music, time, memory: Mary Black
“I'll never actually stop singing,” Mary Black says. The Irish musician does find herself, after more than thirty years of taking her music to places as diverse as Chicago and Tokyo, Australia and Amsterdam, ready to give up the road, though. To mark and celebrate that, Black is in the midst of a year long run of gigs that takes her back to many of her favourite places. She’s calling it The Last Call Tour.
It’s good to know that she’ll not be giving up singing -- indeed that’s been a part of her life since her earliest memories, and something she has always loved.
“My father was born and reared on Rathlin Island, off the north east coast of Ireland, within the six counties, so it’s not under Irish rule. It’s an incredibly beautiful place, a place of great magical memories for us growing up. We were born and reared in the heart of Dublin city, in a business street with a shop, Black’s General Grocers, and to be whisked away every summer from that kind of environment to this wild kind of place that had no electricity, no running water, all the things that people take for granted in the big city but yet had this lifestyle that was so exciting to us as kids -- it was a magical place. It holds a special place. It’s very much a part of who we are, as a family,” Black says.
Black’s father, Kevin, was a fiddle player steeped in the traditional music of this remote place halfway between Ireland and Scotland. To this was added the musical tastes and love of singing of her mother, Patty, who grew up in the Liberties area in the heart of Dublin City and loved popular music and show tunes. The couple instilled a love of music in their children, so much so that brothers Shay, Michael, and Martin, and sister Frances as well as Mary have all worked professionally in music. At times, all five have performed and recorded together as well.
Though at first she struggled with the idea of being on stage, by her late teens Black joined up with the band General Humbert. It also caused her to add a dimension to her stage work. “It was a traditional Irish band, and it was like they were the musicians and I was the singer. When they were playing tunes, I felt like, what’ll I do with myself? So, I picked up the bodhran.” That’s a traditional Irish frame drum, an instrument Black plays still. ”I was lovely to be a part of what they were doing, and not just be the singer,” she says, and she still enjoys that.
Black began her international touring career in the early 1980s when she was invited to join the long running band De Dannan. The first song she recorded with them, Song for Ireland, is a favorite with her audiences still. It’s a contemporary song, one that honors tradition while bringing it forward. From her earliest days of recording, Black has been as master of choosing songs which do that, and which allow her room to put her own stamp on them. “I always want to choose strong material,” she says, “and something I feel I can work with and interpret and express something, and add something to the song.”
So she has. After three years (“three amazing years -- we packed so much into them it seems like more even when I look back,” she recalls) touring with De Dannan and learning about the music business, during which she recorded several well received solo albums, Black decided it was time to take the risk of going out on her own and exploring more deeply the direction in which her own musical tastes were calling her.
By the Time it Gets Dark, released in 1987, found Black drawing on folk, pop, and singer songwriter styles in an elegant combination that introduced her to audiences beyond Ireland as a solo artist, and continued the threads of musical exploration and adventurous taste in material that have lasted on in her recordings. A few years later, she was part of a project of a different scope which also found wide international audiences. Black’s record company was working on a compilation project featuring Irish artists. “So many of them came out to be women,” Black recalls, “that I said, why not keep it just to women? And I think the lovely thing about it is that people might know Maura O'Connell, or they might know me, and they’d buy the record on that, and they get to hear all these other artists, so it was great for everyone.” The first album sparked two more, resulting in A Woman's Heart: Trilogy and subsequent recordings building on the idea as well.
Though she often includes songs in Irish on her albums and in her concerts, Black did not grow up grow up speaking Irish, other than as required in school. Over the years, though, she’s increasingly come to hold the language as part of ireland’s way of life, of its music. “That's why I’ve chosen to have a holiday home down in an Irish speaking area,” she says. “I love the language, and I love the fact that it’s alive and kicking!”
But what about this Last Call Tour business? "I've been touring for thirty years and all that travelling does take it out of you, so I just felt it was the right time," she told the Irish Independent. “I'll never actually stop singing, I'm not ready to give that up yet, but I just don't want to do that hard slog any more; it's grueling.” Black has grandchildren at home to enjoy now, and she’s also just completed work on a memoir. It is called Down the Crooked Road and is expected to be published in October. Black’s daughter Roisin worked on the book with her.
Black, as ever, is looking forward. “I'd like to pick and choose what I want to do,” says Mary Black. “It's another chapter for me and my family and it's exciting."
photograph courtesy of Mary Black