Between 1987 and 1995, Sinead O’Connor was a prominent and controversial presence in the music industry. Her unmistakable voice, shaved head and penchant for making brash statements about politics and religion made her a household name worldwide. Since that time, she has remained strangely silent, releasing only one project, the critically acclaimed Faith and Courage in 2000.
Now, among a number of side projects with notables such as Moby and Massive Attack, Sinead makes her debut on Vanguard Records with Sean Nos Nua. "Sean Nos" translates to "old style," the traditional Irish songs that are passed down a cappella. "Nua" is simply new. Old style made new.
"This is the record I’ve been trying to make for about 12 years," said O’Connor. "When I was on major labels they never really got it and never let me do it. Now that I’m not with a major label, I was able to make it happen. I think that I would like to make many more of them."
O’Connor encountered "Paddy’s Lament," an antiwar song, while living in Los Angeles during the Gulf War. Originally recorded by the Bothy Band, it tells of an Irishman who fled to America to escape the "murderin’ cannons" of his homeland only to be drafted into the civil war. "I like it," she said, "because the character who is singing the song doesn’t make any judgement against anyone who wanted to go to war but just expresses concern for their safety. It expressed the futility of war without actually judging it."
Two songs on the album are Irish language songs taught to Irish schoolchildren. They’re considered "willy-nilly little songs," O’Connor said, "but actually they are hardcore war songs." One of them, "Oro Se do Bheatha Bhaile," is superficially about the 16th-century pirate Grace O’Malley who battled the French and Spanish fleet. "Part of what I like about it is the narrator is a man, and the man is celebrating the return of this warrior woman back into her ferocity and her power. Really, it’s a celebration of females throughout our history."
More than a call to keep the culture alive, Sean Nos Nua strives to inspire. By adding a bit of rock and roll and illuminating the inherent sexuality in the songs of their forefathers, O’Connor hopes to challenge young Irish musicians. "Up until now there are so many Irish bands that just exist for material reasons. Nowadays, people make records just because they want to make money. I want to show [the youth in Ireland] the caliber of songwriting that has existed in Ireland so that they might have something to set their standards by."
"Something I wanted to achieve in this record is to bring back sensuality into Irish music," she stated in reference to the sexy traditional ballad "My Lagan Love." "The church in Ireland has really washed a lot of the sexuality from the song. Normally when people do it, they do it quite unreal and wishy-washy and you can’t hear the words, and so you’d never really know what it’s about. I think the songs are very powerful."