I sometimes wonder why Frances Black doesn't call herself "Just Frances". Then, when people ask the inevitable question, "Why 'Just Frances', Frances? She could pointedly reply: "Why not? Do you know what it's like to be black?" OK, "a Black", as in "a member of one of Ireland's premier singing families", whose daughter, Mary, is undoubtedly the most prominent. But maybe not for long.
During an almost idolatrous speech at last week's launch of Frances Black's debut album, Talk To Me, Derry O'Brien of Córas Trachtála claimed that her recent performance at Midem led to at least 10,000 advance orders for the album from countries as far afield as Austria, Germany and Taiwan. At this rate, as Derry merrily pointed out, the album will probably go gold in a few weeks. But would the woman consider calling herself 'Just Frances'? Did she ever, even secretly, think of dropping the surname in an effort to ward off any mention of - y'know, the big sis , Mary? "Well, for a start, I'd never call myself 'Just Frances' because it's the Christian name, Frances, I've really hated all my life!" she says, laughing, as she orders coffee in the relatively quiet confines of the Museum room in Grafton Street's Bewleys, on a frantic Saturday afternoon. One can almost hear the ghost of James Joyce grumble "shite and onions, Frances, call yourself whatever you like!" She certainly speaks like a character from one of his stories in Dubliners,
"Even as a kid, I'd always see myself as a small, fat, scaldy-lookin' girl, whenever I'd think of the name 'Frances', " she continues.
"And going through adolescence I was always changing my name. I even wanted to call myself Andy! But 'Frances' is what my mother called me and that's who I am. The same applies to 'Black'. That's my father's name and I'm proud of it because - even though we're from Dublin - we were originally the Blacks from Rathlin Island. So I don't see why I should change it just because Mary is my sister. She can change her name!"
To Andy, perhaps? And yet, beneath the surface of Frances's healthy sense of humour does one detect just a teeny-weeny trace of annoyance at the constant comparisons between Mary and herself?
"When Mary was starting out as a singer and people'd introduce me as 'Mary Black's sister' I used to get up on me high horse; but now I realise that's bound to happen because she is my older sister and was established long before me," says Frances, somewhat mischievously.
"But Mary never stood in my way. And, to tell you the truth, the folky, family musical background people say we shared was probably influenced most by my brother Shay, who got into groups like Planxty and The Chieftains when he was about 14. I was listening to that kind of stuff too, at the time, but soon I got into Pink Floyd and Free and, later, James Taylor and Neil Young.
"That's the line I've followed and why, on the album, I have songs like John Lennnon's Intuition and two by Mark E. Nevin, from Fairground Attraction, rather than just folk."
Frances Black also loves classic pop singers such as Doris Day, whose hit Everybody Loves A Lover she recorded for her last album with Kieran Goss. Rejecting the superficial, Hollywood-
based image of Doris Day as the almost asexual "eternal virgin", Frances hears in her voice "great warmth, sensuality and beauty". These characteristics are made all the more meaningful and life-affirming when viewed against the background of the violence Day allegedly suffered at the hands of husband Artie Shaw, she agrees; and it is to melodies which express such inexpressible feelings
that Frances is drawn, rather than to merely words.
"Part of it, of course, is that if I'm going to record a song it must have a melody I can sing," she explains. "But I do find that what I hook into from the beginning is the melody. There's a track on the album, If Love Had Wings, and when I first heard it I said 'I'm just an ordinary singer, I'm not
Whitney Houston; I can't sing that!'
"But finally I did, because although I hate the chorus, I really love the verse. My whole response there was based on the melody rather than the words, though they, too, are beautiful."
Frances claims that her lack of self-confidence was brought to the fore during the making of this album by the presence of a person she'd rather not name.
"Actually, that guy was around during the A Woman's Heart gigs when I did the Doris Day song, Everybody Loves A Lover, and the sense I got from him was 'these songs are a load of crap, really Mary Hick territory'. And because he had a lot of experience in the music business I started to question my choices and become paranoid and intimidated.
"Finally, a gig I did in Glasgow was a disaster because I became really freaked out about my material. I wanted to confront him but
never had the courage to. Happily, he's no longer working for us and I'm really proud of what I've done on the new album. My dream was to do new, original songs for this and that's what I've done. I love tracks like the four Nanci Griffith sent to me, such as On Grafton Street."
One doesn't have to talk with Frances Black for too long to suspect that feelings of paranoia and intimidation may have troubled her for much of her life. She accepts that people are bound to be interested in these, and other, aspects of her private life - a factor of fame Mary Black finds totally unacceptable. However, Frances did encounter "a surprising set of responses" after her recent appearance on The Late Late Show, when she referred to her alcoholism.
"Firstly, though, I really have to say I don't want to become known as a singer who is an alcoholic, or for anyone to think I talk about
such things just for publicity. That's not what it's about, at all," she says.
"I didn't even think of such things before I talked to Gay Byrne, so I just answered 'yeah, I'm an alcoholic' when he said 'you'd a drink problem, hadn't you?' It never dawned on me that this would shock some people, make them say 'how could you reveal such a thing about yourself, as if it was something to be ashamed of.
"That's the problem with this country. We still push subjects like alcoholism under the carpet, hoping they will go away. But denying such things only makes them worse. I spoke about it that night hoping even one person would get some help from what I was saying." This is exactly what happened to Frances Black herself, after she read an article in The Irish Times, she claims. "I'd tried to give up drinking a few times but couldn't cope," she
recalls. "And the way I drank was that I'd sneak a few glasses during the day and definitely had to have at least a bottle of wine there to help me face the night. But it was only when I read that journalist's description of her own drinking patterns as an alcoholic that I realised 'Jesus, I have got the same problem'.
As a result of the kind of merciless self-analysis that is part of the recovery programme at Stanhope Street, Frances Black discovered that she had always used alcohol as a form of anaesthetic, to avoid dealing directly with pain.
"I'd gone through a lot of hurt when I became an unmarried mother, at 19, and then married because I didn't like that label and was getting a lot of pressure from my family," she elaborates.
"I was made to feel that being an unmarried mother was something dirty - which, I now see, is a terrible attitude. But I didn't want to face all that at the time, so I drank. Then my marriage itself went all wrong and I became very, very bitter and wary and hated all men for a long time. That's why I relate to that line in Nanci Griffith's song Time Of Inconvenience where she says: 'man has become my enemy'. That's what I thought, that all men were out to use, and abuse, women. And so I drank even more."
Frances now recognises that alcoholics also tend to blame everyone else for their problems, rather than blame themselves. Facing the effect her drinking had on other members of her family finally woke her up to the realisation of how destructive she herself had become. Having separated from her husband she also met, and fell in love with, her current companion and manager Brian Allen.
"He never put pressure on me to stop drinking but, in time, I could see he was beginning to disapprove of it," she says,
"Yet the moment that really tore me to pieces came during a part of the course in Stanhope Street where we had to write down how our drinking affected our families. I focused on a night when I really did neglect my kids because I stayed out drinking late. "I can't even bear to talk about it to you now, or I'll just get upset. But, I'll tell you, when I read out that story that night, I broke down and totally fell apart. And even though Eoin and Aoife seem not to have been affected by it all, I'm still keeping my fingers crossed that they won't be. But it is the memory of that one night that has kept me off drink."
That said, Frances Black admits that it is also concern for her children which makes her question whether or not she is right to be so honest, in public, about her experience as an alcoholic.
"But too few people in Ireland talk openly about these things. That's what I try to explain to my children hoping that, in time, they'll understand my motives," she says.
"But don't think I'm not protective towards them - I am. In fact, when I sing that other line in Time Of Inconvenience about children 'dumped out on these mean streets', I automatically think of those who exploit innocent children in brothels in the Third World and feel I really would kill those men. That's how protective I am towards children. But the truth is that when that woman journalist spoke about her alcoholism in your newspaper she saved my life. If I can do something similar for even one reader of this article then it will all be worthwhile."
Though widely perceived as being rooted in a rural-based family, Frances Black was born, and raised, in Dublin. She is 33 years old.
Closely linked to family background. She started singing professionally in 1986 when she joined her family to promote the album The Black Family. After a second album, Time For Touching Home, she left and joined Ar-cady. In 1992 she recorded an album with Kieran Goss and contributed two songs to A Woman's Heart.
Her latest album is Talk To Me. She began her Irish tour yesterday.