Christeene Summons the Spirit of Sinéad O’Connor

For two days at New York’s City Winery, the filth hero will perform the late singer’s debut album “The Lion and the Cobra” in full. Don’t think of it as a memorial.

Christeene. Photography by Katerina Jebb

Christeene knows how to take up space. For almost 15 years, the filth hero has developed a sticky body of work that chafes at the limits of rock music (she’s released a trio of fine records, including the 2022 stomper Midnight Fukk Train), the bounds of performance art (she stole the show at longtime collaborator Rick Owens’ “art orgy” at the Centre Pompidou), and any use as muse (her charismatic rough edges often puncture the puffery of photographers like Juergen Teller and Wolfgang Tillmans.) 

You might not know what to expect when Cristeene takes the stage, whether she’s filling big rooms on tour with Fever Ray or doling out wisdom at your local dive bar. What’s for sure, though, is that if you show up, she’ll show what can happen between people in a room, and what usually happens is spirits soar higher than the helium balloons anchored to a butt plug she, let’s say, releases into the air as a curtain-raiser. 

Five years ago, Christeene (also known as Paul Soileau) turned from her own work towards that of the iconic Sinéad O’Connor, performing her debut album The Lion and the Cobra in full at London’s Barbican Centre with a clutch of fellow travelers like Peaches and John Grant. This spring, Christeene returns to the record—and a very different world. Since then, O’Connor died and the world seems to only have grown darker. But Christeene and Peaches and a band full of their longtime friends and collaborators haven’t given up the fight. They play the album in full, if not exactly in imitation, in Los Angeles with Light Asylum’s Shannon Fuchness—and, on March 25–26 at City Winery in New York, joined by the legendary Justin Vivian Bond. 

Christeene recently took a moment from rehearsals with her band to sit down with Surface, and her cat Tickles Pickles, for a chat about the legacy of Sinéad O’Connor, the importance of the theatrical, and why this isn’t a memorial. 

Promotional poster for “The Lion, the Witch, and the Cobra”

Let’s begin with how O’Connor influenced the origins of Christeene.

I never had an obsessiveness, posters-on-the-wall kind of madness. It was always in the realm of friendship, like a guiding force. She burns with a hot fire and that fire is a kiln for whatever is cooking inside of her—those messages of love and compassion and sexuality without shame. We all fuck. We all have desires. We were all children once, and we all needed love then and we still need it now. It’s the common connectedness between all people as humans.

What is it about The Lion and the Cobra, in its totality, that interests you?

It doesn’t have the brightest spotlight on it. It kind of got blocked when her second album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got hit mainstream audiences and brought forgetfulness to the public of her aggressiveness and her very raw, punk beginnings. Youthful anger is the most dangerous thing—the church and the patriarchy want to silence and destroy it. The Lion addresses things I find vital to what people in the world need to plug into. I first did it five years ago, when the country was reeling from Trump. Five years later, we’re reeling from the same madness, and reeling from the outcome and this continued relationship with it. Patriarchy is at its worst right now, and she is dead right now. So it’s all ringing even more urgently than it did five years ago. 

“The Lion and the Cobra” by Sinéad O’Connor

As a performer, what’s it like when you walk on stage and the audience knows the song order you’re going to perform? Is there something exciting or complicated about that?

It might not be what you expect. I like theater. I like to take you on a journey. A particular song structure might not at times meet the theatrical delivery and the message I’m trying to get to. My shows have an arc. I like to pick you up by the neck and throw you in the air, slap you a little, bring you down to a nice soft place, slap you again. I found great joy in examining the album as a script. So you might know how many songs are on that album, but you don’t know what we’ve done to them. You don’t know what the hell I’m gonna say between them. I’m churning this thing through my meat grinder. I’d never stray from Sinéad’s versions or pervert the songs so much that you don’t know what you’re getting. The whole point is to appreciate and honor that album, but I’d be a fool not to put my stank touch on it. 

What’s important to you, architecturally, to make sure that the audience is present and along for the ride with you?

Smoke and mirrors and imagination are key. I’m in this place called City Winery, and I don’t belong there. That’s why I’m fascinated by it. We did the Barbican Centre in London, and the first thing I said there was “the pigs have infiltrated the palace.” With the Winery, it’s an even stranger infiltration. It’s a room I do not belong in aesthetically. If I’m performing in a shit club, like Ficken 3000 in Berlin, we roll in and there’s not even a stage, there’s just a pole you can dance on and a DJ booth about to catch fire from the heat. We come in with all these LED lights, set them up on the floor, and my DJ and dancers would turn a shitty corner of a sex bar into a damn Patti LuPone theater. 

With City Winery, it’s a very respectable room, and in the center is a shit bomb that just got thrown on stage. It’s intimate, and it’s imaginative. You’re trying to understand how the lobby you just walked through led you into this. If you can theatrically capture that room with that music, the rest fades away. When the show’s over, the lights come up and you’re like what the fuck?

Christeene. Photography by Brett Lindell

And the venue is right off 14th street, near the piers…

I’m a big believer in understanding the history of where you plant your feet for a show. So it’s out on the piers, next to Little Island and all that weird shit, and then all those cocksucking ghosts floating around and cackling like a Scooby Doo goon. I’m gonna welcome them in! 

I think a lot of us are trying to figure out how to welcome, and honor, the past without the boredom of nostalgia.

This isn’t a nostalgia trip. It’s also not a memorial for Sinéad. It’s not a funeral service. When your house is on fire, what do you grab? What do you run with? What’s in your fucking emergency suitcase? Is your animal coming with you? What instruments do you grab? Do you grab a gun? Do you grab your faith? This show is me grabbing Sinéad O’Connor as a weapon, a guide, a source of light in this fucking tunnel we’re in that is crumbling around us. 

It’s a fucking honor to be able to sing these songs, and I want to give you a pat and a shake and say this fucking woman is the best. It’s extremely urgent to not only remember what she did, but grab ahold of what she left us. I believe in a fucking spirit. I believe that she’s riding a horse of fire around the Earth, in these times of dark war and persecution of people from powerful, patriarchal men. It’s an honor to take to the stage and celebrate and take hold of the message and power of this woman. 

“The Lion, The Witch, and The Cobra” will take place April 25–26 at City Winery (25 11th Ave, New York). Buy tickets here.


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