Mary Black:
For the joy of music

When you think of Mary Black, you see her in the center of a stage, feet planted, fisted clenched by her sides, eyes closed as if looking deeply inside herself, belting out a song in one of the purest voices on the planet, a voice so pure that the British magazine What Hi-Fi uses it to test the quality of different stereo systems. Hear that voice coming from your stereo, you'll quit whatever you were doing, sit still and let it transform you. Hear her sing one song and you know you're in the presence of a master.

It's the same talking to her on the phone. Mary Black has a speaking voice to match her singing voice. On the phone, calling from Ireland, she sounds joyful and enthusiastic, her voice warm as freshly baked scones. Talk to her for a few minutes and it's as if you've known her all your life. She erects no barriers, maintains no distance. Asked how much time she's got available, she laughs and says, "Let's just talk. I've got nothing else to do."

The subject of the talk is mostly her impending retirement from touring. After 30 years on the road, she has decided to give it up after one last, world-wide farewell tour. Not to the singing life, though: "I'm giving up the road," she says. "I've been doing it for 30 years and I feel the time is right. My life is pointing that way. Still, I can't imagine not singing. I'll continue to do some of that here at home. I want to travel, though, see parts of the world I haven't seen. I want to spend time with my family. And I want to take up painting again. I've always loved to paint. I want to do more of that."

She describes the career she's in the process of closing down as more or less an accident. Born into a musical family -- her father was a fiddler, her mother a singer -- music filled her home all her life. Her three brothers and her sister are all performers and, with them, she's made a couple of albums as the Black Family. She sang traditional songs at home from age 8, and "from an early age, my brothers dragged me along to sing at places where you just signed up and then sang, and at clubs. We never thought of it as a career. We were doing it for the love of it, for the joy of the music.

"Then I got a big break. The singer, Christie Moore, invited me to sing on his TV show, Christie Moore & Friends. It was very generous of him. I didn't have an album out or anything."

Her career built quickly on the foundation that Moore had given her. She joined a band, General Humbert, made two albums in a band setting and, during the two years she spent with them, learned the business of being a touring musician. When she left, she recorded her first album, Mary Black, which became a hit. Then she was invited to replace Maura O'Connell in the established Irish band De Dannan. Before signing on, she insisted that she be able to keep her solo career going simultaneously with her band work. The band's attitude was that whatever she did on her own time was her business, so she accepted the offer and stayed with De Dannan until 1986, leaving after winning Ireland's Entertainer of the Year award. In 1987 and 1988 she was named Ireland's best female artist, and by the '90s she had become an international superstar, called by many the Voice of Ireland. All of her 11 albums have at least gone platinum, many of them multiplatinum.

In 1993, Billboard magazine called her "a firm favorite to join the heavy hitting ranks of such Irish artists as Enya, Sinead O'Connor and Clannad's Maire Brennan in the international marketplace."

Black still sounds surprised that singing turned out to be the world wide phenomenon that it has been. When she discusses the topic, her voice turns wondrous, a hint of questioning entering it as if she's describing a dream: "I never thought when I began that I'd still be doing this 30 years later. Never, never, never. I wondered if I'd still be singing and touring when I was 40, if I'd have to give it up before then. After all these years, though, I can't look back with any regrets. Music is a hard life, especially when you're raising three kids while you're touring, but it's wonderful. So many fine memories, so many stories. Most of the stories are in my book. "

The book she is referring to is her autobiography which has been recent;y published in Ireland and England, Down the Crooked Road, written with her daughter, Roisin.

Still, she says, it is time to give up touring. When I mentioned that her friend, Maura O'Connell, had also retired from the road, citing changes in the music industry as her reason -- lack of guarantees from clubs, audiences staying home because of the recession, higher costs of touring so that you have to spend more time on the road and spend more money in costs in order to make less money from the gigs -- she insists that hers is a personal decision, not one driven by the changes in the business. "I can't deny that times are changing, but the dramatic changes in the record industry aren't a factor. My career was at its peak in the late '90s. Today with the recession and everything, it's harder. It's getting tougher. You have to tour to make money. You have to make your money on album sales and downloads and you have to tour to sell albums and downloads. I want to live a life away from that."

Even though she describes her career as something that largely just happened to her, when she speaks about it, she reveals a determination and a drive that made things just happen. Black always took singing professionally a little more seriously than her self-deprecating comments would suggest. From early on, she arranged her life so that she would be able to take advantage of whatever breaks came her way or that she could create for herself. Although she declares that she has never chased fame and thinks of it as a frivolous concept, she reveres singing, seeing the song as much more important than the singer. "I was never ambitious to be famous. I just wanted to be free to be a singer. I didn't want to get a job that would tie me down in case I got an opportunity to tour. I took jobs I could walk away from. I subsidized music with jobs." She pauses and then adds, "I can't imagine a life without music."

The music she is primarily associated with is folk. Seen as a traditional folk singer who changed and started singing contemporary material, she disputes that characterization. "I don't look at it that way. From my first solo album, I did some traditional folk but also newer material. I lived in Dublin, not the rural areas, so I was exposed to a lot more influences from the beginning. I wanted to explore, wanted sing a wide range of songs. When I discovered all the great Irish writers, I had an opportunity to record them, to get their songs out to a public. A lot of them weren't performers but I was, so I could spread their music."

It's the same battle Maura O'Connell fought. I reminded her that O'Connell got so fed up with being labeled an Irish folk singer that she had T-shirts made up that read:

Maura O'Connell
Just a singer

Mary Black remembered that and agrees with the sentiment. "I don't like to put music in boxes."

In America, though, we do like to put music in boxes. We have to be able to categorize everything and we don't like it when artists try to breakout of the boxes we've put them in, so Mary Black experienced some backlash. "In America, there was some resistance," she admits, but it didn't bother her. "Maybe I lost a few fans but I gained a lot more."

Maybe one reason she has continued to gain fans is because her music is quintessentially Irish, a fact she says is explained by the fact that Ireland has always been a strongly musical country. "Music was always something we could do when times were very bad. You have to have something to hang onto when times are very bad. For the Irish, music is what keeps them sane. That's my take on it. Music is a way for people to hang on. Music and language are in us. We grew up with both."

Whether you're listening to Mary Black, Tommy Fleming, Van Morrison, U2, Maura O'Connell, Black Flag or Paul Creane, you always know it is Irish music. There's an intangible quality that announces its country of origin. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem pointed out one distinguishing characteristic of Irish music when they said that Ireland is the land of happy war songs and sad love songs. I asked Mary Black why the music of the country was always so immediately identifiable, what the essential elements of Irish music are.

She answers by speaking to the emotional aspects, rather than the technical. "It's a mixture of joy, laughter and sadness. The Irish have that. We have to have a way to laugh as well as cry."

Many of her best known songs have that sadness in them. "Ellis Island," for example, is about a person watching the one he or she loves sail off for America, knowing "these are the last words I'm ever going to hear you say." Her signature song, "Song for Ireland," is about an immigrant missing the homeland who stands on the Atlantic shore and sings a lament for the home country.

"Song for Ireland" was another one of those accidents that has happened so frequently in her career. "De Dannan gave that song to me. They were friends with Phil Clocough, who wrote it, so they had the song. It was going to be for Maura O'Connell, but she left and I replaced her, so they gave it to me. The very first time I ever sang with De Dannan was in the studio recording that song."

It continues to be significant for her. "It's very important to me. No matter where we go, it renews the feeling of pride in being Irish. If I'm at home, I don't sing it very much. I give it a rest occasionally, but as soon as I get away from Ireland, I love the song again and want to sing it."

Ireland and Irish music continue to center her life. She is very excited about the future of her country's music, saying there is an explosion of talent going on and more coming down the road. "It comes in waves," she says, "and there's a big wave coming."

She's also proud that two of her three children are part of that wave. Her son, Danny, plays in a successful rock band, the Coronas, and her daughter, Roisin O, is a singer-songwriter, preparing to release her second album. "Danny always wanted to play music. I knew he was moving toward music when he was just a little boy. Roisin, too. She learned songs from the movies and from records very early. Both have done very well." Music, then, is still the center of her family. Her oldest son, the only one who is not a musician, is a surveyor for the city of Dublin, but nonetheless plays guitar and sings, though not professionally. Her sister, Francis, also a very successful singer, has two children in the business.

The family tradition continues.

Asked why she continues to sing even as she gives up touring and why she always will, Mary Black sums up her life's philosophy in a couple of well chosen sentences. "I did it forever. Before I had a career, it made me happy. It still does."

interview by
Michael Scott Cain

1 November 2014

what's new