For the last quarter-century, singer Mary Black has been a dominant presence in Irish music, both at home and abroad. She has shared stages, TV shows and recording studios with some of the most revered performers of her time. She has also played a frontline role in bringing Irish music, past and present, to an increasingly appreciative and ever-growing global audience. The San Francisco Chronicle has described her as “one of the best interpretative singers around”.
At a time when less adventurous performers preferred to stick exclusively to the well-worn ballads from Ireland’s rich music heritage and the more obvious hits from contemporary writers, Mary explored the best work available from new composers and mined the rich seams they offered. That commitment to fresh material, combined with her unique interpretations of the songs she chooses, saw her release numerous albums that achieved platinum sales status and spawned countless hits. Indeed, one of Mary’s albums - No Frontiers - spent more than a year in the Irish Top 30!
To the acclaim and awards Mary has received over the years from both the public and the critics must also be added the esteem she has generated from her fellow artists. Indeed, many of them have recorded and performed live with her, including Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joan Baez and Van Morrison, not to mention a host of Irish traditional musicians and singers. Along the way she has also recorded and performed with her siblings in The Black Family and with her highly successful sister, Frances.
Coming from an intensely musical family, with her mother a fine singer and her father an entertaining fiddle player, Mary first came to the music public’s attention in the late ‘70s as a member of the group General Humbert, with whom she recorded and toured. In 1983 she teamed up with guitarist/producer Declan Sinnott (later to become Christy Moore’s musical sidekick) and released her eponymously-named debut solo album. It reached Number Four in the Irish Charts and is ranked among the best Irish albums of the early 1980s. It won her the Irish Independent Arts Award for Music, the first in a staggering sequence of awards that continue to come her way.
Mary then joined an early incarnation of the legendary Irish folk group De Danann, with whom she made two acclaimed albums. She re-united with Declan Sinnott (formerly of the pioneering Horslips) to record her second solo album, Without the Fanfare, in 1985. That album achieved gold sales status. She released her first multi-platinum album, By the Time It Gets Dark, in 1987 and The Telegraph in the UK describing her voice as “serene and achingly beautiful”. By now a household name throughout Ireland, she was named Entertainer of the Year in 1986 and Best Female Artist in 1987 and 1988.
But her popularity reached a new level with the release of the pioneering album No Frontiers in 1989. It generated triple-platinum sales as Mary’s reputation began spreading far beyond her native shores to Europe, Australia, Japan and the USA, thanks to her superb stage shows and the success of her recordings in those markets. Babes in the Wood came in 1991, arriving in the Irish charts in the Number One slot, and was followed by two sell-out shows at London’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall. Her UK concerts prompted hugely positive reviews from The Guardian, The Times and The Telegraph. She was also featured on the cover of Billboard, which described her as “a firm favorite to join the heavy-hitting ranks of such Irish artists as Enya, Sinead O’Connor and Clannad’s Maire Brennan in the international marketplace.” They were right.
Not surprisingly, her next album, The Holy Ground, in 1993 went platinum on the day of its release, followed by five sell-out shows at the Point Theatre in Dublin to an audience of 20,000. Her next album, Circus, in 1995 entered the British Top 20 album charts. But ever one to seek new challenges, Mary invited renowned American producer Larry Klein to produce her 1997 album, Shine, which she recorded in Los Angeles.
Speaking with the Angel followed in 1999, her unerring ear for quality contemporary songs unearthing new material by composers of the vintage of Shane Howard, Noel Brazil and Steve Cooney. As Ireland’s leading music magazine Hot Press said: “If it is a benchmark in excellence that you seek, a life-affirming statement, then this is the album for you. Staggering stuff.”
In 2002 Mary was the subject of the revealing documentary, Still Believing. It celebrated her extraordinary life in music, tracing her progress from her birthplace in Dublin’s inner city on a journey that has seen her conquer the musical world. Its recording was followed by a video of Mary and her band filmed on the final night of a triumphant week-long run at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin - one of Mary’s favorite venues. (The documentary and the live show were released together as Mary Black Live and accompanied by a live audio CD recorded at various venues around the world.)
In 2005 Mary moved to West Kerry to record her first studio album in six years, Full Tide. It not only included songs by some of her favorite writers such as Bob Dylan, but it saw her make her debut as a composer in her own right. As Hot Press magazine said of it, “Mary Black is just hitting her vocal prime, singing with a newfound ease and confidence”.
The year 2008 marked the 25th anniversary of Mary’s first solo album, and to celebrate the momentous occasion Mary released a special compilation double album, 25 Years/25 Songs. It featured a personal, hand-picked selection of gems spanning Mary’s career and it still serves as a testament to the extraordinary range and quality of both her vocal prowess and her astute song selection. Mary recorded two brand new songs for the project, and the album went straight to Number One in the Irish charts, where it remained for a staggering five weeks, spending over seven months in the Irish Top 40!
Stories From The Steeples (2012) is the first studio recording from Mary Black in six years, and it’s a collection that demonstrates an artist in full command of her bewitching vocal prowess. Throughout an impressive career, Mary has consistently demonstrated impeccable taste in her choice of material, and the evidence presented here suggests that her ear for seeking out songs of utmost grace and beauty is as keen as ever. With a voice that has only gained in depth and resonance over the years, Mary brings her trademark warmth and sincerity, casting light and shade amongst the lyrics to create her own personal space amongst the words of carefully chosen songwriters. Never one to rest on her laurels, we’re gifted songs from familiar friends such as Shane Howard, Eric Bogle and Julie Matthews, alongside burgeoning writing talents, including Danny O’Reilly and Ricky Lynch.
Sharing the stage with a number of guests, Stories From The Steeples contains three duets: the beguiling “Lighthouse Light” features Janis Ian in a perfectly balanced performance that whets the appetite for further exploration of this winsome partnership; the robust, soulful voice of Imelda May joins Mary on an affirmative song of place and belonging, “Mountains to The Sea;” and the playful “Walking With My Love” finds Mary exchanging lines with the legendary Finbar Furey. All three performances are notable for their palpable sense of modesty and mutual admiration.
Two stand-out tracks come from particularly close to home, being written by Mary’s son, Danny O’Reilly. “Faith in Fate” paints a stark contrast between the sheer despair of a broken relationship with a determined hopefulness to move on and patch things up. Managing to be simultaneously bleak and uplifting with its heady infusion of hurt and devoted affection, it’s a song that plays to all the strengths of Mary’s typically emotion-wrought interpretation. Offering a similar cocktail of emotions, “Wizard of Oz” is a mournful reflection on the search for strength and happiness, underpinned by a dreamy string arrangement over which Mary lays her heartwarming vocals.
Fulfilling the role of storyteller, Mary excels in bringing lifelike color to the characters of “Marguerite and The Gambler,” a Ricky Lynch song that recounts the familiar tale of many a traditional folk ballad, with its gamblers, true love, misguided familial intervention, heartbreak and devastation. Those purchasing the extended version of the album are handsomely rewarded with an exquisite reading of Chris Woods’ “One in A Million,” a story of true love that takes the mundane of life and turns it in to utter magic, and proving beyond any doubt that Mary remains a song’s best friend.
Paul Kelly’s “They Thought I Was Asleep” benefits from a tender reading, cloaked in Mary’s trademark warmth, depicting the torment of a child inadvertently witnessing from the back seat of a car, the emotional breakdown of his parents’ relationship. Equally devastating, though of more epic proportions, Eric Bogle’s “All the Fine Young Men” is made all the more disarming, thanks to the sheer reverence with which Mary furnishes this stark, anti-war anthem.
With a little less polish than some of her earlier releases, Stories From The Steeples steps forward as an intimate, unpretentious collection, bathed in a soft but radiant glow of effortlessness and wholehearted integrity. Time will tell, but Stories From The Steeples may well prove to be Mary’s best yet.
In an industry noted for its fickleness and its almost insatiable need for fresh novelties, Mary Black’s enduring successes have proven that her depth of talent and her love of singing transcend the generations, as well as national and musical boundaries too. She is indeed a real Irish treasure and her talent a gift from this small Ireland to a grateful world.