For Irish singer Mary Black, music is inextricably intertwined with family. Her parents were musicians, as were her siblings, and now two of her children carry on the tradition.
"Sometimes, you're not even aware of it, because everyone always has music around, but, yeah, I guess it is a legacy, of sorts," she said last week via phone.
Black called from Portland, Maine, where she had a night off from her American concert tour. That night's gig had been canceled because ice and snow from an extreme storm made the local roads impassable. She probably won't experience such conditions when she and her band play on Tuesday, Nov. 20, at the Fox Tucson Theatre.
Although she grew up around traditional Irish music, Black is no purist. She has never limited herself to performing what she calls "trad." She's built her career on singing a contemporary combination of blues, rock, jazz, country and soul.
Black's father, who came from a remote village in the north of Ireland, played traditional mandolin and fiddle, and her Dublin-born mother sang more modern material. "Between them, they passed on the love and passion for music that I have."
Sunday afternoons in the Black household were a time for the family and various relatives to gather and share songs. "As a child, I thought every family had this sort of weekly music party," Black said.
There was even a family band when she was young. "With my three brothers and one sister, we played local pubs and made three albums as the Black Family." In the late 1970s, Black also sang with a small folk band, General Humbert.
She saw the release of her debut album in 1983, and has recorded regularly since. During the mid-1980s, she also sang on two albums by the trad Irish band De Dannan. Her most recent release, her 12th album overall, is Stories From the Steeples, which was released last year in the United Kingdom and earlier this year in the United States.
Black always has sought out the best songs from her favorite songwriters, and the new album includes three compositions by her son, Danny O'Reilly, who is in the popular Irish rock band the Coronas.
"I told him to concentrate more on his songwriting, because that's where the money is," she said.
And Black's daughter, who performs as Róisín O, recently saw the release of her debut album, The Secret Life of Blue. (Read more in this week's Rhythm & Views, Page 50.) Even better, Róisín O is on tour with her mom.
"She opens the show and does her own songs for 15 minutes, then I go onstage, and she will do some backing vocals with me. Then she comes back out and joins me at the end on some duets," Black said. "It's just lovely to have her along."
With her five-piece band—guitar, double bass, piano, drums and saxophone—Black hopes to re-create some of the rich arrangements from her albums. Black has seen many changes in the music business, with the most dramatic ones coming in recent years. "People have different ways of getting music, don't they? By downloading it, legally or illegally. Many record companies have ceased to exist, which makes it a lot harder for a new artist coming out than it does for me."
One benefit of progress in the music industry, however, has been recording equipment that is more portable than ever. "We even recorded some of the new album in my home in Dublin. The rest was made in my engineer's studio on Donegal, which is called Steeples Studio, which is where the name of the album comes from."
Black, 57, became a grandmother for the first time three weeks ago. She said she's starting to consider the various aspects of growing older, and she can't think of any negatives. She doesn't even mind when writers or promoters use the word "legendary" to describe her. "That makes me laugh, because I always thought that was a polite way of saying someone was old. But I know people always mean it in a very complimentary way."
A little age and perspective can give a person remarkable confidence, she said.
"I have nothing really to prove anymore. I always want to do my best, certainly, but I take more pleasure from what I do, and I trust myself that it will just happen. I don't feel any pressure anymore when making music. It's about being happy in your own skin."