Black Magic

By Paddy Kehoe
From RTÉ Guide

Singer Frances Black talks to Paddy Kehoe about her passion fort performing on stage, and remembers her mother Patty, the family’s inspirational force.

Frances Black has always been upfront about the lack of self-confidence that has dogged her professional career and I think certain women (and men, too, of course) like this about her. There's that lack of swagger and the way she tries to keeps her feet on the ground, rather than soaring towards the iconic and the lofty.

There is the simple way she talks to people between songs, as though she knows them all. Now talking to me, she once again mentions her lack of confidence in the song-writing department. I've just mentioned the two songs she co-wrote on her latest album, How High the Moon. One of these, 24 Hours, has an interesting genesis, and is based on a holiday experience in Puerto Banus in Spain, with Frances' best friend some years ago.

The pair were sitting together in a cafe, when a stranger walked in and started chatting up her friend. "She fell in love over a 24 hour period," the singer recalls. "For me it was like watching a movie, I'd never been so touched by it really. When she met this guy, she was a bit off-hand with him. But as the evening went on, they started to talk, and the next day they arranged to meet. I tagged along because they were doing a bit of shopping. It was either that night or the following day that he was going back to where he was from, just watching the whole thing, the way she fell for him and the way he fell for her."

The relationship carried on for a few months, with lots of passionate texting and her friend kept Frances posted throughout. Eventually, like holiday romances will, the thing fizzled out, but at least Frances got a song out of it.

Her own romance with her partner Brian Allen, whom she met in 1986, continues apace. "He's stuck with me through thick and thin, through all the ups and downs, and all the highs and lows," she says. 'After the passion dies down, something else comes in which is even better." She has two children, now grown up, from a previous marriage, Eoghan, who's 24, and Aoife, 22.

Eoghan (Scott) plays in Frances' band and has just released his own EP and made a video, Frances says his music is 'a bit alternative'. Aoife works in TV production. "They've done so well, considering the mad mother they have," she says. Aoife lives at home with Frances, near the South Circular Road, Dublin, and Eoghan lives down the road.

Did she find it a bit of a wrench when her son moved out? “It probably made our relationship a little bit stronger - when you do meet up it's more of a social thing. You could go for a cup of coffee with him, or he'd come down for a meal, I think it's much healthier."

Her mother, Patty Black, a singer and a profound inspirational force for her family died in October 2003, aged 87. The youngest of her five children still misses her. "It's still hard to believe she's gone. Sometimes you'd be driving along and you would think of something, and you'd go 'I must tell Mammy that, I must call in, she'd love to hear that.' She would have loved to have had her mother around when Aoife graduated, or when Eoghan released his EP "She loved to see the kids do well, it's a very strange feeling. You feel a little bit lost, you're kind of an orphan, aren't you? You're the adult now, you're the next generation."

It upset Frances to see her mother lose her dignity, and to become partially senile. "She was a strong woman, who always had this unbelievable power within herself, she could take on the world and then, all of a sudden, to see it go like this, it was just unbearable."

Patty would end her days in a nursing home in Sandymount, where Frances and her sister Mary would visit her every day. Mary and Frances were present when she passed on. "I can describe it as a beautiful death because she went so peacefully, and that's what she wanted."

Kevin Black, father of the family died in 1990, aged 80.

Frances is delighted about her return to study at All Hallows College where she is learning to be an addiction counsellor; the realisation of a long-held dream. "My main aim would be to help someone else who's struggling with addiction." Her own battles with alcoholism and prescription drugs, beginning in the early Eighties, are well documented.

She drank pints of Harp, she wasn't a spirit drinker. Drinking would start around six in the evening, with a couple of cans or half a bottle of wine at home and the pub at the weekend. She gave up on herself and lost all motivation for life.

"It's a constant battle every day, you're never cured really. It can hit you in any form, it doesn't have to be drink or drugs, you could be trying to escape in any way. Up to two to three years ago, obsessive thinking might come in. You can really go into negative thinking, it’s really hard to describe.”

The singer sang The Bold Fenian Men at the graveside during former Provisional IRA Chief Joe Cahill's funeral last July. This was understandably a sad occasion for many of his friends and family members, but would some have looked on her formal association with the ceremony in an unfavourable light? She responds: "I didn't experience much of that, he was a good friend of mine, who I knew from years and years ago and I loved him dearly. He was a gorgeous man. I love his wife and I love all his family, they're just friends of mine. I'm not into the political side of things, he was a very, kind decent person, I never questioned anything else about the man."

Frances is still genuinely surprised at how she can pull in audiences, considering that she is played much less on the radio nowadays, and there hasn't been much television either, in the past five years.

"Trying to get airplay and television coverage can be very difficult," she says, while accepting that change is inevitable in this business. "You peak and you get up to a certain level, and then you go down again, and sometimes you can come up again. It depends." She loves standing on a stage and singing her heart out, but she doesn't particularly like other aspects "I don't like the recording of the albums, and I hate getting photographs taken, it's my worst nightmare, it's a phobia nearly. But I am very lucky that I can still do venues and fill them out, I don't know how. Obviously people have memories and they still really like me."

As she gets older, the girl from Charlemont Street is not as fond of the travelling as she used to be. (Fond or not, and recovering from flu, she would travel to Glasgow the following day for a gig.) Travelling wears her out, but then again a Caribbean cruise every Winter is hardly too onerous.

At the end of January, the Black Family are reuniting once again in what has become an annual event, performing together on just such a cruise. It is a precious time, a chance to reunite, as Michael lives in San Francisco and Shay in Berkeley, California. Ultimately, Frances loves performance, " even if it's only to 50 people, once I'm up there, my passion in life is performing".

  • Frances Black and members of Clontarf Comhaltas Ceolt6iri Eireann perform at the National Concert Hall on February 8, 8pm, in the Clasac Concert. The concert will raise funds for the Clasac building project in Clontarf for Northside branches of Comhaltas Celt6irf Eireann. The Black Family album, Our Time Together is released on Dara as is Frances' solo album How High the Moon