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Frances Black: Since I started my own recovery from alcoholism, life has been amazing ... now I look back and see that it was meant to be

Ahead of a gig in Londonderry this Sunday, Frances Black talks about her battle with addiction and how she helps others

By Simon Fallaha

Speaking in the remote and idyllic surroundings of Rathlin Island, her father's home, Dublin-born chanteuse Frances Black seems rather wistful and content ahead of her arrival in the Maiden City this weekend.

It's good to hear the singer, who had a very public battle with drink, in - literally - such a good place.

Her alcoholism is a subject we talk about later, but first Frances wants to look forward to her forthcoming concert.

"I love Derry," she says. "It has a very special energy, a wonderful warmth to it; every time I arrive, I always want to stay for longer. When you get there, the atmosphere feels less like a city and more like a community village full of great camaraderie and humour. It's in a class of its own."

So, too, is the city's weather, as she uncomfortably found when performing in torrential rain at the Creggan Festival in 2013. But there is no danger whatsoever of similar conditions intervening in the warmer and more intimate confines of the Millennium Forum, where she will join two more of Irish music's most highly-regarded performers this Sunday.

Frances' contemporary folk voice, hailed as the "sweetest in Ireland" by Nanci Griffith, will dovetail alongside Sharon Shannon's acclaimed trad instrumentals and, in Frances' words, the "beautiful, booming, bluesy" vocals of Mary Coughlan, for what promises to be a diverse and entertaining evening.

But did Frances always imagine she'd be in such company on stage? The reality, as it turns out, was somewhat different. The youngest of five children, including her famous older sister Mary Black, Dublin-born Frances admits that her ascent into the world of professional music was wholly unanticipated.

"It was never expected of me," she says. "Everyone expected it of Mary, because she was singing from a very young age. But I didn't think I was a very good singer; I always wanted to work with children instead. So it was a lovely surprise when I ended up in the music profession." She is relieved, however, that she never had the option of going on a reality show.

"I look at the youngsters who go on programmes like The X Factor and see how, with all the rejections, many of them find their hopes, dreams and visions shattered in an instant. I don't like any of that."

To the Black siblings, singing together once seemed like little more than a hugely popular pastime. Sing-songs and sessions were their way of relaxation, of letting their hair down, with Mary the stand-out performer.

But the bond strengthened beyond music; as her older sister, her only sister in fact, Mary was looked up to by Frances not for what she was, but who she was.

"When I was in my early teens, I would always go and watch Mary perform; she very kindly brought me along to all of her gigs. I don't ever remember wishing I could sing like her, but I do remember how proud she made me and everyone else in the family. She was, and still is, a very courageous, personable and popular person. Those kind of qualities just rub off on you, like that."

And given the trajectory of Frances' career, one would struggle to deny Mary's positive influence. Several years of collaborations throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, beginning with her siblings in The Black Family, continuing with almost four years in the band Arcady, and highlighted by her work with Kieran Goss and on the massively successful album A Woman's Heart, paved the way for a deal with Dara Records and the release of her first solo album, Talk To Me, in 1994.

More albums, awards and accolades followed, yet beneath this starry exterior lies a rather anxious and introverted soul.

"I've always been a shy person," Frances says. "I like to have my own space and time, yet I really don't get very much of it these days because my current lifestyle is so hectic. The thought of performing in front of a full house still raises anxiety. But you have to rise above your fears and find a connection.

"When you step up on to that stage, you are baring your soul, speaking the substance in your songs, and letting people hear your voice. It takes a special kind of strength, but when you are up there, and singing for a large audience, it becomes clear that they want you and will you to do well - and there is no better feeling in the world than that."

Emotion is Frances' watchword when she sings; she has always chosen songs that both she and her range of listeners can emotionally connect with in some way. Once upon a time, people were not so openly communicative about their problems, and Frances has found that songs about heartbreak and pain have helped her to get a message across. Women of all ages have connected with her lyrics, and they've brought their husbands too, a positive reminder that she's connected with a wider audience.

"But it's not all doom and gloom", she adds. "I sing uplifting songs about places, relationships and experiencing emotion myself. I'm really all about connecting with others, be they happy or sad; reminding people that they're not alone."

As I mentioned earlier, she's also well-known for her musical collaboration with Northern Irish singer-songwriter Kieran Goss - the song Wall of Tears, from their self-titled 1992 album, was featured on A Woman's Heart - and the two will be coming together on stage for the first time in two decades at this month's Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow on January 26 and 27, followed by two dates at Belfast's Grand Opera House on January 29 and 30.

Today, Frances divides her time between family homes in Dublin and on Rathlin Island, the isolated, peaceful tranquillity of life there proving a calm and restful contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city.

"The Rathlin islanders are so welcoming that I feel like a part of them," she says. "Though I wouldn't say that they've all been converted to my music - they each have their own strong tastes!"

A great source of strength and support on this personal and musical journey has been her second husband, and former manager, Brian Allen. The couple met through friends, and even before Frances' big break, his patience, gleaned from a full understanding of the industry and touring, was invaluable. He has always believed in Frances even when she might not have always believed in herself.

Furthermore, much to their mother's delight (she considers herself "extremely proud" and "very fortunate" to be a parent) Frances' two children from her first marriage, Aoife and Eoghan Scott, are already carrying on the family's musical traditions. Aoife, who has performed with the likes of Sharon Shannon, Brian Kennedy and Altan, in addition to The Black Family, will release her first album this year, while Eoghan, an emerging singer-songwriter and guitar player, is also a music producer.

Every road to success has its rough patches as well as its smooth ones, though, and Frances' personal and professional life has been far from all sweetness and light. Her damaging and nightmarish battle with alcoholism over the years has been well-documented. But what grew out of that has changed her life, she says.

"Since I stepped into my own recovery, amazing things have happened," she says. "On reflection, I look back and realise that it was meant to happen."

What happened was that following recovery, Frances went "back to school", studying for and completing a diploma in addiction counselling before going on to set up the RISE foundation - Recovery In a Safe Environment.

"To date, RISE has aided over 3,000 people; our aim is to help family members of those with a gambling, addiction, or alcohol problem. When you come across a family member of somebody with addictive behaviour, you can see how heartbroken, depressed and anxious they are. The powerlessness they feel in their situation, where the addict in their family is shut off in another world and they can do nothing about it, can genuinely drive them to an insane place. They really feel like they are at the end of their tether."

Currently, the all-island initiative has set-ups in Dublin, Portlaoise, Swords and Kilkenny, and Frances is hopeful of establishing another base in Newry within the next year. She also brought participants for a 10-week residential programme on Rathlin. "Along with music, RISE is my life, and Brian has been very helpful with it," she says.

Back on the subject of her music, though, she is very much looking forward to this weekend and the conclusion of "one of the best shows (she has) ever performed".

She adds: "People have come up to me afterwards and told me that they don't want the concert to end. Me too, as it is the end of a five-gig run and I don't know when I'm going to be performing with Sharon and Mary again - we have a strong friendship that goes back years."

An Evening with Sharon Shannon, Mary Coughlan and Frances Black is at the Millennium Forum, Londonderry, on Sunday. For details, visit www.millenniumforum.co.uk. For details on her shows with Kieran Goss, visit www.celticconnections.com and www.goh.co.uk

Relative success for family acts ...

Other Irish sibling acts to have made a name for themselves over the years include:

The Corrs - Dundalk's finest three sisters and brother mixed traditional Celtic folk with rock and became international stars, second album Talk On Corners going platinum. Currently on hiatus as they raise families and focus on solo careers

Clannad - Gweedore-based siblings Moya, Ciaran and Pol Brennan teamed up with their twin uncles Padraig and Noel Duggan in the 1970s, later achieving worldwide recognition with the theme for Harry's Game. They also scored the classic 1980s TV series Robin Of Sherwood

The Henry Girls - from Malin in Co Donegal, sisters Karen, Lorna and Joleen McLaughlin blended folk and roots, earning widespread acclaim and a large following. Have sung backing vocals for Mary Black

Southern - Belfast-based Thom and Lucy journeyed east across the Irish Sea and made their big break. Hailed as "the most promising singer/songwriters in Ireland today" by the late, great Gerry Anderson

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