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When Gifthorse Records' founder Bill Straw first heard Mary Black's voice on a Los Angeles public radio station, he knew he was hearing something special. "I spun around and turned the radio up. When I heard her I knew I had to get that album. We had it by that night and I listened to it and immediately got right on the phone to Ireland.";
That initial excitement over a snatch of music heard in passing resulted in the American release of No Frontiers, Black's fourth solo album. The album has reached multi-platinum sales levels in Ireland. Plans are also currently being made for the American release of some of her earlier works.
Black grew up in a musical family and began her singing career performing in small Dublin clubs with her brothers and sister. She sang in the folk group General Humbert before releasing her first solo effort in 1982. Since then she has recorded and toured with De Dannan and released three more solo albums.
Black stopped in Washington, D.C. in between tours and recording and spent some time talking about her latest album, her band, touring, and ambitions for the future.
Denise Sofranko: Let's talk about No Frontiers, released in Ireland in 1989 and here in 1990.
Mary Black: This is our fourth solo album. When I say we, it's mostly myself and Declan Sinnott who worked together. He's the guitar player and producer on the album and we both arranged. We felt that this was the one that was going to do it for us. This was our chance. We really worked hard to make this album.
Denise: Were you going for more of a pop sound?
Mary: With each album, we don't actually decide this is the way this is going to be and this is the way that one is going to be. We really let it flow, we let it happen. Maybe No Frontiers is bending towards more popular music. I think it's probably more appealing than By the Time it Gets Dark.
By the Time it Gets Dark is a very good album, but perhaps a bit harder to listen to. No Frontiers is one that probably grips you quicker. You're all the time changing, developing and experiencing new things and maturing I suppose. So I think that comes out in the music as well.
Denise: You've been using some very talented contemporary Irish songwriters on your solo albums. How do you go about picking songs?
Mary: I feel the lyrics are probably the thing that strikes me first. Obviously the melody has to be good too. It's a fifty-fifty thing. But you can always change the melody slightly by even changing a note which I often do. Or changing the emphasis on something and making it more interesting. I've even gone back to Noel [Brazil] suggesting changes. He doesn't mind at all. He doesn't have that attitude "Oh that's a creation and I can't change it."; He's really open. We work together in order to make the songs fit me better, so it's almost personalized. He's one of my favorite songwriters. He's brilliant. But there's so many more. Like Jimmy McCarthy from Cork. A lot of songs that I do can really be interpreted in so many different ways. I've heard people interpret songs like "Waiting for Columbus"; or "Vanities"; [both Brazil tunes from No Frontiers] and having completely different meanings than what they were written for and what I even thought they were. I think that's all right. You can interpret it in any way you like and somehow it makes sense to you. That's what makes a good song.
Denise: How do you work with Declan and the rest of your band in shaping your sound?
Mary: The relationship with the band at this stage is very good. In a way they are very creative as well in their approach to things. They play what they feel unless it's something Declan feels really strongly about. It's very much a natural thing. As a band we work very well together. Musically we're getting better. Declan does most of the writing if there's any writing to be done within the band. Technically, Declan is the producer, but I'm very involved. I'm there all the time. I'm putting in my six pence worth and suggesting things so in a way we're almost at this stage co-produced, but I still like to have Declan produce because he is more experienced in the studio as a producer and he has more ideas than I have musically. I am getting more and more involved in the arranging. The band has been working closely for the last couple of years and I think we're really becoming very aware of each other and very comfortable with each other.
Denise: You and Declan have been working together since 1981. What brought you together as musical partners?
Mary: I knew Declan for a couple of years before I started working with him. Just through literally bumping into him at clubs and parties. Christy Moore was doing a big concert in Dublin and he called me up and asked me to do a spot. I said I would but I wasn't working with any particular guitar player. And he said, "Well Declan's playing with me and maybe you can get together and do a couple of songs."; We rehearsed maybe the day before and did maybe a half hour set and that was it. We knew that day. He knew and I knew that it was just right. It was sort of a chemistry or something. The two of us just took flight. He came from a different background musically. He was really a rock guitar player, from a more electric background [Sinnott was a member of Moving Hearts and Horslips before joining Black]. I wanted to go more where he had come from and he wanted to go where I'd come from. So there was that nice sort of marrying of the two. I think that sort of comes out in the music.
Denise: It's very refreshing that you're using a lot of Irish songwriters and Irish musicians as well. A lot of people trying to sell to an American audience will jump right in and use American writers, musicians, and producers and end up sounding like everyone else.
Mary: I think it's very important for me to not do that. I wouldn't be happy changing anything unless I felt that it was a musical decision that myself and Declan made. I'm working with great musicians and I feel really lucky that they're nice people as well. And the song writers. God, I've got great songwriters. They can really stand beside any songwriter in the world at this stage. I feel lucky that I'm able to take stuff from home and tour other countries and other people appreciate it too.
Denise: Do you find foreign audiences expect you to be more of a traditional Irish singer?
Mary: You get a very small percentage of people who expect that. The majority of people coming to the gigs have been Irish immigrants or people who know about me through other people so I don't have a major problem with that. It's very rare that people expect me to be an Irish colleen singing Irish songs. I know the association will always be there though. I am Irish and I'm proud of it. But, I look forward to the time when I can just stand up and be an artist without having the tag of being Irish.
Denise: You were a member of the well-known Irish band De Dannan for three years. What was that experience like?
Mary: I really enjoyed working with them and we got very close. Alec Finn, who was a member of De Dannan rang me one day out of the blue and said, "How would you like to become a member of De Dannan?"; I knew them musically and I was a big fan of theirs, but I really didn't know them very well. So I said, "Well that sounds interesting."; The only thing was they had to record an album the next week. So I was whisked off to London. Didn't even know what song they were putting on. That was the Song for Ireland album actually. It just started from there. Working with De Dannan was the best experience anybody could ever have at working on the road, working with a band and musicians and generally meeting people. I gained so much. They'd been around and they knew the ropes and it was just brilliant for me.
Working with De Dannan gave me a confidence that I didn't have before that. I always felt that there were always people out there that were better than me. I used to get very very nervous before then. I was beginning to think "oh why bother, it's too much worry, it's too much pain, it's too much effort."; So joining De Dannan gave me that push. I was the singer, I could deal with it. They'd play, I'd sing, they'd play, I'd sing. Suddenly I realized I had so much more to give. I really learned how to stand up in front of an audience and really impress them by opening up while I was singing a song. Suddenly it all made sense to me and something just clicked. And I said, "this is it. This is what it's all about."; Some people are better musically than others, but as people we're all the same and I learned not to feel inferior and not to feel self conscious. I learned all those things from working with De Dannan, and not just from the band. I learned from people that I'd meet on the road and from every aspect of being with a successful band and being on the road.
I was really sad the day I had to leave. I had recorded my second solo album and there was more and more of a demand for me to go solo. So it was really because of the workload that I had to end with De Dannan. I knew it had to come, but they really did help me along the way and they helped me make up my mind as to where I was going and what I was doing.
Denise: You and Maura O'Connell have both sung with De Dannan and would seem to have much the same type of audience here in the States. Do you find you get compared to her a lot?
Mary: Not really. Maybe when I was still in De Dannan. Often times you'd get people coming up and saying, "I loved you singing that `Irish Mollie',"; which is Maura's song. Maura has the same problem. People will ask about something I would sing. I think our voices are very different, even our styles are different. I rarely come up against that and Maura has really gone off into a different, more mainstream, younger, pop market. I never take offense when people label me though, because I have trouble putting myself into a category. I really do find it hard to describe what I do. In Ireland, they're very open to whatever's happening. No snobbery when it comes to music. You don't have to start off with one kind of music and stay there if you don't want to. They move with you.
Denise: What about radio programming in Ireland? How does it compare with here?
Mary: Radio is very big, but there's not as many stations to start with. Some lean towards more adult contemporary and some will be more pop stations. The main station which probably gets the biggest rating is more like National Public Radio. Talk and music and features and all sorts of stuff. So there is that variety but it's not that pointed. They are open to all kinds of things. Here there are so many stations, so many people doing different things. If I was looking for a radio station here, I wouldn't have a clue where to look. You need to have labels to make a choice. It's more structured, but it's a different way of life. Ireland is more laid back.
Denise: Who do you listen to? What influences you and your style?
Mary: I have a very broad interest in music really. In the earlier days I was listening a lot to Sandy Denny and Fairport Convention. I was a big fan and I think that she was probably the one that influenced me most in my earlier days. I was also listening to Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin. Bonnie Raitt is someone I was just crazy about and still am. In fact, I'd really love to meet her and maybe even sing with her. That'd be grand.
Denise: I'd like to be there to listen. What about the immediate future? What's ahead?
Mary: We're heading out on a tour of Japan in a couple of weeks. No Frontiers was released the same time there as it was here and it's really been received well. It's very exciting. For the first time in my life there's absolutely no Irish connection. They might not even know where I'm from. I've always had an ambition to go to Japan and I find the people intriguing. We're planning a U.S. tour about the middle of February. I think because the album has been released here, we'll hopefully be reaching a broader audience.
I have to space out my tours. I really don't want to be away for longer than three weeks at a time. I'm lucky because I don't get pressure from record companies to tour that extensively. It doesn't seem to be a problem with them as yet anyway. There have to be rules laid down from the very beginning. I'm very willing to work hard. I want to be out gigging and doing the band work, but there have to be limits. It's very important that we don't feel that we're pressured into doing things that we don't want to do from a business point. I think at this stage, we're mature, we've been around a long time. We're not taken in by the star bit and the whole sort of show business thing. In a way it's an advantage living in Ireland. Living away from that. It keeps your two feet very solidly on the ground. Most of the people in the band have families and we know where our priorities are. The music is incredibly important to us, but there are other priorities in our lifestyles as well.
At the moment I want to be singing like I'm singing now. Going in the same direction I'm going. And basically, I want to make sure it's an enjoyable experience for me. I want to keep enjoying it.