First Published July 2013
‘STRONGER’ THROUGH IT ALL
If ever I hear someone bemoan the fact the Ireland lacks enough real heroes who we can all look to for inspiration in times as troubled as the last few years have been, or indeed at any time (because as I’m sure we’ve all found out the hard way, ‘trouble’ seldom has the courtesy to wait until we’re best placed to face it before landing in our midst!), I can shut such pessimists up with just two words. And no, the two words I’m speaking of are not actually ‘shut’ and ‘up’, although many’s the time has that temptation been barely resisted, I must confess. Nor are the two words in question a slightly more rugged variation on ‘shut up’, although again, sometimes the temptation….! There’s not even a hint of magic involved in this little trick, so anyone guessing hocus-pocus or any twist on that thought is sadly off the mark also. Luckily, however, the answer to this little puzzle is very simple and it will work for anyone. The two words you need ready to confront those who would deny us our heroes are…Frances Black.
It was back in 1992 when Frances first caught the eye and ear of the Irish musical public in a big way. As a member of the gifted Black Family, her talent was already confirmed and earning her a reputation as one of the finest voices on this island. But it was her involvement in the ‘A Woman’s Heart’ project that made her a household name. On an album that featured her sister Mary, Dolores Keane, Eleanor McEvoy, Sharon Shannon and Mary O’ Connell also, Frances shared that stage as an unquestioned equal, her contributions of ‘Wall of Tears’ with Kieran Goss, and ‘After The Ball’, a song that was a regular part of her Arcady repertoire, becoming the highlights of the album for many fans. Frances went on to have a massive hit with ‘All The Lies That You Told Me’ by the late Christie Hennessy, which pushed her further into the limelight, as did her chart-topping albums. All the while, and unbeknownst to many, Frances was fighting a tough battle with alcohol addiction. That fight has been won, however, and along the way Frances has not only founded the charitable RISE Foundation which assists families in understanding the disease of addiction, but Frances has herself qualified as an Addiction Counsellor, taking a hands-on approach to helping others through storms she herself has weathered, becoming stronger through it all in the process. She remains one of Ireland’s most well-known and beloved singers but if attempting to describe this marvelous lady in one word, then singer, I’m afraid, just isn’t fit for purpose because Frances Black has long since become something far more than just a singer. Hero, on the other hand, is a word that, in this writer’s humble opinion, does the job perfectly.
I’d been trying to arrange a chat with Frances for quite a while but between one thing and another, our plans had fallen through a few times. Nothing out of the ordinary there, given the hectic schedule Frances follows every day. In the end, however, when we finally did nail down a time to talk, it said more about the generous and selfless nature of this lady than any amount of fancy words ever could. It was a minute past 9pm on a Friday evening when I dialed her number, as she had given me the ok to, and I literally caught her just coming in the door from her day’s work at the RISE Foundation. That’s right, 9pm on a Friday evening and she was finding time for a chat with this columnist. And it wasn’t like she had nothing planned for her Saturday, you know, because the following day she was performing for President Higgins at one of his summer garden parties at Aras an Uachtaran!
With Stronger, her first new album in a decade released earlier this year, I asked Frances if it was important to her to come back with an album so clearly a personal reflection of herself, as Stronger certainly is.
“Yeah, well I think that’s always important, Anthony. You could easily talk yourself out of doing one [an album] and I have done, I have talked myself out of going into the studio many times. And I think what happened with this album is it just kinda happened really organically in the sense that I had done a track with Bill Shanley [album producer] over a year ago, but I really enjoyed the process. I’m not very confident in the studio so it was great working with Bill because it was just easy-going and it was a very enjoyable experience, just making music together, which was lovely. So when there was kind of talk of me going back into the studio, I thought well I’ll go back in with Bill and I’ll do songs that I love and that I know really well and that I feel really comfortable with, that I’ve been singing for years and years. Cover versions of songs that I really love. And that’s what I did. Myself and Bill just made music and really enjoyed the experience. “
Apart from making sure the album was one Frances herself could really relate to and felt a strong connection with, was there anything else that made now the time for her to get back into the studio?
“Well yeah, I mean I had kind of gone away from my music for quite a while. I’m very involved with the RISE Foundation, which as you know, Anthony, is an organisation that I founded, a charity. And I love working with RISE, but I was missing my music too. I was missing being on the road and missing just singing. Then this time last year I had just signed with a new manager, Martin Nolan, and Martin was kind of talking to me about the possibility of getting into the studio. He said, ‘Look, we need to get ya back in.’ So I had to think long and hard about it. But then [ after deciding ], the album was done in a period of about a month, ya know. I was just so thrilled with myself about that, I suppose that I had overcome the challenge and really enjoyed the experience at the same time. I suppose it was the fact that Martin, being my new manager, put a bit of pressure on me to get into the studio that kinda gave me the kick I needed. “
As well known these days for her work with RISE as for her work on stage or in the studio, I wondered if, in her own heart and mind, one of those identities now felt closer to the real Frances Black than the other? Or is it simply a matter of trying to balance all roles?
“Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head there, Anthony. I mean it is about finding a balance between the two, absolutely. I really am passionate about the work I do with the RISE Foundation and I love singing too. But there’s something about working in the field of helping people and guiding people on a path and a journey that will make their lives better, that is very rewarding. Now I’m not saying that singing isn’t rewarding, it is. It’s a different connection with people than what I do with RISE. So I suppose for me, I’m very passionate about RISE, I just love it, I really do. I really want to try and continue to help as many people as is possible. And I feel for me it’s very fulfilling work, it’s very rewarding work and I feel very content and connected with it. But that’s not to say, you see, well, when I stopped doing my music for a while, I really missed it. So it is about finding the balance. And it is about trying to do both. Time is a huge problem for me, Anthony, an absolutely huge problem. But I’m managing it at the moment. But I hope down the line I’ll be able to manage it a little bit better. “