By David Hennessy
Well known folk singer Mary Black has looked back on her sterling career in her new memoir, The Crooked Road. In the new book, written with help from daughter, now a singer herself under the moniker Roisin O, the book details Mary’s humble beginnings right up to her success. The book comes ahead of Mary’s last UK tour in March next year as the 59-year-old singer has announced that while she may well still sing, she has no further plans to undertake any “gruelling” tours as she intends to enjoy family life, being a Granny now.
Mary is one of Ireland’s most enduringly popular singers with a devoted international following. She has recorded eleven studio albums that have all achieved platinum sales and spawned hits like No Frontiers and Katie. A Woman’s Heart, the album featuring her collaboration with Eleanor McEvoy, sold over 750,000 copies, more than any other album in Irish chart history.
In the Crooked Road, Mary takes the reader through dark days like her own depression and other regrets such as being unaware her sister Frances was struggling with alcoholism and her sadness that drummer Dave Early died in a car accident. Mary had informed Dave he would not play on her next album due to the preference of her new producer. The singer felt guilt over this, wondering if Dave’s disappointment somehow caused the accident.
Although Mary knew great success in her career, it came at the cost of her personal and family life, missing key events in the lives of her children such as confirmations and birthdays: “They were hard times. They’re the things that you can’t get back. They’re the things that upset me more than anything about my career,I have to say. Everything else was easy compared to having to do that kind of thing.”
It was in this regard that Mary’s son Danny, now lead singer of The Coronas suffered most: “Unfortunately his birthday is always in March when I would usually be away working because it’s the time of year Irish people abroad want Irish music most, so I missed his birthday more than the other two. He always says he got a bit of a raw deal but I would always bring him something extra special, I would make a fuss of him when I came home and he was really understanding about it. But there is guilt. I think mothers- I know men who have to leave their kids, it’s upsetting as well, I don’t mean to undermine that in any way- I think being the mother of the house, to leave was tough and I think a mother always feels guilty when she has to leave her kids, even if it’s a nine to five job every day, it’s hard. That guilt thing definitely kicked in many a time and I would be really lonely on the road missing them.”
There was one moment Mary made sure not to miss. While touring the UK, Danny was due to play at Croke Park in a final. Mary looked into booking flights that could get her there for the game and back for the show that night: “Any time I could get back, even if I had only a couple of days off and I was anywhere in Europe, I would fly back just to see them.
“They all played football believe it or not. Conor is actually really the footballer of the family. I was always very proud of their sporting achievements as well, we’re a sporty family as well as the music.”
Mary also describes how she had to return to the road straight after laying her father to rest on Rathlin Island. Was it intolerable to go and sing at such a time? “I remember finding it tough that first night. Singing and feeling the way I did inside were two complete opposite emotions. Singing is a happy thing for me but at the same time, I could feel that the audience were behind me and I think there was an awareness of what had happened and they appreciated the fact that I came out. I think something special happened that night because of the way I was feeling too. I was able to really throw myself into the songs and try and forget about everything that had happened. It’s just what I always did. When I was feeling bad, I sang and when I feel good, I sing. It’s a natural response to things for me over my lifetime.”
After touring Europe with her first band General Humbert, Mary got her first break thanks to Christy Moore when she was included on the TV programme and album, Christy Moore and Friends. It was also Christy who helped Mary through postnatal depression after the birth of her first son, Conor. Although Christy could not have known, Mary was feeling very down and hadn’t the energy to make something happen in her career when the Kildare singer-songwriter knocked on her door to ask her to support him at Ireland’s National Concert Hall: “Unbeknownst to Christy, the knock came at the door at just the right time. He was being very generous, he was trying to give me a dig out but he knew nothing about me being down or depressed or anything like it but it did come at the right time and I always say Christy was very generous in the early days, he always would support me.”
Christy got a shock when he asked Mary how much he would like to be paid for the gig and got the answer of £200. Mary laughs remembering the moment: “He said it: ‘It’s up to you now. What do you think you’re worth?’ I was afraid to say too little but I think I overdid it. I think he nearly dropped dead when I said £200 which was an awful lot of money back in 1981. He couldn’t back down then.”
Mary developed a professional relationship with Christy Moore’s long term collaborator Declan Sinnott who produced many of her solo albums. No Frontiers was an album that brought international recognition Mary’s way. But her lowest point came as her career soared. Despite how good things were, she battled depression once again: “Anyone who has been depressed will tell you that there doesn’t have to be an obvious reason. Everything was great: The kids were healthy, everything was well, my career was going through the roof.. I just had this dark cloud sitting on top of me. It just took a bit of time. Having been through a bit of it before, I knew that there was light at the end of the tunnel and that I would be okay. I think that’s important, that there wasn’t that feeling of despair, that ‘I’m going to feel like this for the rest of my life’.”
While Mary and her sister Frances are both well known singers, their siblings Michael, Shay and Martin are also accomplished musicians. The five have produced albums as The Black Family. When appearing on The Late Late Show, Gay Byrne commented on how proud their parents must have been in the audience. The ability has passed to another generation with Danny’s band going from strength to strength and Roisin often singing on the same bill as Mary.
Mary explains why she never pushed music on her children: “It’s hard to really make it in the music business. I wouldn’t like to be starting off again. Music was different (when I started), you would get airplay regardless of the style of music you had but now it’s very difficult to get airplay. I just think it’s a tougher time for young people now.
“I said to them: ‘It doesn’t matter how talented you are’. Although it helps to be talented, a lot of it is really about being lucky and being in the right place at the right time and getting the breaks like that and working hard, of course. That’s always the bottom line. Put the work in and you’re in with some chance.”
Although Mary wants to wave goodbye to gruelling tours, she will not rule out further albums, projects or festivals.
For the full interview, pick up the October 25 Irish World.
The Crooked Road by Mary Black is out now on Transworld Ireland.
Mary’s Last Call Tour comes to the UK in April and May 2015.
For more information, go to http://www.mary-black.net/.