hall, let me sing a song at the end a cappella. At first, I didn't know what was gonna happen, but then I saw the reaction. This is good! So I left it in.
My father used to sing on a mountain in Italy, and the whole valley would hear him. I have a photo of me singing "O Sole Mio" in the same exact spot. My son Danny was talking to some people and he came up with this idea: What do you think of Tony and Lady Gaga singing "O Sole Mio" in Italian? They went crazy. Having your kids involved in your career like that is very satisfying.
Everything old becomes new again.
I'm not trying to be bigger than anybody. My game is just to be one of the best.
I'm eighty-eight—I have an awful lot to learn. My dream is to get better and better as I get older.
Lately, I can't believe it. I'm getting four or five standing ovations a night.
A veteran of rock, blues, funk and soul, singer and multi-instrumentalist Lenny Kravitz has been announced as the latest ambassador of Jaeger-LeCoultre. Tapped for his distinctive style, bold attitude and artistic flair, Kravitz and his approach to music mirror the spirit of excellence and innovation the manufacture strives for.
“With his artistry, inventiveness and ability to transcend genres, Lenny epitomises Jaeger-LeCoultre’s values and style,” says Catherine Rénier, CEO of Jaeger-LeCoultre.
In this exclusive interview, the musician—and watch enthusiast since childhood—shares more about his creative process, his most revered mentor, and how he styles his beloved Reverso timepiece.
Where do you find your inspiration?
My inspiration comes from life—every aspect of it. Life is continually feeding my creativity.
What sparks your creativity? Is it something that usually comes naturally to you, or do you have to work at it?
My creativity always comes naturally. I want to be as far away as possible from making conscious decisions in that area. I want it to flow, so most of the time I’m dreaming my music and my creations.
How long does it usually take you to write a song, and have you ever had writer’s block?
It can take from five minutes to five weeks. I never know what it’s going to be. I thought I had writer’s block once when I was making my first album—in the middle of that recording—but it wasn’t a block. It was time when, as I realised later, I needed to be quiet, to be still, so that I could hear what I was going to be given. Sometimes you have to be still and be quiet.
Have you ever had a mentor?
Yes. My grandfather, Albert Roker, was my mentor and he’s still within my heart.
Have you ever mentored anyone?
Yes, I’ve been mentoring younger musicians—kids, especially in The Bahamas where I live—and it’s really interesting and satisfying to come into that place.
You have managed to stay on top of your game through different decades and different fashion eras. What is your favourite one?
My favourite one is something that hasn’t happened yet.
Of all the fantastic art you have made, what are you most proud of? Is there a song, a film or other creative project that you are most proud of?
I don’t put one thing on top of another in terms of what’s better, or whether they’re all what they should be, but there are definitely special days. As a musician, making your first album is always really, really special. The first album, Let Love Rule, was where I entered and set the tone.
Do you have a favourite song from your own repertoire?
A favourite song of my own? That’s a hard one. Thinking of You is one of them. It’s a song that I wrote for my mother after she passed, and it’s one of my songs that is very important to me.
Is there anything that you find really hard and have to work at?
I have to work at patience—slowing down and waiting. I like to do so many things at once and I don’t want to stop, but that’s not reality. So, learning to be patient, to wait and stay centred in the middle of that patience is something that I continually work on.
Do you have any rituals before you go on stage?
Not really. My ritual is just to feel myself—to feel ready. When I’m ready, when my band is rehearsed, when I feel confident that we’ve done all that we can to make it the best that it can be, I’m ready. So usually, it’s just very quiet in those moments before I go on. Then I just walk through the tunnel and onto the stage and go.
How will you describe yourself?
I’m an artist.
You’ve already achieved a huge amount as a musician, singer, actor, designer and photographer. Are there any hidden talents the world hasn’t seen yet?
I’m looking forward to painting. That’s my next creative outlet. And surfing.
What are you most looking forward to about the year ahead? New album, new tour?
Absolutely. It’s been a few years since I’ve been on the road. I’m looking forward to releasing the new music that I recorded over the last three years and getting out on the road and playing and celebrating music in life.
What are the most important values that you hope to teach to the next generation?
Love. Love and more love.
You are watch collector. When did that passion start?
I think it started well before I even realised I had it in me. I think I started with my father when I was a kid because he had these cool watches in the 70s that I loved to look at and hold and play with. I wasn’t allowed to, but I used to grab them and play with the stop and start buttons on the watch.
Watchmaking and music have a deep connection, such as the tick-tock of the hands, the chime of a minute repeater, the entire concept of timing and rhythm. What interests you the most about watchmaking?
The precision and the craftsmanship.
And what is most important to you about a watch?
Obviously the function, but also the style, the way it looks, the way it fits on your wrist—it’s important to really connect with it; it has to become one with you.
How do you wear your Reverso? On what occasions do you flip it?
The best way to explain it is that I wear it very naturally. It feels like it’s always been there. That’s one of the beautiful things—it blends with me. I flip it whenever I want to change. That’s another beauty of this watch. You change moods, you change vibe, so you flip it over and you’ve got a whole new thing happening.
On which occasions do you wear it?
Usually when I’m in cities. When I’m on the island I tend not even to think about time, but when I go to a city and I’m working, I’m touring, I have things to do, then I absolutely wear it.
What does Jaeger-LeCoultre represent to you?
It represents craftsmanship, design and function at its best.
From: Grazia SG