Black Moon Rising
Frances Black has gone from strength to strength since the million selling A Woman's Heart. But the struggle for the former single mother — who beat the booze along her way to the top, — has been anything but easy. As her new album How High the Moon is released she opens up to John Daly.
No one is safe from the dreaded ear clampers, it seems. On a bright and breezy Saturday morning when the precincts of Grafton Street conform perfectly to the lines of the old Noel Purcell song, Frances Black arrives dead on time and slightly flushed from her exertions.
"Could you believe that hopping out of the car in Rathmines just to pick up some dry cleaning would get you clamped on a sleepy Saturday morning?" she asks with good-natured exasperation. As a born and bred native of Dublin's fair city, she smiles ruefully at this unkind fate that is now part and parcel of daily life in the capitol: "I hate being late for anything - but getting clamped - what can you do?" Vowing to treat herself to something nice in BT's just as soon as our meeting is over, she settles gracefully into the yielding sofa for coffee and sympathy. As the youngest member of the Black family, Frances has been going it alone for over a decade now with seven albums to her credit including Talk To me, The Sky Road and Don't Get Me Wrong.
Why this times it's personal
Her latest solo offering, How High The Moon, has just been released. "All my records mean something to me, but I think this one is special in the fact that I became so involved with every aspect of its production" she says. "The songs are very personal to me - who I am, what I'm about at this stage of my life, the happiness and sadness of the world - it's really my baby."
Having made the serious breakthrough with her contribution on the million-selling A Woman's Heart, Frances Black smiles at the speed of sand in the hourglass and her passage from the chorus to centre stage. "It seems like a lifetime ago since A Woman's Heart, all the changes that have happened to me in that ten-year period. Being part of that made me, really - but it's hard to leave it behind even if I wanted to" she laughs. "A Woman's Heart seemed to hit such a chord with people, everyone has a song in there that meant deeply personal things to them - but sometimes you need to move on from that, try to expand yourself as an artist." With the inevitable chorus of noble calls at concerts, however, she's happy to give the people what they want even a decade later: "I try to do what I can in concerts, of course I do, they're the audience, after all." Dressed in a simple black coat, white shirt and faded denims, Frances Black has the kind of chatty personality where minutes quickly become hours. With sparkling eyes framed by her blonde tresses, she is by turns candid and amusing on the varied and complex path that is success in the music industry. Platinum discs may have fashioned childhood dreams into adult reality, but she's never likely to forget it's the ticket-buying public who've made it all happen. "Talking to people after a gig can often be as important as the gig itself she explains of the backstage door that is permanently open to fans wishing a quick word.
The audience, and the two way street
"A strange thing happens to me when I get on stage in that I open up to the audience, I find myself talking to them, telling them things about myself and my life that I'd never dream of in any other situation. It's the strangest kind of connection, it happens without my knowing why or for what reason. And they respond to that and talk to me afterwards about their lives and the things that are important to them." A musical confessional where truth and intimacy is a two-way street. "They tell me things in a way that makes me never forget them - their fears, sadness, joys - I'm passionate about that connection, it is a magic that happens. Singing live is the happiest, and safest, place I can ever be in this world. That connection keeps me in touch with who my audience are and what they're like. Meeting people like that is the best kind of market research a singer could have."
For an artist whose particular connection to her audience has long ago lifted her well beyond the warm embrace of the Black family heritage, Frances admits that the terror of stage-fright still remains a constant in spite of the gold discs and sold-out houses. It goes back to her debut stage appearance at 16 when the worst thing that can assault a singer happened: "I opened my mouth and nothing came out" she recalls laughing "Nothing! My God, can you imagine? It still makes me shiver remembering. We were all on stage together and all I had solo was two verses - but I just dried up, nothing." Running for the safety of the curtains, she left the stage mortified, vowing never the sing again.
"In the end, it is all about confidence - believing in yourself, believing that you're good enough. That was very difficult for me in the beginning. Maybe it was because I was the youngest and all the others were so accomplished, I think I might have felt there was too much to live up to." As a teenager, in fact, music was the last place she wanted to be. "I'd no intention of making a career in music, it didn't really interest me at all. My dream back then was to work with children, having my own creche was the ultimate career as I saw it."
A push from a big sister
While Frances Black might not have seen her own potential, those closest to her saw the bigger picture. "My sister Mary was the real force that nudged me to taking the leap, she kept saying "You are a good singer but you just don't know it yet." She may be understood what I was going through having been there herself and wouldn't take no for an answer. Sibling rivalry didn't enter the equation: "She was a huge support for me, and still is - any obstacles I might come across are probably the same ones Mary had to negotiate herself. She understood my chronic shyness and helped me get beyond it. It's got to the stage where you can't shut me up now" she says, amused at how things have turned out.
In an early life that saw her grappling unexpectedly with motherhood at 19 and a well publicised battle with alcoholism, Frances Black's path to rapturous applause and multiple encores was pitted in equal quantity with the potholes of reality. Her revelations of personal frailty on The Late Late Show in 1994 brought a limelight and liberation that informed much of her early work. "When Gay said 'You have a drink problem, don't you?' and I told him my story, it never dawned on me how this would shock people so much. The idea that revealing such a thing about myself in public would prompt such a reaction says a lot about how much things have changed in ten years" she smiles. "Also, I guess becoming an unmarried mother at an early age only added to the situation in other peoples eyes. The Ireland of today is so totally different in terms of perception and acceptance - it almost seems like everybody will talk about some addiction or other nowadays" she laughs "It's like an accessory you have to have - especially in show business. Just remembering the way it felt to make an admission like I did back then, the sense of it being 'dirty' or unacceptable, makes me shiver. What happened to me was typical of so many women - only I didn't know that until I went public. We've come a long way in this country - and not all of it has been easy - but being able to talk openly about what we are and the troubles that follow us have all contributed to making us stronger, I think. I spent a lot of my life apologising for myself, putting myself down - I don't do that anymore. I don't need to do that anymore. These are liberating times, good times."
In a career where she's rarely been shy about issues that concern her - the divorce referendum was one - Frances Black points to the current situation of the Colombia Three as another area where her profile as an artist is useful. "It's more about the question of the justice they're getting in Colombia rather than their innocence or guilt that concerns me," she says quietly. "There is a sense that the system is not treating them fairly, indications that they are not receiving a fair trial. Does anybody really know what's going on over there? Because they are Irish people in a dire situation in a faraway place, I think it is important to try to highlight in whatever way one can the fact that this is happening and that something should be done."
In the company of others like Christy Moore, Seamus Heaney, Patricia McKenna and Harry Blaney, she sees no inherent conflict in artists using their status to highlight a perceived injustice that politicians seem unwilling to grapple with. "If we don't, who will?"
We grew up in a tenament house
Possessed of a conversational ease and apparent cheerfulness to the vicissitudes of life - car clampers included - Frances Black glories in her status as a true Dub. The familiar streets of her native city have always lured her homewards regardless of what exotic land she's wandered in. Yet, for her true spiritual roots, she points immediately to her father's lineage on Rathlin Island. "We grew up in a tenement house in the inner city and there were many hard times when my father couldn't get work as a plasterer" she recalled. "Real poverty where putting food enough for all of us on the table was a constant worry. But always, we would go to my aunt and uncle's house on Rathlin, and for a city child this was a paradise undreamed of. Even the journey there was magical - the train to Belfast, the bus to Ballycastle, and then the boat to this mist shrouded island with the waves crashing over the sides." In a fantasy world straight from a John Hinde photograph, the heart of Frances Black was captivated by a second home eons away from the grime of the inner city. "Homemade soda bread, butter from a churn, and milk still warm from the cow over the porridge. Wide open spaces, empty beaches, and the freedom to roam away from our parents. It was bliss, and now I do exactly the same thing with my own kids."