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Music is my first love: We chat to Cool FM DJ John Kearns

By Helen Carson

Now that globe-trotting John Kearns has rejoined Cool FM, we talk to the passionate DJ and MTV presenter about his career, working with the world's biggest stars and his love of radio.

Music has been John Kearns' big passion for as long as he can remember, growing up in south Belfast where he would spend hours flicking through his parents' eclectic record collection.

John (48), who recently rejoined his Cool FM family to take over the Drive Time slot from 4-7pm, says: "There was everything in my mum and dad's LP collection, from punk to disco. Music is in my blood as my mum Maureen was a great singer."

A keen guitarist, John is, of course, well known as a radio DJ and MTV presenter, but he is also a songwriter and music producer, jetting off to America as often as he can to lay down some tracks of his own.

His Twitter feed is awash with musical references and pictures, including one of a Fender Stratocaster guitar customised by Johnny Marr for sale on eBay. There is another shot of John with legendary music producer Nile Rodgers at last year's Belsonic as well as some snaps of himself laying down self-penned tracks at a Nashville recording studio.

"I go to LA and Nashville as often as I can to record in the studio," he says. "There is such a vibrant music community in Nashville and I meet with musicians and producers I have gotten to know during my career.

"I don't have any aspirations to be the next Ed Sheeran, I write songs for myself, I just love doing it. If people want to listen to it and enjoy it, then that's a bonus."

Having remixed tracks for Enrique Iglesias and Back Street Boys, John has spent some studio time with big stars, and also keeps in touch with Gary Barlow and Kings of Leon.

During his stint with MTV Europe, which he joined in 2000, John met many of his musical idols including David Bowie, Nile Rodgers and Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters.

"I have worked with David Bowie a number of times and Prince which was really exciting as he is so reclusive," he says.

"Nile Rodgers was producing the music for a US TV show I was working on. He did every track for the marathon show which was eight hours long - there was such depth to each and every song."

He says being starstruck doesn't happen despite often being a fan of many of the performers he meets: "The kind of conversations I have with musicians I admire are quite nerdy. I am also working at the time so that helps, but it's all about the music for me. When you meet someone like David Bowie, if you understand music, you can't help but appreciate the impact he has had on that world."

John also made a VH1 documentary with music producer Mark Ronson, whom he describes as a musical pioneer: "Mark's album Uptown Special has dominated the world. For someone like him it is about seeing what they can achieve purely in musical terms."

And while many in the music business can be sniffy about an artist's "cool" rating, John is open-minded about all musical genres: "I have always listened to and enjoyed all types of music, from hard rock to pop - a mixture is good for you - why would you deprive yourself of that? You could be missing something. I like what I like and am not embarrassed to say I love pop music. I'm equally as happy listening to Daft Punk as I am to Calvin Harris.

"Just because artists like Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith are commercially successful doesn't mean they're not credible in musical terms - sure half of Belfast will be at Take That in May. If something is good it is good."

John began his radio career at Cool FM over 20 years ago before landing the MTV gig. For the next few years he worked for Channel 5 then American network NBC in London.

A trip across the pond in 2003 landed him a spot at Los Angeles radio station KABC, before relocating back to London for MTV UK where he was until 2009.

Throughout his career, his love of radio was clear: "The radio station in LA wasn't massive, but it was great craic. Going to MTV gave me the opportunity to meet and work with so many great musicians. And for those artists MTV is as important to them, as they are to it."

He returned to Northern Ireland from London for family reasons in 2009, where his dulcet tones have again become a familiar feature on both radio and TV. While still doing some freelance work with MTV, though, John got the gig of his life when he was asked to report from the MTV EMAs in 2011 in Belfast, joining stars like Lady Gaga and Selena Gomez for the global event.

"It was such an honour for me to present from the MTV EMAs in Belfast - it was the biggest gig I've ever done in my life with 1.2bn people tuning in, and it was in the Odyssey and my home town. It was great fun and it all came together really well - Belfast looked great."

John says MTV had planned to stage its EMA extravaganza in the city for many years but a lack of hotel accommodation in Belfast just couldn't support the thousands of extra visitors who would flood in.

"Bringing the EMAs to Belfast had been talked about for years prior to 2011, but tourism wasn't as developed as it is now - the infrastructure just wasn't there - otherwise it would've been sooner."

He is passionate too about the city where he grew up, and which he also credits for his love of music: "Belfast has such a strong musical tradition, it always has," he says. "It's a cliché but performers love playing to a Belfast crowd - they are noisier than audiences anywhere else and they know all the words to the songs and are not afraid to sing along.

"Some people say it is because fewer bands play here, but everyone plays here now."

And John's lifelong affair with music has also led to romance. While John has previously dated a string of beauties, he is now set for a trip to the altar with fiance Roz.

At this stage in our conversation John becomes coy and won't tell me his fiance's surname. "I can't remember," he quips.

What I do manage to pry out of him is that the future Mrs Kearns is a local girl, but like John she had lived in London for a long time. Funnily enough, the pair met a music gig in London, got talking about the things they had in common - music, of course - then after a four-year relationship John popped the question last September.

Wedding plans are now at full tilt, but they have yet to set a date. After marriage, the couple hope to have a family.

"Roz is very laid back and we have a good set up - we hang out, listen to music, we are into the same things," he says.

John's life has come full circle now that he is back living and working in Northern Ireland and planning a future with his bride-to-be.

While living in south Belfast, he splits his time here with London - a city which he knows so well and which is a hotbed for musical talent.

"I have come back to my roots at Cool FM. My first love is radio, and my first job was at Downtown Radio which was relatively new when I joined, so it was a great place to be. The station has really endured since it first aired in 1976 and it is a credit to the people who have been running it for so many years - it is still at the top of its game. The spirit there is really good."

John loves the instant connection radio gives him to his listeners' lives.

"When you play a song on the radio you are in the car with someone as they are driving home from work, or in the room while they are doing the ironing. Music will inspire me to say something on the spur of the moment and that just doesn't happen on television which is much more controlled. I love that connection.

"Radio really is the best company you can have. People in Northern Ireland are passionate about music, so they love tuning in. When you have that connection with people, you know you are doing your job."

While John is a musical gypsy, following any artist who inspires him, he admits the 1990s stand out for him: "I think what came out of America at that time, the bands associated with Grunge were so exciting. Bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden really appealed to me. At that time the US charts were full of fluffy, lightweight songs then this nasty record Smells Like Teen Spirit went to number one. I will never forget the first time I heard that song - I was blown away by it."

It's not just music which inspires John, but everyone associated with it. On one of his many trips to Nashville, he visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum which houses some of the most iconic items in music history, including instruments of late, great rock stars.

"I loved visiting this place as the curator there is a purist when it comes to respecting important musicians' memorabilia. I got to know him quite well and one day he asked 'do you want to hold Kurt Cobain's guitar?' I said 'yes, of course I do'."

Since then, John has worked with Dave Grohl, formerly of Nirvana: "To be the drummer with one of the world's biggest bands is amazing, but to become the front man of another, the Foo Fighters, is incredible," he says.

While John admits to spending "lots of money" on records and CDs over the years, he says he has resisted the urge to splash out on any authentic pieces yet - not even Johnny Marr's customised guitar. Back in the 1980s, John was a huge fan of Duran Duran and became good friends with the band who shared his passion for music: "I'm still a fan. Guys like that just adore making music and they are doing an album with Nile Rodgers. Imagine what that is going to be like?"

When he's not on the air, he likes to unwind by - listening to music, of course. His favourite place to be is behind the wheel of his car with the radio on.

"I listen to music everywhere - in the car, at home, with Roz, in the gym and out running. You know one of the worst things that can happen to me is to realise I have left my headphones at home when I go to the gym. I just get in the car and go straight back home again. There is no way I am running without music, it's just not going to happen."

He's also an avid reader, devouring both fiction and factual literature in equal measure.

"I read as much as I can, and because I travel a lot with work a Kindle comes in very handy. My favourite books of all time include Perfume by Patrick Suskind which is amazing and has some of richest language ever written, also The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies and anything by Alexandre Dumas.

"I also love biographies of my heroes such as Kurt Cobain or The Beatles - all sorts of literature really. I've just finished reading a book about the life of Martin Scorsese, it was excellent."

Football and movies also come top of the list when John is enjoying some downtime.

"I'm a huge film fan, and get to the cinema as often as I can. I've been fortunate enough to cover a lot of film festivals for MTV such as Sundance and Berlin and those are great because you get to see screenings all sorts of different independent films that otherwise don't make it to the multiplex."

And it's Spanish football that he particularly enjoys, following La Liga games.

"Real Madrid are a joy to watch. I think the Premier League is fantastic this year too with Manchester United looking dangerous again, and the resurgence of Liverpool - it's a really good season."

John reckons that with some spending by Manchester United in the summer they could well top the table, however, he saves his adulation for Cristiano Ronaldo, adding "he is the best player I have seen. When you go to games and watch the work he puts in, and the skills he displays - it's just mind blowing."

But even for John, travelling the world to meet some of the planet's most famous musicians, sometimes it's not all rock 'n' roll, admitting one day he could be interviewing Nile Rodgers - the next day Jedward.

He is grateful for every moment of his career, though, adding: "I have been lucky enough to work with some of the world's biggest music stars. I've met my heroes."

Local radio stars who went on to shine

STEPHEN NOLAN: The multiple Sony Radio Academy Award-winning DJ and television presenter Stephen Nolan (right), 41, is famous for his no-holds-barred interviewing technique.

Nolan, from Belfast, is not just a household name in Northern Ireland due to his career on Belfast Citybeat and BBC Radio Ulster, but has presented his own show for BBC Radio Five Live. He holds the record for most Sony Gold awards ever presented to one person, and won the Royal Television Society's Regional Presenter of the Year Award in 2005 and 2006.

SEAN RAFFERTY: Belfast-born Sean Rafferty, 68, is now best known for his work on BBC Radio 3, but was a regular presenter of local news programme, Scene Around Six in the 1980s and hosted the province's first chat show, Rafferty.

He moved to Radio 3 in 1997 where he presents In Tune, and has announced concert broadcasts on the classical music network.

COLIN MURRAY: Another award-winning radio broadcaster, Colin Murray (37) from Dundonald, has made quite an impression as a national broadcaster in both sport and music. Having trained as a news journalist, Murray became host of BBC's Match of the Day 2 on BBC Two, while still anchoring shows on BBC Radio 5 Live, 5 Live Sport and Fighting Talk and a presenting gig on BBC Radio Ulster. In 2007, he was named Music Broadcaster of the Year at the Sony Radio Academy Awards.

PHILY TAGGART: The 28-year-old radio and TV star began his successful career early, winning a BBC/Skillset Young Broadcaster of the Year award while a student at Ulster University. Since then he helped set up an Omagh community radio station, Strule FM, which won a Sony Radio Academy Award in 2009. Taggart also began appearing on some of Radio 1's national programmes, covering for Sara Cox, Huw Stephens, Dev and Gemma Cairney.

ROISIN McAULEY: Co Tyrone journalist/broadcaster/author Roisin McAuley joined BBC NI as a newsreader before becoming a reporter for programmes such as Spotlight, Newsnight and Panorama. She also wrote and presented programmes on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4 and more recently has been back in her native Northern Ireland presenting Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence every other week.

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