Sinéad O'Connor has a lovely, dimpled smile, something that didn't get much play 15 years ago, when she was pop's most controversial star. But tonight, it's irrepressible. Standing in the doorway of her dressing room at last month's Jammy Awards (the jam-band community's annual night of improv and honors) in New York City, she's barefoot and casual in a Marcus Garvey T-shirt and oversize jeans. Coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other, the petite Irish singer is having a ball off stage and on: In a few hours, she will close the show with Jamaican roots-reggae master Burning Spear, her ''biggest musical hero.''
But wait...what is O'Connor doing here? Not just warbling reggae at an event known for interminable guitar solos and excessive patchouli, but performing in public at all? After her meteoric rise and brutal fall, didn't she announce, just two years ago, her retirement from the industry?
Well, yes. And at the time, she meant it. ''I needed to close that chapter and establish who is Sinéad just Sinéad with a little s. I needed to normalize my life and my children's lives,'' she says the next afternoon in a Manhattan hotel room, referring to sons Jake, 17, and Shane, 14 months, and daughter Róisín, 9 (all three have different fathers and live with O'Connor in Dublin). ''I [was doing] full-time mothering, which I love. But what happened is, my dishwasher broke, my plumbing went, my toilet broke, everything began to break. I started to wither away and think, No one will ever know I'm here, dogs will eat my corpse, that whole thing.'' She chuckles. ''So I said, F--- it, I have to go back to work.''
Just not as the world remembers her. Gone is the brazen pop star whose aching cover of the Prince-penned ''Nothing Compares 2 U'' became a No. 1 hit in 1990 and made her angelic face as recognizable as Madonna's. No, what O'Connor will do from now on is ''spiritual'' music. ''Rescuing God from religion is how I'd put it,'' she explains. ''All these rules and regulations and locked doors keep God a prisoner [who] cannot be shared with us unless we do this, that, or the other. What I'd like to do is unzip the sky, even a little, so people could see beyond all the bollocks. We can all put little pinholes in the bulls---.''
For O'Connor, roots-reggae artists like Burning Spear have accomplished this better than anyone. So she decided to try it herself. In March, she flew to Jamaica and hooked up with legendary drummer/bassist production team Sly and Robbie. Three weeks later she had the beginnings of Throw Down Your Arms, a 12-track album of covers (including four Burning Spear classics) that's due in August. ''I've been wanting to make this record for years,'' she says. ''Coming from Ireland and the whole religious culture there, the roots stuff literally kept me alive.''
Shy and soft-spoken, O'Connor tends to avert her gaze with strangers. Her wariness around journalists in particular is understandable: To this day, her career is overshadowed by her more outrageous public behavior catnip to the media. ''I'm more nervous about interviews than gigs,'' she admits, smiling cautiously. ''I'm from Dublin,'' she warns. ''We curse an awful lot.''