Just after she finished her schooling, Mary Black joined her brothers Shay, Michael, and Martin for a trip from their home in Ireland to North America “just for fun, really, to see what we could see. We sang on the street corners! It was a lot of fun,” she recalls. Decades on, Black will be playing concert halls and listening rooms on her North American trip this November. That adventurous spirit and deep love of music have never left her. though, as she’s risen to international recognition.
Her most recent recording Stories from the Steeples comprises original songs and a hint of Irish tradition, contemporary music (including several songs written by her son, Danny O’Reilly) with stories well told and with Black’s distinctive voice adding grace and insight in the telling. Back in the 1980s when she released her self titled first solo album, it had contemporary and traditional folk song in English, a hint of country, a bit of Irish tradition, “and it didn’t really tell people what I was about!” Black recalls, laughing. Yet, it did: Stories From the Steeples still holds that mix of contemporary and traditional music, of good stories well told, and that fine voice which marked her first solo album and has been a defining part of all her music over the years.
Though she released that first solo album in the 1980s, Black had been singing far longer than that. For as long as she can remember, in fact: her father, Kevin, was a fiddler of traditional music from Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland and her mother Patty was a singer from Dublin whose tastes ranged across popular and show tunes.
Black herself grew up in Dublin, with summer visits to a more remote sort of life on Rathlin. “We were born and reared in the heart of Dublin City, in a business street in a flat over Black’s Grocer’s, and then in the summers we’d be off to this wild place with no electricity, none of the the things that people take for granted in cities, but that had this magic about it…” she recalls.
The magic of music went deep into the family: Mary, her three brothers, and their sister Frances (who was too young to join that long ago trip) all make their livings in music. The magic of song as story became part of Mary’s life, guiding her song choices as she worked with bands and then set out on a solo career. Over the years she has also sung with Emmylou Harris for a project tracing the connections between country and irish music, and been a moving force it what’s’ become a series of albums called A Woman’s Heart, which highlights the contributions of women to Irish and Irish American music. Stories from the Steeples includes several collaborations too, among them a relaxed and warn duet with Irish songwriter Finbar Furey on Walking With My Love and a traveling song called Lighthouse Light for which American songwriter Janis Ian joins in.
It is Black’s voice which centers the recording, though, as it will for her concert dates across the United States. She will be singing material from Stories from the Steeples, and very likely including some of her old favorites as well, so you might expect to hear songs in both English and Irish, and perhaps a song that’s become an often requested classic. Song for Ireland. “I always want to choose strong material,” Black says, “something I feel I can work with, interpret and express something, and add something to the song.” She adds. “I always sing from my heart.”
Mary Black does not tour all that often in North America — check out her web site to find the schedule for this tour, and for upcoming dates in Europe as well.