At 40, her voice remains startlingly pure as she ventures out with a new album, a reborn faith in herself and a late-grasped handle on her troubled soul.
With her latest CD, Theology, and a tour that reaches Sydney in March, O'Connor is reintroducing herself to audiences 17 years after Nothing Compares 2 U shot the Irish singer to the top of the charts in 17 countries.
She went on The Oprah Winfrey Show recently, where, without singing a note, she struck a responsive chord with that show's millions of viewers by talking about how far she'd come back.
In July 2003, O'Connor had closed the book on a career often overshadowed by controversy, much of it self-induced.
She silenced herself, selling all her instruments. "I seek no longer to be a 'famous' person, and instead I wish to have a 'normal' life," a statement read. "Could people please afford me my privacy?"
Before the birth of her third child, Shane, the next year, profound depression had set in and the suicidal thoughts O'Connor had experienced for more than a decade seemed stronger. She saw therapists and doctors but nobody had any clue what the problem was "until I was at the absolute end of my rope - pardon the horrible pun", she says.
She admitted herself to a mental hospital, where she received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
O'Connor says the disease is like having "a gaping hole" in the centre of her being.
The belated diagnosis, she adds, was a "great relief, but it's also very upsetting to find out that you actually have an illness that isn't going to go away. But it's an illness you can … learn how to manage. There's gratitude that you finally found out what's wrong with you, and all you have to do is pop these pills every day and you can finally have a life. Not necessarily any happier than the next person but certainly no sadder."
O'Connor describes her medications as "scaffolding to build a proper life". Thankfully, that included a space for creative impulses first nurtured at 11, when a music teacher handed her a guitar and a Bob Dylan songbook, hoping to draw out the withdrawn girl.
The singer has never hidden a history of family turmoil that included an abusive, alcoholic mother and a scandalous divorce in a deeply Catholic country. When she was 13, her father became only the second man in Ireland to win custody of his children. Four years later, her mother died in a car crash just as O'Connor was leaving home to pursue a recording career in London, emotionally unprepared for the global success of Nothing Compares 2 U.
The album that song came from, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, produced a whole lot of "whats" she didn't want including efforts to turn her into a rock babe (her response: a shaved head).
Her next album, Am I Not Your Girl?, a collection of vintage standards, slowed O'Connor's commercial momentum. Her October 1992 appearance on Saturday Night Live pretty much stopped it in its tracks. Amid an a cappella version of Bob Marley's War, O'Connor changed the lyric "racism" to "child abuse", shredded a photo of Pope John Paul II and threw the pieces at the camera after saying "Fight the real enemy".
The NBC switchboard was jammed with thousands of complaints, and O'Connor was booed offstage and heckled at subsequent American concerts; US radio stopped playing her. Though she remained a star in Britain and Europe, O'Connor's American profile gradually diminished.
Lost in the furore was the fact that O'Connor was protesting against Irish authorities' reluctance to investigate claims of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. "It was 10 years before anyone in the States knew there had been abuse in the church," she says.
Meanwhile, her family was expanding - she has four children, ranging from Jake, 20, to infant Yeshua (Hebrew for "salvation"). All have different fathers; O'Connor is close to all of them. Raising her children has kept the singer grounded. "I was very happy to spend my time being normal," she says. "I got very fat. I lived in a bungalow and stayed home, drove the kids to school and made very bad cakes."
Days after her diagnosis, O'Connor bought a piano and began reconnecting to music "in a different way - inside me. I don't think I ever particularly fit into the pop or rock arena. I realise I'm not the kind of girl the Christians want either, so now I'm trying to create a little space where I can lean somewhere in between the crush. Whether it is a new arena or not, at least I can lie to myself and say I want it to be."
Theology, O'Connor's first album in seven years to feature new songs, is two discs of the same material, one recorded in Dublin with simple acoustic backing, the second in London with a band. Many of the songs are inspired by favorite passages from The Old Testament (Whomsoever Dwells; If You Had A Vineyard), and the album's healing intentions are captured in its haunting opening track, Something Beautiful. There are also several excellent covers: Curtis Mayfield's We People Who Are Darker Than Blue, the reggae spiritual Rivers Of Babylon, even an irony-free reading of I Don't Know How To Love Him from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar.
"I'm more interested in God than in organised religions and the risk is sometimes that has come out as being disrespectful to God," says O'Connor, who studied various religions on her own and enrolled in a Dublin college to study theology. On her current tour, she is doing only a few songs from Theology, having recently returned to material she forsook when she retired in 2003, including Nothing Compares 2 U, I Am Stretched On Your Grave and Three Babies.
Still, O'Connor says, her touring will always be limited. She won't venture out more than two weeks at a time. "Because I want to be at home with my kids. To be honest, I love performing, but everything around it is difficult while I'm also trying to manage bipolar disorder. It's something I would actually do less rather than more of, unless I can figure out a way to have the audiences come to me. Then I'd play every night!"
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