Goodwill hunting for Mary Coughlan and friends Curtis Stigers and Brian Kennedy

Mary Coughlan is taking to the stage at the Friends Goodwill Music Festival in Larne this weekend where Curtis Stigers is the headline act. She tells Gail Bell of her excitement at performing at the event alongside Brian Kennedy and why music will always soothe her soul

Mary Coughlan
Mary Coughlan Mary Coughlan

THERE is nothing, it seems, that can keep the irrepressible Mary Coughlan down for long. Addiction problems, suicide attempts and dark days in psychiatric wards could not confine her, so slipping on the cat’s vomit last year and being “carted off” to hospital in a neck brace meant it was only a matter of time before she was up and singing soulfully again about life’s various misadventures.

In fairness, there have been quite a few of those to befall the resilient 67-year-old Irish queen of jazz and blues who is making her way to Larne to perform at the Friends Goodwill Music Festival headlined by US singing legend, Curtis Stigers, this Saturday.

Mary Coughlan says she is busier than ever, "but it is all good". Picture by Frank Miller
Mary Coughlan says she is busier than ever, "but it is all good". Picture by Frank Miller Mary Coughlan says she is busier than ever, "but it is all good". Picture by Frank Miller

And, having recently returned from an extensive tour of Australia and New Zealand – fitting in 28 concerts in two months – the journey from her home on the side of Little Sugar Loaf Mountain near Bray, Co Wicklow, will be a breezy little trip “down the road”.

“I’ve never seen Curtis before, so I’m looking forward to that a lot; it’ll be great,” enthuses the Galway-born songstress who is sharing a stage at the event with multi-platinum recording artist, Brian Kennedy who, rumour has it, will duet with the celebrated US saxophonist, producer and songwriter on what will be his first visit to Co Antrim.

Stigers first appeared on the scene in the early 90s and his festival gig in Larne will include classic material – hits such as I Wonder Why and his rendition of Nick Lowe’s (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding which featured on The Bodyguard movie soundtrack and sold over 45 million copies.

And while it will be Coughlan’s first time meeting the American jazz singer, for Kennedy, it will be something of a reunion, the pair having performed together at The City Hall with Van Morrison for President Bill Clinton’s historic visit to Belfast in 1995.

“We have been working out the set list and I think Brian and Curtis are singing together and I’m singing with Brian – I think that is what’s happening,” ventures Coughlan, sounding chilled about it all.

Mary Coughlan in action. Picture by Mal McCann
Mary Coughlan in action. Picture by Mal McCann Mary Coughlan in action. Picture by Mal McCann

“I have to check in with Brian later today. We were chatting the other night during Eurovision – Brian and I were both glued to it and I think it was a bit of a b******s that Ireland didn’t get through, to be honest – but I am sure Curtis will sing his 1992 hit single, You’re All That Matters To Me. We will all do a few hits – all the sounds that people love.”

After decades in the industry, flame-haired Coughlan is still singing the sounds that people love – and still gathering up new fans as far away as Australia.

She says she has the Covid lockdown to thank for that: her garden concerts (with full band) at home in Co Wicklow were seen online by Australians who came out to support her live shows during the most recent tour Down Under.

Mary Coughlan. Picture by Mal McCann.
Mary Coughlan. Picture by Mal McCann. Mary Coughlan. Picture by Mal McCann.

“We waited a long time for this tour which was first meant to happen in 2020 to coincide with the launch of the Life Stories album, but was postponed until 2021 and then moved to 2023 because parts of Australia had different rules for dealing with Covid,” she explains.

“But, strangely, when I did get there, more and more gigs sold out, so they had to keep adding extra ones.

“This time I seemed to have much bigger crowds than ever and the people who came up to me after the gigs said they had discovered me during the lockdown by watching my garden gigs online.”

Back home, in between singing in her garden, spending time with her grandchildren, baking brown bread and collecting eggs from her chickens, she practised daily yoga for 160 days during the Irish lockdowns – until she herniated four discs doing the downward dog.

In true Coughlan style she bounced back, but confides the incident with the cat’s vomit may have halted her yoga regime indefinitely this time. “I fell in my cat’s vomit,” she reflects, matter-of-factly, “and hurt my back really badly last year.

“My cat had vomited on the floor and I was running out to the loo in the middle of the night, as you do – I was running to the bathroom and didn’t turn the light on – and slipped and cracked five vertebrae; four in my spine and one in my neck. I went absolutely flying and was carted away in an ambulance in a neck brace, so I’m sticking to just walking for now, although I’ll go back and do some strength training and stuff like that.”

This “just keep going” philosophy has served Coughlan well over the years, whether for physical injuries or illness – she has also been diagnosed with the lung condition, bronchiectasis, and has had stents fitted for a heart condition – or distresses of the heart and mind.

A 2009 biography, aptly entitled Bloody Mary, held nothing back, documenting past addiction problems (she has been sober now for nearly 30 years), relationship troubles, familial abuse, career mismanagement and suicide attempts, as well time spent in psychiatric wards while struggling with mental health.

But like all true blues virtuosos, she faced down her demons in song. Acclaimed 2020 album, Life Stories, unapologetically deals with everything from familial issues to addiction – she ended up in hospital 32 times in two-and-a-half years with alcohol poisoning – and also the very public breakdown of her marriage to Frank Bonadio after he had an affair with their nanny.

Surprisingly, this once-wild child of jazz, twice-divorced mother-of-five and grandmother-of-seven, started out “being a bit of a health nut”, giving breastfeeding and natural childbirth classes and following a strict macrobiotic diet when living in London.

“Singing has always been my salvation, but I never set out to be a singer,” Coughlan, a former road sweeper, actress and life model for aspiring artists (apparently, it paid more than waitressing) revealed in an interview with this paper last year. "I didn't sing until I was 30 – before that, I was quite happy being a mother.

"I remember having a gin and tonic when I was 30 and kind of really liking it. My career was taking off then and over the next four or five years it was very, very extraordinary the way I fell apart. There were triggers, of course, but I think I was born an alcoholic. I maybe had the gene - I'm not sure."

Those days are thankfully now well behind her and she has embraced a kind of late-onset contentment with partner, New Zealander John Kelly, while looking forward to another busy schedule this spring and summer.

Mary Coughlan
Mary Coughlan Mary Coughlan

“I am busier than ever; the summer schedule is looking very, busy, but it’s all good,” she says, happily.

“I’m going to Holland later in May, I have some concerts in June and I start work on a project with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin on Monday morning.

“Then, I’ve a few gigs in the summer and a couple of festivals. I start in Glasgow in July and work my way down through England, ending with the Páirc Festival in Birmingham in July and a festival in Wickham in August. It’s just mad, really mad, but I love it.”

:: Mary Coughlan takes to the stage with Brian Kennedy at Market Yard Lane in Larne for the Friends Goodwill Music Festival on Saturday May 20, headlined by Curtis Stigers. Tickets and full information via friendsgoodwill.eventbrite.co.uk