EYE PROFILE: Singer MARY BLACK talks with James Rampton
We've had the pubs, the poetry and the plays. Now brace yourselves for the invasion of Irish music. "From the Heart" is a major festival showcasing it at the Barbican Centre, London from 3 to 17 April. Stepping into the limelight there will be Mary Black, the best-kept secret in Irish music.

U2, the Hothouse Flowers, Sinead O'Connor, Enya and the Cranberries grab the headlines, but over the past 15 years Black has been quietly building a substantial following, clocking up seven Irish number one albums in the process. Her last album, Circus, was even accorded the honour of being taken into space by American astronaut Jim Newman as one of his allowance of six CDs.

Her vocal range has enabled her to take on such songs as "No Woman, No Cry" and "Say a Little Prayer" and emerge victorious. It has also led the New York Post to comment that "She has a voice you could die for". Hello! magazine, meanwhile, in a rash of purple prose, has called her "The Kiri Te Kanawa of Ireland, the nightingale, the lark, the uncaged linnet of the Glen of the Downs".

The success of her stealthy approach in this country may well be confirmed with the St Patrick's Day release of her new, impressive album, Shine, a catchy selection of what you might call "folk pop" songs. Black herself resists such easy pigeon-holing: "I am hard to market because I am not folk, not pop, not country and western, not rock. And yet I am all of those things... I'm a record company's nightmare. I never take categories into consideration. But no matter how different each album is, it's still recognisably me. I have to hold onto my own identity - otherwise I'd be out of this business. Now, I'd categorise myself as 'A contemporary Irish singer'. After that, it's every man for himself."

Enhanced by a classy LA production job from Larry Klein - who has worked in the past with Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Tina Turner, Chaka Khan and Tracy Chapman - the album has a glistening, West Coast sheen to it, just the right side of easy listening. Tracks such as the new single, "One and Only", and "I Will Be There" - a rousing duet with Paul Brady - linger in your head long after you've switched off the hi-fi. The album looks set to introduce her to a wider British audience.

She is already huge overseas. One of Ireland's principal musical exports, she lives up to the cliche of being big in Japan, and has a massive fanbase in the States, where her middle name could be "platinum". As if to emphasise the point, she held court in New Orleans last month at the Gavin Convention, the premier gathering of US record labels and radio stations. Rubbing shoulders with everyone from the Spice Girls to Shawn Colvin, Black is relieved to take a breather from the endless round of backslapping, Cajun- Martini-guzzling meet-and-greet sessions in the cavernous lobby of the Hyatt Regency.

A 41-year-old mother of three with a helmet of lustrous jet-black hair which offsets her piercing green eyes, she is casually dressed in a blue velvet shirt and black trousers. Black acknowledges that Shine might well be her breakthrough album in Britain, pushing her from darling of the Fleadh cognoscenti into Top of the Pops-type mainstream recognition. "On the last albums, I was holding back too much," she admits. "In the past I was always dissecting and too perfectionist. I lost the vibe and the emotion. This time I was allowing my throat to open."

Credit for this fuller sound must go to Klein. Sitting next to her, he chips in: "One thing I announced was that I was going to be an advocate of imperfection, keeping things from getting too pristine and refined. When I felt Mary was going into a reserved place, I fiddled with the headphone mix to bring her out more. There are places where her voice is ragged. I wanted to hear a bit of a harder edge."

Black takes up the story. "Larry had me smoking cigarettes for the first time in 20 years. It gives it that cracked sound - like on the title track. I did it for my art!"

Her art on stage is notable for its unfeigned emotionality. "Having a good voice is not what it's all about," she explains. "It's about performance and personality and how you put yourself across on stage. I show people in the audience that I'm not false. For that reason, I make loads of faux pas on stage. But people recognise I'm not putting on an act. It's important to feel the emotion of a song and express it from the heart. I've had my heart broken; most people have and can relate to that. People can be very private, but in music that goes out of the window. People can cry over a song and lament and put their arms round each other. Every gig is individual. I'd hate to be on autopilot and give a pat introduction. That's when I'd hang up my boots."

Fortunately, there's no sign of that yet. Black looks set to benefit from the booming British interest in all things Irish. "People recognise that there's a need for a social outlet and that is lacking in England," she reckons. "There's no real opportunity to have some craic - and I don't mean the drug. Irish culture opens itself up to other people. It's a welcoming thing - that's deep in the Irish persona. Music has always been a great way for Irish people to forget their problems and laugh in the face of hardship."

"There's a spotlight on Ireland and we've found a voice that's been lacking," she concludes. "Maybe it's because our political past has coloured how we've felt about ourselves. But we've fought to preserve our culture, and that's given us a strength which is only coming into its own now. It's payback time."

'Shine' is released on Mon on the Grapevine label. Mary Black plays the Jazz Cafe, London, NW1 (0171-344 0044) on Tue, and at the 'From the Heart' festival at the Barbican Centre, London EC2 (0171-638 8891) on Sun 6 Apr, 7.30pm


1955: Born in Dublin. Raised in a tenement block. Her father, Kevin, ran Black's Grocery Shop, but was a keen amateur fiddler. Mary sang from an early age

1970s: Picked carnations in Jersey, waitressed and worked in various Dublin shops, before busking around America with her brothers

1983: Her first hits, with her debut solo album, and with the trio De Dannan, whose Anthem won the Irish album of the year award

1985: Her second solo album, Without the Fanfare, prompted the San Francisco Chronicler to dub her "one of the best interpretative singers around"

1986: Parted company with the other two members of De Dannan for a solo career

1987: The Daily Telegraph described her voice on her third solo album, By the Time It Gets Dark, as "serene and achingly beautiful"

1989-95: The next four albums - No Frontiers, Babes in the Wood, The Holy Ground, and Circus - all shifted millions of units and established her as Ireland's most popular female singer

1996: Recorded an album with her family - sister Frances and three brothers

1997: Release of Shine