With her wide-ranging art and steadfast beliefs, Sinéad O'Connor embodied courage. In a soprano that ranged from piercing to caressing, she used the pain of her childhood to speak out against others’ suffering. When she appeared in the late 1980s, O'Connor’s shaved head challenged stereotypical notions of femininity, but her rejections of conformity weren’t skin-deep. On 1987′s acclaimed debut album The Lion and the Cobra, she fused rock, hip-hop, and electronic pop with subjects — sex, religion, oppression — many other artists wouldn’t touch. And unlike many artists of the era, she incorporated her grief and anger about racism, sexism, human rights violations, and child abuse into her music. The sorrow driving her transcendent version of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” from 1990′s multi-platinum, Grammy-nominated I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, stemmed from her complicated relationship with her late mother. At the peak of her popularity in 1992, O'Connor protested the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse cases on Saturday Night Live. Though her career never fully recovered commercially from the ensuing controversy, it afforded her artistic freedom. Producing or co-producing her albums, O'Connor explored jazz standards on 1992′s Am I Not Your Girl? and delved into electronic-based meditations on 1994′s Universal Mother; 2002′s Sean-Nós Nua paid homage to her Irish roots, while 2005′s Throw Down Your Arms celebrated her love of reggae (one of many Black music forms integral to her work). O'Connor returned to impassioned pop with 2014’s well-received I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss and delivered a best-selling memoir with 2021′s Rememberings, both of which emphasized her unwavering commitment to her truth. By the time of her death in 2023, O'Connor was an heir to the protest singers she admired and a major influence on the confessional, outspoken singer/songwriters that followed in her wake.
Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1966, O'Connor’s childhood was often traumatic. Her parents divorced when she was eight; later, she claimed her mother (who died in a 1985 automobile accident) abused her. When she was 15, her shoplifting and truancy led to an 18-month stay at the An Grianán Training Centre, where she chafed at the strict routines but also found a place to nourish her writing and music when a nun gave her a guitar and a Bob Dylan songbook. The sister of In Tua Nua drummer Paul Byrne, who volunteered at Grianán, heard O'Connor sing Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen” and recommended her to the band. Though O'Connor co-wrote and recorded the song “Take My Hand” with In Tua Nua, they felt she was too young to become a full-time member of the group. Undeterred, she performed in coffeehouses and in 1984 placed an ad for like-minded musicians. Through the ad, she met Colm Farrelly, and they formed the acoustic funk group Ton Ton Macoute. After dropping out of her studies at the Dublin College of Music, she signed to the label Ensign Records as a solo artist and relocated to London in 1985.
With U2 associate Fachtna Ó Ceallaigh as her manager, O'Connor made her recorded debut with “Heroine,” a song she wrote and performed with the Edge that appeared on the soundtrack to the film Captive. While working on her debut album, she scrapped the initial tapes on the grounds that the production was too Celtic. Taking over the production duties herself, she re-recorded the album with a sound that emphasized her alternative rock and hip-hop influences. The result was November 1987′s The Lion and the Cobra, one of the year’s most acclaimed debut records. The album performed strongly throughout the world, reaching number 27 on the U.K. Albums chart, number 36 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart in the U.S., and charting in several other countries. The Lion and the Cobra was certified gold in the U.K., U.S., and Netherlands; in Canada, it was certified platinum. It spawned the hits “Mandinka,” “Troy,” and “I Want Your (Hands on Me),” and O'Connor’s accolades included a Grammy nomination for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. While promoting the album, she had her first brush with controversy when she defended the actions of the IRA (she later retracted these comments).
Following The Lion and the Cobra’s success, O'Connor appeared on The The’s 1989 album Mind Bomb and made her film debut in that year’s Hush-a-Bye-Baby, for which she also wrote the music. She delivered a harrowing masterpiece with her next album, March 1990′s I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. Sparked by the dissolution of her marriage to drummer John Reynolds, the album was boosted by the global chart-topping single and video “Nothing Compares 2 U” (originally penned by Prince) and established her as a major star. Reaching number one in eighteen countries, the album went double platinum in the U.S. and U.K., quintuple platinum in Canada, and platinum in six other nations. Though I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got was nominated for four Grammy Awards and won the award for Best Alternative Music Performance, O'Connor refused to accept them; similarly, she did not attend the Brit Awards ceremony when she won the award for International Female Solo Artist. Later in 1990, she performed in Roger Waters’ Berlin performance of The Wall and appeared on the Red Hot Organization’s AIDS fundraising and Cole Porter tribute album Red Hot + Blue: A Tribute to Cole Porter with a cover of “You Do Something to Me.” O'Connor became the target of derision for refusing to perform in New Jersey if “The Star Spangled Banner” was played prior to her appearance, a move that brought public criticism from no less than Frank Sinatra. She also made headlines for pulling out of an appearance on the NBC program Saturday Night Live in response to the misogynist persona of guest host Andrew Dice Clay.
O'Connor continued to defy expectations with her third album, September 1992′s Am I Not Your Girl?. A collection of mid-20th century pop standards and torch songs that sparked her desire to be a singer when she was young, its radically different sound and style led to mixed reviews and a fraction of the commercial success she had with I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. Nevertheless, the album was a Top Ten hit in the U.K. and achieved gold status there and in three other European countries. O'Connor followed the album’s release with her most controversial action yet: She ended her October 1992 performance on Saturday Night Live by ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II to protest the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church. The resulting condemnation was unlike any she’d previously encountered. Two weeks after the SNL performance, she was booed off the stage at a Bob Dylan tribute concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
In the wake of the controversy, O’Connor stepped back from the public eye. For several months, she studied bel canto singing at Dublin’s Parnell School of Music, then joined Peter Gabriel’s Secret World tour in 1993 (she also contributed vocals to Gabriel’s 1992 album Us). That year, her song “You Made Me the Thief of Your Heart” appeared on the soundtrack to the film In the Name of the Father. Inspired by her bel canto lessons, O'Connor took a confessional approach on her next album, September 1994′s Universal Mother. A stripped-down set of songs featuring the single “Fire on Babylon” and a cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies,” it reached number 19 in the U.K. and number 36 in the U.S., and was certified gold in the U.K., Austria, and Canada. The videos for “Fire on Babylon” and “Famine” were nominated for the Best Short Form Music Video Grammy Award. Also in 1994, O'Connor appeared in A Celebration: The Music of Pete Townshend and The Who, a pair of Carnegie Hall concerts produced by Roger Daltrey to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. The following year, she appeared on the Lollapalooza bill, and in 1996 she sang on Richard Wright’s album Broken China. A year later, she played the Virgin Mary in Neil Jordan’s film The Butcher Boy and issued The Gospel Oak EP, a tender collection of songs about motherhood. O'Connor teamed up with the Red Hot Organization once more for 1998′s Red Hot + Rhapsody: The Gershwin Groove, on which she performed “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
After moving to Atlantic, O'Connor delivered her first full-length release in six years with June 2000′s Faith and Courage. Tackling themes of survival and catharsis, the album featured collaborators including Wyclef Jean and Brian Eno. Charting throughout Europe and reaching number 55 in the U.S., Faith and Courage earned O'Connor some of her strongest reviews in some time. For her next album, October 2002′s Sean-Nós Nua, she reinterpreted traditional Irish songs in her own style. Along with reaching number three on the Irish charts, the album peaked at number one on the Top World Albums chart in the U.S. Health issues led O'Connor to take a break from intensive recording and performing for a few years. During this time, she covered Dolly Parton’s “Dagger Through the Heart” on the 2003 tribute album Just Because I'm a Woman: The Songs of Dolly Parton, appeared on Massive Attack’s 100th Window, and issued She Who Dwells in the Secret Place of the Most High Shall Abide Under the Shadow of the Almighty, a compilation of demos, unreleased tracks, and a late 2002 Dublin concert. Collaborations followed in 2005, gathering appearances on other artists’ records throughout her long career.
O'Connor returned in October 2005 with Throw Down Your Arms, a collection of classic reggae songs from the likes of Burning Spear, Peter Tosh, and Bob Marley. Recorded at Kingston, Jamaica’s Tuff Gong and Anchor Studios with Sly & Robbie and released on O'Connor’s own That's Why There's Chocolate and Vanilla imprint, the album reached the number four spot on Billboard’s Top Reggae Albums chart. In 2006, she returned to the studio to begin work on her next album. Inspired by the complexities of the world post-9/11, June 2007′s double album Theology featured covers of spiritually minded songs as well as originals given acoustic and full-band interpretations. The album appeared on the charts of several European countries and reached number 15 on the Independent Albums chart in both the U.K. and the U.S. That year, O'Connor also lent her vocals to Ian Brown’s anti-war single “Illegal Attacks” as well as another song on his album The World Is Yours. In 2010, she collaborated with Mary J. Blige on a version of the Gospel Oak song “This Is to Mother You.” Produced by A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the song’s proceeds were donated to Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS). Two years later, O'Connor earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song for “Lay Your Head Down,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the film Albert Nobbs.
O'Connor’s ninth album, How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?, appeared in February 2012, offering raw yet often optimistic songs about sexuality, religion, hope, and despair that were seen as a return to form by some critics. The album was one of her more popular later releases, appearing on the charts of many European countries, reaching number 33 in the U.K., and number 115 in the U.S. A limited edition of How About I Be Me (And You Be You)? included excerpts of shows in Dublin, London, and Reykjavík. Her next album, August 2014′s I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss, took inspiration from Lean In’s female empowerment campaign “Ban Bossy. As heard on the lead single “Take Me to the Church,” the album was a rock-oriented and melodious affair. Building on How About I Be Me (And You Be You)?’s popularity, I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss topped the Irish charts, peaked at number 22 in the U.K. and at number 83 in the U.S. That November, O'Connor took part in Band Aid 30′s updated version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” which raised funds to combat the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa.
In September 2019, O'Connor closed out the 2010s with her first live performance in five years, singing “Nothing Compares 2 U” with the Irish Chamber Orchestra on Irish radio. The following October, she issued a cover of Mahalia Jackson’s “Trouble of the World” to raise money for Black Lives Matter charities. Her 2021 memoir, Rememberings, was acclaimed as one of the year’s best books and praised for its wit and candor. The following year, a feature length documentary about her life and career, Nothing Compares, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival; it was named Best Feature Documentary at the 2023 Irish Film & Television Awards. Though O'Connor was working on a new album, her grief over the death of her son Shane in 2022 led her to cancel its release and her upcoming performances. After she released a version of the traditional tune “The Skye Boat Song” in February 2023, Irish broadcaster RTE honored O'Connor by giving I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got the inaugural award for Classic Irish Album at the RTE Choice Music Awards, which she dedicated to the Irish refugee community. In July 2023, O'Connor died at age 56. ~ Heather Phares & Jason Ankeny