“Do you mind if we go and sit outside?” asked Sinead O’Connor in her soft Irish brogue. “I need a fag.”
“Of course,” I replied, following her small frame out of a discreet West London hotel, not far from the Royal Chelsea Hospital, home to the famous red-coated Pensioners.
It was a hot, airless July day in 2014 when I got to spend the afternoon with this funny, warm, mesmerising singer with her fiercely independent, kickass spirit.
“Will you stay for a bit?” she continued. “I’m going back to Dublin tonight but I’m waiting for a car to take me to the airport.”
I had thought our chat to celebrate her defiant new album, I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss, was over but was I was happy to keep her company for a bit longer.
She had lost weight, I thought, was sporting all kinds of exotic tattoos and was dressed down in black and khaki.
The iconic shaved head was present and correct and, in the wake of some well-documented setbacks, there seemed to be renewed fire in those big, round eyes.
We sat side-by-side on a bench in the cramped outside bar area, next to the road.
She lit up, a roll-up I think, and continued to talk openly about her life less ordinary.
I learned how conflicted she was about returning to Ireland that night.
Knowing about her troubled childhood there, her attitude towards the Catholic Church, her up-and-down relationships, I sensed that she could find going home quite overwhelming at times.
“I live in a place called Bray, just outside Dublin,” she said, moving my voice recorder closer to her mouth, speaking quickly and quietly.
“But I lived in England for 17 years and I loved it.
“When I’m not here, I still really miss it and I actually physically ache when I have to leave.”
Then she added with a sigh: “When that car comes, I’ll get a pain. I don’t want to go.”
Yesterday, we learned that Sinead died alone, aged 56, in the Brixton flat she had moved to earlier this month, where she hoped to make a fresh start.
‘I’d love to sell a s**t load of records frankly’
Her move to London came 18 months after the suicide of 17-year-old Shane, the third of her four children, which had left her broken-hearted.
And yet, looking at recent social media posts, she seemed to be facing forward, pleased with her new surroundings, and even planning a return to music.
This impression chimes with what she told me nine years ago: “I will definitely come back here at some point when my children are old enough.
“But, you see, their dads are in Ireland. I wouldn’t move them from their dads for anything.
“I will come back here, though,” she affirmed. “I’d love to sell a s**t load of records frankly, so I can buy a place in England.”
Then, she added with a flash of humour: “I wish I’d married a gazillionaire rapper! I wish I was Kim Kardashian!”
Beneath her wry demeanour, I also sensed her vulnerability.
In one of her new songs, she described herself as a “lioness”, which was undoubtedly true, but she also said she saw herself “as a little 5ft 4in woman who hopes that one day she will meet someone to take care of her”.
‘Child in me decided to keep going’
Seeing the 47-year-old Sinead up close that day, I could tell life hadn’t been easy for her, but when she smiled, she revealed glimpses of the beautiful young woman who had taken the pop scene by storm in the late Eighties and early Nineties — even if she had just endured one of the darkest chapters of her life.
Despite getting rave reviews for 2012 album, How About I Be Me (And You Be You), she was forced to abort a tour after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
When we talked, she was still questioning her diagnosis.
Sometime later, she was proved right when she confirmed: “I suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder from things that I went through growing up.”
But in 2014, Sinead was seething about the behaviour of those around her who decided she was incapable of singing live.
I had to leave the tour for genuine reasons of being unwell as a result of the medication I was given. I had a reaction to that medication,” she said.
“It was the kind of stuff that would make you want to jump off a roof.
“I thought that if I didn’t fall madly in love with music again, I’d be in trouble. So that’s what I did.”
I’ll go out dancing in Ireland wearing a wig without everyone staring at me. No one has a f***ing clue who I am!
She aimed one of her fabled broadsides at the music industry.
“With people in the business, everything became so horrible,” she continued, genuinely enraged.
“I’ve never seen anything f***ing like it in my life. Disgusting really. The worst of the worst.”
Not long before we met, Sinead had got in the news for criticising Miley Cyrus, the one-time Disney child star, whose latest video had shown her swinging naked on a wrecking ball.
And, in Ireland, she’d kicked up a storm, for writing three articles in a newspaper about carnal desire, no less.
I wrote what was supposed to be one article but, out of mischievousness, it became three as people got more and more scandalised,” she said.
“The child in me decided to keep going. They were funny articles about sex.”
With a glint in her eyes, Sinead explained: “I had no partner at the time and was very hormonal.
Musicians are degenerates and what is normal to us is quite disgusting to regular people.
“I’d read about an American woman who married a truck so I wrote, in the first article, that if I didn’t get laid soon, I was going to marry my truck.
“The following two articles were very naughty and certainly not the type of thing a decent Irish woman would be talking about. Everything was taken very seriously.
“Musicians are degenerates and what is normal to us is quite disgusting to regular people.”
It was clear to me that Sinead really couldn’t help being a provocateur and had long let her rebellious streak court adverse attention.
“There’s no smoke without fire,” she agreed. “It’s 50/50 my responsibility and the media’s.
“It’s a relationship in which both sides create a distraction from the fact that I’m a musician.
“But it’s something I’d like to nip in the bud now that I’m feeling more positive, and understand what I’m here for. I used to feel like an imposter.
“Going forward, what I’d love to do is just f***ing focus on music and not get into trouble. I should walk around with a ten-second delay.”
I will definitely come back here when my children are old enough. I wouldn’t move them from their dads in Ireland.
As if to confirm her determination to recapture her place in the pop world, her publicity photos for I’m Not Bossy, I’m The Boss, showed a gloriously fake Sinead.
She was dressed as a glossy star in a glittery latex figure-hugging outfit and a striking black wig while wielding an electric guitar like a weapon.
Did she enjoy dressing up like that, I ventured. “Well the clothes are mine so I would wear them,” she confessed. “And I have gone out occasionally in a wig so I won’t get recognised.
“I’ll go out dancing in Ireland without everyone staring at me. No one has a f***ing clue who I am!”
Next, Sinead talked about the album title which gave more telling clues to the person who created it.
It was inspired, she said, by the Ban Bossy Campaign, launched in 2014 and supported by the likes of Beyonce, Michelle Obama and Victoria Beckham.
“I am actually a female boss,” she said.
“In the music business, acting like a boss, or expecting to be treated like one, is discouraged. This is exaggerated when one is female.
‘I have been voiceless and invalidated’
“I have often been voiceless and invalidated. It has been very demeaning.”
Then she reeled off some of the ways she had been badly treated. “I’d call my accountant looking for documents and be told I don’t need them.
“I’d say I want internet banking and the same accountant would say I ought not to have it because I might accidentally click the wrong button and spend all my money.
“I’d instruct my very expensive lawyer and manager on matters of principle and be utterly ignored.”
Emboldened by the Ban Bossy movement, Sinead took action.
“I fired all employees who invalidated and rendered me voiceless and I hired people who did not do either,” she said.
One of her true friends, she continued, was her first husband, John Reynolds, the father of her eldest son Jake who was producer of the new album and drummer in her touring band.
She added: “We know each other so well and that gives us creative space.”
In 2014, Sinead did feel as if she was getting an element of control back in her life, the “boss” of her own destiny, and she acknowledged the support she was getting. “I’m perceived as a feminist, which I’ve never claimed to be,” she said.
“Right now, I’m scaffolded by a bunch of real f***ing good men.”
Around this time, Sinead’s car finally arrived to whisk her to Heathrow.
We said our goodbyes and I remember wishing her luck with the next stage of her career and life.
She thanked me and, as I watched her climb into the back seat, I couldn’t quite believe that someone could be so strong and yet so fragile at the same time.