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Black to the future: Singer Mary Black on getting back into the studio after serious illness... and why she finds being a gran such fun

Ahead of a show at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, the woman with roots on Rathlin Island talks to Lorraine Wylie about family and her plans for the future

Impressive career: Mary Black
Impressive career: Mary Black
Mary Black on stage
Mary and her sister, Frances
Family time: Mary Black with her grandchildren, Fía and Bonnie
Joan Baez (left) and Mary Black
Joni Mitchell

By Lorraine Wylie

Back in 2014, Mary Black announced her retirement from the worldwide stage, telling audiences she wanted to cut back on her workload and spend more time with her family. But, like all great performers, the First Lady of Irish Music couldn't resist an encore.

Just two years after her Last Call Tour and much to the delight of her fans, the singer was back on the international circuit with a 30th anniversary, reworked version of her 1987 album, By the Time it Gets Dark.

Since 2017, Black has confined her performances mostly to Ireland, but the move hasn't brought the freedom she expected. In fact, the 64-year-old has never been busier. Following the release of the RTE documentary, Mary Black - No Frontiers, and ahead of the launch of her latest album, Mary Black Orchestrated, the singer told me about her love of music and how, as she gets older, time itself has become such a valuable currency.

"Yes, I know, I'm busier than ever," she laughs. "I mean, I'm always telling myself I'll cut back on my workload and take things easier, but, then some new project will come along and I'll get caught up in the excitement. Next thing I know, I'm working flat out.

"Take this year, for example. These past months have been the most demanding in a long time. First, there was Ireland's Favourite Folk Song, which I presented for four or five weeks. That took up an unbelievable amount of time. I mean to say, you'd never imagine that a half-hour programme would take a couple of days work. I found all that hanging around a real challenge."

Making the documentary proved even more testing.

"The documentary was actually scheduled for last year, but then I got sick and ended up in hospital. I was diagnosed with Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which is caused by shingles. It's very uncommon and occurs when shingles affects the ear canal. It's quite a nasty condition and can be extremely serious. I was very ill. It took me months to get over it.

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"As soon as I was feeling well enough, I had to do the documentary, well I couldn't put it off any longer. But to be honest, it was a lot of fun. Although there again, it took ages... weeks of filming went into it.

"I was up in Rathlin Island for two days, everyone came over, including the crew. We spent ages walking along the cliffs, visiting the farmhouse where my dad grew up, talking to locals and hanging out in the pub. At one point, I asked one of the crew how much of the actual footage would be used. He said, probably four minutes. I couldn't believe it! I'd no idea of the time involved."

Conversation turns to more familiar ground as Mary talks about her new album, Mary Black Orchestrated. Described as a "re-imagining of some her biggest hits", the tracks were all chosen by Mary, orchestrated and produced by world-renowned music maestro, Brian Byrne, and accompanied by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra.

"Oh now, that is very exciting," Mary enthuses. "Although, now to be honest, in the initial stages, I wasn't too sure about the idea.

"I mean, I've always loved the sound of an orchestra and I've studied classical music for my Leaving, so I do have an interest. But, at first, I thought they'd just be adding orchestration to some of my favourite tracks. So I chose the songs very carefully.

"I went for those I thought would lend themselves to the orchestral sound. Then, when I heard the first draft, I was totally overwhelmed and realised that this was something else, something wonderful and different. Brian Byrne is an incredible composer and did an amazing job. I introduced it on the first night of my tour, bringing it into the show in Kilkenny. We used a film of the orchestra, playing on a huge screen in the background. I did four songs and it was nerve-wracking as there's a lot of technical stuff. But it turned out a great success. For me, it was an absolute joy to sing with an orchestra.

"I was so thrilled, honoured and excited - come to think of it, those three words just sum it up. To be honest, I'm looking forward to performing in Belfast, it promises to be another fantastic show," she says.

Some artists might think twice about such an ambitious project, but Mary Black, who is considered one of the most important voices in Ireland, has never been afraid to take risks.

"Sometimes, you take on these projects and just hope people will like it. In this case, I have a good feeling that the album is going to press a lot of buttons and people are going to love it. It has this injection of new life, and sounds new, even though it isn't, if you know what I mean."

She's taken a lot of care choosing which songs to include in the album, but there is one that is especially important to her. "I really love, The Urge for Going, written by Joni Mitchell. I've always adored Joni's work, she was a major influence on me, just as she is for my daughter, Roisin. I thought I'd heard all Joni's songs until I found this track.

"Apparently she wrote it when she was very young. It's incredibly beautiful.

"It describes winter coming in, the leaves are falling off the trees and how when summer has the urge to go, we can't stop it. When I was in LA, along with Larry Klein, who was producing my album, the phone rang and it was Joni Mitchell.

"Now, Larry was married to Joni for 11 years so, as they're chatting, he tells her I'm in the room and she sounds so excited and says she loved what I did with her song. That made me so proud. I couldn't get over it. Imagine Joni Mitchell loving my cover of her song. So, that song definitely had to be on the album."

Another less well-known, but equally emotional, song for Mary is Poison Words.

"Again, it's a very obscure song," Mary agrees. "It would absolutely break your heart. It's about love and marriage and how, in the beginning it's wonderful and rosy. But then sometimes it turns sad and even brutal. Words become poison as people discover they can no longer be together. I think it has a place on this album."

Over the years, the subject of Mary's mental health has been well-documented. Now, she's eager to put it behind her.

"You know everyone has hard times," she says when I broach the subject. "We all get something - the shingles almost wiped me out. At the time, I told Joe (O'Reilly, her husband and manager), right that's it, I need to get off the radar for a while. I just couldn't keep going.

"You never know what's coming down the track and when hard times do come, it makes you realise just how short time really is.

"Sometimes, when I think about the future, I know that, if I'm lucky, I might have 15 years of good quality life that will take me up to 80. Then I realise how fast the last 15 years have gone... it's scary how time flies and I don't want to waste a minute. For now, I'm feeling great and just looking forward to the next chapter."

Apart from music, how does she relax?

"I like to paint," she says. "Now I wouldn't call myself an artist. I use acrylics simply because they dry quickly. But I love colours, so I'll put paint on the canvas and swirl it around until I begin to see something. I don't think I'm any good, but it makes me feel happy and that's good enough for me. Recently, I've gotten into gardening, so if I ever get some free time, I might develop that a little bit."

She may be regarded as one of Ireland's most important vocalists, but the role closest to her heart is that of "granny". "Oh I love the wee angels," she laughs as she launches into a narrative about her two granddaughters, Bonnie (6) and Fia (5). "I'm becoming a 'granny bore' and I have to stop myself showing their pictures to my friends. A child really brings the family together. The youngest is very musical, but Bonnie, although she likes to listen to music, isn't into it as much as her sister.

"Now their father, Conor, (her eldest son) isn't into music in a big way, but he does enjoy playing his guitar. My other two, Danny (lead singer with the band The Coronas) and Roisin (performs as Roisin O') got a double dose of the music gene!"

Mary Black's reputation as one of the country's most important vocalists is richly deserved. The quality of her voice, described by critics as "serene and achingly beautiful" was once used by the magazine What Hi-Fi to test the quality of different sound systems. Down through the decades, she has performed and recorded with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Joan Baez and our own Van Morrison. Her road to fame has been long and at times "a hard slog". Nowadays, young artists have all the advantages of the internet, YouTube and overnight success, but Mary wouldn't want to be in their shoes.

"No, I wouldn't want to be starting out today. Back when I was young, things were much simpler. You liked someone's music, you bought the CD. Now they're downloading one track. Everything is so accessible, there's no continuity.

"I don't believe in overnight success. I think you have to invest a lot of time and work. Hone your talent and learn how to play an instrument. Many kids, influenced by shows like the X Factor, think they have lots of talent when they probably don't. It's not easy, but you do have to have some ability and be willing to put in the hard slog."

As the interview winds down, conversation comes full circle and I ask Mary whether her "touring boots" are still in retirement.

"Well now, the thing about music is that you never know," she says. "As I said earlier, just when you think about winding down, something comes along. I have the opportunity to tour with orchestras around the world. I mean, we've recently had some invitations and who knows, if this works out, well we could be heading for places like Sydney or Tasmania. I wouldn't do a lot of touring, but for special projects, I have to keep the door open."

Mary Black, Ulster Hall, tonight, 8.30pm

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