Seán Laffey talks to Mary Black about her recently published autobiography.
It is always fascinating to read about real lives and the Christmas book market is a prime target for celebrity tell-alls. Often they are ghost written, many are pale renditions of the characters and personalities who are supposedly writing their own story. Fear not, Mary Black's book is her own work, her own words, it is funny, touching, self-effacing, fast-paced and above else generous. She may be the most successful female Irish artist of all time, but there isn't one eyelash of a Diva in her. This work is grounded, rooted in a Dublin upbringing that was as ordinary as it was remarkable and an adult life where family always came first. This interview isn't Mary's story, that would be a spoiler, you can read all that in the book itself. My questions delve into the reasons for singing songs and telling her story; Mary is candid in her answers.
Seán: Your story opens with an ending, the rite of passage from youth to adulthood, you describe how you came to earn Ewan MacColl's School Day's Over. That is a very mature song for a ten year old girl to learn, what attracted you to the song, the melody or the sentiment?
Mary: As a young girl singing it for the first time I was very attracted to the melody. Also my older brother Shay suggested the song and explained to me what it was about.
Throughout your career what has been the hook that got you to take hold of a song and make it your own?
The lyrics of a song are always very important to me, I need to feel an emotional attachment to the sentiment of the song so that in turn I can express it to my listeners. The melody is important too, but is something that I can work around and make slight changes to better suit me. As many of the songs I sing are written by other song writers it's important to me to choose lyrics I can relate to.
Ireland has changed so much since your childhood, circumstances, attitudes and far more forgiving now than in the 1950's. Yet it appears from your writing that those (relatively) hard times were essential in forming you as a musician and performer. Do you suspect things would have been different in a more affluent family?
When I was growing up in the late 50's and early 60's in Dublin I wasn't conscious that we were poor, as I felt that there were other families around us that were much worse off than we were. However I do feel the start in life that I had probably shaped my attitude to life and work and performance in a good way. It made me appreciate every little step of success that came my way.
Family runs deeply through the book, your close family and the family of musicians who have been with you over so many years. Has this been a social anti-dote, has it stopped you becoming a Diva?
I've always had a respect for the people I work with or who work for me. My parents instilled in us a belief that we are all equal regardless of our position in life. I was never particularly impressed by celebrity status. It's also really important for me to work alongside musicians I respect and admire and to build friendships with all the people I work with. Mutual respect and friendship and also enjoyment of the music are important - we also have a good time on tour.
You are extremely generous to the memory of your siblings, they often get equal billing in the book. Indeed they have whole chapters devoted to themselves, how have they responded to this?
When I finished writing about my siblings I sent them all the chapters to read as I wanted them to feel comfortable about what I had written. They all responded favourably and were pleased with what they read.
Your own children are involved professionally in music, is there advice hidden in the book for them?
I didn't set out to give them advice in the book but perhaps they will take something from it and it may help them along the way. The main message I think is that you have to be willing to work hard and be passionate about what you do and hope that with a little bit of luck things will work out. Also not to be consumed by ambition and business to the extent that you neglect your family and home life.
You have covered some great songs over the years and the title of book comes from a Tom Moore song, how important has it been to be aware of new songs and new songwriters? Who has the A&R job at your record labels?
I don't have an A&R man, choosing songs is a very important part of what I do. The songs may come from different sources, direct from songwriters, recommended by friends or fellow musicians or songs I come across myself. Over the years I have been sent sack loads of songs and I've tried to give them all a listen. It's always been about the song whether it's been a new songwriter or an established songwriter. I always have my ear to the ground for songs particularly if I'm thinking in terms of a new album and in recent years I've written a few myself.
As your touring career winds down in 2015 where do you think you will be in music in 5 years time? A full time record label executive perhaps?
Who knows what the future holds. Maybe I'll be retired, but I'd like to think that I'll still be singing at some level. When I was young I wondered if I'd still be singing when I was forty - now I'm nearly 60 and I'm wondering if I'll still be singing at 70!
With permission of Irish Music Magazine.
There she is, award-winning and bestselling Irish singer Mary Black enjoying national and international success and wondering, 'How did I get myself into this?'
It all started in the mid 1960s in a tenement house in Dublin.
Schooldays over, come on then John, Time to be getting your pit boots on, On with your sack and your moleskin trousers Time you were on your way, Time you were learning the pitman's job And earning a pitman's pay.I lean forward and listen intently. The verse starts low and sweet but I can hear a sadness behind the words. As we listen Shay tells me the song is about a mother calling her son to get up and go down to work in the mines for the first time, even though he's only a boy. I understood then why I felt sad listening to it. Shay hands me the lyrics. We play it over and over, Shay playing his guitar and correcting my mistakes.
Mary Black's own schooldays were soon over as well. She was waitressing but was eager to break away from the confines of the limited expectations because of her working-class background.
Mary Black formed a trad-folk band with her brothers and they played open-mic style on Dublin's folk club circuit. Then came a pivotal day in 1975:
General Humbert toured Europe and released a second album in 1978. When the group broke apart, Mary was doing small solo sets with guitarist Gerry O'Byrne. Then, popular folk singer Christy Moore came walking along.
In 1982 she developed a professional relationship with guitar player and producer Declan Sinnott, which lasted for 13 years. She recorded her first solo album, which received a lot of airplay and went gold in the Irish charts.
An offer of a different kind came from traditional Irish music band De Dannan, featuring Frankie Gavin (fiddle), Alec Finn (bouzouki), Charlie Piggott (banjo) and Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh (bodhrán).
Mary recorded two albums and toured with De Dannan around Europe and in the US until the mid 1980s. She continued with her solo career, and her second solo album was introducing drums and electric instruments and was using contemporary Irish songwriters such as Jimmy MacCarthy, Noel Brazil and Mick Hanley.
Her popularity reached new heights with the release of the 1989 album, No Frontiers.
Life was becoming a roller-coaster of recording, touring, TV and radio appearances. At the same time she was raising three children and had to battle depressive attacks.
In the end though it seems to me that the Mary Black adventure hasn't been a Crooked Road, as she had called her autobiography after a line from the Thom Moore song Carolina Rua. While there had been ups and downs she had never been badly stung, but things were going really well.
Stories never end till you come to conclusions: Carolina Rua has a hand in my confusion. She waits for me to choose which quarter to bend in, To Susie-Make-Me-Blue or the redhead I'm attending. Now, Carolina Rua has my heart, and all I want to do's Go down the windy road where my Carolina goes; Down the crooked road where Carolina goes to school — mo Charolina Rua, do you love me? Tell me true, tell me…
Mary takes us down memory lane. She recalls her upbringing and her musical heritage and how she slowly slided into an artistical career. Mary is a down-to-earth persona and recounts her private life and professional career with both sincerity and esprit. An 18 song CD compilation serves as the soundtrack and companion to her autobiography.
Mary's brothers Shay and Michael then live in California and perform as The Black Brothers; sister Frances had started singing with trad band Arcady and built up a successful solo career; daughter Róisín is slowly making a name of her own in the pop music genre. But what about Mary?
Down the Crooked Road also marks Mary Black's final big tour abroad. After 30 years she decided to hang up my touring boots, though she will not completely retire from singing but still do one-off-shows and festivals whenever the mood takes her.
Photo Credits: (1) Book Cover, (2) Mary Black (from website/author/publishers).