A sober tale

Pop Music: Mary Coughlan, one of Ireland's finest singers, is about to release her ninth album. But this time, she's not drunk.
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The Independent Culture
Three years ago, Mary Coughlan's teenage children refused her access to her family home until she stopped drinking. They wouldn't even let her come home when she was ill. Famed for hard drinking since her singing career began 11 years ago, she finally succeeded in quitting the bottle, albeit after 32 previous attempts. Not only has Coughlan remained a reformed alcoholic, but she is about to release her first studio album since coming off the booze. The corresponding tour will certainly be a far cry from some previous inebriated, or even missed, performances. Now 40 years old and with another baby - a three-month-old son - she feels she has a new lease of life.

Indeed, since her continued sobriety, she has re-established her connection with the film world. Back in the Eighties, her good friend and compatriot, Neil Jordan, gave her a principal role in his production of High Spirits. This time round, she was involved in one of the most controversial films of last year by voice-training Julia Roberts for a singing part in Jordan's Michael Collins.

As its title suggests, her new album, After The Fall, is the most significant triumph for Coughlan to date because its subjects are contemplated from a new-found distance. No less autobiographical than her previous albums, her usual subjects - abuse, alcoholism, illicit sex and the paradox of love and relationships - have a more profound and indeed political message than ever before.

If the tracks have a predominant theme, it is undoubtedly a feminism of sorts, for they demonstrate Coughlan's belief that women have been periodically triumphant despite having had to bear the brunt of blame for the downfall of the human race. Whether she sings of physical abuse or how unemployment can break a family, Coughlan's message is clear. "It's about issues affecting women that still aren't talked about," she says.

One of the compositions, "Poison Words", stands out for the way it articulates physical abuse of women. "It's a very personal song. I was dying to sing it for years, but I didn't have the guts," she says. "My husband was violent and it was very hard to get out when you have no qualifications and three kids. I just legged it after seven years. Literally. It happens to so many women, but they are ashamed to talk about it because they blame themselves."

A few years later, Coughlan began drinking as her singing career took off. "It was great fun at first. But when things went terribly wrong in my personal life and my career, I got bad. Really bad. The last two years of it were horrific. I was a binge drinker, really. I used to sit in the spare room and drink until I was out of it for a few days. I think it lasted seven days once."

The eldest of five children, Coughlan grew up in Galway with less than fond memories of her oppressive childhood. By 16, she had overdosed on pills and slashed her wrists. "They locked me up in a nut-house," she says. "One of those big old places with 10-feet iron doors. Basically, it was a place for old, insane people that no one wanted. It freaked me out."

After finishing school, she left home to become the first nude model at Limerick Art College before escaping to London. There, she worked as a street cleaner while squatting in Ealing and met her future husband, with whom she returned to her homeland. Three children later and her marriage over, Coughlan took up singing. After increasing numbers of pub gigs and media interest, she arrived on the international music scene with her debut album Tired And Emotional in 1985.

She now perceives the prominent relationships in her life in a fresh light. "As you get older, you mellow out a bit," she speculates. "I don't blame anyone for anything I've done, but I did for a long time - it was all my manager's fault, it was all my father's fault, it was all everybody's fault. It wasn't my fault either but I've learned to deal with that."

Much to her misfortune, what she hadn't learn to deal with in particular were the perils of the music industry. At one time, she was dropped by her record company immediately after an album's release and a pre-booked tour. "My manager remortgaged my house only to find out the tour lost money - I was literally homeless overnight. And I lost my record deal. That was when I drank badly. When you're an alcoholic, your self-esteem is so low. Only after years of therapy do I realise that I could not have managed my life in any other way. The only thing open to me was to get oblivious."

Has she paid for her mistakes? She laughs, turning to the practical consequences. "I missed this huge gig in Ireland about four years ago and I was sued for all the money they would have made. I'm still paying them back pounds 100 per month. I certainly fucking paid for that one."

Coughlan is no stranger to outspokenness. With nine solo albums focusing on a variety of contentious issues, she interprets her songs with an exceptionally honest voice of experience. Once described as a red-haired warrior queen with a voice like bleeding cherries, she is often compared to the likes of Billie Holliday and Janis Joplin, but with a more considered and frank reflection of issues.

She has always had the courage of her convictions, having had few, if any, reservations about campaigning for what she believes in. She has consistently outraged Irish morality by speaking out in favour of abortion and divorce, and against male violence and what she feels to be the hypocrisy of Catholicism. Does she remain as true to her image of the anti-heroine now that she's mellowed out? "Jesus, yes. At the time of the last referendum on divorce, there were 75,000 separated couples in Ireland. To ignore the fact that there is that amount of unhappiness on such a small island is insanity. Like abortion, for which there are no statistics, they just pretend it's not happening. Meanwhile, the clergy are running around having children everywhere. It's all ridiculous."

She maintains that she is reluctant to make plans for the future but it soon becomes apparent that there is no shortage of preferences. She finds singing and performing more satisfying than ever and looks forward to spending far more time with her sizeable family in Dublin. Then there are her intentions to expand her experience in the film industry. She smiles. "The future looks fucking great." Given her track record, it is a marvel that she has come as far as being able to see a future at all

'After the Fall' is released on 17 March. Mary Coughlan tours the UK from 11 March to 15 April