Although I have been a devotee of Mary Coughlan ever since her debut album Tired and Emotional, and believe that a lot of what she does is quite stunning, I’ve have some difficulty in summoning up too much liking for her insistence on bringing her personal life – very often unmediated by any discernable signs of artistry – into the recording studio or onto the stage during performances.
Much of what she does, when in what I call her “confessional” mode, seems to me to be little more than the trite, melodramatic posturing of a cut-price diva who has watched too much of Judy Garland in the last years of her career, and who thinks that the Garland tendency to over-egg everything amounts to real artistry. Coughlan may well think that she’s behaving like a latter-day Billie Holiday when she bares her soul and emotions in public, but that, it seems to me, is to fail to understand that Holiday, in the recording studio or on stage, was rarely self-indulgent and even less more self-aggrandizing.
Coughlan, at her most brazenly off-putting, does not elicit sympathy. There are times, in fact, when one feels that the only appropriate response to some of her material is politely ask her to desist from foisting it upon the public.
I have to say that not everybody who listens to Coughlan, or watches a Coughlan perform, thinks as I do, as this recent piece in the Financial Times proves.
By David Honigmann
Published: March 16 2009 20:18 | Last updated: March 16 2009 20:18
The Brook, Southampton, UK
Six years ago, Mary Coughlan had her worst St Patrick’s Day. The details might have come from one of the songs she sings of betrayal and regret: drunken revelations from her now ex-husband about the nanny.
“I really needed to get away,” she says. She went as far as she could, to stay with her second daughter in Sydney, initially vowing never to return. Her antipodean exile led to a six-week residency at an arts centre in Christchurch, New Zealand. This residency led to a new album, The House of Ill Repute, and this album now sees her touring again. On Tuesday she celebrates St Patrick’s Day at the Pigalle Club in London.
Coughlan describes The House of Ill Repute as “a return to the concept album”. Its 13 tracks chart a course through the murky waters of infidelity, child abuse, pornography and prostitution. One song, “Antarctica”, is so bleak (“you lying bastard, whoring fraud/you rotten stinking cheat”) that an early listener wrote Coughlan a note begging her not to include it on the album.
“I put in most of my fucking horrific relationship with my ex-husband,” says Coughlan. “From the age of seven, this is my life. It was born out of unhappiness, and I’ve never been as unhappy as that.”
Coughlan built her career on a series of albums that played on her image as a hell-raiser, down to the titles – Tired and Emotional, Under the Influence. An early hit, “Delaney’s Gone Back On The Wine”, remembered a Galway tavern companion who drank himself to death at 33. She developed a ferocious reputation within Ireland’s musical industry.
“Sixteen years ago I stopped drinking,” she says now. “I thought everyone was going to love me. But people get used to you as a drunk. People have reasons for you to stay drunk.”
On Sunday, Coughlan and her band put in an appearance at London’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square, before her appearance at The Brook, a cavernous Southampton pub.
They ran through a mixture of songs from The House of Ill Repute and old favourites. A version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” she played slow and brooding, the central repeated riff carried on piano. As with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ “Mother’s Little Helper”, which she has also covered, she lifted the song out of adolescent callowness by inhabiting it with the voice of lived experience. When she sang about the “bedroom so cold/turned away on your side” it sounded less like a lovers’ tiff, more like an anatomy of an entire relationship.
As ever, she ran through a variety of styles. “The House of Ill Repute” began as Weimar-on-the-Liffey cabaret, swerved into a carousel waltz for a middle eight, then a snatch of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic”, then a fairground horror-show with a carillon tinkle. “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”, one of several old standards of her heroine Billie Holliday, added a bossa-nova tinge to its tango. Leiber and Stoller’s “Some Cats Do” had alleycat bass, with pawprints of cymbal and moonlit piano chords underneath Coughlan’s miaows; clinking glasses behind the bar fitted in perfectly. “Antarctica” she sang a cappella, icicle-precise.
Coughlan writes few of her own songs, but her choices and the way she inhabits them turn them alchemically into autobiography. Mother of five and grandmother of one, so far, she is an unlikely but transfixing performer, whether standing on one leg on a vertiginous high heel or kicking off her shoes – “now I’m six inches smaller” – to whisper, growl, cry out loud and occasionally lean against a monitor to listen appreciatively to her showband as they vamped out. No one should wish her heartbreak, but everyone should envy her power to transform it.
Friday 20 March 2009.
Caroline Sullivan, reviewing Coughlan’s Saint Patrick’s night appearance at Pigalle, London, like many others, forgives the singer her tendency to turn her life into melodrama.
…….One of the most striking things about Coughlan – beyond the deep, knowing voice and her complete mastery of cover versions such as Love Will Tear Us Apart and I’d Rather Go Blind – is her ability to inhabit each number. She’s a constrained housewife on Bad, filthily enunciating “arse” in the line “I want a hand on my arse in a Spanish bar”; then a dead-eyed hedonist on the raucous title track of her current album, The House of Ill Repute. Admittedly, she’s not above hamming things up in the interests of entertainment, but she does so on the understanding that this is, or was, her life. (my italics. KC) The showpiece, Antarctica – an ode to her “rotten, stinking cheat” of an ex-husband – is performed a cappella, with no embellishment at all. It’s a fitting climax to a memorable gig…… (full review)