Music

Mary Coughlan shares Life Stories as A Woman's Heart trio Ride On

Mary Coughlan, singer and survivor, is joining forces with Frances Black and Sharon Shannon for a thrilling new Irish tour. Here she tells Gail Bell what audiences can expect from the talented trio, how she has kept going and why yoga became bad for her health

Mary Coughlan has faced down her demons through song
Gail Bell

MARY Coughlan has a date in May circled in her diary, which, unlike like many of her recent Covid-cancelled gigs, won't be struck out at a moment's notice: it is the day she turns 66 and can pick up her pension.

It is, to borrow the feisty Galway-born singer's own colourful language, "f***ing unbelievable", just like, well just like her whole life, really, which reads a bit like an over-stretched, painful, redemptive melodrama at which the viewer breathes out in sheer relief when a happy ending finally arrives.

But if the closing credits are going up on Coughlan's well-documented personal problems, they are still very much rolling in terms of her enduring career, with the performer dubbed 'Ireland's Billie Holiday' starting a new 18-date Irish tour this spring.

This time, the flame-haired jazz and blues artist (and grandmother of seven) is joining forces with singers Frances Black and Sharon Shannon for an 'An Evening With' series of performances across Ireland - with one Belfast date slotted into the crammed schedule on Sunday May 29.

It will be, she tells me, "the best craic, ever" as the trio are firm friends off stage as well as on.

Having been involved in the 1992 A Woman's Heart album - celebrating its 30th anniversary this year - the three last appeared together on a Late Late Show special in 2020 when viewers donated €1.6 million for Pieta House in Dublin.

"People associate us with A Woman's Heart (which sold nearly one million copies worldwide) but just the three of us from that group got together about 10 years ago and we did one gig," explains Coughlan, who was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Mayor of Galway in 2020.

"The gig sold out instantly, so they asked us to do some more... we enjoy them as much as the audience.

"For this new tour, we're performing in some big venues but there are also a lot of gigs in hotels, in big, huge ballrooms where you find a lot of women coming together to make a weekend of it with their mothers, friends, daughters, sisters... the craic is amazing."

The singer, who has released multiple albums and performed in concert venues across the world in a 30-year-plus career, will perform a solo set, as will her fellow artists: the award-winning Frances Black, who now divides her time between touring, her charity, The RISE Foundation, and work as a senator in the Seanad; and Sharon Shannon, the youngest ever recipient of a Meteor Music Lifetime Achievement Award and star of new TG4 travel and music programme Heartlands.

Then, for the last 25 minutes of each two-hour show, the three sing together - with a surprise finale thrown in. They are, observes Coughlan, all very different women, but it works.

"We have very different personalities and that's good," she says.

"For example, Sharon used to be really shy, but she's not any more. For our finale, she has organised a two-hand reel - she always puts a reel or a jig in the middle of everything - and it's great fun.

"We are taking on a really famous Abba song and then there is a quite a raucous version of Ride On - Frances and I do a two-hand reel in the middle of it, over and back across the stage. It's absolutely brilliant."

The Ride On track (penned by Cork singer-songwriter, Jimmy MacCarthy), incidentally, was included in Coughlan's 1987 Under the Influence album but had been recorded some years earlier by Christy Moore who, the songstress reveals, quietly supported her during her recovery from alcoholism.

"I have never really mentioned this before, but Christy Moore helped me a lot during that period," she confides.

"He used to come round and drag me out. I have been open and honest about all that has happened to me over the years, how I ended up in hospital 32 times - in two-and-a-half years - with alcohol poisoning.

"There were triggers, of course, but I think I was born an alcoholic. I maybe had the gene - I'm not sure."

In her 2009 autobiography, Bloody Mary, she holds nothing back, documenting addiction problems, relationship troubles, familial abuse, career mismanagement, suicide attempts and dark days spent confined to psychiatric wards.

A pro-choice campaigner and outspoken critic of abuse, she rose to international fame in 1985 with seminal Irish jazz album, Tired and Emotional, her star seemingly unfazed by all the surrounding traumas from which she has emerged "a stronger woman".

Sober now for 28 years, the once-wild child of jazz, twice-divorced mother-of-five started out, ironically, being a "bit of health nut", giving breastfeeding and natural childbirth classes and following a strict macrobiotic diet when living in London.

"I remember having a gin and tonic when I was 30 and kind of really liking it," she recalls with humorous understatement.

"My career was taking off then and over the next four or five years it was very, very extraordinary the way I fell apart. It was unf***ing believable; I went from having a pint of Guinness occasionally to having three or four bottles of vodka or Tequila a day along with cocaine or whatever.

"I think, in retrospect, we only took cocaine to keep us drinking longer; it added an extra couple of hours' drinking on to the night."

She attended the Rutland Centre in Dublin for addiction treatment, went for counselling and later benefited from regression therapy to help deal with unresolved trauma.

But, like all true blues virtuosos, she has faced down her demons through song. In acclaimed 2020 album Life Stories, she unapologetically deals with everything from familial issues to addiction and betrayal - including the public breakdown of her marriage to Frank Bonadio after he had an affair with their nanny.

"Singing has always been my salvation, but I never set out to be singer," reflects Coughlan, a former road sweeper, actress and life model for aspiring artists (apparently, it paid more than waitressing).

"I didn't sing until I was 30 - before that, I was quite happy being a mother."

Today, living at the side of Little Sugar Loaf Mountain near Bray, Co Wicklow, has brought a kind of late-onset contentment. Although frustrated with the way musicians have fared over the course of the pandemic (and "very stressed" by the "on-off again" cycle of live gigs), she has been distracted by a new music-theatre project which she hopes to complete this month.

She has also enjoyed singing in her garden (during the first lockdown), spending time with her grandchildren, baking brown bread, collecting eggs from her chickens and practising daily yoga.

The latter was embraced with such zeal, in fact, that she herniated four discs doing the downward dog, but in true Coughlan style, she has since bounced back - just as readily as she did after having stents fitted for a heart condition in 2016 and following her bronchiectasis diagnosis two years before that.

"I take steroids and three inhalers every day and I just keep going," she says, matter-of-factly.

"The medication can be a pain, but it's just called 'getting old'. I did 14 gigs in England recently with only one day off, so this new tour will be a breeze. You get the adrenalin and you're back up and running again."

:: Mary Coughlan will perform with Sharon Shannon and Frances Black at the Ulster Hall in Belfast on Sunday May 29. Ulsterhall.co.uk.

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