POP MUSIC : The Non-Material Girl : Sinead O'Connor is back with a new album of torch songs. But, traditional ballads aside, she’s still stormy.

<i> Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic</i>

Her head is still shaved.

Her tongue is still sharp.

And, yes, Sinead O'Connor is back in the pop world that she denounced as too materialistic in January, 1991, when she withdrew from the Grammy competition.

But it’s a very different kind of record that the 25-year-old Irish singer-songwriter will release on Sept. 22.

“Am I Not Your Girl?” on Ensign Records isn’t a collection of her own deeply introspective songs--the kind that made her 1990 album “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” one of the most acclaimed works of recent years.


It’s basically Sinead the torch singer, with a zinger on the end that is in keeping with the spitfire tradition of someone who also made headlines in 1991 by refusing to allow the national anthem to be played before one of her concerts in New Jersey and by canceling a “Saturday Night Live” appearance to protest what she felt were the misogynistic views of host Andrew Dice Clay.

The new album features her interpretations of 11 tunes that have “inspired and comforted” her over the years--songs as varied as “Success (Has Made a Failure of Our Home),” a ‘60s country hit for Loretta Lynn, and, “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Evita.” Other selections include songs identified with such singers as Billie Holiday, Doris Day and Ella Fitzgerald. She is backed by a 40-piece orchestra.

But after all the tradition comes the vintage Sinead: In a chilling “poem” at the end, she attacks the Western spiritual values that she feels have corrupted civilization. “I am not a liar and I’m not full of hatred, but I hate lies and so the liars hate me . . .” she begins in the 80-second piece, speaking in a stark monotone as she links society’s ills to religious institutions.

Sitting on a West Hollywood hotel patio, O'Connor--who still lives in London and is hoping to star in the title role of a proposed film about Joan of Arc--seemed relatively at ease despite the controversies, past and present.

“I never said it was a bad industry,” O'Connor says, sporting a “Pro-Choice” T-shirt and puffing on a cigarette during an interview. “I don’t have any bad feelings about the music industry. I’m not saying anyone is wrong or right. . . . I just think we (as entertainers) have to be careful.

“There is an emphasis (in pop music) on materialism and it’s not right to give people the message that they can fill their emptiness with material things. They’ve got to try to fill it with truth, which we’ve got to try to show them by being ourselves rather than trying to cover up with loads of makeup or a hairdo or loads of diamond rings.”


Question: Your outspokenness often reminds me of John Lennon . . . as if you feel you are being false if you don’t say exactly what is on your mind at all times--rather than weigh your feelings and hold back some things that might be misunderstood or viewed as naive. Do you feel a compulsion that way?

Answer: I’m not sure I would use the word compulsion because it sounds like something unhealthy. The fact is it is unhealthy to do anything other than speak the truth, and I think John Lennon was aware of that.


Q: Do you feel any anxiety over how such a radical departure as this album is going to be perceived--both by your fans and by the pop Establishment?

A: I can’t allow myself to be influenced by how I might be perceived by pop music or by anyone in terms of what I want to do as an artist. I can only go by how I perceive myself. There are so many rules in pop which are based on what people have been doing the last 10 years, which is why most pop music is completely boring. The rules are based on whatever makes the quickest amount of money.


Q: Is this album as close to you as an album of your own songs?

A: Yes, very much so. In fact, it’s probably closer because some of these songs are what caused me to be a singer in the first place. I only happened to write songs because I had something inside of me that I needed to express. It was never a case of me sitting down one day and deciding, “I want to be a songwriter.”

I’ve always thought of myself as a singer, not a songwriter. I can easily put my emotions into these songs. Even though other people wrote them, they are feelings I have felt.


Q: Was your recording of “You Do Something to Me” on the 1990 Cole Porter tribute album a step toward this one?

A: No, it was more a matter of listening to a lot of old albums and remembering how much the songs meant to me. I went into the studio and started recording some tracks. I wasn’t really sure at first if it was going to be another album. I just wanted to do it for fun for myself . . . something I wanted to get out of my system, which is the same way the other albums started out.


Q: How did you go about assembling the songs?

A: I’ve known a lot of the songs since I was a child. My big inspiration (as a singer) wasn’t so much records but the movie musicals I saw on television. When I was growing up I was always watching Barbra Streisand movies or Doris Day movies or “Fiddler on the Roof” . . . all those things. That’s how I saw myself . . . a singer and an actress.

When I was a kid I sang things like “Ave Maria,” but “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” was the first song I ever sang in public. It earned me money to survive. I used to sing it after I ran away from home. I used to go to hotels where there would be talent competitions and the old ladies would really like it and I’d pick up some money.


Q: Most people look at you as a strong, confident woman, so it’s easy to see a wry commentary in your versions of songs--like “Bewitched” and “Secret Love"--that talk about women being under a man’s spell. Is that what you intended?

A: No. We all go through those spells. To me, “Bewitched” is just a sexy, beautiful song and the same with “Secret Love.” Everyone used to make fun of “Secret Love,” saying it was (corny), but I always loved it. . . . And I’ve certainly had secret loves--though I usually tell people because I can’t keep a secret very easy. The album is about a woman growing up.


Q: What about “Success (Has Made a Failure of Our Home)”? There must be a degree of commentary in that?

A: Of course. That’s definitely the most biographical song on the album . . . the one that is the most personal. I didn’t see it in terms of being a country song even though Loretta Lynn recorded it . . . but as a song that expressed something important . . . how everyone is concerned with material success and what that can do to people. Success has made a failure of our home . . . my home.


Q: Are you talking about your own marriage?

A: No, no. I’m talking about child abuse and society . . . the way that desire for material success has been responsible for so much pain in the world. I wouldn’t have been abused as a child if it was not for the desire for material success which caused the social conditions in my country . . . the conditions that allowed my mother to become the person she became and do what she did . . . to become a victim of the system.

If Ireland had not been invaded by the English, which was done for money, the Irish people wouldn’t be in the amount of trouble that they are in at the moment and I wouldn’t have been abused as a child . . . and neither would anybody else. So what I am saying is that through my own personal experience, I’ve learned that success has made a failure of our home.


Q: Do you see the song or the album as political?

A: To me, it’s more spiritual. The thing is we have lost contact with God. If we believed in God, we wouldn’t be doing the things we are doing to each other. I think spiritual leaders have encouraged the desire for material success and forced it upon us by not telling us the truth about our history.


Q: Is that what you are saying in the “poem” at the end of the album?

A: In the last two years I have been accused on numerous occasion of being a liar and a (troublemaker), a madwoman basically. I think (the poem) is a kind of explanation of what I feel. I don’t mean to make people think I don’t like them or that I’m trying to say that I think everyone else is a bastard, because I don’t. In fact, if I think anybody is a bastard, I think I am a bigger bastard than anyone.


Q: Let’s talk about the poem. Why did you include it?

A: I was going to put it at the beginning of the album, but everybody freaked out, so I put it at the end to (make sure) that people wouldn’t concentrate on that rather than listen to the music.


Q: You seem to be blaming Western religion--or at least the Catholic Church--for causing much of the pain in the world. Is that right?

A: Our spiritual leaders have lied to us and deliberately orchestrated it so we will grow in fear. Even if you don’t practice Catholicism, all the rules by which we live have been passed down for centuries by them. They’ve been telling us God is outside of us, that we are powerless. That’s why so many people feel lost, why they get so frustrated that they feel there is nothing to live for and they abuse their children. But when you know that God is truth and therefore inside you, you become the one with power over your life and your destiny.


Q: How did you break the chain?

A: I broke it because I believed in God. When I was a child, I asked God to help me and he did. God is what you feel inside, the voices you feel inside. Your relationship with God is completely individual. No one else can tell you what it is or isn’t.


Q: How do you respond to people who say that if you think materialistic values corrupt people you should give all your money away?

A: That’s stupid. It comes from people who couldn’t think of anything clever to say. What does it mean? How do they know what I do with my money? I never said money was bad anyway. There’s nothing wrong with money, but you don’t make it your god.


Q: What has been the most difficult thing about your fame?

A: I think the most crushing thing is the isolation that comes from being a person who is not seen as an ordinary human being, but someone on whom other people’s expectations are placed . . . someone who becomes the book who is judged by the cover . . . not even by its own cover, but what’s inside other people’s minds.


Q: You mean you isolate yourself?

A: No, I just find it is very difficult to communicate with people on an ordinary level because they don’t see me as an ordinary person. They see me as whatever picture they have in their head of people who do what I do for a living . . . and they behave accordingly on a scale of 1 to 10. They can either just ask for your autograph or they can try to get you pregnant because they think you’ve got loads of money and they are onto a good thing here.


Q: Have you been following the U.S. election?

A: I’ve been watching the circus.


Q: Clinton seems to be the voice of change. Are you optimistic about him?

A: No, I think he is as much of a facade as Bush is. I think it is all a joke. Nothing will get any better. None of them care about people. (Bush and Clinton) didn’t get where they are by giving a (damn) about people. If George Bush believed in God, old people wouldn’t be living on the street . . . children wouldn’t be dying of the mumps.


Q: “Scarlet Ribbons” is the only song on the album that is identified with a male singer. Why did you choose that song?

A: It’s not because of the Harry Belafonte record. It’s because my father used to sing it to me when I was small. That’s why it is the closest song to me personally.


Q: How is your relationship with your dad now? It must have been tough on the whole family when you started talking about your mother and child abuse last year?

A: It made life extremely difficult for a while, but I think it has been good for us in the long run. It opened up discussion among the family where it might not have been discussed before. Now we are all having a good relationship.

That’s why I believe it is important to talk about things like child abuse, because there are so many other people that it is happening to and it shows they are not alone.

If I had been able to read something when it was happening to me . . . if someone had said that you could survive this and that you were going to be fine . . . and that it wasn’t that your parents didn’t like you, but it was that they are unhappy and there are reasons for it. That would have certainly made life easier for me.

Most people want to hide things away. But I think the only cure is for things to be out in the open. The truth is the most important thing.