The Irish: they gave us corned beef and cabbage, the railroad (at least the tracks), and a special day each year to get tanked and bellow about our distant mick heritage. They also gave us passionate traditional music with some great harp and fiddle. Mary Black is Irish. And she likes to sing about the Irish in an Irishy way. She's made a long, successful career of it, in fact. But recently, we read that Mary didn't want to be known as an Irish folksinger, and we almost cried.
OC Weekly: Is it true?!
Mary Black: No! But there was a time in my career when I wanted to shake off the Irish-folksinger image because I felt trapped by it. I felt I couldn't explore other areas of music that I liked. To me, now, it doesn't matter what people see me as or hear me as. The fact is I love singing—it's something I've always done and, hopefully, will continue to do. The fact that I came here 20 years ago, when I started out, and I'm still able to tour in America and make it worthwhile and have good gigs in nice venues—I'm over the moon about that.
No Frontiers was a huge hit over here in 1991, and you've released many albums since then, but none have replicated your first American success. Are we too into Britney Spears to appreciate you on a grand scale?
Well, I think I'm not chart-topping material. Which I think is good. But everyone needs a certain amount of airplay and support to promote what they do. And it's getting tougher and tougher. I've heard people like Bonnie Raitt talk about it. But having said that, each consecutive album since No Frontierssold better. So in that way, for me, I was more successful because it brought me to an audience in America that I probably would have had difficulty getting to otherwise.
You've recorded with Joan Baez and country artists Emmylou Harris and Mary Chapin Carpenter. If you could sing another duet with a country artist, who would it be: Willie, Dolly, or Elmo & Patsy?
Oh, Dolly! She's unbelievable. I remember the first time I went to see her in Dublin. I was transfixed, completely blown away. I love her. I grew up listening to Joan Baez, and I had a genuine interest in American folk music. I listened an awful lot to Billie Holiday, too, in my teens—I would listen and listen because I was so wrapped up in the way she would sing a song.
How do you pick the songs for your albums?
Choosing songs is something I put a lot of effort into, particularly on lyrics. If I want to stand behind a song, I need to be very close to its sentiment and really feel the words, almost as if I've written it myself.
Some people think that if a singer hasn't written their own songs, they're less legitimate.
The ideal scenario, of course, is to be the singer and the songwriter, but that doesn't always happen. You have great writers who maybe aren't great singers. I can write songs, and I've written songs, but they're not as good as a lot of material that I have access to, and I know a good song when I hear it.
There's a popular image of the Irish over here that they're drunks and have a bleak view of life. I'm half-Irish, so I know that's true of me—at least half the time. What do you think?
Irish people do drink a lot! It's part of the social scene in Ireland to go out and meet people, and it's usually at bars and pubs. But I disagree with the "bleak" label. They can be cynical, certainly. And they're quite opinionated at times—but they're great people for a good laugh. But the drinking is not as bad as people think. Irish people go out late at night to drink—they don't drink all day. They don't come home from work and go to the fridge for a beer.
That must be my Welsh half then.
I don't know! [Laughs] I'm not making any comment on the Welsh!
What about the cynical attitude? If you were asked to appear onSaturday Night Live, for example, and could rip up a picture of anyone, who would it be?
I'd rip up a picture of Girl Scout Cookies—Thin Mints have ruined my figure.
Yes, it doesn't have to be political, I suppose.
Are there other things you'd like to try outside of music? You were in a film, weren't you? [Laughs] Yeah, The Most Fertile Man in Ireland! Wow!
I was one of the "fertilized" women. It was fun doing it, but acting isn't for me. I've wound down, and I'm not touring as much as I used to. I love spending time at home with my family and have gotten really into painting recently—big time. That's one of my passions. And you really need space for that. I'm going to go in and record again as well. But I'm not hugely ambitious anymore. I've let go of all the worries of competing and trying to be better than I am. In a way, accepting your limitations is a great lesson that no one can teach you. And I don't mean that in a negative way, but it's just being happy with who you are and what you have to offer. I am happy, so I sit back and enjoy the ride—wherever it's going.
Mary Black performs at The Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach, (562) 985-7000; www.carpenterarts.org. Fri., 8 p.m. $35-$40. All ages.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.