The late Sinead O’Connor was a major influence on generations of performers — Garbage’s Shirley Manson among them. In her interview from the new episode of Rolling Stone Music Now, Manson talked in depth about O’Connor. Here are her thoughts in her own words. To hear the whole podcast, go here to the podcast provider of your choice, listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or just press play below.
I was surprised by my response to her death. It really has shaken me. I must admit I did not find it unexpected. In fact, quite the opposite. I’ve been waiting for this. I feared this would happen. I understood what crisis she was in and I was very concerned and my biggest fear has come true. I can’t say I’m surprised. I really saw in Sinead a figurehead, a flag-bearer. And to have lost that, it feels devastating.
Reading the music papers in Britain, I started tracking her — that sounds really sinister! But I started tracking her career through those papers and became quite obsessed. And then I saw her perform “Mandinka” on Top of the Pops, and that was it. I was just completely in love and I’ve never wavered. She’s been an artist that has stuck with me for decades and has never let me down. I’ve never felt disappointed by her. I’ve never felt embarrassed. I’ve always felt so aligned with her thinking.
First and foremost, it was that spectacular voice, which Is unparalleled. She’s one of the greats, and to my mind she’s up there with a Nina Simone and a Billie Holiday. She’s just got something that is impossible to emulate. Nobody can touch her vocal range or her expression. I loved how she used a falsetto in the midst of enraged-sounding vocals. She could just flip from a whisper to the sound of an angel, and then straight into this super-fierce, hardcore, almost punk rock — and sound legitimate in any of these moods. I really do believe she was a genius.
I just thought she looked cool as fuck. I loved that she was this beauty, like an Audrey Hepburn kind of beauty, and then coupled it with androgynous clothing. To me, that was punk rock. She wasn’t playing the role of the smiling, supplicating woman. She was fierce, and that was really unusual when she emerged out of those late Eighties, where the women were very passive, really.
Can we just talk about what an incredible musician she was? Again, because she’s a female artist, it doesn’t get talked about very much. They always talk about scandal or how beautiful she looked, and occasionally they’ll talk about her voice, but she was a fucking monster musician. I don’t think she’s made a bad record in her life. I doubt she’s recorded a poor song in her life. Everything was of exceptional quality. It varied in its style a lot of the time, which turned people on and off. But she took great pride in her work, and you can hear that on the records.
After Amy Winehouse died so much was made of Amy and her death — rightly, I hasten to add. But what is astounding to me and was a source of great frustration and indignance for me, is we had this incredible artist, we had Sinead O’Connor alive and well. Yes, she was struggling, but she was still a phenomenal artist, and yet she was ridiculed in the press.
She rarely got the kind of coverage that an artist of her caliber deserved. She just didn’t garner the kind of musical respect that she deserves. And it makes me so insane, that there’s been this outpouring of grief at her death. Which again, is so right and as it should be. And yet, she could have done with a lot of that support while she was alive. And I just don’t understand this phenomenon that when artists die, we all of a sudden revere them again and yet we forget about them whilst they’re alive because they’re not young and beautiful anymore.
Women, female artists, just get thrown to the side and aren’t treated with the reverence they deserve. And particularly with Sinead, it drove me insane. I just didn’t understand how she could be facing bankruptcy because she was struggling so much in an industry that’s so unforgiving and designed for the sort of young, appeasing, staged, trained pop star. And instead we had this true great that we just let die on a vine. It’s madness.
I had a beautiful exchange with Chan Marshall from Cat Power last night. We were just talking about how sad we were about Sinead’s death and Chan said a beautiful thing, which was, “I always thought I was gonna meet her. I always wished we were friends.” And I felt exactly the same way. There was just that connection. Chan is another one with a God-given voice, with an incredible talent and a fragile personality.
What happened to Sinead is just another example of what the world does to powerful women. I feel like the world destroyed Sinead O’Connor. She was so delicate. Yes, she was courageous and brave and fierce and powerful. But she was also really unbelievably fragile and sensitive. And the world just tossed her around and defiled her, and now we’ve lost somebody that we’ll not see the likes of, not in my lifetime. It’s so sad because she’s so often begged for help, and she was made fun of by the tabloids for a variety of occurrences in her later life. They vilified her for the way she looked. What the fuck is that? What business is it of anybody’s, how Sinead O’Connor chooses to look?
It was almost like people didn’t want to look at her. She was so perfect when she first emerged and everyone fell in love with her, and then she didn’t behave the way that the world wanted her to behave. And everyone turned away. And when they looked back, she had aged and people couldn’t stomach it. And so they rejected her entirely. Because she hadn’t gone and fixed herself in a Beverly Hills salon. She was raw and real and honest, and in some ways was a mirror to who we all are.
The media just couldn’t handle that. It was too much. They wanted her to be back in a pretty box, really looking cute with her little shaved head and her little pixie face. And singing an incredible love song, but she was so much more than that.
I think she knew she was loved in many regards, but I also think she was really sensitive and it must be painful to be laughed at for decisions that you’ve taken really seriously. When she identified with the Muslim faith, for a random example, the tabloids in Ireland and in Britain really had a heyday. I’m sure that was humiliating. It’s not fun. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are as an artist — to be made fun of in public, to be ridiculed, to have your photographs laughed at because you’re no longer like a plastic version of yourself? It’s no fun. It’s cruel and unnecessary.
And artists are artists for a reason. There’s a certain sensitivity that comes with being a person who’s willing to step out and perform and reveal themselves and expose themselves and offer themselves up to the public for consumption. It comes from an alarming sensitivity that is very raw and real and I think sometimes people who aren’t necessarily that sensitive are perplexed by the responses that they can induce in a sensitive person.
She was clearly in serious distress. At one point she went missing. People thought it was funny, and it wasn’t funny. It was somebody in deep distress begging for help, and again, she was facing bankruptcy. She had no money. She was just left to her own devices, this incredible creature who had made hundreds of millions of dollars for these massive corporations, who were nowhere to be seen.
It’s all done and dusted now, unfortunately, and, we’re left with this beautiful legacy, but it freaks me out thinking about how much torment she was in her whole life. But what was incredible about her spirit was she really had an amazing sense of humor by all accounts. Chrissie Hynde was saying yesterday that she was really a riot to hang around with. And my friend who Sinead had lived with for a year or so had sent me an amazing photograph of her flipping some flight attendant off who had been trying to discipline her on the plane for laughing too loud. So she was just a riotous, fantastical, joyous being in many regards, too. She wasn’t a sad sack, who just laid down and had the world trample over her. She was fighting, I think by all accounts, to the very end with great humor and intelligence and immense artistry.
It’s not a happy ending. There’s no burnishing that. It’s a very sad end to a miraculous career and a one-off, true-blue original. In these last couple of decades, our pop stars have become very polite and well-behaved and bland. Everybody’s nice and nobody makes a mistake. And they’re all media-trained. It’s about as homogenous as it gets for the most part, at least in the white pop world. Thank God there’s some incredible hip-hop artists and R&B artists who are bringing some amazing, needed riotous expression to their work.
So there’s a lot of very nice behavior and very nice songs and everything’s very nice, but I miss my Sinead. I want that chaos. I want that sensitivity. I want that brilliance and that truth, like that. She sang about abortion, for God’s sake, with “Three Babies.” She’s just singing about abortion on a major label, at 19 years old, and unapologetically.
The messaging was one thing, the activism was one thing. The force and the rebellion was one thing, but above all else were these beautiful melodies, sung out of the throat of a dove. Just absolute genius.
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