The tragic passing of Sinéad O'Connor has put the spotlight once more on the song that she will be remembered for, Nothing Compares 2 U. It's widely known that it's a Prince-penned tune, and that Sinéad made it her own with a sublime recording and iconic video.
But the story behind the recording of the song had many twists and turns, several vocal recordings and the person at the centre of the song – the 'U' in question – would change with each singer. Prince wasn't happy with at least two versions, one recording led to a happy marriage, but was Sinéad's take really about Peter Gabriel? Welcome to the extraordinary story of Nothing Compares 2 U.
Prince wrote Nothing Compares 2 U in 1984 in his trademark, super-quick time at his Flying Cloud Drive Warehouse recording and rehearsal space. In just a few hours he had the song written and recorded. His long-term recording engineer Susan Rogers was helping out and had a couple of theories about who he wrote it about when interviewed by The Guardian in 2018. The first was that Nothing Compares 2 U was written about the singer Susannah Melvoin with whom Prince was in a relationship at the time.
“It was clear that she was becoming more important than the other girls he’d dated,” Rogers said, but then went onto state that the song could also have been simply about his housekeeper, Sandy Scipioni, who "had to leave suddenly to be with her family because her father died of a heart attack. Sandy ran Prince’s life. He kept asking, ‘When’s Sandy coming back?’”
Either way, it would be over three decades before this first version of the song would see the light of day.
After recording Nothing Compares 2 U, and despite Rogers considering it one of Prince's top 10 songs, Prince decided to give it to his side project The Family, which included both Melvoin and singer Paul 'St. Paul' Peterson. This was a group Prince effectively set up to release yet more of his music – at this point he was writing and recording a track a day. Nothing Compares 2 U was, according to Rogers, given to them as it didn't fit with Prince's image, nor were the lyrics necessarily written from his point of view.
The Family recorded their version of the song with Peterson taking on the lead vocal after Prince had erased his own singing from the song.
“I was told to learn Prince's inflections, his emotions and the melody line," Peterson told the Guardian, and channeled an ex girlfriend for the emotional part. "I thought about a girl called Julie, who broke my heart in high school.”
Peterson's story has a happy ending as he would eventually marry Julie, although his and The Family's version of the song didn't have quite as happy a conclusion.
This second version of version Nothing Compares 2 U appeared on The Family's one and only album (The Family) which didn't sell well, and Nothing Compares 2 U could have disappeared without trace had it not been heard by Sinéad O'Connor’s manager Fachtna O'Ceallaigh.
He suggested that Sinéad should record it for her second album, 1990's I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got, although other accounts suggest that Steve Fargnoli, who managed both Prince and O Connor, made the suggestion.
The song got an all-new treatment and arrangement, with Sinéad and Nellee Hooper producing and Chris Birkett as co-producer and engineer. It's quite clear by this time that the song's emotional themes required the singer to channel their own interpretation of Prince's lyrics to create the most emotive recording. Birkett had his own theories on who O' Connor was channeling when he was interviewed by Sound On Sound in 2012.
"The intensity of Sinéad's performance came from the breakup of her latest relationship,” he said. "She had been dating her manager, Fachtna O'Ceallaigh. However, they were in the process of breaking up when we recorded Nothing Compares 2 U, so that's probably why she did such a good vocal."
But here the story takes a bizarre twist as Birkett also claimed Sinéad might have been channeling the emotion in the song about Prince (which Sinéad later denied) or another man, "a stranger in sunglasses" who used to attend the recording sessions. He would eventually ask the stranger who he was. Birkett told told SOS:
"He responded 'Peter Gabriel'. He and Sinéad appeared to be spending a lot of time together, so who knows? I still think she was crying about Fachtna O'Ceallaigh, but maybe she was crying about Peter Gabriel or she could even have been crying about Prince. Whoever it was, she was upset about someone and that's why she put everything into the song as well as into the video.”
Ah yes. The video.
As it turned out Sinéad would have another explanation for the emotion, which we'll come to but first, the video. This was directed by John Maybury (who'd previously directed West End Girls by Pet Shop Boys) and after recording the now iconic close-up on Sinéad's face, during which she started crying, Maybury decided to make that the focus of most of the video.
The crying was never intentional according to Sinéad. In the book Rememberings, she says she started crying about her mother – who had died in a car crash when she was just 18 – while reading the lyrics ”all the flowers that you planted mama, in the back yard, all died when you went away”.
Thanks to the video, Sinéad's version of the song went on to hit the top of the charts around the world and go on to sell 3.5 million copies, and while Prince would have received all of the song-writing royalties, he revealed that he didn't like the Sinéad cover to Paul 'St. Paul' Peterson who told The Guardian: “He went: 'It’s not about money!’ He told me he didn’t like it [O’Connor’s version]. Unless he asked them, he didn’t like anyone covering his songs.”
This was confirmed when Prince and O'Connor eventually met in LA with Sinéad reporting that it was an unhappy and violent meeting. She told ITV's Good Morning Britain in 2019, "he was uncomfortable that I wasn't a protégé of his – I just recorded the song – and he was wanting me to be a protégé."
After saying that their meeting became violent which was "down to drugs – he was into some pretty dark drugs" she said that part of the reason they didn't get on could have been "that my manager at the time had been Prince's manager and they were suing each other and I think I got caught up somehow".
Despite this unhappy experience Sinéad would grow to love the song because it would allow her to connect with her mother.
"I always think of my mother when I sing it," she told GMB. "People have all types of associations with the song – people who broke up, people who got married, someone died, someone was born, whatever – for me it's about my mother, that my mother died when I was very young.
"So I always get to spend with my mother when I'm singing that song. I close my eyes and think of my mother. It's the only time I get to spend with my mother. I believe in life after death and I'd say she's very proud. It was down to her and my father that I became a singer."
Which would be a beautiful way to end the story but there is one more twist. After Sinéad's version of the song became successful, Prince would play the song live, with a version of Nothing Compares 2 U he sang with Rosie Gaines becoming a fan favourite.
The sad ending of the story is that this version of the song would continue the rift between O'Connor and Prince's estate. They would refuse permission for the O'Connor version of the song to be used on a documentary on Sinéad called Nothing Compares. Prince’s half-sister Sharon Nelson told Billboard, “I didn’t feel she deserved to use the song. Nothing compares to Prince’s live version with Rosie Gaines. His version is the best.”
And while we're not entirely sure we'd agree with that, let's just agree that Nothing Compares 2 U is a great song that can be about whatever and whoever you want it to be. And with it, there really couldn't be any better way to remember the soul that burned twice as brightly that was Sinéad O'Connor.