The life of Brian
From busking to singing with Van Morrison, Brian Kennedy has come a very long way. Ahead of his Belfast gig next week, he talks to Andrew Johnston
For someone who enjoyed a six-year stint as backing vocalist for Van Morrison and has performed for former US President Bill Clinton, Brian Kennedy is nonetheless thrilled that it is the music industry and its fans who chose to honour him with one of the greatest accolades of his career.
In February, the west Belfast man was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Meteor Ireland Music Awards, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the Irish music industry over the past two decades.
At just 43, Brian was surprised to find himself in the company of seasoned previous recipients such as the Dubliners, Christy Moore and Paul Brady.
“It’s extraordinary,” says Brian. “There’s no greater privilege than when the industry singles you out like that. It’s a way to realise that people are listening.”
The award reminded Brian that he’s been in the game for more than 20 years. “It seems about 10 years, maybe,” he remarks. “But it’s a nice way to pause and have a wee look back, because they force you to watch this bloody video of all these early performances, and some of it, of course, is hilarious. I’d rather listen to myself than look at myself from 20 years ago.”
Yet for all the international triumphs, in Northern Ireland Brian is not always spoken of in the same revered tones as other Ulster success stories like Snow Patrol or Ash. The local music exhibition in Belfast’s Oh Yeah Music Centre proudly displays Therapy? frontman Andy Cairns’ smashed guitar and a leather jacket that once belonged to Undertones bassist Mickey Bradley, but there’s not a Kennedy memento to be seen — at least not yet.
“Stuart Bailie [CEO of Oh Yeah] wrote to me and asked for something to put in there,” reveals Brian. “I promised him I would, but I was in Australia and I just forgot. But I’ve found what I’m going to give him, which is a pair of boots from my first album.”
Next Thursday, Brian — who now lives in Dublin — returns to Belfast for a special show at the Waterfront. It is far from Kennedy’s first time at the prestigious venue. Indeed, he recorded his 2004 Live in Belfast CD and DVD here, but that doesn’t mean he’s not excited.
“I never take it for granted,” he says. “I just think, ‘My God, here I am 20 years later, still able to come and play these kind of rooms’. It’s lovely, and it’s always a thrill to play for a home crowd.”
As well as the upcoming Irish dates, the singer recently completed tours of Australia, New Zealand and the UK, and has a slot at the Glastonbury festival later this month.
“For me, performing live is what it’s all about,” says Brian. “That’s how you learn your instrument, hone your instrument, how you hone your communication skills with an audience.”
As if to prove the point, when Going Out catches up with him, Brian is busking in Belfast’s CastleCourt shopping centre to raise funds for the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice. “There’s been a great crowd and we’ve collected a lot of money,” he says.
Famously, Kennedy started as a busker, and he believes it is an art form in itself.
“It’s a good way to see any artist, who can just get up there and sing unaccompanied or with an acoustic guitar,” he says. “That’s the way it should be.”
Brian left Belfast aged 18 to chase fame and fortune busking on the streets of London.
“Honestly, hand on heart, I’m not sure if any of it would have happened had I just stayed here,” he admits.
After being spotted by Van Morrison, Kennedy’s career skyrocketed. In 1990, he released his first album, The Great War of Words, and has since recorded eight more solo studio efforts. His music has been used in movies, he represented Ireland in the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest and he even sang lead in Riverdance on Broadway for 290 performances during 2000 and 2001.
In 2005, Kennedy was chosen to perform at the funeral for footballer George Best, singing You Raise Me Up and Don McLean’s Vincent at the request of Best’s family.
“It ranks right up there as something that really stands out, just in terms of the bittersweet nature of it,” says Brian.
“It was just a surreal moment to be part of that soundtrack of such an important day for him and for our culture.”
The musician doesn’t take any of it for granted, however.
First and foremost, he remains a fan, speaking passionately about some of the legends he has worked with.
“I have recordings in the house of me singing harmonies with Van and Bob Dylan,” he says.
“I mean, how did that happen? It’s extraordinary. It goes to show how generous somebody like Van is, to include me.
“I’m forever grateful to him for that.”
Brian Kennedy plays the Waterfront Hall, Belfast, Thursday, June 17. Tickets are available from www.waterfront.co.uk