“You know, if you have a good song, and you sing it well, there are no boundaries. There are no barriers. I think people connect with that.”
Irish vocalist Mary Black, on the phone from her native Dublin, is trying to explain how a career that began in 1975 is still going strong in 2012. Part of a musical family that includes her younger sister, Frances, also a singer, Black released her 12th studio album, “Stories From the Steeples,” last year, and on Saturday she comes to the Berklee Performance Center for a World Music/CRASHarts concert, with her daughter, Róisín O, opening.
What perhaps is most surprising about Black’s success is that she’s achieved it by going beyond traditional material. “If you look through my albums over the years,” she notes, “you’ll find very few genuine folk songs there. A lot of the songs are more contemporary.”
That’s certainly true of “Stories From the Steeples,” whose title, she says, refers not to churches but to Steeples Studios in Donegal, where seven of the album’s 11 tracks were recorded. There’s a country feel to a lot of the material. A rich girl falls in love with a gambler; her disapproving father has him shot, and she dies of a broken heart. “Steady Breathing” and “One True Place” have to do with courage in the face of death, “Faith in Fate” and “The Night Is on Our Side” with fragile relationships. “All the Fine Young Men” is a general antiwar song.
Still, Black says, “There’s an Irishness about what I do, and it’s not just my accent. I suppose it’s our history, what’s gone by and what’s been passed down from generation to generation, a lot of sadness, a lot of problems. Irish music particularly has that kind of dark and light in it, like very dramatic slow airs and ballads, and then you have the music that makes you want to get up and dance. And I think I have that inside me as well, I have that sort of light and shade.”
She adds that that she gets a lot of her material from contemporary Irish songwriters. Three of the tracks on “Stories From the Steeples” were written by her son Danny O’Reilly. And she has sung a bit in Irish Gaelic as well. “I recorded an album in Gaelic early on with a band called General Humbert,” she recalls, “but you’d probably have difficulty getting hold of it; that was a long time ago. And I’ve recorded a few songs over the years in Irish, I’ve done ‘Mo ghile mear’ and I’ve sung ‘Siúil a rún,’ which is on not this album but the last one [‘Full Tide,’ from 2005].”
Brian O’Donovan, host of the popular WGBH radio program “A Celtic Sojourn,” recalls that “Mary first got attention as a traditional singer, way back there with General Humbert. Someone gave me a recording on a cassette, and I heard her singing, a traditional song, and I remember thinking, who the heck is that, I’ve never heard that before, it’s beautiful.”
Black’s singing is indeed quite different from the traditional breathy, wispy style of, say, Clannad’s Máire Brennan or Altan’s Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh. O’Donovan describes her voice as “very strong, very solid, not at all ethereal. It’s changed from an attractive sweet folky voice in her early career till now there’s almost a vibrato to it at times.”
Black acknowledges that change. “Sometimes I’m quite shocked at what I hear when I listen back, which I don’t do very often, to some of the earlier recordings,” she says. “They’ve got a very high kind of sweetness that’s definitely gone. But age brings a certain amount of that anyway. And I think I’ve improved as a vocalist and as a performer, and it more than compensates for maybe something I’ve lost [from] the early days.”
But the secret of her success, says O’Donovan, “is her openness to new material, and making that material hers, and exciting, and attractive. She went in her own direction, but not to the exclusion of traditional music — which is something I’ve always enjoyed about her. She ranges from folk to torch song to jazz to pop. She attracts a folky crowd, she attracts a traditional crowd, she attracts a singer-songwriter crowd, and she attracts a more accessible pop crowd. And the other thing that Mary has done consistently is surround herself with superb musicians whose tasty arrangements underscore and emphasize what she’s about on stage.”
Black is just happy to be making music. “I’m enjoying the fact that I have a new album out,” she says. “I’m delighted that I can go back to America, because I can’t believe at this stage of my life that people are still coming out to see me. It makes me feel so blessed, and I must say, I’m enjoying it now so much more than I ever did, and so that’s coming across as well. I’m just really thankful. I’m in a good place now, a really good place.”