By Ian Worpole, Contributor
December / January 2008
Mary Black, one of Ireland’s most-loved performers, is back in the spotlight with Full Tide, her finest and most critically acclaimed album in many years.
Mary Black and her siblings, Frances, Michael, Shay and Martin, have long been Ireland’s premier musical family, performing together as The Black Family and in various combinations since the late 1970’s. Parents, Kevin and Patty, were traditional musicians who fostered the love of music in their children; from there Mary has been the one to most move on from the traditional songs, building a stellar career singing contemporary material by the likes of Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson and Nanci Griffith. She has often noted that she prefers to be thought of as a singer, rather than an “Irish” singer. With a catalogue of some 13 albums, nine of which went platinum, including the three hugely popular Woman’s Heart albums that also include sister Frances and many more of Ireland’s leading divas, Mary’s career continues its illustrious path. I caught up with Mary by phone at her Dublin home prior to her U.S. tour, which covered 10 cities in October (see accompanying review). I had planned to ask Mary about her old pal Maura O’Connell, long resident in Nashville, but she preempted me by casually mentioning that Maura was in the living room. They were rehearsing songs that Maura would be singing with her on some parts of the tour. Indeed, as we talked, there was a holler from Ms. O’Connell to get back to work.
Tell me about the tour.
I try to tour the U.S. once a year, whether I have a new album or not. I have a fan base there that fills the halls no matter what, and it’s great to come back and perform for them, and meet up with old friends. I’ll have Bill Hanley on guitar, and a couple of Brits, Neal Drinkwater on piano and Martin Ditcham on drums. My son Danny [O’Reilly, age 22] will be joining me on some vocals. [Mary is married to Joe O’Reilly of Dara Records. Joe is also Mary’s manager].
Danny is becoming quite a performer.
Yes. Danny is a fine singer/songwriter, he performs with me sometimes and on a fairly recent tour he was the opening act. We’ve co-written some songs together too. My 19-year-old daughter Roisin is also singing, she appears on some of the tracks on Full Tide and will often join me on stage. My oldest son, Conor [age 25] also loves the music. He plays guitar and bass.
Your most recent album (Full Tide, 2006) was very well received, awards and all. Do you feel you’re going from strength to strength?
I don’t know, in a way it’s kind of scary. After Speaking with the Angel (1999), I wondered, ‘have I said everything?’ I honestly thought about calling it a day. But Danny persuaded me to try my hand at writing, and we co-wrote a song about the loss of my mother. When Noel died [Noel Brazil, a singer song-writer whose songs have long been a staple of Mary’s repertoire], I felt it would only be right to record some more of his great songs. I got together with the band at my home in Kerry and we recorded the basics of quite a few songs, and then the enthusiasm was there again.
Full Tide includes a Sandy Denny track (“Full Moon”). Sandy was an idol of mine in the sixties (MB: Hey, I’m not that old!) and I’ve read that she was a big influence on you.
I love Sandy Denny. It was a tragedy that she died so young. I’ve recorded quite a few of her songs. It was my older brother Shay who used to tune in to the BBC back then and introduce us to what we thought was the most amazing stuff, which would be Fairport Convention with Sandy and the like.
I grew up with the BBC also – Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Fairport – it was a great time for English folk rock. What do you think of, for want of a better word, the punkier side of Irish music, and the likes of Dolores O’Riordan and Sinead O’Connor?
Well, I’m not sure. Most of them came up through the traditional line, so they would be more influenced by pop and rock music, so it’s not for me to say. On the other hand, if you’re a traditional musician these days, you’d better have a day job!
Do you think the Celtic Tiger phenomenon has changed the music of Ireland?
Riverdance and the like was a great thing for everyone in the business, and we rode the wave, but it may have had its day, particularly in America, where people are more likely to say, ‘Hey enough already, how about some South American music?’
Is there a chance you and/or Frances may get back together with DeDannan for old time’s sake?
Well, it would be great. I loved singing with DeDannan. It’s how I developed my stage presence and confidence. It was a great time. But I know there have been personal issues between some of the guys, so I just don’t know [if the band will regroup]. But never say never.
Mary, thanks so much for your time. I hear Maura calling. Good luck with the tour.