Reviews Zone

Mary Coughlan:Life Stories (Hail Mary Records) 4th September 2020


* Album of the Month (September) *



5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)




Mary Coughlan is an icon in Ireland. Labelled “the greatest female singer to have emerged from Ireland in recent times”, and hailed as “Irish vocal royalty”.

Her name is usually accompanied by the word ‘legend’ in the press. A heck of a lot to live up to. Add “Ireland’s Billie Holiday” to the regular praise chucked her way, too.

One listen to her stunning new album, “Life Stories”, and it’d be obvious to a deaf man that her effortless vocal ability is a rare gift and she can more than back up the accolades and reward the adulation.

Mary’s life story is a pain-filled emotional roller coaster, including addiction, which would make a gripping biopic and autobiography. All of this stuff seeps into her vocal delivery.

Like Sir Van Morrison, Mary packs her life story, warts and all, into her songs. The title of this latest work is not random! The collection – six written by Mary – is both serious and humorous.

It’s upbeat and melancholic. Reflective, accepting of what she has lost and at the same time seemingly not bitter about the multiple sacks of sh*t with her name on that were thrown her way across decades!

At 64, she has serious health issues. A degenerative lung condition and stents inserted into her heart not long ago. But her songs suggest she is full of hope and contentment. A new man in her life, her kids and grandkids around her and a lovely home.

Even this Covid-19 pandemic rubbing out her tour, including a Glastonbury Festival appearance at what would have been their 50th anniversary event, has not made her forget the the mantra she tries to live by these days: “Remember to be grateful”.

On “Life Stories”, it’s all there writ large: The emotion. The pain. The joy. The fun. The tears. The laughter. The everything from her turbulent six-plus decades marinated into every last second of these dozen tracks. A truly masterful performance that few singers could even dream of delivering.

This is her 14th solo album in 33 years, and live, Mary has sold out some of the UK’s most prestigious venues, and toured the US, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Scandinavia.

She has drawn heavily from her musical inspirations, such as Billie Holiday (to whom she devoted a double album of her songs), Peggy Lee, Van Morrison and Piaf. Leonard Cohen nailed it when he said Mary Coughlan was “born with the gift of a golden voice”.

In June 2020, in recognition of Mary’s achievements and immense impact on the culture and arts community in Galway City, the Mayor presented her with a 2020 lifetime achievement award.

Born in Galway, her father was a soldier. The eldest of five, Mary left convent school, and eventually moved to London. Here she married and had three children.

In 1981 she left her husband funded by an insurance pay out from a car crash, took custody of the children and in 1984 moved back to Ireland. She had two more children and now has five grandchildren. She has been sober since 1994 and lives in Wicklow, Ireland

Back in Ireland, she eventually started to perform in public, was spotted and then recorded and released her first album which was a big success. Mary’s recording career began in 1987 with the acclaimed album “Tired and Emotional”.

She has made 14 solo albums plus a slew of singles, EPs and compilations, as well as numerous guest appearances and collaborations, including a project with Elvis Costello.

“Life Stories” was mostly recorded – and he co-writes some of the songs too – by Pete Glenister (former musical director for Terence Trent D’arby) and Mary in London in the summer of 2019, and finished in February 2020. 12 tracks, circa 36 minutes duration.

Filed under jazz and blues, but there’s far more to her than these pigeonholed labels would tell you.

The opener, “Family Life” comes to an end and I need a minute…..The voice and the emotion evoked on this first track – vocal, piano and a smattering of synthed-strings with a reverb effect to create an ethereal vibe – is so moving.

Mary’s gift is showcased to the fore here with a perfect-fit song, penned by Paul Buchanan. When reviewers call a recording “real” or “honest” or “stunning” or “masterful”….sometimes it’s unwarranted. Not this time.

Follow that! She does, with a ‘60s mood on the lovely and almost French-sounding “Two Breaking Into One”, which Mary wrote with Pete Glenister.

A fuller sound on this second cut, with the string arrangement adding value. That voice again; so relaxed and innate.

Now for the fun….After a brace of “serious” moments, “High Heel Boots” would be a great track for the film or stage musical “Kinky Boots”. This song written by Pete Glenister and Holly Palmer.

A sassy vocal and a song which reminds me of the late and much missed Kirsty MacColl and perhaps Sophie Ellis Bextor territory too.

“Forward Bound” is another fun up-tempo cut, again ripe for a film soundtrack. “Elbow Deep” slows the pace, and pares things down to voice and piano on a melancholic ballad. One of two tracks recorded in Dublin by Michael Manning.

Singers should always serve the song, not the other way round. They should find and convey an emotional investment in the words they sing. Mary Coughlan does that in spades.

A bluesy big band jazz vibe on the finger clicking “I Dare You To Love Me”. The George Gershwin song “Do It Again”, steps into 1920s/30s “Cabaret” territory

Modern day electro’ production on the naughty but nice, “Why Do All The Bad Guys Taste So Good”.  Slow ballad, “Safe And Sound” revisits chilled, late night mode. A perfect example of leaving space and allowing a song to breathe, and not throwing too much “production” at a track.

“Safe And Sound” and others here are in the ballpark of the kind of different approach Richard Hawley has to his material. Now there’s a thought, a duet between those two….

Penultimate cut “No Jerico”, is a beautifully sparse vocal and piano track, a smattering of ethereal guitar, and one of the best vocals on the album. The second of the brace recorded in Dublin with Michael Manning.

Closer “Twelve Steps Forward And Ten Steps Back” is seemingly an autbiograpical tale of a broken heart and a booze problem, perhaps referencing the 12 steps programme of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It is well documented that Mary began taking drugs from the age of 16 – LSD and cannabis. Later she progressed to a serious taste for cocaine.

She suffered sexual abuse from a family member at the age of six, left home at 14 to the Aran Islasnds and again at 18, this time for good, when she scarpered to London.

She spent time in a mental institution and has been hospitalised for alcohol dependency. She says she was physically assaulted by some of the men in her her past.

But through all of her troubles and difficulties, music and art has always been Mary Coughlan’s saviour. Amen to that….


By Simon Redley


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