Mary Coughlan: 'I like to think I'm absolutely bionic now'

The enduring singer reflects on a tumultuous career of ups and downs, and her fond memories of Derry where she'll celebrate her 62nd birthday, at this year's Jazz and Big Band Festival

'Everything is good' for Mary Coughlan at the moment.

That's a good thing – exceptional, even – for the Galway-born jazz and folk singer, considering the stress of the tour she's undertaking.

Thirteen concerts in 15 days, beginning in Perth, Scotland on April 9 and concluding (for now) in the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic on April 22, have left Coughlan 'absolutely, totally and utterly wrecked' as she sits down back home in Ireland to carry out this interview. But she also feels 'brilliant' with every gig at least close to being sold out.

Coughlan can expect an equally impressive reception when she arrives in Derry~Londonderry. Described as having 'the grief of Billie Holliday, the soul of Van Morrison and the defiance of Edith Piaf', Coughlan will join 'Van the Man' on the roster of this year's City Of Derry Jazz & Big Band Festival, taking to the Millennium Forum stage on Saturday May 5. 

A day that also happens to be her birthday. 'I hope there will be cake!', she laughs.

Some who remember Coughlan performing in the Maiden City three years before with two of the Woman's Heart artists, Frances Black and Sharon Shannon, might be forgiven for thinking this year's set, with a four-man-band, might be quite the genre cross. But Coughlan doesn’t believe this is the case.

'I treat those gigs as I would treat any gig', she says. 'There, everyone sings their songs and I sing mine, before we all unite for a big 'get together' at the end. When I perform myself, it is me and a full band of four guys doing a 90-minute show featuring songs from all 15 albums. Including encores, if we get them.'

It helps that the band – guitarist Jimmy Smith, pianist Johnny Taylor, double bassist Cormac O'Brien and drummer Dominic Mullan – are like a 'second family' to Coughlan, on the road and on stage. 

With plenty of aunties in Derry, she'll not be short of family in Northern Ireland's second city either. A city that holds several fond memories for her, including performing with local jazz legend Gay McIntyre and travelling over the border, as a youngster, with her Donegal-born father to buy her first pair of knee high boots in Pump Street.

'There were all sorts of clothes that you’d find there, in the 70s, that you wouldn't find in the west of Ireland', Coughlan says.

An adopted Derry girl, then. Of sorts. Does this mean she's seen – yes – Derry Girls?

'Yes, I have. And it's incredible! The funniest thing about it is that one of the schoolgirls, Nicola Coughlan, is from Galway. But we're not related. I'm originally a Doherty from Donegal, don't forget!'

Coughlan, now 61, was a relative latecomer to the singing game. 'When I was about four my mother taught me a song called 'Two Little Orphans' by Bridie Gallagher,' she recalls. 'My father was a big fan, and he had all her records. So it became my party piece, really.

'But I never thought about singing as a career until I was in my thirties.' That was in the aftermath of her first album, Tired And Emotional – the recording of which was a novel experience.

'I'd never been in a recording studio before, or worked with a band... it was all very new to me, but very exciting.'

After completing the album, Coughlan received a call from RTE's Siobhan McHugh and Shay Healy, who were so 'blown away' by her demo tape that they asked her to do a live show in Dublin for the Sounds Promising radio programme. Then came the breakthrough. 

'Gay Byrne happened to be walking past the studio I was singing in. He asked "Who is this woman?" They introduced me, he asked if I'd do The Late Late Show the following week. From then on, I haven't looked back. 

'It all happened very quickly, very suddenly, but it was the kick start I needed, because in those days, any appearance on television was important for music, and The Late Late Show was huge.'

It's said that the art speaks for the artist rather than the artist speaking for the art, but all art has personal elements. And this is especially true for Coughlan, whose turbulent upbringing and marriages – from which she has five children - have had 'everything to do' with the songs she sings, the singers she listens to and the way she performs.

'I've always been inclined to melancholia', she admits. 'When I was born, we had issues in our family, and I've written about them publicly in a book called Bloody Mary, which encouraged hundreds of letters from women in Ireland telling me about the same, or worse. I was an alcoholic, and I knew that I wouldn't move on from it if I didn't talk about it, which, in turn, encouraged other people to talk about it and debunked the whole shame around it. I can be funny and tragic at the same time, though I don't know where I got my sense of humour from.'

mary coughlan press

With this perspective, and sense of humour, come remarkable recovery powers, which were certainly required to guide Coughlan through a very difficult time in late 2016, when she was forced to cancel gigs due to heart problems. She bounced back quickly however.

'People were waiting for me to perform at Electric Picnic that September. I had told people I was sick, but I don’t think they believed me. But then a picture of me in hospital, with all those tubes coming out of me, appeared on Facebook. Ten days later, however, I started a tour of Germany, believe it or not! So I like to think I am absolutely bionic now.'

Indeed, as she'll no doubt prove this weekend as she turns 62 no less, it looks as though nothing is going to keep Mary Coughlan down.

Mary Coughlan will perform at the Millennium Forum on Saturday May 5 as part of the City Of Derry Jazz & Big Band Festival 2018. To book tickets phone 028 7126 4455 or visit www.millenniumforum.co.uk.