Monday 19 March 2018

The new Black

After battling addiction and a crippling lack of self-belief, singer Frances Black is back with a renewed passion for music, she tells Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

'With any luck, Mary will head off on holidays and then I'm in like a light," laughs singer Frances Black, explaining how everyone in the family is dying to mind her sister Mary Black's first grandchild, Bonnie, born in October to her eldest son Conor and his partner Jade.

"She's so beautiful and we're all besotted with her, as she's the first baby born to one of our children. Conor is my godson and I adore him, so I'm hoping I'm at least third on the list for babysitting, after Mary and Jade's mother, Jackie."

Then again, it's a wonder that Frances can spare any time for babyminding, given the dizzying pace of her life these days.

As CEO of The RISE Foundation, which she established in 2008 to help families with loved ones in addiction, she is responsible for running the charity in addition to working with individual clients as a therapist.

And now, the award-winning singer is back on the music scene with a new album.

"My music has taken a back seat over the past three years, but last summer I realised how much I missed it and wanted to start recording and touring again," she explains.

"I did the odd gig here and there, but I devoted myself so much to RISE that I neglected my singing career a little bit. RISE completely and utterly took over. I really believe in what we do, and I get a lot of fulfilment from the work I do with the families."

Sitting in her Dublin city-centre office, there is a confidence and assuredness about Frances that she lacked in earlier years.

"I'm definitely much healthier mentally," she says. "I don't think I'm as negative, and I don't feel inadequate any more. When I started RISE, I had to speak in front of all sorts of people, and I was initially afraid of not having the proper language.

"Then I found that this didn't matter, because I was so passionate about the cause that people understood me when they heard me speaking the language of the heart. And that gave me great confidence."

It was a lack of self-esteem, combined with the stress of a failed early marriage, that saw Frances fight a well-documented battle with alcoholism.

She eventually got sober -- and carved out a celebrated career -- only to relapse in 2002, when she became addicted to sleeping pills. It was an adversity that introduced her to herself.

She was so impressed by the care she received while in rehab in Talbot Grove in Castleisland, Co Kerry, that she used the money left by her late, beloved mother Patty to fund going back to college to train as an addiction counsellor.

And then when she spoke about her own recovery from addiction on 'The Late Late Show' in 2006, the overwhelming response she received from the public was the catalyst for starting RISE.

"I was inundated with calls from families, all desperate for help on how to deal with an addict in their family," she says.

"The reality of addiction is that it doesn't just destroy the person, it destroys relationships, self-worth and the family unit, and there was very little help available for families who were often left devastated."

RISE has been an outstanding success, offering family programmes, one-to-one counselling and an aftercare programme. It is currently developing a dedicated addiction awareness and education centre for family members and community workers on Rathlin Island, off the North Antrim coast, where the Black family have a family home.

Frances's work was officially recognised when she was awarded a Social Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2010.

"I used to always feel that I had to apologise for myself, but I don't feel inadequate any more," she says.

"I still have phobias on some levels, though, such as when it comes to having my picture taken."

It was this particular fear that caused Frances the most angst in her music career, because with every album released and interview given loomed the dread of a publicity photo shoot.

When Frances signed with her manager Martin Nolan, in 2012, it was vital to her that he would understand her very real fears in this area.

"If I know I have to do a photo shoot, I will break out into horrendous anxiety that's overwhelming, and won't be able to sleep for days beforehand," she explains.

"I really try to work on it as I know logically that it's stupid and a bit pathetic for someone in the public eye, but I find it unbearable. It has stopped me from doing many things in my life, and I've had to pass up opportunities because of it."

For the new album, her photo shoot was done by her son Eoghan's best friend Gavin Leane, with whom Frances felt comfortable.

Even having a new manager represents a new departure for the singer, as she has been managed for the past 20 years by her husband, Brian Allen.

"When I discussed going back to music with Brian, he suggested that I got a new manager," she says.

"He is very involved with RISE, and we both knew that I needed someone to come in and push me a little bit, and give me that kick up the ar*e to get out and do things.

"I wanted to record a new album, as the last time I was in studio was in 2002, even though there have been a few compilations released since then. The album is called 'Stronger', and it's an album of covers of songs that I really loved, by people like James Taylor and Carole King.

"This is the first time I've ever brought out an album without a record company behind me, so it's very scary, but I'm delighted with it and so excited," she adds.

All of the songs chosen for the album are meaningful to Frances, including Gabrielle's 'Rise', the lyrics of which inspired the name of her foundation -- "Look at my life, look at my heart, I have seen them fall apart, now I'm ready to rise again".

'I Would Be Stronger Than That', 'Heart Like A Wheel' and 'Waltzing for Dreamers' are other standout tracks, and will form part of the material when Frances performs live at Vicar Street on March 15.

The singer from Dublin's Charlemont Street is not the only one in the family making music these days, as her daughter Aoife Scott is making a name for herself on the folk trad scene.

Garnering rave reviews for her recent performances at the Temple Bar Tradfest, Aoife has already won awards and is writing material for her own new album and performing live on radio and TV.

"I would be quite critical, but I think the songs she is writing are great," says Frances. "She is so passionate about the music, and is not looking for fame. She just loves to do music, and is hoping to travel with it.

"My son Eoghan plays with her in the band and he's an amazing musician, too. I'm so proud of them both. Eoghan married his wife Emma Quearney on Rathlin Island last June, and it was one of the most amazing days of my life."

Is Frances the mother-in-law from hell, 'Weekend' jokingly enquires?

"God, I hope not," she laughs. "Emma is the most beautiful girl, and we all adore her."

The wedding was attended by all of the Black family, including Frances's nephew Danny O'Reilly, lead singer of The Coronas.

"I think they're amazing and they're really going places," says his proud auntie of the group.

"Danny is a gorgeous young man, and we all get really emotional when we see this rock star up on stage. His sister Roisin is doing great with the music, too, and I'm so proud of all of my nephews and nieces.

"My brother Martin has four children, Shay has two daughters, and Michael has three daughters, and I love them all to bits."

With her newfound confidence, and the intensive start-up phase for RISE behind her, Frances is hoping to be able to divide her time equally between her charity and music from now on.

Not that she will rest on her laurels around her addiction work; rather, she will make room to pay homage to her singing, as she has always said that she feels most at home and at ease when on stage.

"I'm normally really nervous, but I'm going to allow myself to be excited about the concerts and new album this time," she smiles.

"I'd love the album to go to the top of the charts, and I'm not afraid to dream any more. I feel like it's a new me these days."

Frances Black's new album 'Stronger' is out now. She will perform at Dolan's Warehouse, Limerick, on March 8, and Vicar Street, Dublin, on March 15. Tickets from

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