MARY COUGHLAN has been the undisputed First Lady of Irish jazz and blues since she arrived on the music scene in 1985 when her debut album Tired and Emotional sold more than 100,000 copies.
Her emotional renditions of ‘Seduced’, ‘Delaney’s Gone Back On The Wine’, ‘Ride On’ and ‘Good Morning Heartache’ captivated audiences and wowed the music press.
Coughlan’s upward trajectory continued throughout the 1980s and early 1990s with well-received albums such as Under The Influence, Ancient Rain, and Uncertain Pleasures. She also found time to make her acting debut in Neil Jordan’s film High Spirits.
Yet as the decade progressed Mary’s personal demons were coming more to the fore as addiction to alcohol and drugs meant she had to take time off to receive treatment. She channelled some of her pain into her 2000 show Mary Coughlan Sings Billie Holiday drawing on her own troubled past to give the show a unique realism.
In recent years Mary has made a spirited comeback both professionally and personally. Now clean and sober she has pursued her career with renewed vigour. Last year she reconvened with long-time collaborator Erik Visser to produce The House Of Ill Repute. She has also written an autobiography, Bloody Mary.
Mary Coughlan appears at The Crane, Sea Road, on Saturday December 19 at 6.30pm as part of the venue’s Singers and their Songs series of gigs.
Under the influence
Mary was born in Galway in 1956, the eldest of five children. Coughlan’s parents met at a football match and later again at a local dance.
“That’s the way people met years ago,” Mary says. “There weren’t many social outlets in those days so people did meet at places like football matches and community dances. My father was from Donegal and Mammy was born near Clarenbridge and lived in Galway all her life. She was a true Galwegian.”
Mary grew up in Ashe Road, Shantalla and had a somewhat erratic youth. She left the local Presentation Convent School and began to partake in alcohol and drug sessions. At 15 she had her first LSD trip.
“The sixties came to Galway in the early 1970s,” she says. “There was a lot of it around in those days. People think drugs are very now but there was a lot of illegal stuff around back then. I was a hippy and I wore the long flowing skirts and had the long hair and the braid and the beads. I was big into flower power and the Beat Generation and all that at the time.”
In the mid-70s Mary moved to London.
“I had wanted to train as a dress designer but I didn’t have the patience to wait around,” she says. “Once I finished the Leaving Cert I just fecked off and I lived in various squats in London. I was there with a bunch of people from Galway and it was a wonderful experience for me. Ultimately though I found London very big and very lonely.”
Mary married her first husband Fintan Coughlan and had three children but in the early 1980s she ended the relationship and moved back to Galway. On her return home she began working with Dutch musician and producer Eric Visser.
“I started singing in 1985,” Mary says. “Galway was really vibrant at that time and there were lots of great trad sessions going on. Dolores Keane was singing with De Dannan and Mary Black was around the scene as well, and I had huge respect for them. When I started doing my own stuff I was very different and I think that’s what got me noticed.”
Coughlan leaped ahead of her contemporaries when she was invited to appear on The Late Late Show. After a memorable television debut she was ready to take on the world.
“Shay Healy and Siobhan McHugh had done a show called Sounds Promising and I recorded three songs for that,” she says. “When they were mixing it in the studio Gay Byrne heard my voice and a few days later booked me to appear on The Late Late Show. Back then it meant so much more than it does now because we only really had one channel in Ireland.
“I remember my father and mother and my grandmother and sister came up with me. I still have the photo of my mother and grandmother with Gaybo after the show. As far as I was concerned it was as big as you could get and could lead to huge exposure.”
On the back of her slot on the show Mary’s debut release, Tired and Emotional, shot to the top of Irish album charts. Within a few short years she was also enjoying success in Britain and across Europe.
“I did seven nights at the Mean Fiddler and two nights at the Palladium in London in 1987 and the response was huge,” she says. “Germany was a really good place for me to play as well and I had some great shows in Berlin, Hamburg, and Frankfurt. I found a very receptive audience in Scandinavia and I toured there for many years. It was a brilliant time.”
After the fall
Throughout the late 1990s Mary’s career began to tumble downwards and her addictions got the better of her.
“I got bogged down with the whole drinking thing for many years,” she states “All I ever wanted to do was to get sober and get back to work.”
It took more than 10 years for Coughlan to come to terms with her demons and she made a triumphant return to the studio last year with the release of the album The House of Ill Repute.
“I suppose I was reinvigorated,” she says. “After my marriage broke-up [Coughlan’s second husband left her for Sinead O’Connor] I rang my producer and told him I had stuff bursting to get out.”
The floodgates of emotion have continued to swing open as just a few short months ago Mary published her autobiography Bloody Mary. The book revealed the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her grandfather and other harrowing events from her childhood.
“It was a horrific process to go through,” Mary says. “I decided I didn’t want to do it several times. I rang my publisher in July/August to tell her I didn’t want to continue but she said that from the drafts she had read that it was well worth telling my story. It’s a chapter in my life that is now closed and I’m glad I did it.”
It has been an exhausting but also a rewarding last two years for Mary and next year looks like being even bigger.
“In January 2010 it’ll be 25 years since Tired and Emotional was No 1 and so we’ll be going on the road to celebrate that,” she enthuses. “Warner Music want to re-issue my first four albums and there’ll also be a boxset.”
The Singers and their Songs @ The Crane
ALONGSIDE MARY Coughlan, a host of other artists will be performing in The Crane at the venue’s Singers and their Songs series of gigs.
The rest of the line-up is Dessie O’Halloran (Thursday 17, 9pm ); r’n’b band Loudest Whisper (Friday 18, 9pm ); Tom Portman Trio (Sunday 20, 9.30pm ); Philip Donnolly (Monday 21, 9pm ); Ultan Conlon and his Band (Tuesday 22, 9pm ); Ger Wolfe (Wednesday 23, 9pm ); Tony and Jackie Small and Friends (Thursday 24, 6.30pm )
For more information and tickets contact The Crane on 091 - 587419 or see www.thecranebar.com