The secret to success is innovation, accepting challenge and new ideas, reaching out and striving for more. That's a big charge for any performer. But certainly it is a direction necessary to ensure marketing longevity and happy fans. Freshness. That's where it counts.
Singer Mary Black knows this and knows it well. Her latest of eight solo albums, Shine, was released by Curb Atlantic Records on March 18 to thunderous hand-clapping by critics and loyal Black-ites. This pop/rockljazz-ized version of Black was her first recording done outside of Ireland. It presents a relatively new direction in her sound image.
The album was produced at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles. Even though struck with a teeny bit of the Hollywood mystique (alter all, she's started singing in the choir at convent school when only 14), Black was all-pro when it got around to the album production. "It could have been anywhere once we walked through the front door," says Black.
"The studio has a lot of history and ambience and everyone is so nice and professional. There is a great feel to it. So the effort really worked out well for us. Yet I'm literally still reeling from the experience," she indicates.
In addition to being birthed in sun-kissed LA, there was another something new with "Shine." For the first time, a Black album was not produced by her longtime guitarist/friend Declan Sinnott. This time, the singer worked with producer Larry Klein, who has a pile of credits with Joni Mitchell, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan and other stars.
She also used five songs by Welsh composer David Gray, which was a major presence for the young writer. "I wrote to him and asked him to send me some of his songs. He was thrilled we used so many of them," Black goes on.
Referring to how important it is to continue professionally stretching, Black emphasizes that "there is no point in repeating oneself. That's boring." So there is probably more work in the future with producer Klein, "now that we know all the pitfalls," she chuckles.
Whatever that "something" is, Black has never been into "boring" even as a youngster on Charlemont Street in Dublin.
Her dad, Kevin, was a plasterer and shopkeeper originally from Ratlilin Island. Her mother, Patricia, worked in the family grocery store. The elder Black was an accomplished fiddler and Mrs. Black regularly sang in in Dublin's dance halls. This gave the whole family a push toward the musical. After her chorusing in school and gigs in folk clubs, she joined a band called General Humbert for a European tour. Black and her brothers then came to the States in 1978, where they landed a job as buskers on the Staten Island ferry. Having enough of that alter a short time, Black moved on to the solo interstate. She eventually joined the award winning band De Danann.
After leaving De Danann, she cut other hit albums, often featuring exciting fresh song-writing talent such as Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny. There was a seven-month world solo tour squeezed in there somewhere. And talk about "far-out," Black's CD Circus was even played in outer space by astronaut Jim Newman, a die-hard Black fan. In recent years, Black has recorded both with Emmy Lou Harris and Joan Baez. She appeared on the latter's latest album, Ring Them Bells.
"These have been exciting moments. I was thinking 'oh, my god, to myself when they (Harris and Baez) called and asked me to perform with them. But we all got along famously," Black says. As top entertament pros, and women, she recalls they also had plenty to talk about when outside the recording boQth.
Black and her brothers (Martin, Shay and Michael) and sister Frances will be among the headliners at Milwaukee Irish Fest, Aug. 15-17. "This is the first time we'll be together officially in five years," she says excitedly. "Everybody has been out doing their own thing these past years, so it will be especially fun for a 'reunion,"' she adds. "We thought it would be grand to be at the fest. It's the Best of the Black Family!"
The Black Brothers have regularly performed at the three-day Gaelic blast, the world's largest Irish cultural event (in 1996, the fest attracted 115,000 persons). But Black herself hasn't been at this musical High Court of Tara since 1985 when she performed there with De Danann. "It was a very magical time," she recalls. Even Frances played the festival a few years ago, that time as a member of Arcady.
The family plans on rehearsing for at least a week in San Francisco where Shay and Michael live. Frances willjoin them from Ireland for these warmup jams. From there, the Black Bunch will come to Milwaukee for the much-awaited reunion gig. "We're making a holiday out of it," singer Black enthuses.
She may perform some of her new pieces at the festival. "while we'll probably do mostly material from our repertoire, I'll think about doing something from Shine," she says. "Sometimes, it is good to stretch an audience a bit." But audiences come to be entertained and often want to hear standard favorites, Black readily admits. So just how much contemporary excitement the Blacks will lay on their festival fans is still to be decided.
Coming home to husband Joe O'Reilly and their kids - Conor, Danny and Roisin - is when Black can switch off her footlight presence. "That's where the frying pan is on the stove and football's on the tally," she laughs. O'Reilly and Black have a home in Dublin and a getaway cottage in Wicklow. At either family hideaway, the singer can put up her feet, kick back and do all those wonderful mom-wifely things that are far from the stage and the bright lights.
Yet all that aside, the lure of the road still calls. "There's at least another traditional folk album in me," Black asserts. And maybe, just maybe, she might take a younger singer under her widespread wings and produce an album. "I don't think I'll become anybody's manager, however. Too much grief," she says. At age 41, she's just hitting her professional stride.