Woman's Way: An Interview with Frances Black

From Woman's Way

When Frances Black walks into a room or out onto a stage, she radiates a blend of warmth, humour, self-deprecation and emotional honesty that illuminates her surroundings. Ever since she first appeared as a solo artiste on the music scene in the early 1990s, the slender, blonde singer has enjoyed an enduring popularity that is as much attributable to her enchanting personality as to her beautiful voice.

The ease with which Frances connects with her audience, belies the fact that she has fought a huge personal battle to overcome the crippling shyness and insecurity that were the hallmarks of her childhood and early adulthood. She exudes compassion and empathy and is frank and open about the difficulties she experienced in early adulthood, including alcoholism, teenage motherhood and the break-up of her first marriage. A beautiful person, both on the inside and outside, Frances has worked hard on overcoming her negative self-image and lack of self-belief.

“I always had this image of myself as a failure even when my first album was at number one for ten weeks,” she admits. “But I’m working hard on my confidence and I’m coming around to the idea that I’m a good person - I’m starting to believe in myself now for the first time in my life.” Much of this growing confidence is attributable to the success of her singing career, combined with finding personal happiness with her second husband Brian, and the joy she has experienced watching her children Eoghan (23) and Aoife (21) grow into confident and successful young adults.

While she may look petite and vulnerable on stage, Frances sings with a passion and depth of emotion that underscores her inner strength and spirit. She attributes her stage confidence to the fact that she began singing at 17 with her older musical siblings, Shay, Michael, Mary and Martin, known collectively as the Black Family . “I was absolutely petrified but they made it easy for me,” she recalls. “I’d be standing there on stage with my big sister and three brothers encouraging me. When it came time for me to sing my verses, they’d be behind me saying, ‘Come on Frances, you can do this’”.

Frances has a really close relationship with her sister and brothers, all of whom are wonderful singers in their own right. “Shay is the eldest and he was my hero when we were children because he was ten years older than me. He got a guitar when he was twelve and he taught me to sing my first song. I was devastated when he went off to live in England when he was 20 because I idolised him. Michael comes next and he is such a gorgeous person - really gentle, kind, giving and loving. He’s the peacemaker of the family and there is a real serenity about him. Martin is the youngest boy and we were always really close. He’s really passionate about whatever he wants to do. I probably drove him mad when we were kids because I always wanted him to bring me out with his friends, but he was great and he always looked after me.”

Frances ’s sister Mary is, of course, a very well-known and successful singer herself, and she was the one to whom Frances turned when she needed help or advice. “Mary is fantastic and she’s the kind of sister that most people would love to have,” she asserts. “She has been really supportive of me through the troubled times, and she has always given me great advice and helped me to make the right decisions. I really don’t know what I would have done without her - I consider her to be my best friend.”

Frances and her siblings were devastated by the loss of their lovely mother Patty at the end of October 2003, when she was aged 87 years. “Mammy had a wonderful spirit and a heart of gold,” recalls Frances tenderly. “There was something very special about her. She was passionate about singing and dancing and it was really her influence that got us all involved in the music business. We saw how happy music and singing made her. My dad Kevin was a very quiet, gentle man, who worked really hard to make ends meet. He came from Rathlin Island, off the north coast of Antrim, and he played fiddle and mandolin.”

The Black Family has just released “Our Time Together,” a gorgeous album that demonstrates to perfection the amazing harmonies and sublime musical ability for which the family is renowned. It has been some years since the siblings recorded an album together because Shay and Michael are now both living in the U.S. “It is nearly impossible to get us all together,” says Frances “but when Shay and Michael came home for Mammy’s birthday last year, we went into the studio to put some tracks down. There is a track that Mammy sings on the album, called “A Bird In A Gilded Cage” that was recorded some years ago. We decided to listen to it in the studio and it was such a sad experience to hear her voice coming out of the speakers, knowing that she was lying in the nursing home seriously ill. She was still alive but we knew we were losing her. The amazing thing was that she held on to her singing voice even when her speech went. There is something very special about this album because there was such a bond between us when we were recording it. We were very much aware that it might be the last time the five of us would get to spend time together with Mammy as a family.”

Frances is still deeply grief-stricken by Patty’s death, but she draws comfort from paying tribute to her mother every night on stage by singing the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” selected because Patty loved Judy Garland. “I really, really miss her,” she says wistfully, “ 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 Mammy. Even when she was really ill, I’d be telling her about the gigs and how they went, 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 tell she was delighted. When I pay tribute to her on stage, it helps me greatly because it’s when I get to let people know how much I loved her and how much I miss her.”