In June 1997, Sinéad O’Connor released Gospel Oak, a brief collection that stands among her finest work—and easily her most hopeful. “I’m finally on top of the hill, and I can see the other side,” she said upon its release, “whereas before I was right down the bottom.” The EP includes personal mantras that seemed to write themselves (“This Is to Mother You,” “I Am Enough for Myself”) and political messages that play like love songs (“This Is a Rebel Song,” “Petit Poulet”). The sense you got was an artist who, having used her art as an outlet for rage and sorrow and self-immolation for a decade at that point, had developed a more nourishing perspective that she wanted to share with her audience. She named the record, fittingly, for the neighborhood where her therapist’s office was located.
In a catalog best known for its unflinching ballads about heartbreak and grief, Gospel Oak is the music I have returned to most by O’Connor, an artist whose astounding voice and painfully honest songwriting have always been weighted by the context surrounding them, even before her death this week at the age of 56. There might be no figure in popular music whose messages were so frequently and violently misunderstood, a fact that applies as much to her underrated back catalog as it does to her more commonly discussed controversies in the public eye.
Part of the reason for these misunderstandings is O’Connor’s own self-deprecating, and often self-defeating, tendencies. She hated stardom, and not in the sense of a celebrity who treated engaging with the press as a necessary evil. She was a genuine outsider whose strange, vulnerable career might have made more sense in a quieter setting, a sanctuary for which she was always searching. In this regard, her peers were never pop icons like Madonna—with whom she butted heads in the ’90s—or Prince, whose admiration for her only seemed to complicate their turbulent interactions. Instead, I see her more like Elliott Smith, if audiences expected him to wear the white tuxedo he donned at the Oscars at every show, or Cat Power, if each shaky live set was subject to tabloid scrutiny.
These comparisons may paint her as a tragic figure, but as Gospel Oak illustrates, there was more lightness to O’Connor than you might glean from her troubled backstory. She had a biting, Irish sense of humor that often placed her as the butt of her own jokes (and made her 2021 memoir, Rememberings, as frequently hilarious as it was harrowing). When Frank Sinatra took offense to news of O’Connor refusing to perform in New Jersey if the National Anthem was played before her show—the way she tells it, she had been asked her preference and politely declined—the response rolls out in one perfect, neurotic punchline: “I love Frank Sinatra. Who doesn’t love Frank Sinatra? What’s not to love?… Even to have been threatened with physical violence by Frank Sinatra is an honor.”
Nearly every step of O’Connor’s career brought trouble. While making her debut album, 1987’s The Lion and the Cobra, she scrapped an entire session and had to pay the remaining debt on her own; she became pregnant with her first child before its release and was horrified by the label’s suggestion to get an abortion. There was, of course, the 1992 Saturday Night Live debacle, where she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II and asked viewers to “fight the real enemy,” essentially torching a pop career she never wanted. Two weeks later, she was booed while performing at a Bob Dylan tribute show, abandoning her song midway through to scream an a capella Bob Marley cover and run offstage, crying into the arms of Kris Kristofferson.
You could fill a book with these stories, and in most cases, you would come away from it feeling more disdain for the music industry and more tenderness—and respect—for O’Connor. Over the past decade, it seemed as though her legacy was being refurbished and rewritten by a more sympathetic audience. Kathleen Hanna wrote about how O’Connor’s music helped her feel like she “existed in the larger world”; Phoebe Bridgers covered one of her greatest protest songs; Fiona Apple shared a delightful video rocking out to O’Connor’s Lion and the Cobra single “Mandinka” with her dog. (“Yes I know,” Apple said, nuzzling up. “She’s our hero!”) During, O’Connor even went out on tour and started teasing a new album, which was to be titled No Veteran Dies Alone. In some of her final interviews, she seemed, if not exactly reinvigorated, at least stable and inspired, more adept for pandemic life due to her already reclusive habits.
For every sign of hope, there were troubling transmissions. I had come to brace myself when I saw her name trending on Twitter. In early 2022, her son Shane died by suicide at the age of 17, and her public grieving was difficult to bear. (“I only stayed for him,” she tweeted. “And now he’s gone.”) In her memoir, written before his death, the section on Shane is particularly heartfelt. “I know it is said that children like Shane can be difficult and challenging. But it is actually easy for me, because I am an unusual kind of mother,” she wrote. “Shane is not a square peg to be shoved into a round hole. He is the child who is most like me, I believe, to look at and by his nature.” (Seeing photos shared with news stories, the resemblance really was uncanny.)
Motherhood always seemed the role that O’Connor accepted most naturally. An enduring subject in her songwriting was the abuse she suffered at the hands of her own mother, a devout Catholic who died in a car accident just as O’Connor’s career was beginning to take off. From the teardrop rolling down her cheek in the “Nothing Compares 2 U” video (which emerges after she sings the word “mama”) to the Pope photo she destroyed on SNL (it was taken from the wall of her mother’s house, which O’Connor had been tasked with clearing out before arriving on set), so many of her pivotal moments draw a direct line to this tortured, severed relationship.
Having her own children, then, was both a spiritual reset and a means of mending ties. “One of the things I get from Buddhism is that somehow your mother can be born in your own daughter,” she told The Guardian after the birth of her first daughter, Roisin. “The Catholic idea is that my mother will be punished and burn in Hell. But I prefer the idea that, through Roisin, I will be able to teach her something about loving and being mothered.” She continued: “My daughter is the first girl in our family who’s going to be loved for being a girl.”
O’Connor maintained a fluid perspective on all things in her life, a quality apparent in her 10 studio records—collage-like statements that swerved, like any good conversation, between volume and tone and subject matter. She would immerse herself in religion; plunge into new genres; restate her sexual orientation, compulsively and eventually with mathematical precision (“I’m three-quarters heterosexual, a quarter gay,” she announced in 2005); and wrestle against her complicity in Islamophobia as a white person who converted later in life. (In one of her lighter recent controversies, she tweeted that “truly I never wanna spend time with white people again.”)
Asked in 1997 if she had been taken advantage of because of her gender, O’Connor responded, “Ask any woman, and you won’t find one who hasn’t.” In her songs, she gave a survey of the stories they might tell. There’s the protagonist of “Mandinka,” who ecstatically refuses to take part in the old traditions. And with 2012’s “The Wolf Is Getting Married,” a later masterpiece, she wrote one of her most radiant songs of devotion, where love doesn’t offer an escape but at least lightens the view: “Even if something terrible is happening,” she sang, “you laugh and that’s the thing I love about you most.”
Finding joy in the face of disaster: This was a perspective that O’Connor tried desperately to harbor in her music as the years wore on and disaster mounted. Following the industry backlash against her work in the early ’90s, she began charting a path forward with more intention and a focus on self-preservation. Upon Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, she took an empathetic position to his role as a reluctant spokesperson for those of us for whom the world seems to be too much. She understood his decision but added that she believes, somewhere deep in her soul, that there is always hope that we could make it out OK: “I’m very conscious of wanting to show people it can be done, putting it right before their eyes.”
For much of her career, O’Connor succeeded in this pursuit like no one else. Inviting us to witness how hard she fought only made the glimmers feel more profound. Her collection of Irish folk music, 2002’s Sean-Nós Nua, is an album I turn to whenever I need to be reminded of the beauty of the world, the comfort we can find in nature and solitude and human voices. On Gospel Oak, too, she seemed attuned to the wisdom that arrives on the gentle mornings after the darkest nights. “I am your nakedness/I am nothing at all,” she told us. “And I am singing your soul.” While O’Connor only fleetingly found this type of comfort for herself, her songs will always be there for the rest of us, raw and alive, ready to welcome us in from the cold.