Singing the Blues from the Heart
Honesty is the best policy. As it is in song, so it is in life for Mary Coughlan.
"If you don't wash your own dirty linen, the press'll do it for you," she part roars, part giggles in an 'I've got the measure of you, boy' kind of tone. "But they can say what they like because they'll never be able to say anything about me that anybody would be shocked about or that I would be ashamed of. Not any more."
Such a forthright preemptive strike is not untypical of a singer whose first album bore the title Tired and Emotional. At twenty-eight, she was a late starter. At least as far as music was concerned. But behind the surface jocularity which audiences loved and which led them to refer to Coughlan as the Galway rascal, there was a much darker story, a darkness that allows her to sing songs such as Poison Words, a tale of an abusive relationship, with an authority borne of experience.
Coughlan's life, by her own admission, has been rough. The eldest of five children in a far from well-off family, by her mid teens she was no stranger to drugs and was well on her way to alcoholism. At sixteen she was committed to a mental hospital and by nineteen she was a wife and mother, living in a hippie squat in London, having saved up enough through waitressing, nude modelling and sweeping streets to get out of Galway.
She thought that marriage and motherhood would fulfil her. But after six years and three children, she had to get out. "I was dying inside," she says.
Back in Galway, she knitted jumpers for the tourist trade to make ends meet. Then a friend who'd heard her singing around the house persuaded her to enter a local talent contest. It was October 1983 and she'd never sung on a stage before.
"I was in mortal terror," she recalls. "But I took a deep breath, thought 'here goes' and started up, and once I felt the way people were listening, really listening, it was the most marvellous thing I'd ever experienced. I didn't know then that I could ever make it as a professional. That was in the future. But I knew instantly that this is what I wanted to do."
She didn't win the talent contest - she came second to a sweet voiced young thing who sang country songs. But within two years, Coughlan had moved to Dublin and with the help and financial support of some musician friends, released Tired and Emotional. Within three years, she'd progressed from pub gigs and support slots to headlining, particularly in cities with large Irish populations like Leeds, Glasgow and London.
Tired and Emotional went on to sell 100,000 copies in Ireland alone and its successor, Under the Influence, confirmed Coughlan as a singer capable of making every song she sings her own. But with her sudden success came a resurfacing of old demons.
"I went completely AWOL," she readily admits. "I'd lie down and refuse to do anything. Eventually, nobody wanted to do anything with me, including myself. And d'you know what? I don't blame them. I'm appalled at the state I must have been in."
For musicians, drinking can be an occupational hazard. It fills in time otherwise spent idly hanging around waiting for trains, boats, planes and showtime. Then at gigs there's always somebody willing to stand the band another round. Plus the odd glass can steady nerves jangling with stage fright.
All of which can be relatively sociable indulgences. For Coughlan, however, drinking was a much more solitary pursuit. "I wasn't your average happy drinker," she says. "I'd go for three months without a drink - seventeen weeks, for some reason, was my watershed. Then I'd disappear for a week, lock myself in the bedroom and get through three or four bottles of vodka a day."
In 1993, after several attempts, she decided that she had to extend that watershed - indefinitely. She spent six weeks in rehab in Dublin drying out and still visits her counsellor every Tuesday. Now, with her head clear, her feet on the ground, a new marriage and two more children running about leaving toys all over the place, she has, she says, arrived at a more mellow, more contented phase in her life and her career.
"I'm totally enjoying singing now, much more than I ever did before," she says. "And having confronted my demons, I don't have to hide behind anything any more. I just get up and sing these songs that send a shiver up my spine and if they can do that for me, hopefully they'll do the same for the people out there listening."
© 2001 Rob Adams