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With the release of her last album, Circus, many people began to believe that Mary Black had finally become Mary Bland. Or, at least, a singer who was artistically asphyxiated by a musical formula that had grown progressively less interesting over her preceding seven albums. Mellow vocals, sparse instrumentation, carefully chosen songs were usually by the same brace of Irish songwriters, all meticulously set in place by her longtime producer Declan Sinnott. Too predictable by far. And, by the time of Circus, too far removed from sublime albums such as By The Time It Gets Dark. That certainly was the view put forward by this reviewer in The Irish Times.
"Well, even though you didn't like it, that album still sold 60,000 copies in Ireland, has since be- come my best selling album, ever, and is one I'm happy with!" Mary responds, defiantly.
"But I do now see it was time for a change and that's what happened after Declan left. I do see that on Circus everything was the same as before. Declan producing, me performing, the same band, songwriters, studio. And Declan was getting burnt out with the whole idea of us as a team. We also were in disagreement, maybe because I was voicing my opinions more than ever. Still, I was shocked when he left, really upset. My initial reaction was, 'oh God, what's going to happen to me? Maybe I should give up singing. I'm 40, maybe it's time to stop. And, with all due respect to you, and other critics, you do sometimes step back at times like that, when people attack your music, attack what you give your life to and you say, 'who needs this shit?' But within 24 hours I was like a woman possessed. I felt totally empowered by this freedom and realised if ever there was a time to be making decisions on my own, effecting my destiny, this was it. And all that led directly to Shine. New producer, songwriters, musicians, everything. Even a new way of singing in that, whereas Declan liked me to go for the quiet, whispering approach, Larry, wanted me to open my throat and really sing out. It was great!"
The "Larry" in question is Larry Klein, legendary producer, bass player and ex-husband of Joni Mitchell, who "asked me ages ago if he could produce something for me", says Mary. Other relatively radical departures on her new album include the fact that it was partly recorded in LA and features five songs by cult songwriter David Gray, such as "a rockin' version of Late Night Radio". The fact that she has taken such risks leaves Mary "pretty pissed off" at what she perceives as an ageist policy apparently dictating that One And Only, the single from the album, is not being played on an RTE programme which is, ironically enough, presented by someone who is older than she is.
"For the first time I have a video for a single and I was dying to see it on Dave Fanning's show because that's the only place you can see a video on Irish TV. But they won't play it," she claims. "So I said, 'well, I can do an interview' and Joe (O'Reilly, Mary's husband-manager) says, `they don't want you'. For f**k's sake, I'm selling out the Point for the last eight years. Who's watching 2TV, if not people like those? But they're not interested in `older acts', which is what they more or less said. Where does that leave Bono, who's only a couple of years younger than me? If Sting came to town would they say `you're too old?'. I don't really know whether it's ageist or has to do with my style of music. Dave Fanning wouldn't even be interested in listening to my work, though I'm not blaming this on him. Whatever the reason, it hurt."
(Responding to this comment, Ed Darragh, producer of 2TV says: "What we feature on the show is largely dictated by what the kids write in and ask us to play. No one has ever asked us to play Mary Black. Even so, her video is pencilled in for March 17th.")
While Mary concedes "to a degree" that 2TV is aimed at a younger audience than those who buy her records she also suggests that "too many people have preconceived ideas about what I do, that it's just A Woman's Heart, Katie or old Irish songs."
However, when it comes to the question of being interviewed there probably also is the perception that Mary "doesn't give too much away" in relation to her private life, which may make her less than interesting to certain sections of the media. Indeed, once upon a time, for example, if you asked Mary Black was she on heroin, had she become a drunk or did she ever go offside in her marriage she'd probably terminate an interview. However, having passed the age of 40 she now claims to be "more comfortable" with such questions. And it shows when she addresses the question of whether or not she can empathise with Larry Klein's experience of the break-up of his marriage with Joni Mitchell when she sings his songs.
"You don't need to be a 40-year-old divorced woman, or man, to understand the pain that brings" she reflects. "Larry wrote those two songs on this album, Nobody Lives Without Love and By The Hour and what they say to me is that there is a joy beyond the end of any relationship, hope for a new beginning. And, in terms of my own marriage, today, I'm very happy but who knows what will happen tomorrow? Maybe Joe will want to divorce me. We have our highs and lows, yet I always give it time because I know, inevitably, things will turn around again. We've been together 17 years so I know that what we have is worth fighting for, holding onto. Definitely.
"I am, by nature, monogamous," she goes on. "I certainly wouldn't be flippant about hopping into bed with someone. But as for falling in love, I could meet someone tomorrow and fall madly in love and that would be the end for myself and Joe. And there have been one or two times where other men have fallen in love with me and, well, they just had to get over that. Though, of course, it is painful when you fall in love with someone and they don't love you in return. But even a working relationship breaking up can be painful. That's why I see the song Shine as being about Declan and I, the end of that relationship, the saying both of us should step out of the shadows, go where we can shine. In fact, I think I loved Declan and probably still do. It's feelings like that I tap into for songs."
Mary admits that "over the past few years" she has been more attracted to "realistic love songs" such as Shine "rather than sugary ones" partly because she herself has come through what she describes as "a rough period". Particularly around the time of her fortieth birthday.
"I had some very low, black days, a bad year, mentally," she muses. "I was down, thinking, `out of my thirties, God, now I'm old.' Not all the time, just now and then. And I definitely didn't go round foisting this on people. But then again, to go back to what we were talking about earlier, I am only beginning to be comfortable talking about such things, now."
So, is Mary Black a heroin addict? "No!" she responds, smiling. The reply to the question of whether or not she is a heavy drinker, however, comes a little more slowly. And the smile disappears. "Well, I like a few jars and I used to be a much heavier drinker than I am now," she admits. "And I often thought I shouldn't be drinking as much as I did, but I really don't think I'm an alcoholic. Though maybe if I said I was, or that I used heroin, that'd definitely get me onto things like the Dave Fanning show! That'd be more 'rock 'n' roll' wouldn't it?"
Point taken. So if she could suggest one or two new tracks to those who might regard her Shine as "the same old, boring crap Mary Black's been doing for years" which songs would Mary choose? "The title track, Nobody Lives Without Love and, probably because I'm drawn to the darker, deeper songs, something like By The Hour which Joe describes as `the dirge'! she responds. "But no matter who in Ireland might regard me as `boring' the point is that I've never released an album before this that's generated so much excitement, worldwide. And it got four stars in Q, whereas Circus only got two! "
- Past: Dubliner, born in 1955, part of that legendary musical institution The Black Family, with whom Mary has recorded. Also was part of De Dannan before going solo teaming up with producer Declan Sinnott and recording seven of the most successful albums in Irish pop history. These include Without The Fanfare, By The Time It Gets Dark and No Frontiers. Consistently voted Best Female Artist by IRMA for most of the past decade.
- Present: New single, One And Only, new album, Shine, released March 17th. Irish tour May 2nd-27th includes three nights at the Point: May 9th, 10th, 11th.