Pat Kehoe recorded this interview with Mary Black in December 2011. Black’s album Stories from the Steeples had just been released in Ireland and was about to be released worldwide in January 2012. It was Black’s first album for six years.
Tell us about the album. How did it come about?
It’s been quite a gap since my last studio album so it was exiting to get it out. At one stage I wasn’t even sure if I would venture back into the studio at all.
I feel if I’m going to make an album I need to be inspired to do it, hungry do it. I need to feel really enthusiastic and I waited until that happened. I didn’t want to do it just because it was time.
We had a lot of work on with the promotion of the 25 years – 25 Songs album so that kept me busy. This year I decided to dip my toe in the water. Go in and just record a couple of tracks and see how I felt.
I really got the bug.
You got the bug, but what was it specifically?
Well in a way it’s sometimes the songs. They bring you back in and you think –I’d really like to sing that song – be it a song written by someone that I know or someone I don’t know, or something that I’ve written myself.
The songs call me and I feel I have to answer. I know that sounds a bit dramatic but technically speaking that’s really what’s happening.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get back. I thought ‘do I need another album now? Is it going to mean that I’m going to have to start really working very hard again?’ There is no answer to that. At the end of the day the music speaks.
I’m lucky really that people are still interested in me and interested in the album. The album has done really well in Ireland. We’re releasing it in January abroad because it was a short run up for record companies. I’m very happy with it I feel very pleased with it. The response so far has been excellent. All those things have made me feel really good about it.
I’ve actually got more time now. My kids have grown up. I can pick and choose the work I really want to do. So for that reason I feel it’s hopefully going to be a busy year for me but not so busy that I can’t enjoy life the way I have been for a while.
That’s a great position to be in isn’t it?
Oh yes. I’m very lucky. I suppose because I have been kicking around for such a long time, there’s a kind of respect and people don’t forget me as easy as they might forget someone else because I have been there.
Tell us about some of the songs that made you want to go back into the studio.
The first one we recorded was Faith and Fate, one that my son, Danny, wrote. He’s in a band himself. He sits at home at the piano and playing the guitar and I hear these songs before anyone else hears them.
The first time I heard this song I fell in love with it. Now in the interim he has recorded it with his band. It was the first one of his that I had ventured to record. It’s a completely different style of music actually, what he does and what I do. His is pop rock. Mine is what it is, which ventures in and out of all sorts of areas but really there is a whole that is Mary Black.
But I loved it and I asked him how he would feel about me singing one of his songs, in case he felt it was a bit uncool. He’s in his early twenties.
What attracted you about Faith and Fate?
I was just very moved by it. I felt it would be a challenge for me too because it has quite a range and that’s one of the things he said to me: “Sure mam you can do it. If you can do it, you’re welcome to it”.
So that was like a red rag to a bull, I thought: I can do it, I know I can do it. So it was a challenge. Sometimes a challenge is great. It was different for me.
It was nice bringing in the strings and that side of it on a couple of the tracks which I felt worked very well on this album.
What was it like working with your own son?
Strangely enough I didn’t work with him that much. He writes all the time and I just liked a couple of songs of his, The Night is on our Side and the Wizard of Oz, He wasn’t using them on his own album so he said to me they were up for grabs if I wanted them.
The Wizard of Oz has become a favourite of a lot of people. I think he’s a good writer and that’s the only reason I would sing his songs. It’s important for me to get strong material because if I don’t, half the battle is over before I even start. You hope that your own opinion of a song is going to translate into what people are listening to and they’re going to relate to it in the same way. That’s all you can do. There are no guarantees in anything.
So working with him? We’re not closely working together. He did play the guitar on that song, one of the songs my daughter sang on as well and that was nice for me. My other son played bass and there was kind of a moment where I thought ‘this is incredible’. That was just one song. They played along and it was kind of nice. It wasn’t going to change the world or anything but it was nice for me.
Does he approve of your versions of his songs?
Yeah, he actually said so. He was going off in the van to a gig with his band, The Coronas, and they were listening to it. He texted me and said: ‘I’m really proud of you mam. That sounds great’.
It’s nice to hear that. It’s not something he would say very often. You just don’t. You say it if you mean it and that’s enough. So I was chuffed about that. He seems happy. And the good thing is our music doesn’t cross over whatsoever.
Maybe you’d say something different. Maybe you would hear some of me in him, I don’t know. He’s like many of the young generation. There are a lot of them. Singer songwriters start off with a guitar and they sing a song and that’s how he started off. And there’s a little bit of that folksiness that’s still there. Inherent, even though they’re not aware of it. Its contemporary music but there’s something about some of the songs that have a folkiness.
Tell us about the duets with Finbar Furey, Janis Ian and Imelda May
The notion of doing duets hadn’t really been planned planned.
I had heard a couple of Finbar Furey’s new tracks before his album was released. One of them was ‘Walking’, the one I recorded with him. I really liked it. I felt it was a real happy song, a real good feeling song. It was a love song that made you want to smile and throw your head back.
I had been friends with Janice Ian for many years. We toured together in Europe quite a bit over the years. We have kept in touch and we’ve got together and sang a couple of times at gigs.
I’ve always wanted to record something with her. The Lighthouse Song is a very simple little song in many ways but I just could hear Janice’s voice on it. So she very kindly said she would and we got that together.
Then Imelda May and myself are pals too because she’s from the same part of Dublin as I am and we met on a few occasions and got on like a house on fire. When I heard Mountains to the Sea, I could imagine her doing it.
We recorded it together and I actually got up and sang it with her last weekend at the O2 here in Dublin and we had a great night. She played to 21,000 people over 2 nights so that was special. So lots of funny things happen out of it that you don’t expect.
So it’s not a case of thinking: ‘I need to do an album so let’s find some songs’, it’s more a case of ‘Here’s some songs, I’d better go and do an album’
Yeah exactly. That’s even better because a few of the songs were kicking around for a while so there’s something in me as well that needs to feel hungry for it.
The songs do call me and that’s when I think ‘well, I’ll do a few and see how I get on’ and then I set up the house here which I love because studios don’t make me feel good.
I always feel it’s like work rather than pleasure. You feel under a bit of pressure sometimes with time and you’re in the place that’s not particularly your style of place.
I love setting up the house here and having the double bass in the hall and I’m in the front room, the guitar in the back room and at the very back we have the piano. It’s very organic and we stop when we feel like and I make soup or something.
It’s very easy going and enjoyable as opposed to work. We did it that way and we finished a lot of it actually up in Donegal in the studio.
How do you think this compares with previous albums? Over the years what kind of evolution has there been with the stuff you’re doing?
Well I think the evolution happened earlier in my career really. When I veered more away from folk music and went into more contemporary songs.
I liked people like Noel Brazil who is an Irish songwriter from Dublin. Unfortunately, he died a few years back, but I’ve started to really hone in on his songs and in a way it brought me to a different place musically.
But then you’re evolving all the time as a person and musically. I’m changing too and I listen to different things. I think you’re influenced by everything around you and that brings change in the music.
Listen to my album and you could put one song beside another and they’re quite different. I suppose the thing that marks it is the voice. That links them together. I like a little bit of country sometimes and then I may be more in the folkier vein then there might be a little bluesy kind of song. That’s me for you.
Sum up the album and your feelings about it for us.
Well someone said ‘It’s kind of a real Mary Black album’. So if you know my stuff from the past, it’s very much me. I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff on it that would… how do I describe it?
It’s very musical. It’s very hard for me to say without sounding like I’m blowing my own trumpet.
It’s been six years since the last one. Are you going to do another one soon? Or in six years? Or when the notion takes you?
I haven’t even thought about that. We’ll wait and see. Actually I’m enjoying gigging more than I ever did. I feel there’s an acceptance of who I am. I don’t feel I have to prove anything. I go out to enjoy myself and people are coming for the same reason.
I’m beginning to understand it better. All that comes with age. You can’t tell someone that. So I am enjoying the gigs more. I feel I’m getting better believe it or not. Even thought my voice might not be better.
In fact it mightn’t even be as good but there’s a different kind of a thing happening. It’s fun people are going out to have a good time. That’s the bottom line. Enjoy themselves and be moved.