Looking Back An Interview with Mary Black
It was the ‘music-sight’ of Bill Straw (Blix Street Records) that first brought the music of Mary Black from Ireland to America. And since her musical beginning (over twenty-years now) Black has released over 17 solo albums (and is still singing); 30 single releases (and is still singing) and her voice has been featured on over 31 compilation CDs... And yes, she is still singing.
And out of all of this singing, which song is her favorite? ”Ellis Island,” she says.
“One of my all time favorites has got to be ‘Ellis Island’, Noel Brazil (songwriter)... That recording of it goes back a long time. We developed and changed it over the years live on stage, and, in fact, were bringing out a live album (Mary Black Live, CD and DVD), which is coming out quite soon. [It’s] a DVD of a live concert and some documentary footage about me and my life in Ireland - my family... So you know, just by comparison we did a live version of ‘Ellis Island’ and there’s a huge difference between the original recorded version and how we do it now. But it’s a song I never tire of singing. I really, really love it... it touches the hearts of so many people.
You don’t have to be Irish to relate to it. If your background was from Germany, Poland, Russia - wherever... For people who came to America, particularly in the last century - meaning the 19th century... where they knew nobody or they had to leave their homeland and lost all of that... It has great passion and it really describes two people saying goodbye for the last time with the knowledge that they will never see each other again.”
Born into the inheritance (the gift) of a musical family, Black discovered and developed throughout her childhood the ‘pleasure and depth’ of her vocal anatomy - The beauty (as we can musically contest to - listen to) of putting ‘her’ voice into song. She elucidates further:
“My parents were both very musical. My father came from a small island off the North coast of Ireland, Rathlein. He was very much from a musically traditional background and my mother, in contrast, came from the city of Dublin and sang the songs of the day. So between them they just passed on a great passion for music to us all. There are five of us in the family - five children... we all play and sing together. In fact, we all just finished another Black Family Album, which we haven’t done for some time and it was nice to get together and sing together again. And so - yeah - we were just blessed. It always seemed like a natural thing for us to sort of do growing up. You know, singing was just purely natural - harmonies and stuff like that.”
And how has this voice - Black’s vocal anatomy - changed through the passing of time?
“Well obviously when I listen back - and I don’t listen back very often - to the early recordings, there’s an innocence there, which comes with age. I suppose, you know, you mature and you learn and I think my voice as well has matured - obviously - gotten deeper. Sometimes I feel that the unsung note is as important as the sung note - the silence and the hidden breath. I’ve learned how to use my voice better and how to make the best of it and how to sort of create maybe more emotion and feeling within a song. And you can only do that by doing it, if you know what I mean. It’s not something someone could teach you and I couldn’t teach it... because I don’t know exactly what I do. But I know when I listen now and listen to what I did earlier there was an innocence in it and a purity that I think probably is a little bit lost. But I do feel that my expression is much better now.”
When I asked Black to describe any non-musical influences that might have influenced her music, she described Ireland.
“I do feel that a lot of music that I sing is like the landscape of Ireland. I know that might sound a little bit odd, but I really do feel that the music reflects a lot of what is really Irish, you know? Its landscape and the spirit of the people and, well, I hope that that is what it reflects...”
After listening to several of Black’s albums (two of my favorites - ‘Babes In The Wood’ and ‘Looking Back’), I was musically struck by not only the depth and passion of Black’s voice but the depth and passion of the songs - these are great songwriters! I asked Black if she would explain the selection process she goes through when deciding which songs will eventually become her own and ‘where and how’ she finds these great writers?
“Coming from a small country like Ireland... you would get to meet other artists and musicians in little clubs around. I was singing long before I recorded as well. So I got to know people like Noel Brazil and Jimmy McCarthy, Nick Hendie, Donna Long, all these great writers. Irish writers whose songs really weren’t being heard or even being recorded by anyone including themselves - they were just going around singing their songs. So there was this wealth of incredible talent in songwriting, particularly in Ireland. When I started to record I suppose I set a standard. Now when I look for material I place a lot of emphasis on lyrics and, obviously, if I haven’t written the song myself I need to really feel the emotion and sentiment of what’s being said. The music is something I can develop a little bit to suit myself, so that for me isn’t quite as relevant as the lyrics. But I do take a lot of time and effort in choosing material. There are good, good writers... and there are so many great writers who aren’t lucky, as I consider myself, to have the opportunity to record and to have their own band and travel and, you know, be heard. I suppose that probably good artists like myself, who maybe aren’t as talented in the writing department, think sometimes it would be great to be both, but if it takes two people to make a good song - then so be it. The ideal scenario is to be both, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. I mean, I’ve written some stuff, but I really don’t feel that I want to compromise in any way what I’m doing in order to have my name at the end of the song. The songs I’m lucky enough to get my hands on are lots of previously unrecorded material - great, great songs from great writers. It’s a great way for me to explore my own vocal range, etc. and develop as an artist with great material. It makes my job a lot easier.”
And what one rule or rules in the business or theory of music does Black like to break?
“Let me think about that for a second,” - so I did. “Well you know, I don’t fit comfortably into a category for starters. You can’t classify my music as traditional or even folk. There are so many different elements - I think that was a rule I broke. It’s not so much a problem for people now... but when I started in Ireland my music was a very mixed bag of styles because I loved a lot of contemporary writers and I loved traditional music as well. So I tried to marry everything together and I think there were people who didn’t like that. They wanted to pigeon hole me. So that was one rule I kind of broke - I stuck with it, you know?”
In a closing retrospective on her musical career, Black musically (thoughtfully) reflects:
“I just never thought that I would still be singing this far along in my life. I am fortunate to have somehow marriage, music, and family in my life - I have three children.”
And we are fortunate that she has!
EDITOR’S NOTE: Mary Black recently played to audiences at the Weinberg Center in Frederick, MD and is now touring in California.
A complete discography on Mary Black can be found at: http://www.mary-black.net/disco/albums/CD.htm
© Steven Digman 2003