When Sinéad O’Connor met Prince

Family, friends and fans are mourning the loss of Irish singer/songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, who has died at the age of 56.

The Dublin-born star, who shot to fame in 1990 after releasing her global number one single, Nothing Compares 2 U, was found unresponsive at her London flat on 26th July.

After recording a series of hit albums between 1987 and 2014, she had recently revealed on her social media feed that she was planning to release some new music.

© Matteo Chinellato / Shutterstock.com |© 1981 Worthpoint

Following her untimely death, the singer’s management team said she had been finishing off a new album – her first studio recording for nine years. She was also organising tour dates for 2024 and exploring the possibility of a film being made of her 2021 book, Rememberings.

Despite her many other recordings, O’Connor was always best known for Nothing Compares 2 U, which was named the Number 1 World Single of 1990 at the prestigious Billboard Music Awards.

Early life

Born in Dublin in December 1966, she was the third of John and Johanna O’Connor’s five children. Her oldest sibling is novelist Joseph O’Connor. In her memoir, Rememberings, she wrote of having a troubled relationship with her mother.

At the age of 15, she attended the Grianán Training Centre of Magdalene, in Drumcondra, County Meath, run by the Order of Our Lady of Charity. She hated the conformity and rules, but thrived in writing and music, developing her talents there.

Her music career began as a result of chatting to one of the volunteers, Jeannette, whose brother, Paul Byrne, was drummer for the Irish rock band In Tua Nua. He heard 15-year-old O’Connor singing at Jeannette’s wedding and was so impressed, he invited her to the recording studio.

She co-wrote and recorded Take My Hand with the band, but they felt she was too young to join them full-time, as they went on to sign for Virgin Records and toured Europe and the US.

O’Connor was inspired to become a singer and advertised in Hot Press in 1984 for like-minded people to form a band. She dropped out of school to join the group Ton Ton Macoute, which received positive reviews at live gigs in Dublin, with O’Connor’s singing and stage presence being praised.

This brought her to the attention of the wider music industry, and she signed to Chrysalis Records. Her debut album, The Lion and the Cobra, released in 1987, charted across Europe and in the US.

Sinéad O’Connor: Nothing Compares to U

While the title of her most famous song is abbreviated, most people know it as Nothing Compares to You. Sung from the point of view of someone who has been deserted by their lover; they are feeling alone and melancholy – the lyrics perfectly match O’Connor’s haunting vocals.

When she recorded it, the singer said she “instantly connected” with the track. At the time, she was in a relationship with her manager, Fachtna O’Ceallaigh. However, they were reportedly breaking up, which was a huge wrench.

The lovelorn lyrics were said to match her own state of mind: with her lover gone, she could do whatever she wanted, but nothing would ever compare to him.

Chris Birkett, who engineered and co-produced the song, said this was what made her vocal so good. She went into the studio and recorded it in one take. He described it as “perfect” because she was “so into” the song.

Who wrote Nothing Compares to U?

The song was so strongly associated with O’Connor that fans thought it had been written specifically for her. However, it was actually written by the late pop icon, Prince. Nothing Compares to U was penned by the US superstar in July 1984, when he was 26 years old.

Already a celebrity who had signed his first record deal in 1978, Prince had just flown back from Dallas, where he had seen the Jacksons’ Victory tour. He headed to the recording studio as soon as he stepped off the plane.

With only his studio engineer Susan Rogers present, he wrote and recorded an early version of Nothing Compares 2 U in just a few hours. Rogers later described how Prince went off to the bedroom with his notebook. The lyrics were written “very quickly”.

He sang the song to Rogers, who was “amazed at how beautiful it was”. There were several theories about whether Prince had written it from personal experience. However, the singer never revealed the truth.

Who sang Nothing Compares to U?

Prince had already enjoyed a huge hit with Purple Rain in August 1983, which peaked at number two in the US Billboard top 100 single chart. After recording Nothing Compares 2 U in 1984, he decided it didn’t suit his public image at the time.

Instead of releasing it himself, he gave it away to The Family, a band featuring his then girlfriend Susannah Melvoin and vocalist Paul Peterson. Prince altered the original soundtrack he had recorded by removing his vocals and adding orchestral overdubs.

The Family released it on their one and only album, also called The Family, in 1985. The album charted briefly at number 62 in the United States, but then disappeared without a trace.

Nothing Compares 2 U might have been destined for obscurity, had O’Connor not recorded it six years after Prince wrote it and five years after The Family’s version flopped. O’Connor breathed new life into the song, and it became her anthem.

While it was written by Prince and given to The Family, it will always be O’Connor’s song. Like Amy Winehouse’s Valerie and Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You, it’s a cover version that has transcended the original.

The phenomenal video, directed by John Maybury, showed footage of O’Connor dressed in black, walking through a washed-out Paris reflected in the Seine. There were also close ups of her face, the song ending with genuine tears rolling down her cheeks.

Later, O’Connor said that before she recorded the song, she had no idea of the profound effect it would have on her. In 1986, her mother had died in a car crash and after singing the final verse, she felt all the grief flooding back. As she sang Prince’s lyrics, “All the flowers that you planted, mama, in the back yard, all died when you went away,” the tears began to flow.

She hadn’t cried when recording the song in the studio, but on filming the video, the grief suddenly overwhelmed her. Every time she sang the song after that, it made her cry again.

When did Sinéad O’Connor meet Prince?

When Sinéad O’Connor met Prince at a nightclub in 1987, at the time of her debut album, it was a brief meeting, and they didn’t become friends. In fact, they didn’t have any further interaction until after her recording of Nothing Compares 2 U became a hit in the US.

While some musicians become friends after collaborating on a track, sadly, the opposite appears to have been the case with O’Connor and Prince. The Irish singer had become a global superstar thanks to his song.

Publicly, Prince said he “loved” her cover version and that he had taken the song as far as he could with The Family. However, O’Connor later claimed he was secretly angry at her huge success with his song.

In an interview with The Times, she reportedly said he didn’t like people covering his songs in general. The fact that rather than one of Prince’s own “female protégés” covering the song, she had achieved global success, this had allegedly annoyed him even more.

In addition, O’Connor’s new manager, Steve Fargnoli, was Prince’s former manager. They were embroiled in a legal wrangle, which further soured his relationship with the Irish singer.

After her cover version topped the US singles chart, Prince asked O’Connor to meet him at his home in Los Angeles to talk, but she apparently regretted her decision, as they were a complete clash of personalities.

In an interview in 2019, she claimed he’d wanted her to become his protégé after her success with his song. However, when she refused, they argued with each other. According to O’Connor, their discord spilled out onto the highway at 5am. She said she never wanted to see him again after this.

O’Connor stuck to her guns and didn’t meet the star again, although she said her personal experiences didn’t affect how she felt about his music.

In 2014, she was asked to record another Prince cover I Would Die 4 U by Fun Lovin’ Criminals drummer Frank Benbini. Initially, O’Connor told him she would never do another Prince song. However, he eventually persuaded her to record it with him in Dublin.

Afterwards, Benbini praised her for being “absolutely amazing”, without any airs and graces and “very down to earth”. He said far from being demanding, all she asked for all day was a cheese sandwich – a refreshing attitude in the world of rock ‘n’ roll.

Learning of Prince’s death in April 2016, at the age of just 57, O’Connor said she felt “terribly sorry and sad” for him, despite what had happened. She said the “loneliness of fame” had been his undoing.

Sinéad O’Connor book

When she wrote her memoirs, Rememberings, in 2021, O’Connor said it was incredibly difficult to write about Prince, because the whole experience had upset her so much.

Soon afterwards, she announced her retirement from making music and touring, saying she was “tired” and had “gotten older”. However, she changed her mind later, insisting, “I love my job.”

O’Connor had her share of troubles in her personal life. She suffered from a medical condition, fibromyalgia, which caused pain and fatigue. She had to take two years out from music between 2003 and 2005 due to ill health.

She had also been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. She was married and divorced four times and had four children. Her third child, Shane, tragically died in January 2022, at the age of only 17.

In 2022, when O’Connor’s documentary Nothing Compares was being filmed, Prince’s estate refused to let her use her version of the song in the film. Instead, the director used a silent version of the video with a commentary.

Prince’s half-sister, Sharon Nelson, later told Billboard magazine that his live version of the song with Rosie Gaines was being re-released on the Hits 1 album in November 2022, so she declined O’Connor’s request to use the song for her documentary.

Music critics have compared the different versions of the song, including Prince’s original studio demo, which was finally released in 2018. It included baroque piano and a saxophone solo, which was totally different from O’Connor’s stripped back, emotional rendition.

Ironically, while Nothing Compares 2 U is a major part of the Irish singer’s musical legacy, in later life she said sometimes she hated the fame it had brought her, including the commercialisation of her music.

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