Mama Kaz Sings the Blues

The Belfast-based singer-songwriter has overcome domestic violence and drug addiction to forge a career in music

Who is Mama Kaz?

My real name is Karen Marcella McIntyre. I'm a singer-songwriter from Belfast, and I've been labelled 'a blues powerhouse'. Although I do write in different styles, ballads, for example, the blues are what I'm known for most.

From where did the Mama Kaz moniker originate?

Most people think it has something to do with The Mamas & the Papas, but it's the complete opposite. When I arrived on the blues scene in Belfast, people said I sounded like old-style, female blues singers such as Big Mama Thornton, Mama Bessie Smith, Janis Joplin, Etta James. So it was given to me affectionately by younger musicians and became a nickname. I used it to create my blues persona.

On your website it says that 'music saved my life'. How so?

I am a late starter in music. The reasons are way too long to go into, but in short I suffered abuse as a child and domestic violence as a young adult. That all took its toll when I had several breakdowns after years of clinical depression. I lost years of my early adulthood through drugs and alcohol abuse, and singing was my only escape.

When I came close to death, I decided I was given this voice for a reason. I taught myself a few guitar chords and used my journals of pain to turn them into songs. Then started the recovery. Music gave me something to fight for. It was the only thing I didn't have to explain anything to. It was always there if I needed it, and it never got angry when I didn't do it right.

You've been gigging for years, but a performance at the 2012 Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival, supporting Nanci Griffith, seems to have done your profile the world of good. Did it feel like a seminal gig?

I was used to tip-toeing around the songwriting scene in Belfast, but that moment changed everything. I had worked so hard to become a whole person, and was trying to tell my story through my music. I was ready to share. Music had made me strong again – all I needed was a platform to sing it from, and people seemed to relate. The reception I got was overwhelming.

Have you released any recordings as yet?

Yes, two releases in 2012. May brought my solo EP, Lipstick & Cocaine. Those three tracks brought closure with my past. They're not necessarily blues, more ballad-type songs. (See video above and SoundCloud player below). Then I released the single 'Mama's Express' with the Mama Kaz Band in July, which is more bluesy.

Lipstick & Cocaine, that's a pretty explicit title...

It is, and it was a big risk to take. But I wanted the song to be an education, a warning to those who think dabbling in drugs is cool. I didn't want to glorify drugs; I wanted to use my story to help others who are struggling with cocaine addiction.

The music video was strategically thought out with director Stephen Mullan so that it didn't glorify that life. I had my own daughter play me as a young woman, to show the damage drugs can do to families. I wanted to use my own recovery as a springboard for those still struggling, to show them that they can achieve anything if they really want to survive.

Blues has never gone out of fashion, and probably never will. Why is that?

Blues is life itself. You can lose yourself in a song, and sing or play whatever you feel in that moment. To me it's a genre that allows the performer to turn true pain into art. I can just sit and play acoustic and write songs that are personal, or play with a blues band or at a jam and be theatrical. I feel free from inhibitions. In that moment I'm a sort of female Joe Cocker, reaching deep down into the pit and trying to do the blues justice.

When women sing the blues, you feel for them. But sometimes, when men sing the blues, you just want to tell them to wise up and get on with it. Discuss.

I get told this a lot! It's funny because in Northern Ireland it's a male-dominated scene in the blues, so maybe us female performers are something of novelty. Growing up, I was inspired by local performers like Rab McCullough. It's like any genre though, some guys can sing ballads and some can't. Some girls can sing rock and some can't. It's up to the artist to present themselves to the best of their ability, and if it works, it works. 

Women have different tones, and in blues I think it's safe to say that most fans of the genre love it because of that raw edge. When a woman sings the blues, in the audience's eyes, it's sexier, passionate. The essence of a woman then becomes the essence of blues. You just have to watch early Bessie Smith to see what I mean.

Which artists do you look to for vocal inspiration?

My idol is Etta James. She was a troubled soul that I could identify with; when she sang it came across as enjoyable pain, if that makes sense. Others include Koko Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Ruthie Foster, Big Mama Thornton and Paul Rodgers.

If you could write or perform with any Irish artist, who would you choose?

I love Foy Vance and Mick Flannery at the moment, as I'm exploring outside blues. Those guys are just stunning. Hopefully one day I will duet with my friend and mentor, Joby Fox, who has been crucial in supporting and advising me on decisions in my career. To me, Joby is a true artist. His song 'I Love You', written for his partner Sophie, is the most wonderful love song I have ever heard. Maybe one day I will get to sing it with him.

What words of wisdom would you have for the little singer with the big voice who thinks that the world won't understand?

It's a tough world, so toughen up. Taking the knocks is what will guide you later on. Tread the boards, explore all avenues, be daring. Be true to your style. It's so easy to get caught up trying to please people to get where you want, but later on you will need your identity to cope with the crazy stuff. Believe in your songs, because nobody else went through that agony when you first put pen to paper. Pick the right people for your support network. Be honest.

What are your plans for 2013?

I have just announced that I am giving up my Mama Kaz Band after a successful 2012 to focus more on my solo career. We just won the best blues/rock award in Music Review Magazine, but I feel it's time for me to move on to explore my songwriting. I miss the vulnerability of my solo performances.  

Before we retire the band we will record a special song I have written for the charity, Cancer Focus NI, which will be used for their 'Run Fer Yer Man' campaign at the 2013 Belfast Marathon. I've also just secured management in London, so will be working between there and Belfast towards my album, which we will hopefully record in October.  

In my aim to keep the blues alive in Belfast, I have just launched my own Mama Kaz Blues Café at Madison's Hotel on Thursday evenings, which will showcase blues acts followed by a blues jam with monthly ticketed events bringing top bands like Pat McManus from Mamas Boys to Belfast. It is my contribution to the local blues scene whilst I focus on my songwriting.

Where can people see you play next?

I had a gig scheduled from March 8 in the Black Box as part of Belfast City Blues Festival, but I've had to cancel it as I'm on doctors orders to rest my voice. I ripped my larynx, so I'm attending a vocal coach to recover it over the next few months, but I'll be back soon. You can also vote for me to win the Kevin Thorpe Memorial Award at the 2013 British Blues Awards for my song, 'Mamas Express'.

Mama Kaz