This month, Mary Black will return to the United States for the first time in three years — and she can’t wait. One of the most successful singers ever in Irish popular music, she has built a loyal following, not just among Irish-Americans, but also with anyone who has a fondness for a lovely, pure, true voice. Mention “Song for Ireland” or “No Frontiers” to Mary Black fans, and their eyes will light up. Mary Black performs at McCarter Theater on Tuesday, November 9.
“I’m looking forward to it very much,” she says in a phone interview from her Dublin home. “In the previous 20 years I went back and forth every year, so I miss it. I miss playing in those lovely theaters you have.”
Possessor of what the London Telegraph calls a “serene and achingly beautiful voice,” Black has moved over the course of her 25-year career from strictly traditional Irish music to a reputation as one of the prime interpreters of contemporary songwriters.
She was raised in Dublin, but her father, Kevin Black, was a fiddler from remote Rathlin Island, in the northernmost part of Ireland. The Blacks can trace their heritage back 400 years on the island, which boasts only about a hundred people. As is often the case with rural Irish areas, they made their own fun; in this case, playing traditional music.
“Every summer we were whisked away to Rathlin Island for a good chunk of the summer, which we loved,” Black remembers. “The contrast was amazing; from the streets with traffic to complete isolation. Milking the cows, collecting the eggs, playing in the fields. No electricity, no running water, but we thought it was great, absolutely fantastic. It’s an absolutely gorgeous spot. We still have the house there; we go up every summer. My brothers and sister and I, we try to get up there and overlap at least for a long weekend. My father would be so happy that we still have it. He was so fond of it. Mother was a Dublin girl, very passionate about music, loved singing and dancing. So between them they had five of us and the music never left us.”
That’s putting it mildly. Black, her brothers Shay, Michael, and Martin, and her sister, Frances, are all among the most talented of Irish musicians. They first made their mark singing as the Black Family in the pubs of Dublin in the 1970s, and later with a series of critically acclaimed records.
Black attributes their talent directly to their parents. “What’s in the cat is in the kittens,” she says. “Some people are lucky that a parent is very musical. We all could sing, and there were instruments lying around the house; you’d pick them up. And the harmonies came naturally. Before we knew it, we had kind of a sound. We didn’t think it was anything special until we got a bit older and starting going out singing in bars and pubs and people were going, ‘Wow, what’s that?’ So it’s funny, none of us really thought in terms of making a career of it. In the early days, I thought just to be able to do it was wonderful and to maybe travel with it a little bit, but little did we think that or I didn’t think that I’d still be at it at this stage of my life.”
After her stint with the group General Humbert in the late ’70s, her 1983 debut album, “Mary Black,” won critical and popular acclaim in Ireland. She then joined one of Ireland’s most respected traditional bands, De Dannan, already famous for having featured some of the country’s greatest vocalists, including Dolores Keane and Maura O’Connell. Black recorded two albums with De Dannan and got her exposure in America with the band. She also took the time to marry Joe O’Reilly, who now heads Dublin’s Dara Records.
“That was a great advantage,” she says. “To come in on the back of a great name, a band that had been touring the U.S. for close to 10 years. I was with them for three years, and I learned so much about being on the road, and also about standing up and impressing people who had never heard of me and had never heard me sing. I learned an awful lot about myself and how to connect and all the things that really, no one can teach you. You have to learn by doing it. They were precious years for me. By 1986, after three years with De Dannan, I decided it was time to go with the solo thing. So reluctantly I gave up De Dannan. And at this stage too, of course, I’m having babies. Something had to go — I had two kids by then.”
Black’s solo albums were quick successes. Her 1985 album, “Without the Fanfare,” went gold, and in 1987, “By the Time It Gets Dark” was a multi-platinum hit. In Ireland she was named Entertainer of the Year in 1986 and Best Female Artist in 1987 and 1988. In 1989 “No Frontiers” became her biggest seller of all.
But with each album, her approach had changed, as she moved a little further from the folk approach towards the work of the new songwriters whom she championed. Although the purists carped, Black was pleased with her sound and gained far more new fans than she lost.
“I think there was a little bit of resistance in America,” she says. “Because they would have known me as a folk/traditional singer through De Dannan. But for the most part, they were open-minded. And the people I was singing to were a lot of Irish immigrants, and they would have been aware of what was going on musically in Ireland, and they would have known my two or three solo albums. So it was mixed, but the changeover happened quick enough in the end. At the time, I was worried, but I always remember something that Joni Mitchell said: ‘People criticize you for changing, and they criticize you for not changing.’ You have to follow your own instincts. If you do the same old same old, you get tired of it, and so do the people. You have to believe in what you’re doing, or maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.
“You start in one thing, and then you realize that as an artist and as a performer and as a writer, that’s not just what you want to do. And people always would be asking me what category did I consider myself to be in. Because my music has a little touch of country in there, and bit of blues. I do jazzy stuff sometimes, and contemporary, and folk. That’s the kind of person I am; I have a very broad interest in music myself. I was a huge fan of Billie Holiday when I was in my teens. I would spend hours listening to her, even though when I went out I was singing folksongs. Growing up, I was a big fan of Bonnie Raitt and EmmyLou Harris, a lot of American music. Sandy Denny was a huge influence. In the beginning, she was the person I wanted to be.”
On her current tour, Black will promote her latest CD, “25 Years/25 Songs.” Released in 2008 in Ireland, the CD is not yet available in the U.S., but Black promises to bring plenty of copies with her. An anthology, it features many songs by her some of her favorite songwriters, including two who have become known through her interpretations, Jimmy McCarthy and Noel Brazil.
“Jimmy is an amazing writer. ‘Bright Blue Rose’ is the most popular of his songs that I do. If I left that out, I’d probably be lynched. But I can honestly say that my absolute favorite songwriter would be Noel Brazil, who died just about this time six years ago. I think in a way he brought me into expressing myself vocally from a different side, made me try out things that I might not have. I like to talk about him onstage, give him praise. He didn’t always get the recognition he deserved.”
When you have been singing with enormous acclaim for a quarter of a century, it’s hard to choose just 25 songs with which to satisfy your fans. “It’s difficult,” Black admits. “I had to give it an awful lot of thought, because it’s not just your own personal favorite, you have to take into consideration the popularity of a song and give a good cross-section of my style. The hardest part is what to leave off.”
The album includes several duets. Since her days singing with her family, Black has loved getting together with other great singers, and she can tick off a list of some pretty noteworthy names. “Joan Baez invited me over to sing with her as part of a live album, a great compliment. I grew up listening to her. Singing with EmmyLou Harris was fantastic and getting to know her. Mary Chapin Carpenter was another.”
She remembers fondly singing with the late Irish folk legend Liam Clancy on his last album. “It was such a lovely experience. We got quite close — you know, in one day, to kind of feel that you got to know somebody? And he was so delighted — he sent me a big bouquet of flowers the next day. It was something that I’m so happy I did. It will always be there, and I’ll always have that. And it is a lovely recording.”
Then there was a surprise call from a wild and crazy guy who was putting together an album featuring his banjo playing. “His producer contacted us saying Steve Martin was a huge fan and would I like to sing on his album,” Black says. “Of course I was delighted and said yes. They wanted me to go over to New York, and it was just coming up to Christmas. I said, ‘Is there any way I could do it here in Dublin?’ And they said sure, and when Steve heard his producer was coming over to record it he said, ‘Well, I’m coming too.” So he got his private jet from New York and flew in for the day. We went to dinner that night, and I brought him to a seisun. It was the Friday before Christmas, freezing cold, with uilleann pipes and banjos, and I sang a song, and it was a great day. And how flattering that he would want to include me among all those amazing musicians. A big highlight for me. And then the CD (“The Crow”) got a Grammy — the closest I’ll ever get to a Grammy.”
Musicians who are moving gracefully into their middle years often talk about how they are enjoying performing more than when they were young, and Black is no exception. “Absolutely true,” she says firmly. “First of all, for me, there’s less pressure from a family point of view, as a mother. The kids are all grown up now, so there’s the freedom there.” (Black’s son, Danny O’Reilly, heads the popular Irish rock group the Coronas; her daughter, Roisin is a singer and will open for her mother at McCarter.)
“But that’s only one small part of it,” says Black. “It’s also, I suppose, in a way, I’ve nothing to prove. I’m not worrying about the things that worried me when I was younger. In the passing of time, you kind of accept yourself for who you are and what you can deliver. In fact, I think I’m a better performer now than I’ve ever been, honestly. I just appreciate it more or something. I’d be lost if I couldn’t get up and sing a few songs.”
Mary Black, Matthews Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. Tuesday, November 9, 8 p.m. 25th anniversary tour features music from Ireland. $39 and up. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.