"I always want to choose strong material," Mary Black says, "something I feel I can work with and interpret and express something, and add something to the song." The range of that material she embraces, from the enigmatic Speaking with the Angel to the bright Carolina Rua, from the searching Columbus to the celebratory Summer Sent You, from the traditional Anachie Gordon to the earthy Flesh and Blood, is apparent in the music she's selected for her latest album 25 Years -- 25 Songs.
Though Black released her first solo album twenty five years ago, she's actually been singing far longer than that, almost since she can remember. "My father was born and reared on Rathlin Island. It's a little island off the north east coast of Ireland, within the six counties, so it's not under Irish rule," she said. "It's an incredibly beautiful place, a place of great memories for us growing up. We were reared in the heart of Dublin city, in a business street with a shop, and to be whisked away every summer from that kind of environment to this wild kind of place that had no electricity, no running water, all the things that people take for granted in the big city but yet had this lifestyle that was so exciting to us as kids -- it was a magical place. It's very much a part of who we are, as a family." Her dad, Kevin, played the fiddle, and her mother, Patty, came from Dublin and was a singer. "Even up into her eighties she was still singing," Black said. They passed their passion for music along to their children. Mary is the middle child of five. Older brothers Shay and Michael, and younger brother Martin and younger sister Frances have all worked professionally in music.
Black has always loved to sing, although she found hard at first to be on stage in front of a microphone. "Sitting in a room, yes, I could do that, but up on stage, I was terrified. It took me a while to get over that," she said. One of the things she's learned over the years of performing, she reflects, is to communicate with her audiences in a relaxed way. She's still a bit surprised, though, when, as at a recent show in Dublin, "the audience just went mad. I tend to get lost in the song, myself, and then I'm glad people are going there with me, but I have to look around a bit to remember that and it's still a surprise sometimes!"
In her late teens, Black began doing gigs with her brothers, and then joined the traditional band General Humbert. Irish singing star Christy Moore invited her on a television program with him (she sang Anachie Gordon) and that began her rising profile. That traditional ballad is on her first album, but so is music by Karla Bonoff and a take on Billie Holiday's God Bless the Child. "It didn't really do much to clarify what kind of singer I was," Black said, laughing. She took a bit more of a traditional turn when she accepted an invitation to join the renown band De Dannan. She stayed with them for three years. One of her best known pieces, Song for Ireland, was the first song she recorded with the band, and it's proved a favorite the world over. Black also sang it during events surrounding the negotiations for a peace agreement in northern Ireland.
In her solo career, she's balanced folk, pop, and traditional music, always looking for the strength of the song and an idea she can convey well. Her songs allow for both the light and shadows of life, as do her interpretations of them. If there's one thread running through the material Mary Black chooses, it could be said to be the persistence of hope.
That's evident too, in one of the highest profile projects in which she's taken part, the Woman's Heart series, which comprises three discs and spans a decade of time and the talents of dozens of the best female voices in Irish and Irish American music, including Dolores Keane, Eleanor McEvoy, Maura O'Connell, Cathie Ryan, and many others. The title track is on the 25 Years collection. "I think the lovely thing about it is that people might know Maura O'Connell, or they might know me, and they'd buy the record on that, and they get to hear all these other artists, so it was great for everyone," Black said.
One of the two bonus tracks on 25 Years (the other is a Tom Waits cover) is Sweet Love, which Black wrote with her son Danny O'Reilly, who is a rising star with the indie band The Coronas. Song writing is something that Black has come to fairly recently. "A lot of things happened in my life these last few years, the sort things that make you really sit back and think about your life and how you feel about it, and what's going on," she says . "I had ideas I wanted to put into songs, and I sat down with Danny and it was great, because writing songs was always something that I felt was a hurdle I might never jump."
Did Black expect a 25th anniversary album when she was starting out? "No," she says, laughing, "I wondered what I'd be doing when I was forty -- surely not singing, I thought." Now in her mid fifties, Mary Black is willing to be surprised about what the future holds. "I tend not to plan ahead, to live in he moment more. That's always been part of my personality, from the very beginning," she says. It's a gift that's served her well, and she's ready to see what the next moment -- and the next years -- will bring.
The recording 25 Years -- 25 Songs is available in Ireland and will shortly be released in Europe. A US release date has not been set, but it's possible to order the two disc set online from Black's website.
Kerry Dexter, Music Correspondent Kerry's credits include VH1, CMT, the folk music magazine Dirty Linen, Strings, The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, and The MusicHound Guides. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at Music Road and contributes to Fred Bals' Series of Tubes.