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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 29, 2000. All rights reserved.
Mary Black, Song Interpreter
Earlier in her career, vocalist Mary Black probably
took a lot of flack from the critics. But not anymore. See, she doesn’t
write her own songs. She strongly believes in taking advantage of
the wealth of songwriting talent in and around her native Dublin.
She prefers to think of herself as an interpreter of great songs,
and on her latest album, "Speaking with the Angel" (Curb Records),
she covers a great song by New Jersey native John Gorka, "Cut
By Wire," as well as "Fields of Gold" by London-based
superstar Sting, formerly with the Police.
Black has written her own songs, but she doesn’t perform them
all that often, she explains by phone from her Dublin home.
"I come from that tradition of music where songs are passed on.
I grew up doing that and in the process I got to know the great Irish
writers," she says. "I’ve been lucky because there’s a wealth
of songwriters out there whose songs don’t get heard," she adds,
"and choosing material is a big part of what I do. I’ve always
felt my talents are more in interpreting and performing and singing
than in writing. I don’t want to compromise what I do."
"I think it’s a gift," says Black, who appears at McCarter
Theater Tuesday, April 4. "And you either have it or you don’t."
Although she started as a humble folk singer, by the early 1990s Black
had moved so thoroughly into the mainstream that she became as big
a seller in her native Ireland as the rock band U2, pianist and vocalist
Phil Coulter, and that longtime favorite of fans of traditional Irish
music, the Chieftains. Black began to attract a growing fan base in
the U.S. about 10 years ago, when she released "No Frontiers."
What does a song need for a big-selling artist like Black to cover
it, thus bringing some income to the often underpaid songwriter, who’s
allowed to live tax-free in Ireland?
"Obviously the lyrics are important, and I have to be able to
relate to the sentiment expressed in the song," she explains,
"but it’s also more than that. It’s something that moves me inside
to make me want to sing it, and hopefully the people listening to
me will feel the same way."
While Black may have disappointed the hard-core folk
aficionados in the 1990s with her move into more mainstream, pop-oriented
material, there’s no question the strategy helped her career. Now,
having established herself as a top seller, she’s free to do what
she wants. A stateside example from the late 1980s and early 1990s
can be found with Linda Rondstadt, who, after being all over pop radio
in the late ’70s and early ’80s, recorded an album of Mexican mariachi
songs in the early ’90s. These days, Rondstadt is taking something
of a break from the road. But the album of Mexican folk tunes hasn’t
destroyed her career by any means.
"I’ve gotten into a more contemporary area of music, so a lot
of Dougie McLean’s songs didn’t suit what I was doing until we recorded
this album, which I think is a rootsier album," Black explains
of "Speaking with the Angel."
Although her home base is in Dublin, now that she can afford it, she
has a second home in the west part of County Kerry. "It’s beautiful
out there, and steeped in traditional music and language and dance,"
"It’s so inspiring, I haven’t really been hanging out in that
kind of atmosphere for a while because of family commitments and touring.
Now that I’ve made time for it, it really felt great for me to be
able to go into a bar and sing a few songs with friends. It was really
good for me and it really did bring me back to my roots. I’ve always
sung for the fun of it, I don’t think I could have stayed with singing
for this long if I didn’t get pleasure from it," she explains.
Black, now a youthful 44, grew up in a lower-middle class family in
the heart of Dublin. But her father was from rural northwest Ireland,
from Rathlin Island off the north coast. Black’s father was a fiddle
player who passed songs on to his children person-to-person, in a
traditional way, what modern-day folkies call "the folk process."
"He knew tunes from his childhood which had been passed down to
him and he had a lot of friends who were musicians so they would all
swap tunes," she recalls, adding there was no record player in
the Black household. "The physical person was the way they used
to learn songs," she says.
Although the family may have been poor, Black admits she was raised
in a rich cultural environment in Dublin. "Every summer we used
to go off to Rathlin, and run wild in the fields," she recalls.
Black’s father was a plasterer and her mom was a housewife. "My
father used to do the stuff you don’t see anymore except in the much
older houses," she says. "He was very hard working, and while
we had it tough at times, you know, we were never hungry." While
the family had no stereo or record collection, they did have a radio.
She recalls going to youth clubs as a teenager and singing traditional
songs. There was a local cricket club that would host a folk night
"I’d go and drink some minerals [lemonade] and a gang of us would
sing songs," she recalls. Black says her primary influence was
Sandy Denny, the British singer who was part of Fairport Convention.
Denny took her career solo after a number of years touring with the
British folk-rock ensemble.
"When I was in my teens in Dublin in the early ’70s, there was
a folk revival that had trickled over from England," she says.
"There were a lot of little folk clubs and coffee houses. They
weren’t pubs as such, but I was able to go to these places that served
minerals and coffee and it was a great time for swappin’ songs and
gettin’ your opportunity to sing."
While she may have grown up in a tough neighborhood in Dublin, the
young Black wasn’t a wayward teen by any means. This was something
to do in the early ’70s, she explains, for anyone who was the least
bit musically inclined. "I had two older brothers, and once they
were going to these clubs, I was allowed to go," she says, "so
once I got in there, I had two older brothers to look out for me."
In those days, she sang for the pure joy of it, and some of that magic
is captured on her latest release, "Speaking with the Angel."
She credits her oldest brother, a guitarist, who she says "was
picking up songs from all over the British Isles and sittin’ down
with me and singin’ them, again, just for the fun of it. We had no
big plan and it wasn’t as if we had this burning ambition to be performers."
As she got older, she began frequenting the pubs in Dublin, primarily
to sing, not to drink, she says. Her first big break was being asked
to open some shows in Ireland for folk singer Christy Moore, who had
a television show as well, she says. A few years later, she joined
the folk group DeDannan (pronounced Dee-dannon), and subsequently
toured folk festivals around the U.S. and Canada with that group.
She sang with DeDannan for three years, until 1986.
"After Christy Moore asked me to be a guest on his TV show, that
was really the beginning of my solo career, and my first recording
under my own name came out of that in about 1980," she says.
Black’s other albums available on Curb Records in the U.S. include
"Shine" and "Circus," and there’s also a retrospective
collection — she’s been singing professionally for 20 years —
called "Looking Back."
So how did Black become the biggest selling vocalist in all of Ireland?
"My music moved away from the traditional music I’d started with,
but I think there were always elements of that music in there,"
she says. "I don’t think I was ever strictly a traditional singer
and I never claimed to be one. I wanted to explore other areas of
music, and I did."
At McCarter Theater Black will be accompanied by Bill Shanley, guitar;
Tim Wedde, piano and accordion; James Blennerhassett on bass; Rod
Quinn on drums and percussion; and Frank Gallagher on fiddle, mandolin,
whistles and keyboard.
Given that she is a veteran of folk festivals, large theaters, coffee
houses and even pubs, how will her approach differ at McCarter? "I
don’t know if my approach is all that different from show to show,"
she says. "I like to keep it intimate, even if it is a bigger
place. I like to chat up the audience and tell them about the songs
and get them involved a bit, too, to sing along on some songs."
"Because I’m promoting `Speaking with the Angel’ I’ll be doing
a bunch of songs from that album, but there will be stuff that’s very
different as well," she says.
Black says she likes to keep things very informal. "If people
have any requests they’re welcome to shout them out or send them up
to the stage on a piece of paper," she says, "I’ll do my best
to get to them, but frankly, there’s a lot of material. If we can
do them we will and if we can’t, we can’t."
— Richard J. Skelly
$24 to $36. Tuesday, April 4, at 8 p.m.
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