She's never been one to pull her punches but even by her standards, Mary Coughlan's latest album is a rollercoaster. Here, she talks about a life of love, loss, pain and redemption.
At 52 years of age, Mary Coughlan has delivered her 13th and best album The House Of Ill Repute, a definitive work that veers from burlesque to blues, from heartbroken to hardbitten. But like any record worth the time of day, it comes with a fair amount of collateral damage to the heart. There isn’t a trivial note in any of these songs.
“I think you do have to have lived to sing them, to have known the shit that’s in them,” Coughlan considers, sitting on a deck chair in the back garden of her house in Bray on a beautiful September afternoon. “Some of it is so angry. It’s kind of a theme album, I don’t know whether you got that or not.”
It’d be hard to miss, but it’s a theme that has run through her entire career. By the time Coughlan released her first album Tired And Emotional 22 years ago, she’d already been through a failed marriage and returned from London to live in Galway, a single mother. A breakthrough appearance on the Late Late Show made her something of a star in Ireland (she also appeared in Neil Jordan’s High Spirits in 1988), and she established herself as a masterful interpreter of torch songs with a succession of albums for WEA. But the high-queen-of-heartache persona was no act. Even after Coughlan finally quit drinking in 1993, she had her fair share of troubles, most recently a public and acrimonious split with her last husband Frank Bonadio, who subsequently had a child with Sinead O’Connor. A sequence of nasty text messages exchanged between the two singers made the front pages of the papers less than two years ago.
The House Of Ill Repute is her first album since then, and it functions as something of an exorcism. Conceived in New Zealand with long-time collaborator Eric Visser, the songs radiate anger, melancholy and defiance in equal measure.
“Eric and I lived in a huge house in Howth on about two acres of land," she explains, "and we were going to buy the house next door as well when we got rich and famous. We were going to join them up together and build a big whorehouse, a big house of ill repute with gambling and food and music and whores and men and women and fuckin’ total decrepitude. Everything that you could want would be in the house, and we’d never have to leave except to go and procure – this is very un-PC – exotic species of young men and women from countries all over the world to bring them back and have hanging around. So we never got to fuckin’ do it.
“But this album is the house. And it’s full of women who are saying, ‘How the fuck did I get here?’ Really, the house is my life, and these are the years that I’ve inhabited in various states of decrepitude and drunkenness and addiction and abuse and pornography and everything. I’m 52 and I feel about 20, but there was a time I was 30 when I felt 150.”
The new album’s most powerful moment is ‘Antarctica’, a bristling break-up song that comes across like a Wiccan ‘I divorce thee’ rite.
“That was the first song that came up after I left Frank,” Coughlan says. “Eric’s wife had been to the Antarctic, they’d split up maybe 20 years previously. And I was telling her on the phone about Frank and the affair with the nanny and all that, and I was going, ‘Fuckin’ bastard, fuckin’ whore’ and she was saying, ‘Jesus Mary, there’s a song there somewhere!’ So she started writing all this stuff down, and then stuff came to her from when she was splitting up with Eric and wanted to go to Antarctica and be frozen and numb."
There’s a sense of liberation evident in The House Of Ill Repute, the feeling of a woman speaking her truth without regard for self-censorship or fear of the consequences.
“That used to be what music was for,” Coughlan says. “You know Nick Cave’s album The Lyre Of Orpheus? Oh fuck man, that whole album is just fuckin’ incredible. In the past five years I’ve been listening to a lot of old Leonard Cohen stuff, new Tom Waits stuff, and Nick Cave an awful lot. And when I was really fuckin’ miserable it was Damien Rice. Fuck me, I had four Damien Rice CDs in every corner of the house and the car. I’ve gone back to Astral Weeks too.”
One characteristic common to all those artists: at the wrong time of night, they’re almost too painful to listen to.
“I’ve found that. I used to sit up in rooms in the other house I lived in, the one in Martello Towers, when I was drinking, and I used to go on the piss, in the room, for the week. I would drink two, three, four bottles of vodka a day sometimes. I would take all the miserable records I had to the room, with the ghetto blaster, a mattress on the floor, and a fuckin’ bucket for pukin’ in, literally, and would just lower myself into this place where I felt really comfortable, and grim: ‘Everyone hates me and I hate everyone.’
“I’d just go there for days. It was a very familiar place to be, from when I was very, very, very young, that kind of dark, awful fuckin’ hole, and I used to will myself into it with drink and music, and stay there until I had to be hospitalised, which was generally after about a week. For the last two years I drank, I was hospitalised 32 times for alcohol poisoning. But that was my worst drinking. I haven’t had a drink for almost 15 years.
“But you know, looking back on it all, it was part of what I had to do to exorcise all that. I used to listen to the most grim records. It varied from ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and The Doors to Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday and the Louvin Brothers. Very varied, really miserable shit. It’s a fuckin’ crying shame that it had to be done, but it’s only when you get out the other side of life you realise what was actually going on.
“I abdicated all responsibility for family life and kids when I was drinking, I really did. I lived in shame of it for years, but that’s the way it was. I couldn’t fuckin’ do it. When I was married first I was 19 and I had three children by the time I was 24, they were all natural childbirths. I had breast-feeding classes in my house every Tuesday night, I set up a wholefood co-op in Galway, and somewhere along the line, being macrobiotic and having kids didn’t fill up the hole that I refused to acknowledge. Every day I washed nappies and sang ‘Good Morning Heartache’ and breast-fed children. But nothing really filled it up except drink and drugs.”
There’s a line in ‘Mary Mary’: “I prayed the lord my soul to take/I prayed that I would never wake”. What’s the difference between the blues and clinical depression?
“Fuckin’ very little. Except singing. Singing the blues is a way of recognising some sort of depressed or repressed stuff. And you get it in sean nós singing, the funerals, when awful stuff happens, and then you hear Native American music, African music, it’s all coming from the same fuckin’ place. Soul music. The sound of grieving and sadness and pain. Singing about it is expressing it and getting it out, letting it fuckin’ go. As I get older I’m getting into a little bit of shamanistic work, and that’s all to do with that: beating it out and singing it out and drumming it out and smoking it out. Native Americans did it in the sweat lodges, people throughout the centuries have sung and danced and probably taken loads of mushrooms and herbs. Trance and music and dance has been around forever. I don’t know that for sure, but I feel it has.”
Another line, in ‘Mary Mary’: “They laughed about my temper back then/I thought it was the blues.”
“That’s a song about sexual abuse when I was like, seven.”
So is that where all the despair and self-destructiveness comes from?
“That’s where it comes from, the badness.”
So it’s not genetic, it’s experiential.
“Experiential. My experience was of being bad: ’I’ve been an awful woman all my life/A dreadful daughter and a hopeless wife.’ I was asked to speak at an Aware thing once, about depression. And I said I’d been depressed since I was seven, and a lot of people in the room put up their hands and said they felt the same, around about the same time, Holy Communion time, they felt there was darkness. I mean, I knew where mine was coming from, but I wasn’t prepared to talk about it. And this song is drawing a line around it and fucking it out the window. Some people say you’re born alcoholic, but I think shit happens. And I know shit happened to me, that’s all I know. And I don’t know any other way of being other than somebody who was shat on as a small child.”
There’s that line in ‘Bad’: “I’ve been the token woman all my life…”
“‘…Saving up to buy a gun.’ There were times when I thought about it. But mostly to get other people. Never myself.”
What eventually cured her? AA? Therapy?
“I suppose it all did really. I did the AA thing twice a day for a year and a half, and the once fortnightly one-to-one stuff. It all worked to keep me away from the drink, but it never worked… This has worked, this record. The space that I’ve been in for the past three years has worked. Getting away from the life I was living. Getting away from my husband, standing on my own two feet. My mother dying: ‘Cop on, you’re fuckin’ 48-years-old, you’re half an orphan, the eldest of your brothers and sisters, get a fuckin’ life Mary, stop fuckin’ whingein’ and do what it is that you do best.’ My counsellor said to me, ‘You’ve got to find some self-esteem somewhere and just work at it until it becomes part of your everyday reality, you’ve got to feel good about some parts of yourself.’
“And I knew that I could sing, so I said I’ll grab this one by the balls and I’ll ask (MCD boss) Denis Desmond for the money, and he said, ‘Go for it Mary’ and I fuckin’ did. There’s a lot of history between Denis and I, I really always liked him, but we fell out years ago over money and management and shit. So I said, ‘I want to see your face when you listen to the album, so when you have an hour free, call me. I’ll wait.’ So I went in one day to the office. Two hours later he was still going, ‘Fuck, is that you? I thought you were bringing me in a CD of Peggy Lee covers!’ I’m proud. It’s a good CD. It’s a really good CD. I’ve never said that before, about any of my albums.”
The House Of Ill Repute is out now on Rubyworks
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