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Classic Tracks: Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2U”

Despite the power of her voice, Sinéad O’Connor is one of those fragile artists whose music is truly emotional. The listener doesn’t need to know the details about O’Connor’s brutal childhood to know that the singer’s personal suffering and earnest beliefs are at the heart of every sound she utters. In the name of spirituality, human rights, love, pain, she has crossed some conventional lines, and she’s exposed herself to ridicule—even hatred. I remember watching when she tore up that photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live, turning to my husband, and saying, “She’s in trouble now.” But, oh, what a voice!

O’Connor made her first album for Chrysalis, The Lion and the Cobra, at the age of 19. Included were the shockingly intense songs “Jerusalem” and “Troy,” the sexy, sample-heavy “I Want Your (Hands on Me)” and the more radio-friendly “Mandinka,” which got heavy rotation on modern-rock and college radio stations. The album garnered rave reviews and, more important, revealed O’Connor’s singular sound: a combination of real instruments and electronic drums used for effect, romantic strings, electric guitar and the powerful dynamic range of her singing. Rarely does a young singer debut so well-formed and with so much to say.

O’Connor’s music—and no doubt her unusual beauty—caught the attention of the famous and the masses. For a time, she was romantically linked in the press with Prince. Some say their friendship was strictly platonic. Be that as it may, their association yielded one of the most successful recordings of the modern-rock era, O’Connor’s interpretation of the Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2U.”

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The song appears on O’Connor’s sophomore release, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which was recorded in London in 1989. O’Connor’s manager, Nigel Grainge, originally brought in producer Nellee Hooper, then best known for his work with Björk and U2. (Since then, he’s added No Doubt, Garbage, Sneaker Pimps and many more to his credits.) For whatever reason, Hooper’s style and O’Connor’s rebellious nature did not mesh, and he was relieved of his position after only a few days. However, those few days did include most of the tracking for “Nothing Compares 2U,” and he is the co-producer of record on the track with O’Connor.

The consistent presence in the album’s production was engineer/producer Chris Birkett, who stepped into the producer’s role after Hooper’s departure. The multitalented Birkett enjoyed his first successes as guitarist in the European touring band Montana Red Dog, supporting soul greats Rufus Thomas and Ann Peebles in the late ’70s. He was also a member of one-hit-wonder bands Love Affair (“Everlasting Love”) and Omaha Sheriff (“Come Hell or Waters High”), the latter of which signed with David Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti. The band didn’t last, but Birkett went on to make other recordings with Visconti, and he says that association was the first step on a path that led him to the other side of the glass.

“After the Omahas folded up, I went back to London as a session guitarist,” Birkett explains by telephone from his current home studio in Paris, “and I went to John Kongos’ studio where Tony had recorded my first album and asked if they could use me as a guitarist. He said, ‘We’re building a new studio,’ and asked me to help build it. I had an electronics degree from school, so that helped. When I finished building the new studio, which was called Tapestry, and putting in the new gear, John explained that he didn’t have an engineer, so they said, ‘I know you’re a musician, but can you try engineering?’ It was a scary way to do it. The first six months, I lost 20 kilos of weight through the stress of learning tape handling. But I became successful, and people began coming to the studio to use me, and that’s when I worked on Sinéad’s first album. I mixed the two singles, ‘Mandinka’ and ‘I Want Your (Hands on Me).’”

Between the release of The Lion and the Cobra and the beginning of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, Birkett built his first personal studio, CB Sound, where he did much of the tracking and all of the mixing for the latter album. His room was equipped with a Soundtracs console, a Soundcraft 24-track and custom Dawn Audio monitors. Many individual parts, overdubs, sampling and programming happened there. However, to record the orchestral and string parts, real drums, live full-band playing or the rest of O’Connor’s vocals, the project spent chunks of time in bigger rooms such as Eden Studios, Westside and Lansdowne. At the end of each phase, Birkett brought all the tapes back to his studio; editing and mixing were ongoing throughout the project.

O’Connor’s emotional, reverb-laden vocal for “Nothing Compares 2U” was captured at Westside. “The control room had an SSL, and there was a smallish live area next to the big room that was not too reverb-y,” Birkett says. “The whole vocal was double-tracked. She went in and did a one-take vocal without stopping. And she said, ‘Oh, yeah, I like that. That’s good.’ And she went straight back in and did a terrific double-track in one take. The whole thing was perfect.”

Birkett used an AKG 414B-ULS on all of O’Connor’s vocals. “I like this mic because it can handle dynamic singers,” he says. “It has incredible dynamic headroom; it can take a lot of punishment and still sound really clear.”

The reverb—an integral part of O’Connor’s sound—was a Lexicon PCM 70 Cascade. “I created a custom reverb from that program,” Birkett explains. “I saved it and we used it on everything because she liked singing with it. It gave her inspiration, so I used it for monitoring in her headphones, and then we used it on the mix, too.”

Birkett says that though O’Connor’s singing was sheer perfection from a performance standpoint, she did pose some technical challenges. “She hates compressors,” he says with a laugh. “She would come in early in the morning and write me a note, ‘No f***ing compressors!’ Also, when I used to record her, she had a negative mic technique. Most people, when they sing loud, they back off the mic, but she used to go into the mic. So if you listen to that song carefully, there are a lot of distorted vocals on it because it was impossible to get a clean vocal take. I had to do a lot of automating EQ during the mix to get rid of that distortion.

“She was a rebel at heart,” he continues. “Because she grew up in a bad situation, she felt, ‘I don’t want to do things the way everybody else does it,’ and she would refuse, and that gave her a different sound, as well. For example, most producers would have put a limiter on the [vocal] mic so you could get the voice right in your face and you would hear everything. We would never do that. And there were a lot of live takes, which may not be perfect, but are full of emotion.”

The real emotion in “Nothing Compares 2U” came across to listeners in the recording and in the video, which shows the artist cloaked in black, close-in or walking among cold statuary, and shedding a few real tears. The song peaked at Number One on Billboard’s Modern Rock and Hot 100 charts, and was the Number 3–charting song for 1990. “I thought the track was really good,” Birkett says, “but I didn’t know it would be Number One in every country! Sinéad used to phone me every weekend, and say, ‘It’s Number 40,’ ‘It’s Number 25,’ ‘It’s Number 10,’ ‘It’s Number One!’ It was much bigger than we expected.”

Birkett moved to France a few years after the release of I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. He built a studio in a chateau in Bordeaux, which he recently gave up for new digs in Paris. He is currently producing and engineering albums for Buffy Sainte-Marie and Fraser Anderson. In May, he will finish work on his next solo release.

O’Connor followed I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got with the Phil Ramone–produced collection of standards, Am I Not Your Girl? She has continued to record lovely, and sometimes brilliant, tracks, but unfortunately, her radical Pope-ripping (and other perceived offenses) seems to have left a stronger impression than her later albums. At press time, she was scheduled to release a double-album of new material this spring.

LISTEN: Audio Clip
Nothing Compares 2U.mp3