Mary Black on her musical family, painting and singing the songs of Jimmy MacCarthy
Jenny Lee chats to Irish folk singer Mary Black about her musical family, her new album and tour, her love of Rathlin Island and taking things a little slower during her golden years
FOR over 30 years Mary Black has been an icon of Irish folk music across the world. Three years after the publication of her autobiography, Down The Crooked Road, and announcing her plans to step back from touring, she admits "I've never been busier".
"I've been going around countries and continents saying my last farewell. It's just been hectic, but I am beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel," says the singer who is currently in the middle of an Irish tour, promoting her new album Mary Black sings Jimmy Mac, with a sneaky wee concert in the Netherlands squeezed in between.
"I will still continue to sing as long as I can. I would be lost if I had to walk away from it completely. But I have been 35 years on the road. Life is slipping by and I just said I want to decide what I want to do with my time from here on."
The mum-of-three was delighted when her eldest son Conor made her a grandmother and she is very much a hands-on gran with Bonnie (5) and Fia (3).
"They are at a gorgeous age. They only live five minutes away, so I get plenty of opportunities to play with them."
Are they showing any early signs of continuing the Black musical tradition? "Who knows? The music has certainly got to the next generation. As well as my Danny and Roisin, my sister Frances's two children are musicians as well."
Mary's son Danny O'Reilly is the frontman with Irish rock band The Coronas and her daughter Roisin O is carving out a career as a solo performer.
While Roisin has supported her mother and sings some backing vocals on her recent album, Mary has availed of her son's songwriting skills, recording a number of his songs including Faith In Fate.
"We also co-wrote the song Your Love, which I've been putting into the set recently, because it means so much to me. It's a song we wrote about my mother when she was on her death bed and what she meant to us."
While Mary ensured music was always encouraged in her home, she admits warning her children that being a musician wasn't easy.
"Early on I said if it's what you want to do then go for it, but don't expect things to fall on your lap. I told them you have to be willing to work hard, take some knocks and also be quite lucky to be in the right place at the right time."
Hard graft and good fortunate certainly played their part in Mary's successful career. Born into a very musical family, her mother Patty was a great singer and father Kevin a musician. They passed their talent on to Mary and her siblings, Shay, Michael, Martin and Frances, who performed in the early days as The Black Family.
Mary's lucky break came when Christy Moore spotted her potential and introduced her to musician and producer Declan Sinnott, who went on to produce her albums during her early solo career.
Mary's first solo album came out in 1983, when Conor was just two. But it was the release of the groundbreaking album No Frontiers in 1989 that sealed her reputation and earned her international acclaim, securing record deals in the Europe, the United States, Australia and Japan.
Her global success was bitter sweet, as she struggled with the guilt that accompanies any working mother.
"After No Frontiers my career went from 0 to 60. When you were juggling three small kids, it was busy, busy, busy. At times it was like being on a treadmill and it was heartbreaking being away from the kids. The memories are all a bit hazy," recalls Mary, who only now is realising just how precious time is.
"I want to make time for other things in my life. I love to paint. I've painted on and off this past 20 years, but I've never had enough time. I've never had any lessons, but I enjoy playing with colour and it makes me happy," says the 62-year-old, who describes her art as abstract.
Travelling is another high priority during her 'semi-retirement'.
"I've spent all my life travelling, but I never really had a chance to see the countries I played in. I used to play in Norway a lot and now I want to go back, relax and take in it's beauty."
In her latest album, Mary returns to her roots and the songs of Jimmy MacCarthy – one of Ireland's greatest songwriters, who penned many of her hits, including No Frontiers, Katie and Adam At The Window.
"It was actually Jimmy who made the call to me last year and said "how do you feel about doing Mary Black sings Jimmy Mac?" – he had the title and all. I have such respect for Jimmy and it was a no-brainer to do this package.
"He has written songs for the likes of Christy Moore, Mary Coughlin, Maura O'Connell and my sister Frances, so I'm flattered he wanted me."
New songs for Mary include There is no Night, Love's Last Chance and her favourite, What We Came Here For.
"I never ask a songwriter for the meaning of their words, as I believe music should be based on an individual's interpretation. But I believe it's about the abuse of power and global theme of religion and money being the cause of all the big problems in the world."
The album finishes with a duet with MacCarthy of his evergreen classic, As I Leave Behind Neidin. While the song refers to Kenmare, Co Kerry – An Neidín is the town's name in Irish – it reminds Mary of her father leaving his home of Rathlin Island to work as a plasterer and musician in Dublin.
"My father was such an island man. He was broken-hearted having to leave there. It was a precious place, unspoilt and cut off from civilisation. We returned there every summer and I still go when I can.
"I feel I have a strong connection with the people of the north. It never bothered me performing there during the Troubles and my loyal audiences respected that decision."
Last spring The Black Family sang together in Ireland for the first time in three decades, and they have just returned from performing together on Joanie Madden's Folk 'n' Irish Cruise in America. Singing with her family is something Mary hopes can become a regular occurrence.
Maybe next time, the next generation of cousins could be added to the bill?
"Now that would be something special. Coming from a little inner city tenant street in Dublin, we haven't done so bad," she laughs.
:: The Mary Black sings Jimmy Mac tour comes to Belfast's Grand Opera House on March 30 and 31, Cookstown's Burnavon Theatre on April 28 and Derry's Millennium Forum on May 4. For full tour dates and tickets visit Mary-black.net