Interview with Mary Black

We caught up with Irish national treasure Mary Black to chat about upcoming shows, new releases, GAA, mental health and working with her talented family.

FT: Mary, thanks for taking the time to talk to Folk and Tumble. You were raised in Dublin, and have been living in Kerry, so I suppose a question a lot of people will want to know is, Who were supporting in the recent All Ireland final?

MB: Oh well, born and reared in Dublin, I have to say, I’m a true blue. If Kerry were playing and Dublin weren’t, then I would looking to Kerry, because I have an affinity there. Of course, whenever Antrim are playing, or any northern team, I would shout for them, because of my father you know.

FT: Mentioning that background in Dublin… Coming from a working-class family where money was tight, but music was all around. Given the rich heritage of the Family, and with Frances and your brothers that’s very evident, but were you always going to be a singer?

MB: Well, yeah, I knew I would always be a singer, but at what level, was the question. In my early teens, I always wanted to make lots of room for music in my life, but I didn’t ever dream that I might be a successful artist in my own right. That never came into my head, and I think back then, the dreams weren’t quite as big as the dreams young people have now. They seem to have so much confidence now, they see themselves in certain situations because of social media and hearing these stories of how easy it was to become a huge popular name.

But back in my day, we were singing in little folk clubs. We did it purely for the love of music. I mean I wasn’t working towards making a career out of it in any way, shape or form when I was starting out, but it kinda happened, and I welcomed it. Then I began to see that there are people here that really like what I do.

And you know, I suppose, I met up with like-minded people… Declan Sinnott of course. Teaming up with him in the early days was great for me because he had a lot of experience, and he knew a lot of great writers. So there was a lot of things that played a part in my success outside of my actual talent.

I say this to my own kids. As you probably know, two of them are full-time musicians but from the outset, I say look, it not just about talent, it’s about being in the right place at the right time, putting the work in, doing it, because you love it and not for any other reason. Then if something comes, that’s bigger than that, that’s fantastic, you know.

FT: You talk about reaching ‘that level’, and there have probably been a number of significant points in your career. Some you mentioned in the past, like The Christy Moore programme and record. But was there a particular point, or album, when you thought I’ve made it, I can really be a success at this. In a big way?

MB: Well you know it had grown over my first couple of albums. My popularity had grown, and you know, we were filling decent-sized venues around the country, and slightly bigger in the bigger cities. I felt the success of that, but never dreamed it would be any more than that, until we released ‘No Frontiers’, which has it’s 30th anniversary this year.

And suddenly there was interest from abroad. There was a record label in America called Curb Records, and one of their people was in touch as soon as they heard ‘No Frontiers’ on a public radio show in America, and he pulled in to try and find out who the singer was, and he had to ring the radio station because he had missed the introduction. He was over ready to get me to sign on the dotted line, and then there was King Records in Japan, who took on ‘No Frontiers’ and made it quite a success in that country, so things were happening there. Australia, ABC Records, and suddenly, well, over the course of a year, there was a lot of interest.

It’s funny, the tittle, ‘No Frontiers’ was perfect for what was happening to that album. It was bringing me to other parts of the world, and that’s when it really started to open up for me, and in England of course as well.

FT: It’s a terrific album, which has truly stood the test of time.

MB: Yeah, I think it takes you back to a time and place. It was very well produced, had great songs and the sounds were on it were lovely. And we were quite meticulous in our recording back then, and everything was for a reason. Every note that was played on that album, we wanted to be on that album. It was a labour of love, and it paid off.

FT: And thirty years on it still very fresh and contemporary.

MB: Yeah. What I find amazing now, is a lot of young people are coming to my gigs, people who probably heard me through their parents, and then they’ve come full circle in that they’ve followed their teen idols and what have you, and now they’re in their late 20s and early 30s and they’re singing the songs at the top of their voices. And really enjoying the songs in a new way. It’s lovely to see it!

FT: You’ve talked in the past, about slowing down with the touring, spending more time with the family, painting, and even spending time exploring countries that perhaps you fly through without seeing much, when you’re touring. Getting a balance between the music and your life. How is that working out?

MB: Well you know this year has probably been one of my busiest in a long time, and it’s not through touring. I did “Ireland’s Favourite Folk Song” on RTE recently, which was a series of programmes, and do you know the amount of time you spend filming those little clips!

It’s hard to believe the amount of time it takes. Then there’s a documentary airing on 9th September. I’m going to be away, so I won’t have to watch it, thankfully. I don’t like watching myself on TV, so I’ll wait and see what people make of it. But that took a huge amount of time as well. We did two or three days filming up in Rathlin, and the director said to me, “You know Mary, probably three or four minutes is going to include Rathlin”.

The whole year has been quite busy, and then we had a wedding in the family, My son got married, and we had great excitement in the build-up to that. So it’s been exciting and hectic, and I’m starting a tour now when I come back from a short break, so that’ll keep me busy for a while. I only tour in Ireland really. I do the odd interesting project in different countries or festivals that I fancy. I can pick and choose what I want to do. I love being able to spend time with my own family, and now my two granddaughters. You have to make time, and that’s actually what made me decide to give up touring abroad, because, (laughs) how old am I now?

I may have 20 years if I’m lucky enough to live into my eighties! So like hello! You know how quickly time goes by and I have to start making choices. I have to start clearing it out. Not completely, because I wouldn’t be ready to give up singing yet. I love just doing what I do and I love performing live. That’s what gives me the biggest hit of all.

FT: You mentioned the tour that comes to Belfast on 20th September. What songs can fans expect, and will there be new material?

MB: Well there are a couple of new songs. We have something interesting which we have been doing that has been doing an orchestrated album of my own personal favourite songs along with the National Symphony Orchestra.

We are going to do a special concert on 17th March, Paddy’s Day next year together, in the National Concert Hall in Dublin. That album is coming out very soon. We have filmed the orchestra playing live over my tracks and I will be singing live with a film of the orchestra. I can’t bring the whole orchestra with me but it will be something nice. It will be something different and I’m looking forward to that.

There are a few new songs that I recorded for this documentary that I mentioned. I‘ll bring one or two of those songs, and I’m dipping really deeply into my bag of songs I haven’t sung in years with this orchestra, so that brings something different again. I’m hoping that that will keep my audience happy.

FT: You’ve always been loyal to Belfast even in the darker times up here when big stars didn’t come and I think the fans really respect you for that as well.

MB: Well I never had any fear in going up north. The Troubles were there, of course, but I was going up and down to Rathlin Island on a regular basis, and I passed through Belfast on a regular basis, and I always loved the North of Ireland. It’s so beautiful, and the people are great. You could be crossing the street and be hit by a bus. I never thought about the way a lot of people thought about the North. I always said well people live their lives and go about their business every day of the week there, and if I have to go up and do a gig or two and have to stay a few days, I gotta go.

If people want to come out and see me, why should they be deprived of seeing a concert? If they are fans and want to come and see me, why should they have to come to the south? I was aware of that, and I always had a great time when I was there. The audiences up there are amazing.

I love the Ulster Hall, particularly. I love all that wood. We had a number of really memorable concerts up there. In fact, we filmed one of them, and it’s still one of the best live performances that I remember. The audience was just amazing.

FT: This a question in two parts. What makes a good song and what makes a good song that Mary Black will record?

MB: Well primarily I think it’s the lyrics that draw me in. Not penning the lyrics myself, I see them as the most important part of the song. You’re being drawn in by what’s being said. The music is important of course too, but you can always change a melody slightly, give it a nice arrangement and give it a nice lift, change it up a bit. However if the lyrics are strong, and I have been so lucky with the writers. I have had the good luck to have been in the way of people like Jimmy McCarthy and Noel Brazil, and Mick Hanley. Great Irish writers, and writers all over the world too.

I suppose if I’m moved by the lyrics, by the emotion of what’s being said, then I can really get behind it and feel it, and try and transfer that to my inner self so I feel if it’s moving me in some way. Often times a demo might be sent to me, and it might be sung, by someone who isn’t a great singer. Noel Brazil would have admitted openly he wasn’t a great singer, Dylan isn’t a great singer, but it doesn’t change how you feel about the song.

A lot of the writers didn’t have the opportunity I had for their music to be heard. I had an emerging following and we had a standard of recording, and a standard of artistry with the band. A lot of the time, the writers were delighted if I recorded their songs and it might have been their bread and butter when things were tough. Back then I suppose It was a bit tougher for them and to have me record their songs was great, and I was so blessed to have the standard of songs to work with. I was again, at the right place, at the right time.

FT: You have co-written a number of songs with your son Danny Reilly (The Coronas) to great success. ‘Your Love’ is a beautiful song. Because you have covered these fantastic songs by writers all over the world, has that made you scared or too critical of yourself to try and write more material?

MB: Yeah, absolutely! I never would have had the confidence to. I mean I’m inclined to write things down, and I have a little notebook where I write things that strikes me or a line I’ve heard in conversation. But I came out of the folky/trad side of music, and writing wasn’t part of that.

Songs were handed down, generations to generations. You’re going to folk clubs and you’re passing songs around, and you hear a song, and you do a version of it, and that’s kinda where I started out. I suppose I didn’t really start out with a pen in my hand, and I never had the confidence to actually pursue that.

It was easy for me to take other people’s music. Elvis did it all his life and people like Sinatra, didn’t write, but they put their mark on it and they made it their own, in as much as it could be. I was happy with that. There have been times in life when I’ve been moved by something. My mother dying and you mentioned ‘Your Love’, and I did really instigate that, and I had it all written down, but I went to Danny, and we banged it out together, finished it up, and he was great.

I had the melody of the chorus but I didn’t have verses. I had words, I had lines. Between us, we knocked out that song in about an hour. It’s one of my favourite songs. Well, of course, I love to sing it because it’s about my mother. I feel she’s kinda near me when I sing you know and she’s gone 15 years now. I’ve written a few others, with my daughter Roisin called ‘Sweet Love’ and a couple of others with Danny, that have been on various albums, but I really don’t see my talent would be in writing.

On the other hand, I always said to Danny and Roisin when they were young teens, “Start writing, because that’s where the money is” (laughs), and if you do it from an early age, you are not as self-conscious about it. That’s my take on it anyway.

FT: In terms of songs covered, you have a core of writers you have returned to over the years; notably Jimmy McCarthy and Noel Brazil. Others you have had a tremendous reaction to covering one of their songs, but haven’t gone back to them. For example, ‘Speaking With The Angel‘ by Ron Sexsmith. Your version hit a real resonance with so many people, and it’s such a beautiful song. But you have never recorded another of his songs? How difficult is it to pick songs for an album?

MB: Well when heard that song ‘Speaking with the Angel’… I mean, I love a lot of his stuff but that song kinda touched me in a way. I just couldn’t get it out of my head, and I wanted it to be the title track of the album because I felt so moved by it. In my mind, I’m not sure what he was writing about but I always see it as a special child, who has special needs, and see them when I sing it. I feel that love for a child who has those special problems.

FT: Do you know I always thought exactly the same, but I had the good fortune to meet Ron after a gig and I asked him and he said it was written about his son Christopher and growing up with the all the innocence of youth, but that he was more than happy for people to take their own interpretation from the song. The words always resonate with me that’s it’s about a child with a Learning Disability, still, even now when I know it’s not.

MB: I can see what you mean, There’s a lovely innocence of a child before they get to an age of reason when they’re small and young. I had of two them here yesterday! The older one is six, nearly seven, and you can just see, a little bit of the cute, the innocence is beginning to wane. Which is normal. She’s beginning to cop on. She is pulling fast ones on you or at least trying, but you know it’s the beautiful innocence of the little ones that is so lovely.

FT: To sing a song with great technical ability is one thing, but to live the song, to truly emote what the words are saying. That’s a special gift and one that made you so popular. It’s the emotion that you put into the song, and your interpretation of the song that comes across to the audience, that is so special.

MB: I think emotion plays a big part in what I do. In my early days, I listened a lot to Billie Holliday as a teenager, and I had these two or three albums I’d play over and over again; ‘God Bless the Child’ and ‘Good Morning Heartache’. Honest to God, I would be in tears. I was crying because I was so moved and that’s what I think you have to have in music, and it doesn’t have to be just sad songs. It can be joy as well. It can be standing up and dancing. It’s emotion and you have to feel it. Otherwise, it can be technically amazing, but I prefer something that isn’t perfect, as long as it has that emotion.

FT: Some of the songs you sing, hit certain groups of people particularly poignantly. I’m thinking of songs like ‘Ellis Island’ and ‘Song for Ireland’ and even ‘Donegal Breeze’ they hit so many people living away from home, and ‘A Woman’s Heart’ has become an anthem for women everywhere. Are you aware of the emotional heft these songs have for people, and how deeply affected they are?

MB: I’ll tell you how I got a bit of a shock. I was asked by the gay rights movement, campaigning for equal marriage rights for gay people, to play at this big concert in the Olympia. I was one of maybe 15 artists performing on the night and show my support. Roisin got up with me and we sang ‘Only A Woman’s Heart’ and honest to God, I’ll never forget it. There were people crying.

At Repeal The 8th as well I felt the same. That’s when I saw the power of camaraderie, and women, and coming together and being powerful, and wanting something for your own body you feel is right. It’s times like that, you really do feel the power of song, and ‘A Woman’s Heart’ is the one that united a lot of people on that night, and it was such a lovely special moment.

FT: You’ve spoken very openly about your struggles with depression, which has been a help to many people. A stigma still remains about mental health issues, but for someone of your stature, and so well known, to come out and say that they have their struggles with mental health, has helped a lot of people to understand it better, and for others to realise they are not alone. Was that important for you to do?

MB: Absolutely. I mean I think people look and say, “Gosh, don’t they have a great life, nothing ever seems to go wrong for them.” And life isn’t like that. I know so many people who suffer from depression. Some people suffer from it extremely badly, and others deal with it and it comes and goes, similar to myself. Luckily it hasn’t happened in a while.

I think the more we talk about it, the less of a stigma it will be. I think people will become more honest about it as well, and not think that mental health issues are something to be kept a secret. There are a lot of young people hit by it and it’s getting worse. I’m not sure if social media has a part to play making it harder for the young but certainly suicide rates are constantly on the rise.

It’s a tough world out there, and I think we have to be supportive of each other, and talking about it is one thing that does help, be it counselling, talking to your doctor, a friend, your parents, whatever. If I can do something small and be honest about it, I have no problem with that.

I remember times on stage when I was bad and I was looking into a black hole in my head and yet I have a smile on my face because the mask was up and I had to do it. There are people in the audience I’m sure feeling exactly the same way and they have a mask up as well. We all have those masks that we wear at different times in our lives in order to cope and to keep going. It can happen to anyone.

FT: Your sister Frances has put her singing career on hold, hopefully temporarily, to enter politics, and in a very successful and positive way. Given the many songs you sing about social injustices, and your activism in areas, Was politics ever something you considered getting into?

MB: I don’t know, I wouldn’t think so. Frances has even struggled with certain issues but she’s learning all the time, and she is focusing on what she wants to do. She’s always been a fighter in her own way. She’s come through a lot difficult times in her life, and she’s there to help others, who might be suffering from addiction of various different sorts, in their own lives, with The RISE Foundation. She has tirelessly worked to help people who have come out of difficult situations, and she keeps quiet about that aspect of her life.

But now that’s she stepped into politics, she wants to be that same person, She wants to help people for the right reasons, people who are in trouble, and that’s where her commitment to the Palestinian issue started of course. She met the Palestinians in their own country and saw the problems and issues that they face on a daily basis, and she has said, “I cannot let those people down, I have got to fight for them”.

FT: Frances has said very similar things about you and your willingness to help others. Maybe it’s a family trait. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. It has been a real privilege.

MB: Thank you, I’ve really enjoyed it. Hopefully, I’ll see you at the gig.

Mary Black plays Ulster Hall, Belfast on 20th September 2019. A new album is expected in early 2020.