Maybe it was because it was New Year’s Day, or maybe recent interviews with MARY BLACK have been informed by her memoir ‘Down the Crooked Road’, or maybe it was the Celt’s apocalyptic hangover asking morbid questions, but the Dublin singer was in reflective mood. She happily discussed with DAMIAN MCCARNEY her voice changes, the winding down of her career and how tough the business would be to break in for aspiring singers...
Mary Black doesn’t take to Twitter very often, but her feed is littered with announcements of extra dates at venues across the country - a second date in Belfast, additional shows in Derry and Dublin; and beyond - another show in Adelaide has been added to her farewell tour of Australia.
For a singer who is telling the Celt that she’s winding down her career, it sounds more like a wind up.
“To be honest I’m surprised about that,” she says of the sell-out shows and demand for extra dates.
In early 2015 she had anticipated a surge in interest with the release of her memoir ‘Down the Crooked Road’ ensuring she was never far from a Sunday supplement or the airwaves. But she had been expected a drop-off.
“This year we’ve done a tour and it’s gone even better,” she marvels. “I don’t know what’s going on. It’s funny I think I’m getting younger people coming back to the gigs, where they were maybe brought up with my music and they’re coming back as adults now. As teenagers they probably went off and listened to their own music, and now it’s kind of a nostalgia thing where they come in groups - girls particularly - and they are singing all the songs at the top of their voices, because they know all the words having listened to their parents play the songs. It’s kind of a new generation of people coming to see me.”
Not all singers appreciate such audience participation, Christy Moore comes to mind, but Mary’s got a different outlook.
“I encourage it,” she insists. “I think it’s a lovely way to spend a night listening to everyone singing together. I mean there’s no bigger compliment than people singing the words of a song. I’ve no problem with that, bar people clapping out of time,” she says with a good natured laugh.
The songs the audiences sing along to, invariably come from the heyday of Mary’s back catalogue - the late ‘80s and 1990s. https://youtu.be/_srUnTbXuwc Since the turn of the century she has only released two studio albums of new material, 2005’s Full Tide and 2011’s Stories from the Steeples. In the same duration she’s released at least two compilation albums.
“That’s winding down,” she accepts of her recording career. “I’m not saying I’m not going to record again. The previous album to that one in 2011 would have been four or five years previous to that. I suppose everything slows down a little bit as you get on, and unless I feel a natural, call it inspiration, or urge, whatever it is, to go into the studio and record songs, I don’t force it. If it feels right and the songs are there, that’s when I’ll go. It sometimes happens quite quickly - it happened with the last one where I didn’t even know I was going to make another album and then I said this is looking good and got stuck in and before I knew it I had another album.
“I think album sales are winding down as well too - it’s not the business it used to be. Young people are doing it in different ways - they are putting stuff up on Facebook and they are putting stuff out there, maybe a few tracks here and a few tracks there, so you know, I might look at different ways of recording - it doesn’t have to be a full album, it could be a couple of tracks that I really fancy doing, but at the moment I’ve no plans.”
Mary has built her career on bringing unfamiliar songs penned by brilliant songwriters and making them her own - Jimmy MacCarthy’s ‘No Frontiers’ and ‘Katie’, Mick Hanly’s ‘Past the Point of Rescue’ and any number of the late Noel Brazil’s tunes. It’s no surprise then that she dismisses the Celt’s wondering if there’s any recent famous songs that she believes she could do justice to.
“People still send me songs and I’m always on the look out for a good song and I’ve a few I’d like to go back to and give some thought. And I’ve got a few old songs that I’ve gone back to of Noel Brazil’s, and I’ve so many tapes, it takes so much time researching.”
When you think of her duets with the likes of Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith, and most recently with Nathan Carter for his RTÉ Christmas special, it seems obvious for her to further explore country.
“I’ve always loved country music, but I never made a country album - who knows, there could be something like that down the road, I don’t know. I’ve always loved country music. It’s just something completely different.”
Mary is a mum of three, two of whom have famously followed in her footsteps, her son Danny as Coronas’ frontman and daughter Roisin O who is pursuing a solo career (incidentally her other child, Conor is a surveyor with Dublin City Council - “He’s the only fella in our house that has a real job,” she jokes).
The Celt asks Mary if she was embarking on forging her career now, as an unknown, would she be able to make it?
“I think it’s a lot tougher now, I really do. I was lucky, I came along when that folky sound and female vocalists were popular, and radio play was much easier to get, and people got behind me - they did. I was in the right place at the right time, and I had great musicians around me, I had great songwriters behind me. I don’t think I’d like to be trying to make it now - I think it’s much tougher now.
She actually warned her own kids following in her footsteps of how tough it would be.
“As I said to them at the beginning - ‘It’s not just about talent, it’s about luck and a lot of other things. You have to put the work in and if you don’t put the work in and the effort in, the chances are it’s not going to happen’.
“There’s so much talent out there it’s unbelievable - In Ireland alone there’s unbelievable talent - young singer-songwriters coming through. Is there room for them all? How do you break through? To be recognised as a great artist, but not really be making money at it - tough, tough, tough life - I wouldn’t like to be doing it now.”
She doesn’t watch The Voice, but she confesses to be “fascinated” by the X Factor. Whilst she admires the level of talent on display, she’s wary of it as a career pathway because “it’s too instant.
Her advice is simple: learn your trade.
“Performance is more than having a great voice. It’s a whole other thing - being able to communicate with an audience and make people feel good. It’s not just about the music, there’s a little bit more to it than that and you can only learn it by doing it - nobody can tell you.”
She believes her path, which saw her waitress while playing any pub that would take her, before finally teaming up with legendary trad outfit De Dannan.
“I learned a lot travelling with them - how important it was every time you stood up to sing - you have to impress people. You can’t take it for granted, you have to work for it. Because I was battling against these amazing musicians who played tunes and drove the crowd mad. So when I stood up I had to impress in a similar way and I was very competitive - me and Frankie Gavin either one of us wanted to get the biggest roar!”
In this way she has perfected the tradecraft that has secured her longevity.
“For me I started in my 20s and I’ve just turned sixty and I’m busier than ever - as much as I want it to be. People say, how is that? And I think it was because I was very gradual [in reaching success].”
Has age brought a different quality to her voice now?
“Ah yeah, without a doubt,” she responds without hesitation. “When I listen back to early recordings it’s a different voice - I’ve dropped definitely down a tone, which comes with age. But what I lose in my high notes, I gain maybe in other areas, I don’t know - it’s a different expression. I could even whisper a line and it could be lovely, where as before I always thought I had to be singing high sweet notes to impress, but that’s not always what it’s about... My voice is definitely not as sweet and as good as it used to be, but then again I do feel there’s other things that have taken the place of that when I’m out on stage.”
Are there any songs you would be reluctant to sing now?
“No, there’s one or two songs I’ve brought down a semitone, where I was finding it difficult to hit the high notes - not every song though - I still sing No Frontiers in the same key. But I do think it’s natural that your voice changes - that’s what happens as you get older. It’s like any muscle, it begins to change as you get older, and because of that the voice changes.”
The Celt recalls the later recordings of Nina Simone, when it was apparent to everyone that she should have quit while she was ahead. While stressing that the Celt obviously regard Mary as a fabulous singer - which triggers a generous laugh - would she be fearful of falling into Nina’s trap? Would she know when to quit?
“Well this is it. That’s why I made up my mind that I wanted to start pulling back from it over this time. It will wind down, it has wound down, and it’s winding down all the time and I’ll probably only do a dozen gigs a year - who knows, I mean I haven’t decided definitely, but I won’t be travelling and that will naturally run its course. And if you’re not recording, you’re not promoting albums... so it’s definitely winding down, and I’m happy about that, and I decided, that’s the way I want it to go. I think it will run its natural course.
Rather belatedly trying to lift the mood, and this being New Year’s Day, has Mary made any resolutions?
“My sister Frances there texted me wishing me a happy new year and I said, ‘New year’s resolution: spend more time with my family’.
“To have more time for people that I love, and friends and really enjoy life, because it’s getting that we’re running out of time if I don’t. Come on - you have to be realistic, every day is an important day, and it’s a day you have to live. And I’m lucky to be at this age and have my health and have a great family, so I look at my blessings, and look at the good things.”