March 2008 - May 2008: Issue 26

People: Eyes on Ireland

Interview with Singer/Songwriter Margaret Mann

Interviewed by Kari Pope

Blind from birth, Margaret began to pursue songwriting in earnest after raising her family. "I Loved and I Lost," her entry into the 2005 Belfast/Nashville Songwriters' Festival, took second place, inspiring her to continue her career by recording and publishing her songs, all of which are born of her personal experiences. As she pursues this goal, she is working toward her Grade 8 singing exams through Trinity College London, with an eye to completing a diploma in Performance and Repertoire. As she does so, she continues her community involvement through the Open Arts choir and teaching disability awareness to local preschool children.

Margaret and I discussed not only her many accomplishments, but also her early career as a cabaret singer, disability in the political landscape of Northern Ireland, and the need to "think outside the box" as a proactive member of the arts and disability community.

Kari:
Who or what inspired you to become a singer/songwriter?
Margaret:
Music was always a big part of my life. I did music from an early age; we were encouraged in school. When you're blind, you don't interact the same with people. You don't have a lot in common with sighted people: you do different things. In my day we went to different schools. Music, I felt safe with. And I did have people who inspired me, whether it was my teachers or our pop idols from the early sixties -- the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. I like all types of music. Eva Cassidy was a big influence from my parents, and I love Ella Fitzgerald; she can sing anything -- blues, gospel, jazz. I always know right away who's singing when I hear her! And as a visually impaired person, I think music is a communication thing. I moved through different phases with it as I got older.
Kari:
Can you describe some of the phases you went through?
Margaret:
Well, very early, I was always involved in the school play, in choir. I grew up with music around the house. And it was something we talked a lot about in school. You know, the sighted kids would talk about colors, drawing, or the latest fashion, and we would talk about the latest records in the charts--be envious if someone had the latest record before you, you know! (LAUGHS) For me, music was an escapism. I suppose when I think back, I never thought I would be where I am now.
But I always sang--I earned money as a cabaret singer in my teens and early twenties, when I was living in Manchester [England]. This is when girls were proper.  I did cabaret acts in different working men's clubs; you might do a dance, then a country song, then a mix and match medley with gospel or ballads. You might find yourself in a place where people liked you or hated you, where the musicians might be great or you might get a 90-year-old who can barely play! (LAUGHS).
I remember once I was in a pub called Light Bound, this wee, small, poky pub in Manchester, really dark, not well lit. I came to the end of my set, and a woman in the audience called out, "Can you sing 'Amazing Grace'?" I said yes. When I got to the part about "Was blind, but now I see..." I tripped over something on the stage and found myself sprawled there, singing, "Was blind but now I see..." (LAUGHS)
Anyway, I sang cabaret until I was about eight and a half months pregnant. Then I had to quit in case I gave birth onstage! (LAUGHS) But I loved it. It gave me a glimpse of performing and being paid as a professional singer.
When I had my children I stopped doing that. But it did give me the bug to perform and record for a living, and I did continue to do talent shows or anything to earn a bit of money here and there.
I've always sung in choirs, too, but I'm still trying to find my niche, and I want to be recognized as a solo performer. When I got my first ADI award four years ago, I felt encouraged to take singing a bit more seriously again. I did the Grade 6 singing exam just for me and felt very pleased when I was awarded a distinction. It gave me the courage to apply again--you have to wait two years--and the panel said the first time I undersold myself and should ask for more money! So I went for Grade 8. That took me down the road of songwriting. I'd never thought I could do it before. Many things happen by chance, and a few doors may open along the way. When I placed in the Festival three years ago, that started me on this road, but now I'm not sure which direction to take. I try and look at ways to achieve my own potential, which is scary when it's my own stuff. When I sing someone else's lyrics, I just try to put them across as best I can. But if it's my own stuff, I don't know what people are going to identify with or what will trigger memories and feelings. I always wonder, "Will people love it or hate it? Is it good enough?"
But I like doing my own work, because these days the music industry seems so artificial; anybody can get in based on their money or their looks.  And they can do all kinds of things to make anybody sound good--they aren't forced to go into the recording studio and learn their craft, back to basics. We used to sing in clubs and pubs and work our way up, but now it's all about image, contacts, being in the right place at the right time, dog eat dog.
Kari:
One of the things that Opening Stages tries to do is address the barriers that performers with disabilities face in their careers. So far it seems like the barriers you've mentioned are similar to those any artist might face. Are there any you've experienced that you felt were due to your disability--particularly, perhaps, during your cabaret career?
Margaret:
Really I think cabaret was easier then. I did have an agent, and ninety-nine percent of the time you went to shop windows and sang and, if they liked you, then you got work. I found I actually got work quite easily. There was one time when I was booked for five nights, and they only really gave me two but never told me why. But on the whole I think it came down to my personality. I felt I could interact well and break down barriers between me and the audience. Obviously when you're blind you've got to work twice as hard to get them on your side--when you're sighted you can size up the audience and get a feel for them right away. If you can't do that, I think it takes some extra warmth and humor, which I think I have. When people offered work I took it, and no one questioned my ability. It was a challenge, though, because on and off stage every venue is different. But nine times out of ten people were helpful and accepting when it came to walking me on and off stage and handing me the mic.  I was a paid professional, there to do a professional job.
Kari:
Where would you like to take your career now?
Margaret:
Getting my own songs published would be the next step, with the right advice. It was hard to capitalize on the Songwriters' Festival, because you can't send your song to a radio station unless you're signed up with a record company. I would like to find a good arranger. I have the music in my head, but I'd like to get it down and work with it. So, I have this new skill but am not sure exactly how to move forward. I'm excited but stuck! (LAUGHS)
Kari:
So do you feel it's necessary to look outside the disability community for the support to take the next step in your career?
Margaret:
Yes, I want to look outside the disability community "box." I mean, if you're striving for equality, you've got to put yourself out there. When I passed my singing exams, I achieved that on merit, with a belief in myself. If I do something and get to where I want to be, it's because I have the ability to do it, not the disability. If I go down the "disability road, " I won't get there. The disability is something to live and get on with, but I definitely have to look outside the box.
I try to be involved in community groups with non-disabled people as well. But I think not everybody can--they might feel safer in the disability community, and it can be scary to step out. A lot depends on the person and their attitude; stay positive and aware that you've got something to give. We can bridge the gap with our attitudes and education. I mean, how many people with disabilities have you seen win, "American Idol?" Or our equivalent, "Pop Idol?" We've got to be careful not to come across as negative or complaining. We've got to look at the laws, our lives, and ourselves, placing no blame on society. The way I see it, why be bitter? Life is a precious gift, and I have been so lucky. During another part of my professional life, I worked as a legal secretary, and the place where I was working was bombed. One minute I was typing, and the next I was running for my life. I could have been killed. But I was so lucky.
Kari:
You've said before that you think people with disabilities are more receptive than some other citizens of cross community work in Northern Ireland. Would you explain why you think that is?
Margaret:
When we were growing up here, people with disabilities tended to be all lumped together in the same schools, but apart from everyone else. And I think that the disability community here can give a big lesson in breaking down those other barriers, because we were always fighting for a sense of belonging
Kari:
So, do you think that people with disabilities in Northern Ireland know their rights?
Margaret:
No, I don't believe that people here really know their rights. For example, a few years ago my husband attended a disability rights conference in New Orleans and said that in the States people seemed a lot more productive when it came to lobbying the government to get things done. But, for a long time in Northern Ireland, we had no government assembly of our own. Now that we have, we're pretty good on legislation--like we have an anti-discrimination act that the Republic of Ireland doesn't have--but we can also focus on lobbying our MLA's [Members of the Legislative Assembly] up at Stormont beyond party lines, to address specific disability issues.
Kari:
Any words of encouragement for aspiring performing artists?
Margaret:
I suppose I would just say it's important to have goals so you don't get stuck and stay stuck! (LAUGHS) Staying involved in my community in various ways gives me a sense of purpose and belief in myself. Also, when you fall, the best thing you can do is pick yourself up, brush yourself down, and start all over again. The things that knock you down can actually help you get back up again. My work makes me proud of myself and I think that's the most important thing--make yourself proud!
Kari Pope has been contributing to Opening Stages since 2005. While thriving on the creative energy of the country she loves, she is delighted to have had this opportunity to try her hand at foreign correspondence. Follow her Irish adventures at http://karisatglencree.blogspot.com.
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