“Mary is a living link between Billie Holiday and Amy Winehouse” – Uncut
MARY COUGHLAN is Ireland’s greatest jazz and blues singer and “one of our most openly raw performers” (Hotpress). In a career fast approaching its 40th year, she is about to enter its next, exciting stage. Born in Shantalla, Galway city, Mary has made some of the most uncompromising, wholly personal, and universal music by any Irish artist. While her roots are in jazz and blues – Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith are among her inspirations – pop, rock, folk, and chanson (Edith Piaf is also a touchstone) influences also appear in her work. Now, the next chapter of her distinguished career finds her exploring a little known side of the music of Peggy Lee.
To hear Mary sing, is, as Velvet Thunder said, “to be at the core of the human heart”. It was a voice which first came to wide attention in 1985, when Mary burst onto the Irish music scene with her debut album, Tired and Emotional. That album led to appearances on The Late Late Show, a hit single with ‘Delaney’s Gone Back On The Wine’, and tours of Britain, Germany, and Holland. She followed that explosive release with Under The Influence (1987), Uncertain Pleasures (1990), and Sentimental Killer (1992), which firmly established her reputation as an unflinchingly honest, emotionally raw vocalist, never afraid to embrace the most difficult of subject matter in her work.
As The Irish News said, she “doesn’t just take her audiences to church with her music, she practically baptises them with her passion and pain”.
It was the same in her 2009 autobiography, Bloody Mary, where she documented addiction problems, relationship troubles, familial abuse, career mismanagement, suicide attempts, and dark days spent confined to psychiatric wards. Despite the difficulties she encountered, the music kept coming with Live In Galway (1996), After The Fall (1997), Mary Coughlan Sings Billie Holiday (2000), Long Honeymoon (2001), The House Of Ill Repute (2008), best of set, The Whole Affair (2012), released the same year she enjoyed a sold out show at Sydney Opera House, and Live & Kicking (2017).
Mary is also no stranger to the big screen, having appeared in two films by acclaimed Irish director Neil Jordan – 1988’s High Spirits with Peter O Toole, Daryl Hannah, and Donal McCann, and 2005’s Breakfast on Pluto with Cillian Murphy and Stephen Rea. More recently, theatre has become another stage for Mary’s talents. In 2019, her early life was dramatised in Woman Undone, a “profoundly moving, brave, and beautiful fusion of theatre, music, and dance” (Galway Advertiser), created by Mary and the award-winning Irish theatre company Brokentalkers, in collaboration with Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurdsson, and movement director Eddie Kaye.
Now sober for close to 30 years, the mother of five and grandmother of six, reached new peaks as a performer and songwriter with her most recent album, 2020’s acclaimed Life Stories. By turns powerful, swaggering, sexy, harrowingly raw, and deeply honest, Life Stories runs the full gamut of both music and emotions, from cabaret (‘High Heel Boots’) to late night jazz balladry (‘Elbow Deep’, ‘No Jericho ) to some of the most exuberant pop oriented songs Mary has yet recorded (‘Forward Bound’, ‘Steps Forward’).
Released via the artist’s own label, Hail Mary Records, it reached No 1 on iTunes and Amazon; garnered five star reviews from Music Republic, Get Ready To Rock, and Musicriot.com. The Sunday Times Ireland said, “rarely has an album referenced a life so pointedly”, while The Daily Mail rightly said it was created by “a consummate talent at the top of her game”. To cap it all, in 2020, Mary was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the then Mayor of Galway, Mike Cubbard.
Never one to sit still, Mary is now planning her most ambitious project to date. While she has covered Billie Holiday, Joy Division, and The Blue Nile in the past, she intends to reimagine the album Peggy Lee made with the pioneering rock’n’roll songwriters Lieber and Stoller, composers of such songs as ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Jailhouse Rock’.
The album, Mirrors, described by Allmusic.com as “intelligent, evocative, understated, and mature”, explored themes of murder, madness, despair, longing, and the rise of Fascism in the USA. Mary has been eager to work on this project for many years, but it was during lockdown that the opportunity presented itself. This has led her to work with musicians and visual artists to create what will be an immersive, multimedia, experience.
What a way for Mary to mark her oncoming fifth decade in music.