In an industry swamped with heavily stylised and marketed female singers belting out lyrics of love and betrayal, it is a rare and beautiful thing to stumble on the recordings of Mary Coughlan. With a catalogue spanning 17 years Mary is now touring with her Latest Offering "Red Blues" a collaboration with blues legend, Taj Mahal. Coughlan has long been likened to legends such as Peggy Lee, Billie Holliday and Marianne Faithfull. She has voice coach Julia Roberts and Tyne Daly. Co writing with Ireland's Greatest Songwriters, Jimmy Mc Carthy, Johnny Mulhern and Elvis Costello.. Coughlan is without a doubt an exceptional person, leaving those who meet her speechless and her audiences in awe of her sheer brilliance.
Previously a drinking and smoking chanteuse, there is an impression of Mary Coughlan as the embodiment of the self-destructive female jazz/blues singer. Curiously enough, it's an image that is almost true, but in the best tradition of myth-making there is a gap between what appears to be, and what is actually the truth. The really interesting aspect of Mary Coughlan is that, through her many fine song interpretations, she manages to blur the line between the two.
Born in Galway, Ireland, in 1956, Mary Coughlan is eldest of five children. Mary's father was a soldier from Donegal, her mother a hardworking housewife from Connemara. Reared far from the lap of luxury, Mary's first memory of singing in front of an audience was with her sister in an officer's mess at the age of four. "The song was Bridie Gallagher's Two Little Orphans," recalls Mary. "My mother had us primed for it - it was the only song we knew. I didn't sing in public again until I was 28."
Prior to that, Mary had led a life that can only be described as typically varied. Come the onset of her teenage years she opted for rebellion instead of compliance. She became a hippie, sewing Ban The Bomb signs on her flares and peace signs on an old army bag, two anti-authoritarian tactics that ensured the wrath of her father. She would sneak out to see folk and rock bands playing in Galway, the late nights clashing with the early mornings for school in the local Presentation Convent. She stopped going to church around this time, too, spending Sunday afternoons in drinking sessions with her gang of underage school friends. This time also coincided with her experiments with drugs. By the age of 15, Mary had overdosed on pills, slashed her wrists, and ended up at a psychiatric hospital, spending six weeks there. At 17, she left home, qualified academically, but yearning for freedom from what she viewed as unnecessary restrictions.
Her first real job was posing as a nude model for art students in Limerick, the income of which she supplemented with money from her work as a part-time waitress. She left soon after for London, where she squatted in Ealing, and worked at a variety of jobs, one of the best being a road sweeper for the local council. Eventually, Mary returned to Galway with her new boyfriend, a Galway man she met in London. They married in 1975, and Mary gave birth to her first child, Aoife, a year later. Two more children followed, but the marriage broke up after six years.
While separated and living in a house with a motley collection of people, Mary was introduced to Dutchman Erik Visser, a classical guitarist. Erik had come to Galway to study the work of Ireland's most famous harpist, O'Carolan. Erik has been a continuous creative, instinctive thread running through Mary's life ever since. "Erik knew I could sing," explains Mary, "I made a demo of a song called The Beach for his record company, They weren't interested, but Erik reckoned he could do something with it.
INTERVIEW with Mary Coughlan
Maireid Sullivan: Youve been through the whole issue of the legality of divorce in Ireland. How did it impact upon you?
Mary Coughlan: I have campaigned for Legalization of Divorce since 1987. I did gigs for the divorce action group. I was active in demonstrations. It was a bit of a relief when it came through.
M.S. I guess you have some pretty interesting opinions about all that?
M.C. I do indeed, the abortion thing is still a problem here, and so the two issues went hand in hand. Women can travel to England for abortions, and thousands and thousands of them do every year.
M.S. Have you heard of the book on the New York times best sellers list called Are you Somebody? by Nuala OFaolain.
M.C. Oh yes, Ive read it. Shes very honest in her writing. Maybe a bit too honest, because her parents are still alive. The whole thing about alcoholism and abuse is hurtful. Its very blaming. Ive been through all that myself, and you learn not to blame. Its hard to carry all that stuff around.
M.S. Your music must be a wonderful expression, even a release, for you.
M.C. I find it healthy to sing. I find it cathartic. I love singing now more than Ive ever done. I do communicate very well with people when I sing. I used to be embarrassed about it. People would tell me it was great, but I never appreciated it. There is definitely something that gets communicated. Its the emotion, the feelings. A lot of women come back after a concert and tell me I sang something that means a lot to them and they cry.
M.S. Do you write your own songs too?
M.C. I just started writing, and I co-wrote a couple of the songs on the last album. I scribble around constantly and a friend of mine Ritchie Buckley, an excellent saxophone player, and I are starting to sit around and write together. Hes been working with me for nine years, so hes close to me.
M.S. That must be quite an exploration. What are you talking about in your new songs?
M.C. Trying to put the past into perspective, and things like that. Its hard to do it without being too personal. I dont want everyone to know exactly what Im talking about. Im desperately in need of a funny song, so were doing a pick-up song. However, mostly were doing songs about the past.
M.S. Is your repertoire a good mixture of up-tempo as well as slow songs?
M.C. I can really never find enough fast ones, and I dont think it matters because the kind of stuff I do is songs where people listen to the words more than anything else. I do have a few good funny ones, very tongue in cheek. Theres one about the Bishop of Galway. The story is about a Bishop who banned two-piece swimming costumes years ago. Apparently, he saw a woman wearing a bikini on the beach one Sunday morning and he said, Excuse me, my dear, those things are banned. So, she says, Which piece do you want me to take off? A friend of mine wrote a song about that called The Beach, and theres an old Leon Redbone song called I Want to be Seduced. We change the words around all the time to fit in with whats going on politically in the country. Its funny to hear a woman singing those songs.
M.S. Have you recorded any of that?
M.C. Oh yes, theyre all recorded.
M.S. Do you perform live a lot, or is it mostly recording?
M.C. I perform about nine months of the year. I released an album in 1997 called After the Fall and its a fairly autobiographical album of an alcoholic. I was an alcoholic, and Ive been five years sober now. So, I wrote a couple of the songs about people who had been in a similar situation.
M.S. When did you start singing?
M.C. When I was thirty. (born in 1956. I had my first gin and tonic when I was thirty-one. I took to it like a duck to water. It got progressively worse, until I decided to try to get help. The Irish people dont handle alcohol well.
M.S. What are your favorite themes from the songs?
M.C. Ive sung every theme under the sun. I like to tell stories in songs. One song is called the Magdalene Laundry, which is about a place women who were pregnant in Ireland were sent to. That was a very powerful song, and the subject of three television documentaries, one by Channel 4, one by the BBC, and one by a big French Television company. It sparked off a huge controversy in this country back in 1989. A lot of women came out and spoke about their own personal experiences. Its been a very huge song for me. I tend to be controversial. Im not afraid to sing about what I feel strongly about.
M.S. Youre talking about what is really happening in Ireland in your songs.
M.C. You know Christy Moore wrote songs about the political side of things. Ive always written songs about things that have directly affected me and affect women. I do a song called My Land is too Green which has become very controversial. Its about being bogged down with religious tradition and oppression by the Government. Traditional singers sing folk songs, and folk songs by nature talk about things that are happening now. Everybody likes to sing songs about love, but what about things like the drug situation now in Ireland, and what its like. I have one song called The Ice Cream Man. Its about a man who was arrested as a felon for selling ice cream to children and heroine to their mothers, from the back of one of those neighborhood ice cream trucks. Ive had a lot of criticism for doing that sort of thing.
M.S. Im sure you must have a pretty strong audience since you talk and sing about these important issues.
M.C. I have a strong and loyal following that Ive built up over the past twelve years. I did an album on V2, Richard Bransons (Virgin Records) new label. It was the first one released on V2 in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, and America, so people are beginning to find out about me. I may never make million seller albums, but the people that buy them like the music, and thats what counts. I think I was the fist artist that the label signed in 1997.
M.S. Since youre involved in so many controversial issues, how do the people in the Church treat you?
M.C. Ive been lambasted for being so outspoken. It was just the time in Ireland, during the late eighties, when all the scandals started to come out about the Catholic Church. People try to cover it over. The Catholic Church in Ireland educated the people; if it werent for the priests and the nuns, very many of us wouldnt have any education. The thing that bugs me the most is that they never actually said they were sorry about the destructive things they have done. They just try to deny it and hide it. When the cases come up in court, they say, well Well do something about it, but they dont. I think a lot of people have actually begun to sue the Church for stuff that happened in orphanages and homes. In the last ten years a lot of priests in Ireland have been leaving the clergy because they havent been able to tow the line on issues like contraception, abortion, and divorce. A lot of people find that they cant talk to priests anymore, because they just dont know what theyre talking about, when it comes to the real life of the people. Theyre not changing with the times.
M.S. Youre talking about what is really happening in society, and I think its the artists role to be brave enough to expose it, as you have done.
M.C. I think so. Im very angry about a lot of things in this country at the moment. I feel its important to face the issues. A lot of people think it shouldnt be said in music, but I think it should. Like blues and good folk music that tells whats going on; people like Dylan and Woody Guthrie. Its an important thing for me to say these things.
M.S. Did you have any trepidation when you first started twelve years ago?
M.C. I dont go around shouting about it all the time, but I certainly talk about it when Im asked. I speak openly about my marriage breakup and issues of alcoholism and abortion in this country. People appreciate it. I like to be open and honest about my life. People like to go around digging up dirt. My family has been a bit concerned that I say too much some times, but they accept it because its the truth, and the truth wins out.
M.S. Beginning your singing career at thirty is surprisingly late. How come you began then?
M.C. I was busy being a mother. I have a friend, Erik Visser, who Ive known for since the early 70s. Hes a musician from Holland. He wrote a piece of music for my first daughter when she was born. It was number one on the Dutch charts for almost a year. When he became rich and famous in the mid eighties, he said, We should really do something about this career of yours. He actually paid for my first album. I was twenty-nine going on thirty when we went into the studio. The album was sort of an overnight sensation. It went to the top of the charts in Ireland, and I became a rock star ( laughs) at the age of thirty. It changed my life, so thats how it all started.
M.S. How did that affect you? It obviously gave you more strength.
M.C. Well, before that, I was cleaning offices three nights a week, and my uncle was a painter, so I was his assistant. When the singing career started, it was wonderful, because Im doing what I really want to do. In the beginning there was a lot of guilt. I was thinking that I should be home with my kids, and I never spent a night away from home until my son Owen, who is eighteen now, was seven. My parents were very supportive and looked after them when I had to be away. I think the guilt of leaving them home made me drink a lot. Ive come to terms with all that now, and its okay. Im a mother as well as a musician. I combine them and do what has to be done.
M.S. How about your musical background? What was that like?
M.C. Nobody in my family is very musical. My mother sang around the house, and we had a record player. She would listen to Guy Mitchell and Andy Williams and some American stuff. There was no tradition of music in the family. I just started listening to records that were in the house. I think a lot of Irish kids that grew up when I was a teenager rebelled against the Irish language and music, and thought it was like living in the dark ages. Now I think of the Irish traditional music as being like the blues. Its a music that developed from repression and story telling and I think Sean-Nos singing is like the blues, roots music.
M.S. What do you think about the growing interest in Celtic Culture?
M.C. I suppose Riverdance and things like that have contributed to a lot of people wanting to find out about Irish culture. Its made it more popular. People are asking questions about where it comes from, and the traditions in it. Personally, I think it makes the whole thing very pretty. I think they miss out on a bit of the tradition. It was a very strict tradition that was looked at as an art. There was a lot more to the dance. It meant something; ...it was a celebration that didnt happen very often. It was mainly for special occasions. Now it just splatters all over the television and its pretty. Its commercialized and desensitized.
M.S. What makes you laugh in your career? Where do you find delight?
M.C. I get a lot of enjoyment from my children. The way they perceive my career. Especially my youngest, who cant understand how I can be sitting in the room and Im on television at the same time. Things like that. I just did a big concert for the school which my daughter, Clare, attends. Its one of the only non-denominational schools in Dublin. They dont get any funding from the government, so we have to raise the money ourselves. I do a concert every year for them. My daughter gets such a thrill out of that, because everyone talks to her about it. Her schoolmates cant believe that its me.
M.S. It must mean a lot for her self esteem.
M.C. It does, and she loves that Im doing it for the school. Everyone at the school really appreciates it.
M.S. How many children do you have and do any of them play music?
M.C. I have five children. My eldest daughter, Aoife, born in 1976, is a Photographer. My second daughter, Olwen,born in 1977, is a multimedia artist. My youngest son, Cian, is six years old. My youngest daughter, Clare, is eleven, and my eldest son, Eoin, is twenty three. He plays the guitar and bass. He also has his own fully equipped studio here at the house, where he records dance music with his friends.
M.S. Do they enjoy your career?
M.C. They do, yes. They say a lot about it. Ive brought all of them on tour at one time or another, Finland, Norway, America, and they have a great time.