Mary Coughlan Biography and Interviews

From an interview with Eileen Battersby in The Irish Times on Thursday, April 27 2000.

'I am still alive. I'm not Billie Holiday'

There are parallels between the life of Mary Coughlan and Billie Holiday, the singer she celebrates in a new show opening next week. A main difference is that the Galwayborn singer is alive and well at 44. But it was a close shave, as she tells Eileen Battersby Thursday Interview: Mary Coughlan discovered the legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday when she was 17 and living in London. "I bought this album, Lady in Satin - they were records then, not CDs - and it was bloody fantastic. It blew my mind and I've been hooked ever since." On Tuesday Coughlan opens at the HQ on Abbey Street in Lady Sings the Blues, a show devoted to the songs that made Holiday famous.

All the same it also must be said that for all the unique sound of the wistful voice deliberately slightly behind the beat singing laments from the gut, part of the Holiday myth is due to the misadventure that was her life. "She died young, destroyed by booze and drugs. I understand all that. I've been there too," says Coughlan. "I've read everything about her. She's not my hero but I admire her singing; her choice of material, her musicians, the friendships she struck up with her band. They were her family. I admire her professional life, but not her private life."

Mary Coughlan the woman has survived against the odds. As for Coughlan the singer, she is about to find out. "So many things have happened, but I'm still here," she says. A mother of five, she still lives in the house in Bray she almost lost, as she did a previous home in Howth, when money became scarce. She has been very famous and almost forgotten, certainly written off by all but her most loyal fans. She knows what it is like to record in New York and to be unrecognised, not just ignored, in the local shop here. Her CDs can be difficult to find now. Most of all, though, she knows what it is like to face death, not as a result of an accident, but through her own self-destructive behaviour.

The story is chaotic and clichéd. "Ah now, everyone knows the whole bloody saga." Coughlan rose as if from nowhere, a housewife and mother of three who, at 29, began singing publicly. She immediately won a following with her first two albums: Tired and Emotional and Under the Influence. Nine others followed.

"I was really big," she says matter of factly, "but that was 10 years ago. I was a part of the A Woman's Heart thing, a woman's arse, that whole thing that had lonely women in bedsit-land all over Ireland singing along with it. Sitting in and singing these sad songs about women's lives, all to themselves, on their own. But that's all over now. No one sits alone in bedsit-land anymore. They've all bought houses and fancy apartments. The Celtic Tiger, don't you know? And anyhow, I lost the run of myself and everything slipped away from me. Not through ego but because of the drinking and my anger and hopelessness."

How bad was the drinking? "Jaysus, I was a compete alcoholic; for most of my 30s I was drinking three or four bottles of vodka a day. And tequila as well." Why? "I just was; there's the music and the business, people making a fuss over you, people dropping you, that's what happens. You just want to drink, it seems easier at the time. I just couldn't handle any of it. I was angry at everyone, angry at myself. Above all, I was angry, ready to blame everyone. I didn't take responsibility and a lot of people fucked me over. But it could have been worse. If I was dead you wouldn't be writing about me now. It's all okay and I've the builders in and all."

Unlike many performers, Coughlan does not expect everyone to be an expert on her work and for much of the conversation seems more intent on discussing Holiday's achievements rather than her own. When she produces a tape from her bag it is not of her singing, but of Holiday.

"Here listen to that, it's good, you'll like it." Their voices are different, Coughlan's bluesy tones are lower. "She started singing at 18, I didn't do anything until I was 29 and a housewife - the singing housewife - I think she was a man's woman. I think I am as well." It's true, even her conversation has the sound of someone well used to being one of the lads. And equally well used to dealing with children. There are no airs. She delivers herself: earthily, good naturedly, warts and all - with jokes thrown in.

Later she gives me a lift back towards the office. Surprise, surprise, we get stuck in traffic. "It's okay, I'll get out here," I said. "Why?" inquired Coughlan, peering through her glasses, "Are you scared?"

Her first marriage ended but as she says, "I was never on my own. I've had a fair few relationships. I've been with Frank for what, 10 years; he's wonderful, he's American." They have two children, of eight and three. "My other three are grown up. Yes, it's like having two families. And I can tell you, it's a lot harder now. I've less energy."

A FEW hours earlier, standing in the smoky rehearsal studio, Coughlan looked thoughtful, almost remote and ordinary, a small, scatty middle-aged woman waiting at the school gates or at the petrol station. Then she turns, sees the newcomer at the door and comes over. There is no ceremony, no handler.

"You found me. Everything is cool," she decides, even about my car blocking the entrance. "No one will mind." But they will. "Oh is it that one? Maybe you'd better shift it," she says. First of all, though, she has a date with her dressmaker. "It's for the dresses for the show." Off she goes with a plan to meet later.

Though a chatty, friendly character with a bantering approach to anecdote and a robust sense of humour, she seems shrouded in an aura of perpetual distraction. But Coughlan, for all her zany asides, is deceptively exact, dissects questions, and laughs at the irony of it all. The new show; the new album, delayed for various reasons that are nothing to do with her, but now due in September; the fuss; the interviews - she has been this way before.

The only difference is she is now older, wiser and presumably tougher. When she re-appears, she is full of praise for the tailor. "Her name is Denise Assass. She is a genius." She looks at me, notices I don't feature in the fashion stakes either, and says: "If you ever needed anything good, she is an expert, a real tailor. This is serious. My dresses are wonderful. If nothing else goes well, the audience will remember the dresses." Coughlan is sure of her voice, but she is not vain and says - "I'll put up my hair, stick the contact lenses in and put on one of the dresses and away we'll go." The dresses for the show are 1940s-style.

Her parking is suitably flamboyant. There is a lot of optimism in the way she asks: "Do you think I'll get away with it there on the footpath if I leave the blinkers on? We can watch it from the window." It doesn't seem that good a bet. She moves the car.

Holiday becomes a ghost at the table. Coughlan starts laughing as a chocolate muffin collapses into large pieces and she says the mess reminds her of her youngest son. "At the moment he's taken to Sellotaping his toys to the furniture. I'm sure it means something, I don't know what . . . When the show opens on Tuesday, I'll be 44, the same age Holiday was when she died. Did you know her mother was 13 when she was born? She had a hard life, really terrible, she was abused when she was young and got knocked about by men."

Coughlan also points out there is more than one version of some of the facts of Holiday's life. "There's even two birth certs. One saying she was born in 1915, the other one 1919. But I'm sure 1915 is right and that she was born in Philadelphia not Baltimore."

Coughlan was born in in Galway, in 1956. "The show opens around my birthday, May 5th. It's supposed to be a big deal, the first time in 3,000, or is it 5,000, years since some stars or planets meet up . . . I'm not sure. I don't believe in all that shit, do you?" The Galway accent has remained intact although she appears well removed from the native place she returned to from London but left again in 1986. There was a lot of anger in her younger self. "I was mad at everyone, my parents, although I made it up with my mother. And I fecked off to London a few days after my Leaving Cert."

By 20 she had had her first child. "I was an earth mother with three children under seven and I was determined to do everything right: healthy eating, macrobiotic cooking, breast feeding, the lot. And look what happened." She gives another of her ironic laughs. Is she bitter? "Yes, no. Not really. Not any more." She smiles before remarking that by the age of 38 she had been in and out of hospital more than 30 times. Still, for all she's gone through, she does not look ravaged. She merely looks her age, no more. "But then, I haven't been drinking for six years."

Does she feel she's paid a heavy price for being honest? "No, not at all. Sure, there's no price to be paid for honesty - only for telling lies." But how about the exposure? "Naw, what's has been, is; it's a wonderful feeling to know you've been honest and open, especially if people have been helped from that honesty. I don't want it to look like I've gone around helping people but if people have been helped from my talking about my experiences, it's great. I ended up in intensive care at the Mater Hospital with the surgeon telling me when I was completely conscious that what he was going to do was stick tubes in my heart to keep me alive. It was all very drastic . . . I had about a half-hour to live.

"So I did all the stuff you're supposed to do. I was in the Rutland Centre; I stopped drinking and started talking about what had set me off. I had loads of baggage; the anger, the lot. But now I haven't touched anything for almost six years. I don't even smoke. Well, that's a lie. I smoke maybe two or three a day - but nothing before Coronation Street. That sounds pathetic doesn't it? Not before Coronation Street."

For her, the first two albums remain the most memorable. Her latest, The Last Hon- eymoon, has not yet been released. "It was due to be out last September but the record company" - loud laughter - "it could only happen to me, went bust. But the good news is that it has been picked up by another label, and is being produced by Greg Cohen. I recorded it in Dublin and New York - that sounds good doesn't it? - and it will be released in September."

Long before the "career" began, Coughlan was singing. "I always sang, everywhere and anywhere. I'm a great woman for singing in toilets. I've always loved the acoustics of bathrooms. Some of my best singing has been done in toilets. And the supermarket. Anywhere. At home, my children silence me by pulling furniture across the floor."

Had The Last Honeymoon been released last year as planned she would by now have been promoting the album.

With the upcoming show, she is facing a demanding run, singing 32 songs each night. Has she a favourite? "Good Morning Heart- ache." She sings the opening lines.

Does she see this show as a comeback? "No, I don't. But Pat Egan does." Another burst of laughter. "I never really went away. I never stopped singing, not even when I was sick. Everything is going to be fine. We've still got the lovely house in Bray and as I said, we've the builders in. Everything is grand. I am still alive. I'm not Billie Holiday."

Lady Sings the Blues with Mary Coughlan opens on Tuesday at the HQ Abbey Street, Dublin.

©Copyright 2001 Patrick Horrigan (Raindog). Reproduction of any graphics or photographs strictly prohibited without permission.