Sinead O'Connor Finds New Roots — in Jamaica Throw Down Your Arms, Sinead O'Connor's new album, is quite a departure from her past efforts. The Irish songstress takes a tour of Jamaican music that grooves along as it scores political points.
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Sinead O'Connor Finds New Roots — in Jamaica

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Sinead O'Connor Finds New Roots — in Jamaica

Sinead O'Connor Finds New Roots — in Jamaica

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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(Soundbite of music)


Several years ago, Irish singer Sinead O'Connor announced that she was retiring from the music biz, leaving her tumultuous rock stardom behind. But she's back.

(Soundbite of song "Y Mas Gan")

Ms. SINEAD O'CONNOR: (Singing) Y mas gan ulaghize, let him be praised continually.

ELLIOTT: Sinead O'Connor's new album is called "Throw Down Your Arms." It's a collection of Jamaican roots music that she recorded in Jamaica. Sinead O'Connor is in our West Coast studio and joins me now.

Hello. Thanks for being with us.

Ms. O'CONNOR: Hi. Thanks for having me.

ELLIOTT: Let me start with this term `roots music.' Most people will hear this and just say `reggae.' That's what I thought.

Ms. O'CONNOR: Right.

ELLIOTT: But you have a clear distinction between reggae and roots that's important to you. Can you explain to us the difference?

Ms. O'CONNOR: I guess, yeah. Rasta, or roots, would be the kind of esoteric end of reggae, for want of a better description, would be the religious aspect of reggae music. It has this thing of kind of--there's chanting God to life, chanting it back from--sometimes religion can give the impression, without meaning to, that God is somehow a thing which is unattainable by people, is far away and almost dead or something, you know. There's a kind of cult sometimes of death around religion. I don't know if that's too strong a word, but the Rasta is kind of--they're--how they use music to reassure people that God is actually with them and watches them, can be called upon. And they're a kind of prophetic movement in that way, and they use music as the vehicle, you know.

(Soundbite of song "Y Mas Gan")

Ms. O'CONNOR: (Singing) He will take us by the hand and lead us to the wonderland. If we can't be good, we'll be careful and do the best we can.

ELLIOTT: When I read that you had returned to recording music after a hiatus, when you spent some time at home with your children, I guess I could relate as the mother of two young children, but perhaps I'm projecting here. What was behind your decision to record again?

Ms. O'CONNOR: I guess what it was is I wanted to come out of the mainstream rock and pop thing, as I really found it quite spiritually bereft, you know, to be mild about it. And it didn't occur to me at the time that there was any other arena in which I could sing. And so it took me some three years or so to understand that wanting to kind of kill off the pop star aspect doesn't mean that you have to kill off yourself entirely, you know.

Plus, I got to a point where if I saw the supermarket again, I didn't know what I was going to do. Like, I began to break out in rashes as soon as I set foot in a supermarket because you've got to drag the kids into the car, drag them into a trolley, da, da, da, da. And I think that they should come to us, you know. You can register if you're a mom and have the van come around with everything you'd need, like.

ELLIOTT: That's a pretty good idea.

Ms. O'CONNOR: Yeah, it's terrible. I...

ELLIOTT: So tell me about recording in Jamaica. You were actually at Bob Marley's studio working with two of the biggest names in Jamaican music, Sly & Robbie, who produced your album.

Ms. O'CONNOR: Yeah. Well, it was a huge thing to me, like, 'cause these songs just--I couldn't begin to describe how much they mean to me on every level in life, like--so--and I wanted to go to Kingston for years. It had been my biggest dream. So, like, I--it's the only boarding pass I ever kept, for example, is the one to Kingston, you know. So I was just beside myself.

(Soundbite of song "Untold Stories")

Ms. O'CONNOR: (Singing) I am living while I'm living; to the Father, I will pray. Only him know how we get through every day. All the hike in the price, arm and leg we have to pay, while our leaders play. All I see people are ripping and robbing and grab; thief never love to see a thief with long bag. No love for the people who will suffer real bad, another toll to the poll, `May God help your soul.' What is to stop the youth from get out of control, full up with education yet no on no payroll. The clothes on their back has countless eye holes. Could go on and on, the full have never been told. I'm living while I'm living...

ELLIOTT: I think a lot of people might sort of have trouble figuring out what about Rastafarian spirituality speaks to someone who was raised Irish Catholic in Dublin.

Ms. O'CONNOR: Yeah. It's funny. You know, I always joke that Catholicism created more Rastas than anything else did. But equally, Rastafari has inspired me to be even more passionately Catholic. And when I say that, I'm not a right-wing, dogmatic type of Catholic, obviously, but I am hugely inspired by Catholicism, and that's the religion of my culture. And it's a bit like a relationship you might have with a mother or a father or someone you love, that you sometimes want to rattle them and shake them because you don't want them to die; you don't want anything to happen to them. You know, you actually want to help them in some ways.

And Rastafari is not a religion; it's a movement. And when you're around those people, you can taste God--is how I would put it--whereas, like, the rest of religious people, or accidentally or whatever, by the fact that, you know, they've been conditioned to believe certain things, but they're acting often in a way that would make people think there was no God. And what I learned from them actually was to stand up and fight for my own religion, you know, very passionately.

(Soundbite of song "Jah Nuh Dead")

Ms. O'CONNOR: (Singing) The lion, the lion did crown the king. The lion, the lion did crown the king in Addis Ababa, Africa, Jah no dead.

There's a great Sufi poet called Hafiz, and he had this really tiny, little three-line poem called "The Great Religions." And it goes--it says, `The great religions are like ocean liners, and the poets are the lifeboats. And all the passengers are throwing themselves off the sides,' you know. And I love that idea that, you know, these songs are lifeboats literally.

(Soundbite of song "Jah Nuh Dead")

Ms. O'CONNOR: (Singing) Meet me at the bank of the beautiful river when your journey has end. I and I will discuss about this matter. Jah no dead.

ELLIOTT: Do you think there are any cultural parallels between Jamaica and Ireland at all?

Ms. O'CONNOR: Massive, massive. You know, there are huge blood ties, for a start. You know, there are huge ties between Africa and Ireland going way back, you know, before Jamaica even existed as it is now. And we were colonized by the same people and by the same religion in a lot of ways. And we have the same, I think, similarities in our music in that there's a huge kind of longing, yearning and calling in the music from Ireland and Jamaica, particularly the singing.

And also, the biggest thing for me, similarity, is this passion about God. Like, Irish people in the Irish language, to say `hello,' we say, `Dia dhuit,' which means, `God be with you.' And the answer is, `Dia Mira dhuit,' which means, `God and Mary be with you.' So that's how we say hello, like--and the same in Jamaica. I never met anyone there who didn't talk about God all the time, very passionate--God and singing.

(Soundbite of "Throw Down Your Arms")

Ms. O'CONNOR: (Singing) I long to see you. I long to hold you. I long to take your hand in my hand. Can't you see? Can't you see? Throw down your arms and come.

ELLIOTT: I want to ask you a question now about the music business, I guess. I understand that you have recorded this album without a record label, that it's this new arrangement that you have with the distributor, so that people in the music business are probably watching how this works. Can you explain to me what it is?

Ms. O'CONNOR: Yeah. I mean, it's something that I'm not going to take credit for, as such, 'cause it's--my manager's the one who set it up. But it's basically--for the last few years or so, it's becoming apparent that mainstream record companies are becoming obsolete and useless because artists are finally--because we're so stupid, it's taken us this long to realize that actually we could be making more money if we put the record out ourselves. And, for example, Michael Jackson, I think, has been the highest-paid artist in the mainstream music industry. He only actually gets 18 percent of what his records generate, you know, and that's considered an honor that he gets that. And whereas if you make deals direct with distributors or license agreements with other companies, you can make 50 percent or more, if you want to be really hard about it.

ELLIOTT: You've always had an interesting relationship with record companies, anyway. I know you're probably very sick of talking about your hair, but you shaved your hair, as I understand it, sort of in reaction to the record companies who are trying to tell you, `Hey, you need a sexier look. You've got to tart this up to sell albums,' and you said, `Forget it.'

Ms. O'CONNOR: Yeah, they tried. I'm shy or Irish or whatever, but I never quite felt too comfortable all dressed up. And I'm quite like a bloke, really. So, yeah, they tried to get me to, you know, make the most of myself. My manager at the time actually said, `You should F-ing well shave your hair,' you know. So I did. I went straight to this Greek barber who almost cried after he had done it. I love it. I don't feel like me unless I have my hair shaved. So even when I'm an old lady, I'm going to have it.

ELLIOTT: Sinead O'Connor's new album is called "Throw Down Your Arms."

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. O'CONNOR: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of song "Marcus Garvey")

Ms. O'CONNOR: (Singing) Marcus Garvey words come to pass. Marcus Garvey words come to pass. Ain't got no food to eat. Ain't got no money to spend. Oh, ain't got no future. Ooh, ain't got no money to spend. Oh! Come, little one and let me do what...

ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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