- 05 Oct 20
Outspoken blues singer supreme Mary Coughlan talks to Jackie Hayden about her new album Life Stories, the desperate plight of Irish musicians, the effect of life in Lockdown – and her two great ambitions.
Trust Mary Coughlan. As a general rule, musicians tend to express a positive view of their own career progress. This partly reflects a natural tendency towards positivity, while also reflecting a desire to reassure fans that life is indeed good and getting better, no matter how slowly.
But this can lead to false assumptions that Mr X or Ms Y “must be making an absolute fortune” – so much so that, when the Pandemic struck, little thought was given to the plight of musicians, who were left with with no gigs and no income. So if anyone was going to burst the bubble, the odds would be on Mary Coughlan, an artist who has a track record of saying bluntly what needs to be said about key issues, from divorce to the role of the bishops.
And burst it she has, first by laying bare the harsh reality about the kind of income even successful Irish musicians like her can generate at home; and then, by admitting to her own parlous financial situation during the lockdown.
“I spent all of last year and about 20 grand making Life Stories with Pete Glenister, and had a pile of gigs lined up for this year that I thought would get my the money back. I had about 35 concerts and several festival spots set up for this Summer and Autumn – and it’s all gone. But it’s not just the gigs or the money. Not being able to sing and perform has been the hardest part,” she reveals.
Apart from the lack of performance opportunities, did the lockdown bring her other problems?
“I’ve never been at home for so long for about 35 years," Coughlan reflects. "It takes some getting used to, but then I started doing Yoga online every morning with a teacher I hadn’t seen for years. I did 110 days straight. I took up walking and then did some gigs in the garden with some of the lads who came over and using full band sound and lights, desk, the whole lot. So that got me back singing, and I was also discovering the kind of things you half-see but tend to ignore, like the beautiful scenery around where I live in full view of the Wicklow Mountains. I genuinely thought it would be over by now and we’d be back in business, but not so. So we’ll have to do a few more gigs here.”
I wrote a well-received piece for hotpress.com in which I suggested that Irish musicians are an endangered species, but later wondered if I was exaggerating. But Mary Coughlan thinks otherwise.
“You were dead right. The situation for Irish musicians is horrific. You were not exaggerating. In anticipation of your visit today, I actually went and had my hair done! I was sitting in the hairdressers listening to the radio they had on, and not one fucking Irish artist was played during that hour. It’s fucking horrendous. We hear all this talk about our wonderful music, and we have the most wonderful music and musicians in the world – and yet there are so many people who don’t give a shit. If it wasn’t for the likes of John Creedon and Fiachna Ó Braonáin and Lilian Smith and Cathal Murray, and a few others, we’d be fucked.”
And what does she think of the government’s role?
“The Arts Council give out money but they hardly ever give it to commercial artists. Anytime I’ve had dealings with them I didn’t find them very forthcoming. Besides, I didn’t earn enough money in 2018 in Ireland to qualify for the €350 Covid payment.”
So what of the future for artists like Mary Coughlan?
“I have to supplement my Irish income with gigs overseas, like Germany, Holland, Finland and elsewhere. Before Covid, I was used to going to England every year for about 14 gigs. I go to New Zealand and Australia for gigs and festivals every year and I get paid far more than I get here. It’s hard work and I love it, but I can’t assume it’s going to continue. Either way, I couldn’t survive on my earnings in Ireland and I never have. I’ve never been earning at the level of a Mary Black or Christy Moore, say. I have a tax number for the tax I pay in other countries but they would not accept that here. So I got nothing.”
Luka Bloom recently wrote a letter to Hot Press saying he was rejecting platforms like Spotify because they pay such farcically low rates and announcing that he was selling his new album himself. I wonder if Mary has any plans to follow suit?
The Galway chanteuse explains how she has 250 copies of Life Stories personally signed by her, packed in envelopes, with stamps on them, ready for sale and despatch. And, she adds, “I made funny little cards for every single person to go with the CD. But I have a deal with a digital distributor called Nova in the UK, who’ll put it on iTunes. I hate Spotify and even had a row with Nova about them wanting to put the new album with Spotify.”
A discussion follows about the extent to which the streaming services have infiltrated every part of our lives – even our radio stations. Mary Coughlan is still not impressed. "Spotify," she says with emphasis, "pay a fraction more than zero-point-fucking-zero per play! Point zero one of a cent! Sure fuck it!”
Before the conversation gets any bleaker, I switch attention to her extremely satisfying new album, noting that it comprises astute covers as well as a collection of originals, co-written by Coughlan and Pete Glenister. Titling it Life Stories suggests it’s autobiographical: so, how much of it can be taken as based on her real life?
“All of it”, she says without hesitation. “I’ve been singing Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile’s ‘Family Life’ for years and it came out the week my Ma died. I first heard it coming home from her funeral and Jeez I cried all the way home. My daughter then bought me a copy of the record, so it has a personal resonance for me.”
Lyrics have always been a critical factor in the songs she chooses to sing – and ‘Family Life’, the opening track on the album, is no exception.
“When I first heard the lines ‘separate chairs in separate rooms’ and ‘tomorrow will be Christmas, we’ll be singing old songs’ those lines just cracked me up. They brought me back to a time when a huge swing appeared in our kitchen at home one Christmas. Then, later in my life, Mammy would go into one room to watch Coronation Street and Daddy would be in another room watching sport. So that song got to me immediately and still does it for me.”
When I suggest that it’s quite bleak she says: “It’s very fuckin’ bleak. Life’s fuckin’ bleak.”
The first single from the album was ‘Two Breaking Into One’. It too could be accused of being both bleak and personal.
“You know, Jackie, it took me fifteen years to write that fuckin’ song. It’s about betrayal, about a former husband who had an affair that went on for years during the marriage, which made it worse. It’s in the words: ‘I felt like a fool, dressed up like a queen’. I thought I had everything and I had nothing. Again!”
Those who remember the early days of Mary Coughlan, when she sang an astounding version of Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, a song from the 1930s about the lynching of black people in the USA that’s as relevant as ever in Trump’s America, might wonder if she’s drawn more to bleak songs than lighter ones. She doesn’t deny it, but broadens the discussion.
“I was 64 in May and originally planned to release the album on my birthday as a sort of way of marking how it felt to be 64 and living the life I’ve led. So there’s a song on the album called ‘Safe And Sound’ I wrote for my grand-children and there’s ‘High Heel Boots’ to show that there are things you still want to do when you’re 64. I’ve been in a relationship for the past 13 or 14 years with a man from New Zealand, so I wanted to put everything about life into it.”
‘Elbow Deep’ is a fine song by Kerry singer-songwriter Karrie O’Sullivan.
“It obviously relates to shit that was in the papers about me and a certain other singer,” she says with a good-natured laugh. Those of a certain age will remember the other singer as Sinéad O’Connor, but Mary says they’re now good buddies and Sinéad has called round to her house on several occasions since then.
I personally found ‘Safe And Sound’ a little unsettling. She surprises me by saying: “It’s very unsettling.” Is the world today any safer for women?
“It feels less safe,” she sighs. “You know, we love the internet, we hate the internet. Personally I can’t stand that whole Tinder thing, and there’s a lot of abuse being reported now all over the place. There was a report from Australia of security staff, men, having sex with women who were quarantined in hotels during Lockdown and giving them Covid. It’s fuckin’ everywhere. I know that with my children and grand-children they’ve been told about everything. They’ve been through the addiction and the recovery thing with me, so they’ll never have to keep mum about anything. They’ll be able to talk about it.”
Perhaps not coincidentally, there’s a track on the album called ‘Bad Guys’ and it has a contemporary, almost indie, feel to it. I put it to her that she seems to be willing to experiment with newer sounds.
“Well, that particular approach comes from Pete," Coughlan says, "but I’ve always gone with whatever feels right for the song. ‘Twelve Steps Forward And Ten Steps Back’ has that funky thing that I like. I suppose I’ve always tended to go with whatever works.”
There are two other, overriding ambitions on the Coughlan agenda.
“Peggy Lee recorded an album called Mirrors that includes the song ‘Is That All There Is?’ The album is fucking unbelievable. I recorded two of the songs on my album House of Ill-Repute, but I want to record the entire album. That’s how good it is. My second ambition is to record an album with an orchestra. Sadly, they haven’t asked me yet.”
• Jackie Hayden’s review of Life Stories by Mary Coughlan on Holy Mary Records is available now on hotpress.com