Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Michael Black: music, family, & friends

"I'm not a romantic about it at all, but I think the music in my blood, and there's nothing I can do about it," Michael Black says, laughing. He holds a doctorate in sociology and has taught at university, but his life and his identity have always been as much or more grounded in music as in academic pursuits.

Though he lives now in San Francisco, Black was born in Dublin, the second oldest of five brothers and sisters. His father Kevin, from Rathlin Island off the Antrim coast, "played lots of instruments. I wouldn't call him a traditional musician, but he was a versatile one," Black says. His Dublin raised mother Patty loved to sing, usually theatrical and popular songs on her day, the forties, and fifties. The house was filled with music from family and friends, although"people often confuse our background with a traditional one," Black's sister Mary says, "but really it wasn't until we were teenagers, and started listening to the folk songs that were popular then, that we had much to do with traditional music."

Mary is international star Mary Black, Michael's younger sister. Sister Frances is also a top solo artist, and brothers Shay and Martin often perform together and in duos or trios with Michael. All five have recorded several albums together as The Black Family. Each maintains a connection to Irish tradition while seeking out songs from other times and places that fit in with that, and with individual musical visions. "When I go out to play gigs, I always include some Irish songs, and songs with Irish connections," Michael says, "but I don't think I have to be limited to that. I choose what suits my voice, and what I like."

With all that musical background, it has taken Michael a while to get around to releasing a solo album of his own. The self titled disc is a set of songs you can picture him sharing at a pub of coffeehouse, funny at one moment, thought provoking at the next. There's the poignant Don't Laugh at Me, perhaps a reflection on walking another's path drawn from Black's experiences as a teacher, and a gorgeous take on Billy Edd Wheeler's ballad on change and conscience in the Appalachians, The Coming of the Roads, which is a fine instance of Black's gifts as a singer and his understanding of storytelling, as well. The disc also includes a music hall song from the 1930s, a traditional song sung in Irish, a ballad about war and the costs of it from New Zealand, a sea shanty, and a song to dance the baby on your knee. What holds it all together is that voice, that understanding of story, and Black's knowledge that, as he says, "I'm rooted in roots music, music of the people."

On the disc, the family comes along to add harmonies on various tracks. "Well, we're all singers, and it'd be disrespectful not to have then along," Michael says, laughing. He chose guitarist and singer John Doyle, who has worked with Liz Carroll, Linda Thompson, Cathie Ryan, and others, to produce the project. "I'm not a man who gives away superlatives," Black says, "but I couldn't have made a better choice."

Black expects to be booking more tour dates on his own now that the record is out, balancing that with his other job which "is a dad. I have three kids, three girls. My wife works a professional career, and when they came along we made the decision that I'd be the child minder. I've been a teacher, been around kids all my life, so it was a natural decision." With his children growing up, Black decided it was time to take another step in his music, to make his own recording. "There wasn't a record company involved at the time, I just was thinking of something to sell at gigs," he says. Compass Records became interested in releasing it, though, and "and in a way, that's just icing on the cake," Michael Black says. "This music has kept my family close, and has brought me to places I'd never have seen. So I thought, this is what I do, why not give the music a chance?"

you may also want to see Reflections with Mary Black creative practice: laughter Liz Carroll & John Doyle: Double Play

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