Alongside a certain other Mary .. O’Brien, aka Dusty Springfield !! .. Mary Coughlan is probably the most famous female Irish singer to have emerged in recent times, and she’s considered to be ‘Irish vocal royalty,’ which is some achievement considering she only began her singing career in 1994, at the age of 28! Coughlan’s living proof of the old show business canard about how those singers, the ones whose voice and emotions tug at the heartstrings and the soul, are often those who’ve had to struggle to overcome demons to get to where they currently are. In Coughlan’s case she can point to battles with alcoholism, a spell in a mental hospital and a miscarriage caused by collapsing whilst drunk … not to mention career mismanagement which, at one time, saw her lose her home and car. But she’s now clean and sober and using her vocal gifts to delight audiences right across the world.
Life Stories, her latest album, is another collection of songs which will stir the emotions of all but the very heartless. She possesses what Leonard Cohen referred to as ‘the gift of the golden voice’, though it isn’t a sweet voice. Her voice probably couldn’t charm birds out of trees, but it’s a voice which has seen life in all its myriad forms, straddling as it does the Mississippi and the Liffey; a voice suggesting, if Billie Holiday had been born in the Emerald Isle, she’d have been Mary Coughlan.
She sings in a variety of styles on this album, from the fast-tempo and upbeat Forward Bound to the almost M.O.R. Do It Again, and she sings about the things which resonate with women, with lines like ‘I don’t feel like cleaning the kitchen’. Two Breaking Into One concerns a relationship breakdown due to the man’s infidelity, the jazzy High Heel Boots celebrates women’s feelings when they wear something which lifts them up and makes them feel good, and just how many women have ever asked themselves ‘Why do all the bad guys taste so good’ after a particularly painful emotional experience? The album concludes with an irreverent up-tempo look back over her own life and experiences, Twelve Steps Forward And Ten Steps Back, with its message of ‘twelve steps forward and don’t look back’.
But, for this reviewer, she’s at her best when she sings the slower, mournful songs and gives them the full range of her emotional expression. Just like Beth Hart, you can almost feel the pain in her voice. Family Life is a very moving emotive song with just minimal piano backing and shimmering strings behind. The autobiographical Safe And Sound asks ‘How could I love you when I couldn’t love me?’ and is a gorgeous tune, as is the slow and luscious No Jericho with its beautifully understated guitar middle eight. To hear her sing is truly to be at the core of the human heart.
Album release date is 4 September 2020