After listening to Sinead O’Connor for the last 25 years I finally got the opportunity to see her perform last week. I didn’t realize she was back on tour so missed the shows she played in the city, but got an email alert last Wednesday that she was playing at Tarrytown Music Hall, about an hour north of NYC.
My friend Andy Rourke played bass with The Smiths and also played on ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’ – he is still good friends with Sinead so I sent him a text asking if he could get me added to the door list. To my everlasting gratitude he sent Sinead a text and responded just before I left for the train saying that it was all sorted.
An hour or so later I got off the train surrounded by commuters heading home and asked someone how to get to the Music Hall, so he showed me the way to the top of the hill where this beautiful old venue presides over a very pretty colonial town. On my way up the hill I passed a cute girl dressed in black sequins who appeared to be heading in the same direction, so told her she looked good in that dress. She smiled and thanked me.
When I got to the venue I discovered that not only had a ticket been left for me, but there was also a photo pass as well. I hadn’t realized there would be a photo pass so hadn’t brought my ‘real’ camera, but was grateful to have the small Canon G16 with me that my daughter gave me for my birthday a few weeks ago. So all these pictures were taken with that small pocket camera.
I was excited to see Sinead and finally get to take pictures of her, even if it isn’t the actual photo session I would love to do. In 1987 I was starting my career as a photographer and had scored a (terrible) job working as one of the house photographers at the Limelight in London taking pictures of pissed pop stars at play. (I feel I must add here that I haven’t done that type of photography since 1987 as I consider it invasive and not suited to my temperament at all). One night a stunning girl with a shaved head showed up in the VIP area and I had no idea who she was, but was immediately drawn to ask if I could do a photo session with her. In an Irish accent she told me that I should talk to her manager. I never did talk to her manager and I didn’t realize at the time, but that was my first contact with Sinead O’Connor.
The next time I became aware of her was when I was living in Melbourne in 1990 and ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ was ubiquitous on the radio and TV. I bought a copy of ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’ and was stunned at the completeness of the album. It was one of those rare records that works as a cohesive piece of music. It is still one of my favorite albums and features one of the best opening lines ever written in a song “It seems like years since you held the baby, While I wrecked the bedroom”. I could certainly relate at that point in my life as I had a six year old child who I was raising as a single parent.
Sinead became my favorite female musician and an artist that I followed, not for the well documented difficulties that she dealt with, but for the music. I’d get each album as it was released – there would always be some real gems in there, but they didn’t have the same consistency as that mighty ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’.
Interestingly enough her collaborations have been more experimental and waded far deeper into world music waters than her own music – particular favorites are Guide Me God with Ghostland, Illegal Attacks with Ian Brown, Mraya with Abdel Ali Slimani, Release with Afro Celt Sound System and Visions Of You with Jah Wobble’s Invaders Of The Heart. I’d love to hear her do something with Sheila Chandra as the combination of those two voices would no doubt create something truly remarkable.
In 2005 she made a great reggae album with Sly and Robbie called Throw Down Your Arms that turned more than a few heads – it sold over 250,000 copies worldwide with 10% of the profits going to support Rastafari elders in Jamaica.
I read in 2011 thats she had reunited with her former manager Fachtna O’Ceallaigh and was recording a new album. I decided to finally follow up on her 1987 suggestion to speak with her manager and tracked down contact info for him on the web. I sent him an email with a link to my website saying I’d love to be considered to do a shoot with her, but to my disappointment never heard anything back.
Last year she released ‘How About I Be Me (And You Be You)’ and the critics almost unanimously praised it as her best album since ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’. And I have to say I agree with them. Once again it’s a cohesive collection of music with no wasted space – every song is powerful and direct – and although she didn’t write it herself, the cover of ‘Queen Of Denmark’ could almost be her anthem and it certainly features the best opening line to a song since ‘Emperors New Clothes’: “I wanted to change the world, But I could not even change my underwear”.
The Music Hall started to fill up with fans so I wandered around taking pictures of this beautiful old building. In the process I also bumped into the cool sequin girl who’d been walking up the hill earlier and discovered she is also a singer, but more about her later.
I noticed Sinead had some directions taped to the floor in front of her microphone to help her focus so took pictures of these inspirational messages just before she opened the show with a trio of songs from ‘How About I Be Me (And You Be You)’: The awesome ‘Queen of Denmark’ was followed by the bouncy ‘4th And Vine’ and the stark junkie tale of ‘Reason With Me’.
‘Jackie’ was the only representative from her debut album ‘The Lion And The Cobra’ and it ushered in the dark passages of Take Off Your Shoes’ (which deals with pedophilia and the priesthood) and ‘I Am Stretched on Your Grave’. Perennial crowd pleaser ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ brought the loudest cheer of the night before ‘The Healing Room’, ‘The Wolf Is Getting Married’ and ‘I Had A Baby’ gave way to a song she dedicated to her band ‘Thank You for Hearing Me’. ‘In This Heart’ and ‘Fire on Babylon’ finished the representatives from 1994’s ‘Universal Mother’ and this fantastic night of music was wrapped up by ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and ‘The Last Day of Our Acquaintance’. After much hollering and stamping of feet by the audience she returned to do an encore with a superb version of ‘V.I.P.’, the scathing attack on the culture of celebrity which closes out ‘How About I Be Me (And You Be You)’
Sinead has lost a lot weight, looked fantastic and was in a great mood all night. And with her laughing attempt at ‘twerking’ she even seemed to poke fun at the recent ridiculous spat that was fueled by Miley Cyrus’s ungracious response to Sinead’s well-intentioned attempt to influence a girl who thinks poking out her tongue is an act of feminist rebellion.
Sinead has more substance in her little finger than Miley could poke a stick at. And on this night she more than proved it. And in the process exceeded my expectations. The naked emotion carried in that glorious voice moved me to tears twice during the course of the show, which has never happened to me before and I’ve been to tens of thousands of shows during the course of my life and career. I was genuinely moved. And delighted that she appeared so happy in the midst of her band of musicians. She told us towards the end of the show that she is in the process of recording a new album with her current colleagues and based upon what was heard tonight I am certainly looking forward to the results of those sessions.
Once the show was over I made my way to the back of the hall to see if I could get a copy of the set list, or at least photograph it as that would help me with my notes for this blog. The young girl at the lighting desk seemed really paranoid when she told me that she was not allowed under any circumstances to hand it out. So I wandered over to the mixing desk where I talked with Dieter, the lovely guy who’d been doing a great job mixing front of house and he very kindly let me have a copy. I asked him how the show compared to other shows on the tour. He told me the City Winery shows in NYC had been really good, but tonight had been special. And I believe him. Like I said earlier, I cried twice. Which never happens to me. And so I’ll certainly be going to see her again the next time she comes through NYC. And I suggest that if you get a chance, go and see this remarkable artist who is still in the process of reinventing herself. And I still hope that some day I might get a chance to do a shoot with her.
The night was rounded out with a long trip back to NYC on the train with the aforementioned sequined singer, Rachael Sage and her cool label manager Jojo. We had a long conversation about Sinead and music and the state of the industry at large. I told her about genius Australian song writer Paul Kelly and that Thievery Corporation used Fugazi as role models and in the process established an excellent model of independence for musicians to follow. And she told me her story. Which is remarkably similar.
Almost twenty years ago Rachael was being seriously courted by some major labels when she decided to remain independent and founded her own label, MPress Records. Since then she has released over ten albums to critical and audience acclaim, toured with Lilith Fair and shared stages with a host of artists including Ani DiFranco, Sarah McLachlan, Judy Collins, Eric Burdon and Semi Precious Weapons. She is constantly on tour with her band The Sequins in the US, UK, Europe and Asia. And she is still making a living on her own terms in the music industry. As well as releasing other artists on her label. Respect.
I’m wrapping this post with ‘Song To The Siren’, a cover of a Tim Buckley song that was left off the ‘How About I Be Me (And You Be You)’ album by Sinead: