‘Last Call’ For Mary Black

Beloved Irish folk singer Mary Black recently spoke with Pollstar as she prepared for the final North American leg of her “Last Call Tour,” marking her last hurrah abroad.  

Black had planned to say goodbye to North American fans in 2014 but she’s returning to the States in July and August for one more round of gigs.

The outing launches July 27 at The River Club in Scituate, Mass., and wraps up Aug. 13 at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. Stops in between include Austin, Nashville and Atlanta. She’s also playing one night in Canada – Aug. 7 at Rotary Hall at Midland Cultural Centre in Midland, Ontario.

The songstress chatted about the tour and the 30th anniversary edition of By The Time It Gets Dark, which was released in May. The newly remixed and remastered album includes a few bonus tracks – two songs that were recorded in the ‘80s and cut from the official version, as well as a cover of “Wounded Heart” by Jude Johnstone.

Congratulation on the 30th anniversary of By The Time It Gets Dark.

It’s hard to believe [it’s been] 30 years since that album was released. [Remastering the album was] something I kind of wanted to do for a long time because I felt when it was released – on vinyl first and then of course it was transferred to CD – somewhere along the way I felt it lost something in the sound and the digital transfer. I wanted to go back in and have a look at it so we thought 30 years would be an ideal time to go in and pull it apart again, remix and remaster.

I was very happy with the outcome and we put a new track on it as well, which was kind of nice, a song that I wanted to record. It was like a trip down memory lane. It’s amazing [to] go back after 30 years, the way music brings you back to the place and the smell and the time. It was a nice thing for me. I actually enjoyed it very much.

Mary Black
Gavin Leane
– Mary Black

By The Time It Gets Dark was your first multi-platinum album. Can you talk about what the album meant to you, being such a commercial success?

Well, I kinda feel that up until that time I was [on] my musical journey. I was still a little confused as to what direction I was taking. And it was when I went in and recorded By The Time It Gets Dark I felt, “This is where I want to be, this is the kind of music I want to make.”

Previous to that album we had an album released called Without The Fanfare, which is very electric and … it’s just different. It was a great experience and I kind of needed to go there to pull back … and go back down a different road.

I mean, my music has developed and changed over the years, there’s no doubt about that and I think that’s normal. But at that stage in my life I wanted to find a direction that I was really comfortable in … that little cross between folk and contemporary music and finding the right way of doing that. And that’s why I was so happy with [By The Time It Gets Dark] from a musical point of view.

And then of course it was received so well. It made such a difference to my career in Ireland particularly, but even abroad. And then No Frontiers came after, which consolidated that.

What was the process like of working on the remastered version?

Well, it was like we just went in and ripped it apart again. It had to be baked first, which is a process that they do to try and … preserve the tape before you go in and do that. … It’s quite technical. …

But when that was done we were able to go in and take every line of guitar, of voice, backing vocals, piano and revisit that. Remixing is kind of a complicated process. It’s a very important part of the recording process because you can record and everything can sound lovely but it’s how you put [it] together and how you finish it off that makes it as good as it is, I think.

So when we went back in, I suppose we brought it up to now, that sound. Back then there was more reverb on vocals and that big, washy kind of vocal sound, which I felt, when we finished my voice was kind of right there in front of you, as if you were sitting besides someone and singing to them. …

So that’s just one aspect of it. But it was lovely to go back over [the album]. There was even some … when you go into the takes you hear people talking, at the beginning and the end, so you’re back there almost. It’s an amazing feeling.

And Amanda Murphy, my backing vocalist at the time, a beautiful, beautiful singer, she died last year, and so I dedicated the album to her memory. To hear her sing again was quite emotional. It was a great journey for me to do that and I was very happy with the way it turned out.   

It wasn’t a big release. We didn’t make a big deal of it. If people wanted to get it online, it didn’t go to [physical] shops or anything like that. It was just something I wanted to do as kind of a project I needed to make time for and I had time for. And then with the 30 year [anniversary] it seemed like the right time to re-release it. So yeah, it was a good thing and great to be able to do it.

So you and producer Billy Robinson collaborated closely on this?

Absolutely. Billy has been working with me for a long time. He does our sound when we go out on tour and he’s recorded a lot of our albums for us in later years. … We work well together. He has a studio up in Donegal, [Irleand], which is a beautiful part of the world, in the Northwest coast of Ireland and you’re looking out the window as you’re working. The scenery is to die for. So it’s nice to be up in such a beautiful place doing something like that.

We connect well, we understand each other very well … he understands my language. I’m [not] a hugely technical person but I know what I like and I know what I don’t like and I can explain it to him. He understands, whereas another person who wouldn’t know me as well might not understand. So it worked well.

You recorded a new song for the remastered version called “Wounded Heart.” Can you talk about that track?

Well, I just came across Jude Johnstone, who’s the writer of the song. She was in Ireland and one of my musicians was playing with her and … she expressed an interest in me listening to some of her songs. I hadn’t, honestly, heard of her before. She would be more in a country vein of a musician and singer, but I was very, very moved by that song and I felt like it would really suit me.

When I get a feeling like that, it’s like songs call me sometimes, and I have to answer (laughs). It’s like I don’t have a choice. If I can do it, I will. I wanted to give it a shot and this was the ideal opportunity, just to bring something new to the album for anybody who might have bought it 30 years ago. … I just wanted to make sure that they felt like they were getting something new as well.

And we put some other bonus tracks on, which we had recorded around the time of By The Time It Gets Dark but the songs didn’t make the album at the time. We always record more songs than we need. That’s just something that we would do. So it was nice to bring those songs and let people hear them. …

It worked out well. I like that song and I’d like to meet [Jude Johnstone] maybe when I’m on tour. I believe she lives in Nashville. I’d like to link up with her because I hear she’s a wonderful person. It would be nice if she came to my gig and I’ll sing it for her.   

Maybe you could do a duet.

Yeah, sing it together. Janis Ian is going to come up, hopefully in Nashville. She said she would love to sing with me because we’ve been friends going back a few years now, about 20, 25 [years] and we tried to keep in touch, and I asked her, “We’ll be in town for just one night. Do you think you could come up and see me, maybe get up and sing a song?” She said, “I’d love to.” I’ve done a duet with her in the past so it will be lovely to link up with her again.

You’re also bringing a support artist with you.

She’s my daughter, Róisín O.

Have you toured with her before?

She’s done support for me on and off over the last few years. She’s great. She’s developed as an artist herself. … I don’t announce that she’s my daughter before she goes on so a lot of the audience doesn’t know who she is. … It’s nice for her to go out and impress an audience who doesn’t know her music. And not only that, it’s great to hang out together. She’s my youngest, I have two boys as well. It’s just lovely to have her with me on tour. We have fun together.   

What’s the setup like for the U.S. tour? Will you be joined by a band?   

I have my full band. My piano player’s been with me the longest. He was on By the Time It Gets Dark … 30 years ago. Pat Crowley plays piano and accordion; Bill Shanley is my guitar player, who’s been with me 20 years; Nick Scott plays double bass and Richie Buckey plays saxophone and keyboard. It’s the band I would play with generally, so it’s great to have a full band with me. They’re great musicians and I’m very blessed to have them with me.

Mary Black – Mary Black

Will the setlist for the tour be focused on By The Time It Gets Dark or will it include songs from throughout your career?

It’ll be a mix. I will definitely highlight By The Time It Gets Dark album by singing probably a few more from that album than I would normally but … it’ll be a mix of songs from various albums from throughout my career. For my audience, there are always favorites and I certainly wouldn’t want to leave [out] songs like “Katy” or “Bright Blue Rose” or “No Frontiers.” A lot of those songs people would expect you to sing and “A Song For Ireland,” maybe. No I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t like that.

I’ve been to concerts where artists will sing their latest album and it’s a bit disappointing because it’s great to hear new songs, of course, but you don’t want to hear [an entire] album all on the same night if you’ve been playing for as long as I have. Too many songs over too long a period to do that. And there’s loads of material to choose from. We’ve actually just finished two concerts over the weekend in Brussels so we’ve been playing nonstop almost since March. We did a big tour in Ireland. We’ve toured every year in Ireland, once a year. We’re really ready from America now.

The July-August outing in the U.S. is being called the final U.S. leg of “The Last Call” tour. Is this really going to be the end of touring for you?

Well, touring abroad, yes. I was there [in 2014] and we did what we call our “Last Call” tour but there were only 13 cities and people were screaming saying, “You never came here, you never came there. You can’t call it [the end].” So we said we’d have to go back and do the second leg. That’s where we’re actually doing in America this time out. We’re going to places we haven’t been before on “The Last Call” tour.

And I’m not completely cutting all ties abroad but I’m just tired of being on the road. I’ve done it for such a long time. If I do go to Canada or America or wherever it would be for a festival or a long weekend of work, but not three weeks of solid touring.

I will continue to tour once a year in Ireland. And I may do one-off kind of things after that abroad but I just don’t want to be on the road. I have had it with it, really. I mean, I still love performing, don’t get me wrong. But I just feel that I’m at a stage in my life where I just want to make more time for other aspects of my life because life is getting more precious as [I] get older.

You know, your time is running [out] a little bit so I just thought I’d like to spend more time with my family. I’ve got two grandchildren now, two lovely girls. … Not just that, but [to] do different things and have more time [for] art and to paint, stuff I don’t have time for now.

Is painting another one of your passions?

Yes, I do like to do that a bit. And I’d like to have more time because it’s something that demands time. I’ve taken up golf lately and I would like to get a little bit better at that because I’m pretty bad. I’m hitting the ball but it’s not going where I want it to go, you know. Things like that that I just never really had time for.

And travel a little bit without having to work. You know, with my life I’ve traveled all over the world, but a lot of the time you don’t get to see the places that way you’d like to. You’re into a town, you do your sound check, do the gig and then you go back to your hotel and then you’re gone the next day. It’s not like the traveling I want to do. I want to do the Camino Walk and I want to go places and be off not working. (laughs)

Do you have any plans for recording new music or any other upcoming projects?

I have a project in the pipeline. There’s a songwriter here in Ireland named Jimmy McCarthy who recorded many, many songs over the years and he’s a great, great songwriter and very well-respected here. And I thought I might do a collaboration with him pulling together some of the more popular of his songs and record some new ones. He’s got some gorgeous songs that haven’t been recorded yet. And we’re going to do maybe one or two duets on the album. …

That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time but never really got around to it. So I think that’s going to happen maybe when we get back from America. [We will] start concentrating on that. I think it will be a really nice package.

He’s such a gifted writer and I’ve been lucky to [record] his material through the years. He wrote songs like “No Frontiers” and “Mary Black Katie” and all those big, big songs for me. So in a way it’s a tribute from me to him. But also he’s doing the same for me. We’re kind of going to work together on that.

Anything else you’d like to tell fans?

I’m just looking forward to getting to America. It will be the first time for many, many years that I’ll be in America in the summertime. So it will be nice coming from Ireland where you can never rely on nice weather, although it’s a fabulous place to live. I know it will be very hot at times but I’m looking forward to it; I really am. And we’re doing a festival or two as well, which will be nice. And we’ll have a sleeper bus for some of the tour, so that’s kind of fun. I’m looking forward to it.