Frances Black on singing, politics and making Ireland better
One of Ireland's best known singers, Senator Frances Black chats to Jenny Lee about the very personal reasons why she chose to get into politics, what she hopes to achieve, her musical daughter and her plans for the future
NO STRANGER to the stage, Frances Black is one of Ireland's best-loved and most eduring artists. But over the past three months she has taken to a new stage – in Dublin's Leinster House, following her election to Seanad Éireann as an independent candidate.
She began singing with her older siblings as part of The Black Family, when she was 17. Although initially "the shy one", she gradually gained confidence in her singing abilities and went on to enjoy success both as a solo artist and with her collaboration with Co Down singer-songwriter Kieran Goss.
Amongst her success, Black also underwent a well-documented battle with alcoholism. It was a hard lesson, but one which in retrospect she now sees as "a blessing in disguise".
"I'm 28 years in recovery and I'm living a life beyond my wildest dreams. Little did I ever think when I was growing up in the tenament houses in Dublin city that I would be sitting in Leinster House one day," the 56-year-old says.
"I suppose when you learn to empower yourself against things that can be disempowering you feel you can take on the world and keep driving forward."
It was when she was in her late 20s and tried to stop drinking her then daily bottle of wine at night that Black realised she had a problem.
"When I tried to stop I realised I couldn't do it alone. That's when I went and got help and support. That was the turning point for me and now if ever I'm struggling with anything in my life and there is something I can't manage I will ask for help. It's been an amazing journey."
Following her recovery, she completed a diploma in addiction counselling and went on to set up the Rise Foundation (Recovery In A Safe Environment) in 2009. The charity helps families of those affected by addiction to alcohol, gambling, drugs and sex.
"Often family members have very high-stress-related illnesses – anxiety, depression and stress, which can sometimes turn into a physical illness such as diabetes or heart disease, irritable bowel or stress-related cancer. What we do is provide a service to give the family member the tools to be able to cope with having their loved one in addiction and help them empower themselves," Black, who is still very much involved as an unpaid CEO of the Rise Foundation, explains.
She admits she entered politics "as a challenge" and to make a difference from the inside out.
"For me my manifesto was being the voice of people that I work with – the voice of the vulnerable. In my work with Rise I got a little bit frustrated that, from a government point of view, we were not being heard. So I thought, 'Why don't you just get in there and do it from the inside?' and that's exactly what I'm doing. As well being a voice for those family members, I'm also a voice for people with addiction, those with mental-health issues, for the homeless and for children's rights."
As senator, Black says she hopes she puts Ireland’s drinking culture centre stage.
"Already I've been working on the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill and we are getting to the second stage of that now. It's about creating awareness of the hidden impact of alcohol misuse, in particular the impact of parental alcohol misuse on children."
The bill also aims to introduce minimum pricing, among other measures, and Black doesn't rule out north-south collaboration.
"I had a discussion yesterday about connecting up with Michelle O'Neill and looking at how we can do a 32-county model around alcohol misuse," she adds.
For her own personal solace, Black retreats to her father's old farmhouse on Rathlin Island a few times a year. (Her dad Kevin, a musician, was a native of the Co Antrim island.)
"I just go and hide, read books, go for walks and eat nice meals. It's important to take some rest."
Despite her busy schedule she still makes time for her music and later this month she will play a gig at Belfast's Clonard Cathedral, teaming up with old friends Sharon Shannon and Mary Coughlan.
The trio first collaborated when their music featured on A Woman's Heart, which went on to become the biggest-selling album ever in Ireland.
"I've known Mary and Sharon almost 30 years. They are two very powerful women, we're all in the business long enough now to know how it all works."
The three performers will each perform a set with their own musicians, before coming on stage together in what is sure to be an emotional finale.
The title track from her 1994 album Talk to Me remains Black's favourite song to sing.
"I just love the sentiment of the song. It's about trying to connect with somebody when you know you are losing them. It's about saying what is going on – just talk to me."
After a 25-year break, Black and Kieran Goss reformed their singing partnership and the pair will again tour in February 2017.
"Whether an album comes out of that? You never know," she hints.
So what is it about their partnership that works so well?
"I'm happily married; he's happily married, but musically we have a very strong chemistry between us. It's the songs we choose, the harmonies and the craic we have on stage. When I'm up on stage performing with Kieran it's just the best feeling in the world."
Meanwhile, carrying on the family's musical tradition is Aoife Scott, her daughter from her first marriage. The folk singer released her first album this year to much acclaim and this autumn will tour America and Germany.
Has she given her daughter any advice?
"I've not encouraged or discouraged, I've just let her find her way. She has gigged with me a lot in the past few years, but the time was right for her to go solo and come out of the 'Black women' cloak because living in the shadow of that can be difficult."
Black speaks from experience, as she herself still finds herself living up to big sister's reputation.
"When I was starting out, Mary was already established and you're aware of being known as Mary Black's sister. Even in Leinster House now I still get some people calling me Mary," she laughs.
:: Frances Black will be performing with Sharon Shannon and Mary Couglan at the Concert at Clonard on August 9 at 7.30pm as part of Feile an Phobail. For full details of events and tickets visit www.feile2016.com.