The consensus is that Mary Coughlan is Ireland’s greatest living female vocalist. The word ‘female’ is important, to mark Van Morrison’s continuous reign in that field. In fact, it is very hard to find any reference to Mary Coughlan’s name in the media, without it being followed by the name of Van Morrison, but also that of Billie Holiday, to the point that it would not be out of line to think that, in an alternate reality, Mary Coughlan is the lovechild of ‘Van the Man’ and ‘Lady Day’.
“I’ve been listening to Van Morrison since I was probably 13 or 14 and to Billie Holiday since I was 17,” she says, not dismissing her emotional connection to both artists’ work.
Her approach to singing borrows from both and has resulted to a very unique, distinct sound, where the Irish folk song tradition blends in with jazz, blues and soul to create a very Mary-Coughlan-esque version of a torch song – and by ‘torch song’ , I mean songs that blowtorch your whole being, turning your life into ashes, out of which you’re then called to rise again.
At least that’s what the singer herself has done through music. “I’m an alcoholic,” she says. “I haven’t had a drink for 25 years and singing about it has been my salvation.” She has been very open about her fight with alcoholism and drug addiction and the devastation she’s been through – a brief account can be found on her website, a longer in her autobiography – and this kind of openness and “pretty raw” approach to singing lies at the centre of her relation with the listeners. “I work on songs from a different approach,” she says. “I usually start from the words first, then make arrangements. A song has to speak to my soul first. Sometimes I do this version of Joy Division’s ‘Love will tear us apart’ and I’ve had people cry throughout the song,” she says. “They always come and talk to me about it afterwards. That’s what music is for, to bring out all these experiences and emotions.”
But a night of Mary Coughlan song is more about pain and devastation. “There’s also a lot of humour and funny stories,” she says. “Because thats life; everyday is a journey, you never know what can happen.”
Her own journey has now brought her to Australia, where shes in the middle of a tour. After that, there’s another highlight awaiting. In November, she will star in a musical theatre project titled ‘Woman Undone’ in Dublin, developed in collaboration with Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurdsson, “who’s done six albums with Bjork and he’s worked with Sigur Ros and orchestras too;” he is composing his electronic-infused music to Mary Coughlan’s lyrics, which narrate her own experiences with sexual abuse. “A lot of women in Ireland have experienced the same thing,” she says. “It’s going to be a very powerful show. It’s nice to keep moving musically and artistically and I’m excited to work with Valgeir. There will also be a dancer on stage and also four other singers.”
So there you have it. It takes five singers to tell the Mary Coughlan story.