Frances Black: Something Inside So Strong

Extended edition of the article in the Sunday Independent on 14 March 2003

“The music in my heart I bore, long after it was heard no more”
William Wordsworth

Interviewing Frances Black is just like having a cosy chat with an old friend. She walks into the hotel lobby looking radiant and gorgeous, sporting a tan from a recent Caribbean cruise on which the Black Family, i.e. Frances and her musical siblings, Mary, Shay, Michael and Martin, performed. Life is somewhat hectic these days for Ms Black, given that she recently released a new album and has just returned from a sell-out tour of Ireland and England. She’s currently spending time in the recording studio putting the finishing touches to the third Black Family album, and I’ve managed to catch her before she embarks on the next stage of her tour, which will take her to Denmark and the Netherlands.

How High the Moon is Frances’s sixth solo album and she is justifiably proud of it. She was involved in every aspect of its production, and the end result is a wonderful tapestry of beautiful melodies and stirring lyrics all delivered with huge passion and feeling.

“This album is really special to me and all of the songs on it are very personal to me and where I am at this stage of my life” she reveals. Frances also made her debut as a songwriter on two wonderful tracks on this album in collaboration with renowned Irish singer-songwriter Don Mescall. One of the
songs, Rachraí Island, is an uplifting and joyous tribute to the magical ambience of Rathlin Island, off the north coast of Antrim, which was the birthplace of her late father Kevin. Frances’s eyes become luminous when describing the huge excitement she and her siblings felt as children travelling up to spend the summer months in a rural carefree world of farmyard animals and freedom that was a million times removed from the everyday life of an inner-city child from Charlemont Street. Rathlin remains her spiritual home to this day and it is there to which she escapes whenever she needs respite from her busy lifestyle. “I’m probably happiest when I’m up in Rathlin” she admits.

It is very important for Frances to bond with people through the medium of her music, and she is someone who is renowned for her remarkable ability to connect deeply with an audience. Her particular blend of warmth and humour, self-deprecation and searing honesty has huge appeal, combined with the fact that she seems to genuinely endeavour to communicate with people at an emotionally profound level. She calls her concerts, “An Evening with Frances Black” because she talks almost as much as she sings, and the combination of her enchanting personality and beautiful voice is a potent one. She may be slim and petite and somewhat ethereal-looking on stage, but all of her songs are delivered with an enormous amount of passion and feeling. Audiences quite simply adore Frances and this is borne out by the consistently sold-out concerts and the number of people queuing to see her afterwards. Nobody goes away disappointed because she makes time to chat to absolutely everybody.

It is quite a challenge to reconcile the vision of this charming and confident performer on stage with the knowledge that she has fought a huge personal battle to overcome her crippling lack of self-belief and negative self-image. Frances suffered terribly with shyness and lack of confidence as a child, the legacy of which remains to this day. “I always had this image of myself as a failure even when my album was number one” she confesses. “I think an awful lot of musicians have that insecurity. But I’m working hard on my confidence and I’m starting to come around to the idea that I’m a good person and I work hard and do my very best”.

Her fragile sense of self-worth was further eroded in young adulthood because she became pregnant as a teenager, rushed into an early marriage, had another child and experienced the trauma of the disintegration of her hasty marriage. Her well-documented and high-profile problem with alcohol addiction occurred at this time too, as she drank to hide the loneliness and her inability to communicate with people.

Frances didn’t harbour huge ambitions to become a singer in her youth because she felt that it wasn’t even an option for her. “I never, ever thought I would become a singer” she admits. “I would go to a gig in the Olympia and think “Imagine being up there doing that” and I never, ever thought that it would happen for me. I left school after my Inter Cert because I couldn’t deal with people and went straight into having children and was at home all day with these two babies. I couldn’t communicate with people whatsoever other than when I had a few drinks on me and then I could be a bit more confident. There were times when I was with the kids at home that I couldn’t even go to the shop because I was so afraid that I’d meet somebody and they’d talk to me and I wouldn’t know what to say to them. I couldn’t even hold conversations”.

The singer’s early ambition was to go into childcare. “I wanted to look after kids and the reason I chose that job was that I felt I could relate better to children. I couldn’t communicate with adults then –I didn’t know how to deal with them. I had my own two kids at a very young age and I thought that maybe I’d open up my own crèche when they got a bit older”.

How then did this warm and friendly person come from that lonely, terror-filled place to the point where she can now walk confidently onto the stage in the Olympia or the Point and hold the audience in the palm of her hand? “I feel I served my apprenticeship with wonderful people” she replies graciously. “I started to sing with the Black family at 17 and I was absolutely petrified but they made it easy for me. I’d be standing there on stage with my sister and three brothers behind me and they were all encouraging me and saying “Come on Frances, you can do this”. All I had to do was sing two verses and they’d sing on the chorus so it was easy and that’s where I got the bug for the whole performing thing. Johnny McDonagh from Arcady asked me to join his band in 1988 and my immediate reaction was “Oh Jesus, no, I couldn’t”. Whenever something like that happened I’d ring my sister Mary and say “Mary, wait until I tell you…” because I’d be delighted that I was asked even if I didn’t think I could do it and she would always say “Why not? At least just try it”. Being in Arcady was a wonderful experience but it was also one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life because this time I was on my own. I didn’t have the backing of the family. After Arcady, Frances collaborated with acclaimed Newry singer-songwriter Kieran Goss and the two of them together proved to be a winning combination. “Kieran probably taught me more than anybody else about communicating with an audience” she generously contends. ”Listening to him talking about his songs and telling his stories and just seeing his way of connecting with the audience was probably the best learning experience I’ve ever had”

Frances also partly attributes the growth in her stage confidence to her time spent performing with the Fallen Angels, a group of women that included Máire Breathneach, Eilish Moore, Joan McDermott, Mandy Murphy and Ida Tynan. “What I learned from Eilish in particular was unbelievable because she was very honest on stage and the crowd really connected with her. I was amazed at what she said to them because I always thought you would have to very prim and proper on stage and introduce the songs really nicely. I realised very early on in my career that the combination of what Kieran does and being really honest and not hiding anything makes people connect to you immediately”.

Intelligent and articulate, with a strongly developed social conscience, Frances is very politically aware and is a woman of strong opinions on social issues. While never preaching her own personal politics on stage, she has become involved in several campaigns in the past, particularly where she feels an injustice has been committed, She recorded the hauntingly beautiful “Magdalen Laundries” song on her new album to pay tribute to the women who suffered there, and she is renowned for her rendition of “Legal Illegal”, a song by Ewan McColl that rails against injustice to harrowing effect.

Frances has found personal happiness again with her husband Brian, “a lovely man from Cork,” who is also her manager. She is the proud mother of two children, Eoghan (23) and Aoife (21). Eoghan is a talented singer-songwriter and is currently working on his debut EP, which is due to be released in April, while Aoife is in her final year of a degree in Film Production at a British university. Frances confesses to finding motherhood difficult at such a young age. “I’ve been a waitress and a cleaner and worked with children but the hardest job I’ve ever had to do was being a mammy and I’d say well done to anybody who has done it successfully because it wasn’t easy for me, particularly being so very young. The only thing I ever wanted to achieve in my life was to be a good mother. I wanted my kids to have nice opportunities and be happy and I didn’t want them to have the same problems that I had. And I did something right somewhere along the line because they’re wonderful kids and I’m really proud of them”.

Frances was devastated by the loss of her own lovely mother Patty at the end of October at the age of 87 years. Many people will recall Patty’s appearances on the Late, Late Show, when she was almost eighty years of age, singing songs such as “The Charladies Ball” and “Now I Have to Call Him Father”. “She was passionate about singing and dancing” recalls Frances fondly. “If you met my mother in the shop at ten o’clock in the morning and asked her to sing for you she would. Mammy was born in 1916 and reared in Eugene Street. She came through some tough times because there was an

awful lot of poverty at that time. She was a wonderful dancer and she used to go to the ballrooms. The band would ask Mammy to come up and sing a few songs and entertain the crowd at half-time while they were having their break and she absolutely lived for it. She met Dad through a blind date and she was kind of late getting married because a lot of people would have got married back then in their early 20s but Mammy was 33 getting married and 34 having Shay. She had all of us two and a half years apart and she had me when she was 44. My parents were mad about each other, although they used to kill each other too of course, like everyone does. Times were tough but my mother was so strong”.

The pain of such a recent loss is still clearly etched in Frances’s face and her voice becomes softer and more tender. “My mother had great spirit and a heart of gold and when she walked into a room, the whole place would light up. When you met her, you knew there was something special about her. There were always loads of people in our house and she was always feeding people. All our friends loved her but she used to kill them all too and they weren’t even her children! I remember coming in late one night with Martin and a friend of his who was staying at the time and Mammy was waiting up for us “ Where were you until this hour” she said and Martin and I got a box on the way in the door. Martin’s friend came in last, all smiles saying “Ah howya Mrs Black” and she gave him a clatter too and told him to get up the stairs!

I think what was lovely about my mother was her combination of honesty and innocence. She said exactly what she felt no matter what and it could get you into really embarrassing situations. She was a tough woman and she was really direct and honest. My parents eventually opened a shop in Charlemont Street and somebody might come into the shop for example and say “that bread you gave me yesterday was stale Mrs Black”. “It was not” she’d reply indignantly and there’d be murder in the shop. It wasn’t the case that the customer was always right with my mother! “ she laughs. ”She was a really kind and wonderful mother though and she worked her heart out for us”.

Patty was extremely proud of her talented children but was never a boastful or ambitious parent. “She would have loved to be a singer but she never, ever pushed me or Mary” Frances asserts. “However, when we got up to sing in the choir or whatever, it was the one time she really showed her feelings -you would see how proud she was. We were never a particularly huggy family but when I came home from school and told her that I was accepted into the Young Dublin Singers, it was the first time I remember her hugging me and picking me up and swinging me around. It was really hard to get into the choir - you had to be a singer to be accepted and Mammy was saying novenas for me.

As we got older and all started having our kids, she was a wonderful granny. She used to mind Eoghan and Aoife all the time for me and she used to mind Mary’s kids. She was great – when I think about it now, I don’t know if I could have done what she did. She was running the shop until all hours and minding kids as well”.
It is clear that the loss of her beloved mother has affected Frances deeply. “I miss her terribly and I’m dreaming of her every single night. I can’t believe she’s gone. Sometimes I feel myself saying “That’s enough now, I’m separated from her long enough and I want her back now” she says poignantly. “What she went through in the end was heartbreaking and really horrendous. She was such a good patient but her quality of life was gone - she couldn’t walk or talk and it wasn’t fair. She was in a nursing home and they used to have to blend her food for her and she used to eat it purely for our sakes, although she hated it. It was her time to go and pass on to another spiritual dimension. She was a great age and she’d had a wonderful life - a tough life, but she lived it to the best of her ability. She reared five children and we all did okay in the end and that was her doing. We all went into the music business, which was unbelievable back then. Most families wouldn’t hear of their children going into the music business and it was generally a case of “No way, you’ll go out and get a good, pensionable job” but our mother never discouraged us and was always there and supported us in anything we did”.

As a child, Frances asked her mother what she would do if she could fulfil a dream and discovered that Patty yearned to do something she had seen on an old film. ”My mother’s dream from a very young age was to walk in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York so I brought her there for her 80th birthday. A friend arranged good seats at the parade and we were also invited to a breakfast with the Mayor of New York. Albert Reynolds, the Taoiseach at the time was at it and Gerry Adams was there and he was surrounded by about ten FBI agents. It was at the height of the Peace Process and Mammy couldn’t believe she was so close up to Gerry Adams in person because he was in all the newspapers at the time. So we went closer to have a look but Mammy was very feeble on her legs and these men were pushing everybody away from him. Suddenly Gerry saw us and he ran over to her - he must have recognised her from the Late, Late Show or something - and he grabbed her up and hugged her and said “Mrs Black, it’s lovely to see you” . He was so nice to her and she was thrilled and I was delighted for her. And afterwards, when he went off she was so shocked that she had met him that she actually got weak and her legs went from under her” she reminisces.

“Her dream was actually to march in the parade but obviously I couldn’t organise that for her because she could hardly walk at all at that stage. We were trying to get to the other side of the road at one point in the parade and all these New York police were holding people back and they weren’t letting people cross over. My mother went up to this huge policeman and she was saying up to him “What’s your name? I’m from Ireland and I’m 80 years of age” and after a while he started to smile and I could see he was beginning to weaken. Eventually she won him over so he said “Come on – I’ll bring you across” because there was a big gap in the parade. But the thing was that it took her ages to cross because she was really feeble and was walking on her stick. The band started to come up the road and I was trying to hurry her up when all of a sudden she took up her stick and started twirling it like a baton twirler as she crossed the road”. Frances laughs fondly at the memory. “So she was saying, “Quick, take a picture of me” and was delighted with herself because she got her dream - she got to march in the parade!“
The spirited and fun-loving Mrs Black enthusiastically embraced the New York party spirit with a stamina that greatly amused her youngest child. “There were nights when she’d be in the bar and I couldn’t get her out of it. She never drank or anything, she just wanted loads of craic. One night, we brought her out to Yonkers where a friend of mine was living and there was a great session on in the pub. I get bored in pubs because I don’t drink and after a while I was saying “Come on Mam, we’ll have to go” and she was going around telling everybody how boring I was and how I was spoiling her fun. “She wants me to go home and I want to stay here. Can you give me a lift home?” she was saying and they were all in stitches and I was mortified”.

Patty’s death occurred in October the middle of Frances’s sold-out Irish tour, just as her new album was released. The grief-stricken songstress contemplated cancelling the rest of the tour and really only continued with it because she knew how disappointed her mother would have been with her. She pays tribute to Patty on stage by singing the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” because her mother loved Judy Garland. “I really, really miss her” she says wistfully “but when I pay tribute to her on stage it absolutely and utterly helps me because it’s the only time I get to talk about her and feel sad about her. I’m really lucky that I can grieve for her on stage because I found it very hard to get back into singing after she died. There was no incentive for me to sing and I came to the realisation that I sang for her. Even when she was really ill, I’d be telling her about the gigs and how they went really well or that I had just finished an album and you’d see her eyes lighting up, and even though she couldn’t talk you could see she was delighted”.

While she still has a long way to go in the grieving and healing process, the future is looking bright for Frances with an ever-increasing worldwide fanbase, a wonderful new album, and an increased sense of her own self worth. “I’ve come on in leaps and bounds compared to what I was. I’m starting to believe in myself now for the first time in my life” she asserts. With an inner strength that has helped her to overcome the odds to become the success story she is today, there is no doubt that Frances Black is at last beginning to claim the spotlight that she so richly deserves.

“How High the Moon” is available now from all leading record shops. For up-to-date news on Frances, including forthcoming concert dates, check out her excellent website, www.frances-black.net