Folk singer Mary Black still singing her way around Ireland
Irish folk singer Mary Black has – eventually – found the balance between music and family and, ahead of her two Northern Ireland performances in Belfast and Armagh this month, she tells Gail Bell how her grandchildren helped sort out her priorities in life and why Rathlin Island is still the 'most beautiful place in the world'
SHE famously announced a step back from touring several years ago – only to return to America for another 'Last Call Tour' (the places she missed first time around) – but Mary Black finds it difficult to say goodbye and is still singing her way around Ireland.
The icon of contemporary Irish folk may have sung fond farewells in Australia, Japan and the US, but she's back in Belfast later this month with her all-star band to perform on one of her favourite stages in the world – the Ulster Hall.
"Some of my best concerts have been at the Ulster Hall, without a doubt," she chirps down the line from northern Spain, where the timeless performer has been enjoying a break in the sun before recommencing the autumn leg of her 2019 Irish tour which brings her to Belfast on September 20 and the Market Place Theatre, Armagh, on the 26th.
"The acoustics are good for me in the Ulster Hall – all that wood – and the Belfast audiences are always up for a bit of craic. I always make a point of including favourite songs at concerts there because it wouldn't be a Mary Black concert in the Ulster Hall without people joining in the chorus and singing at the top of their voices."
For that reason, Katie will be on the play list, along with Bright Blue Rose, although the song choice will be a mix of old and new and include a few select songs from the new Mary Black Orchestrated album on release in October.
"For this, I picked some of own personal favourites from the No Frontiers album to mark its 30th anniversary and I had them orchestrated," she explains. "It was a very emotional thing for me, as that album opened doors for me all over the world and led to me getting signed by various record labels.
"The audience won't see the orchestra live during the concert, but we filmed the recordings and I hope to have the film running in the background. It's something different and I thought it would be kind of an interesting thing to do."
Although four albums had already been released and her star was on the rise in Ireland, it was the pioneering No Frontiers in 1989 that became the launch pad to a career on the international stage, generating triple-platinum sales, numerous awards, sell-out concerts – and a 16 further albums.
"You don't ever expect that response from one album," Black mulls. "All of a sudden things are on a different scale and it was like, 'Wow'... Touring abroad was tough physically and it took me away from my children a lot, so in 2016 I finally decided to do it on my own terms.
"Now I just tour Ireland, do occasional festivals or something that appeals to me. I'm 64 now and my time is precious. The fact I'm still doing it at all amazes me, because I remember thinking when I was in my 30s, if I would still be singing at 40... My voice can't quite hit all the high notes as easily as it used to, but I think, after all these years, I'm now a better performer."
She's also a hands-on grandmother and appreciates more than ever time spent playing with her grandchildren who live "five minutes away" and have helped her recategorise priorities in life.
"I spend a lot of time with Bonnie and Fia, picking them up from school and looking after them once or twice a week in the afternoons," she says. "They mean the world to me and they have changed our lives, really, as they have put a different perspective on what's important and what isn't.
"One of my grand-daughters is always singing and it reminds me of myself as a kid; she sings even when no-one is listening to her; she is just sitting on her own singing songs and entertaining herself. I was so busy when my children were that age that I look back and am wistful about the things I missed when they were growing up. It makes me think that I don't want that to happen with these little ones."
But whatever her personal regrets, her own children with husband Joe O'Reilly – Conor, Danny and Roisin – haven't fared too badly. Conor is a surveyor (she once quipped he is the only one with a 'proper' job) while Danny is frontman with Irish band The Coronas, and Róisín (Róisín O) is also a singer, songwriter and musician.
"I went to see The Coronas perform at Custom House Square in Belfast a few weeks ago and it was a fantastic gig," Black enthuses. "It was nice just to sit in the audience and listen."
Would Danny have invited his mother up on stage, I wonder? She gives a warm whoop of laughter at the very thought. "No, no, you don't want your mother on stage with you, but we have worked together before and I have availed of his songwriting skills a few times."
There has also been musical collaboration with daughter Róisín, who has supported her mother and sang backing vocals on a previous album, also helping out in a literary capacity with Mary's 2014 memoir The Crooked Road.
"Róisín was great at helping ask the right questions," the singer recalls. "She would ask, 'What was your bedroom like? What did you feel like when you looked out the window?'... it painted a picture for me as to what life was really like in that tenement house in inner-city Dublin – the good memories and the some not-so-good.
"There have been moments throughout my life when I was in a dark place and I spoke about those moments very honestly, particularly about my postnatal depression after Conor was born and when my mother was dying. It was all very personal stuff and I found the book a very therapeutic exercise."
Born into a musical family – her mother, Patty, was a singer and father, Kevin, a fiddle player from Rathlin Island – it was almost inevitable that Mary Black would join the Black Family band (including brothers Shay, Michael and Martin and famous younger sister Frances), her role always being "out front, singing". The family reunited in 2017 to sing together in Ireland for the first time in three decades and last year performed together on a 'folk 'n' Irish' cruise in America.
Although music is her passion, Black also likes to channel her inner artist and these days can often be found painting on Rathlin Island, her "home-from-home" which she visits regularly, staying in the farmhouse where her father was brought up.
"I haven't done much painting in a while, because I've been so busy with a documentary for RTÉ and filming Ireland's Favourite Folk Song," she says of her latest niche, presenting the show for RTÉ. "Filming is very time-consuming, but I would love to get back to painting. I love playing around with colour, in an abstract way – and Rathlin is certainly the place to do it. We used to go and spend the summer holidays there and, to me, it's still the most beautiful place in the world."
:: Concert details at ulsterhall.co.uk and and visitarmagh.com