Foundry 616, February 22


Mary Coughlan. Photo supplied.

Mary Coughlan is still casting her earthy, Irish spells, as she has been doing for 35 years. The chief ingredient in her incantations is hardly unique: emotional truth should be a basic building-block of all singing and all art. Setting Coughlan’s espousal of this candour apart are the other spells with which she adulterates it and intensifies it.

Think of the most intense emotional truth you’ve heard course from a singer’s mouth, whether Maria Callas, Sarah Vaughan or even Bruce Springsteen. Precious few have combined this with profound world-weariness without diluting the impact. The exceptions have usually come from the likes of early rural blues and from Gypsy idioms, including flamenco. (Itinerant working would seem a short-cut to world-weariness – like being part-time and under-employed!) Billie Holiday was the queen of combining the two, and Tom Waits has become a king.

Mary Coughlan is up there, too. Influenced by Holiday since her teens (someone should bring out her Holiday tribute before we’re much older), Coughlan has arrived at her own way of wrapping spearing emotional hurt (usually from a break-up) in the dry husk of stoicism that lets her carry on. She leavens this with rampant humour – mostly self-deprecating anecdotes – in the ‘tween-song chat, along with such amusing staples as Friend of Mine, I Want to Be Seduced and Bad.

But then there are moments where the bandages of world-weariness and humour come off, and the bottomless sadness is laid bare, lifting the scabs in one’s own life like they never healed. Mark Nevin’s Blood was one (“Some days are scars on the calendar…”), and her crucifying readings of Love Will Tear Us Apart and I’d Rather Go Blind two more.

She did let the spell fall away for a while, including on a pedestrian Maybe You’ll Be There, although even this had the compensation of another glorious piano solo from Matt McMahon. He and bassist Brett Hirst shaded Coughlan’s every emotional nuance, while contributing their own lightening and compounding of the intensity.