Arts Q&A: Singer Mary Coughlan on The Rolling Stones, Normal People and becoming the first female road sweeper in London

Jenny Lee puts performers and artists on the spot about what really matters to them. This week, Galway jazz and blues singer Mary Coughlan

Mary Coughlan
Mary Coughlan

1. When did you think about a career in music and what were your first steps into it?

I didn't start until I was 29. In my youth I moved to London, where I had many jobs including secretarial temping and I even was a street sweeper in the Borough of Ealing, becoming the first woman employed as a street sweeper in London. When I returned to Galway I house-shared with a great group of folk, including Dutch music student, Erik Visser. He went on to become a very successful musician in Holland and years later he suggested we work together on a project. The result was Tired and Emotional, which was released in 1985. He then went on to produce 11 of my albums.

2. Best gigs you've been to?

I sneaked out of my house when I was about 15 to see Rory Gallagher in the Hangar Ballroom in Galway - it was wonderful. The first huge concert I saw was a double bill of Elton John and Rod Stewart in Watford Stadium. My next big one was after I was married and had children. I got my parents to look after the kids and went to see the Rolling Stones in Slane in 1982, in front of a crowd of 70,000. It was so amazing.

3. Fantasy wedding/birthday party band?

The Rolling Stones with Tom Waits.

4. The record you would take to a desert island?

I would take the double album by The Beatles - The White Album. I know every single word of every single song. I know every single instrumental break and I can hum the guitar solos. I just love The Beatles.

5. And the book you would take to a desert island?

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, from her Neapolitian quartet - it's an intense and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila.

6. Top three films?

The Godfather, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and my favourite film of all time, Amarcord by the Italian director Fellini. I first saw it in the late 70s as part of a film club in Galway, which showed lots of foreign films.

7. Worst film you've seen?

It's actually a TV series that stands out. I hated Normal People. Why? I loved the book so much and the series was just awful; but I'm sure they're all laughing all the way to the bank.

8. Favourite authors?

Philip Roth, John Irvine, Colum McCann and Jo Nesbo.

9. Sport you most enjoy and your top team?

I am an absolute rugby freak. I love following Ireland and I even went to Japan for the Rugby World Cup, that's how bad I am. My partner is from New Zealand so you can imagine the tension in our house when we play the All Blacks.

10. Ideal holiday destination?

I had a school friend, Catherine Geraghty, whose father was an engineer and he worked all over the world and ended up in The Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. She brought me an enormous shell from the Islands when my daughter Aoife, who is now 45, was born. We were due to visit last March, with Frances Black and her husband, meeting up with American friends first in Miami. It was a total dream holiday with white beaches and blue ocean. We still have it in our heads to go sometime.

11. Pet hates?

People dumping rubbish, especially ash trays. I've actually followed people up the street and given off to them about dropping rubbish.

12. What's your favourite:

Dinner? Indian food.

Dessert? My daughter Clare's tiramisu.

Drink? It used to be champagne, but I've been sober for 28 years. So, coffee - I can't get out of bed without one.

13. Who is your best friend and how do you know each other?

I can't do that. My best friends would be the people I know from Galway and I love Margaretta D'Arcy more than any.

14. Is there a God?

I get mine out of nature. I am a medicine woman and did my shamanic training. It's all to do with honouring nature and the planets and the skies.

Mary Coughlan plays at The Walled Garden, Bangor on August 12 as part of The Open House Festival. Tickets from Openhousefestival.com. She will also performing Live at the Crum in Belfast's Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast on July 23. Tickets from Crumlinroadgaol.com.