Mary Coughlan – A Life Thoroughly Lived

By Jen Seyderhelm

Lows, highs and knitted hats

Irish singer-songwriter Mary Coughlan has ridden life’s lows and seized its highs, and has the voice, and song writing skills, to bring this story to us.

In 1984, 28-year-old Mary Coughlan was single with three young children. 

“To make ends meet I would clean offices, the windows of newly constructed buildings, and sell knitted hats at the weekend markets,” she explains. “Some evenings I would be encouraged to sing at parties and pubs in my hometown of Galway [Ireland].”

Mary eventually caught the ear of Dutch guitarist Eric Visser. 

“We entered a talent competition with compositions of Eric’s and came second,” Coughlan says. “Eric paid for me to enter the studio where we recorded some of his songs and an assortment of folk, country blues, and jazz numbers.” 

The resultant album was given the apt title of Tired and Emotional.

I’ve been listening to it in the car on repeat. There is a stretch of three songs – a Celtic folky stomp called Country Fair Dance (complete with accordions), the moody but radio friendly Lady In Green, and finally the blues and horns infused Seduced, which is among most sensual tracks I’ve ever heard. 

Each sound like they are sung by an entirely different artist.

Each are also so clearly enunciated that I could literally hang off every word. My mother, operatically trained, would always pick me up when I dropped my t’s or d’s. She’d be applauding here.

Just Be Irish!

Instinctively musical, rather than classically trained, “that enunciation is an Irish thing,” Coughlan tells us. When it was discussed in the studio whether she should go for the contemporary American style looser language, “Eric told me to be myself. Be Irish. Sing my way.

“It was fun to create this jigsaw puzzle of parts of myself,” Coughlan continues. “At the time, the album would never go beyond Galway Bay, so I could speak to topics that were still forbidden in Ireland like divorce, women’s rights, and (gasp) enjoying sex.”

Somebody, probably Eric, sent a cassette tape demo to the TV juggernaut The Late Late Show. By chance, long time host Gay Byrne was walking past the producers when Coughlan’s voice was being played. He said,

“Who is she? Book her.”

Coughlan performed having rehearsed only one of her songs for a live audience (the astonishing beautiful Meet Me Where They Play The Blues). And then: 

“In the darkened studio, when they asked me for ‘something else’, I did Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, off the top of my head.”

That session resulted in Tired and Emotional selling more than 100K copies and Coughlan being catapulted into a world of touring, excess, and record company demands. 

In turn Mary drank to excess herself (she’s 29 years sober now) and lost everything, including her way. 

Love revival

“With the love of my children and grandchildren, the safe recording environment I have shared with Eric and my band for more than 30 years, and finding a platform to make real change to the situation for women in Ireland and beyond…” she is experiencing a career revival similar to her friend and recent Grammy winner Bonnie Raitt. 

“My cover of Bonnie’s I Can’t Make You Love Me is my most downloaded track!” she enthuses.

In 2018, prior to Covid, she wrote and performed an opera play based loosely around her life called Woman Undone

“During lockdown, I created Life Stories [her latest album].” 

And it is exactly that, with a side order of her distinctive sassy songs like High Heel Boots

There are many similarities to Tired and Emotional. Both have break up songs (Double Cross & Two Breaking Into One; “about the men I have shared my life with,” including the notorious relationship with Frank Bonadio. “Fuck ‘em,” she flatly states); riffs to alcohol and breaking free of it, joyous tributes to sex (“Currently, I’ve got a fractured foot, so I can only look at my high heel boots,” she quips) and odes to her family, to steal a song title from fellow Irish artists The Cranberries.

Her connection to friends and family run deep. 

“Before I reach Australia, I’ll be visiting my friend Anne in Syria to perform a concert for displaced and abandoned women and children,” she says. “I’m concerned for her my grandchildren, too, and how deeply they feel the world’s plight.”

Wows the crowd

As a woman who has been there and see it all, for a bit of lightness she took her 16-year-old granddaughter to a show at The Globe.

“Afterwards, we wandered to the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral where I sang a rousing rendition of Feed The Birds,” much like the Bird Lady in Mary Poppins 60 years previously. 

“My granddaughter was mortified,” she says, with a smile in her voice.

At a later gig the same granddaughter sat up front and cheered, laughed, and sang along as Coughlan wowed the crowd. 

As she does. 

Coughlan doesn’t “listen back to radio or TV” that she’s done, but will watch performances because she knows she was in the moment, with her voice and music, like on the steps of St Paul’s. 

And we can join her in the moment on Thursday, March 16, 7:30pm, at the Street Theatre. Tickets are $49 via the venue. I will be wearing my high heel boots.

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