The Kennedy Way: Brian on being happy and single
Ahead of a concert in Limavady tomorrow, Brian Kennedy talks to Audrey Watson
Brian Kennedy the man may be almost 48 years old, but Brian Kennedy, the singer-songwriter is just about to turn 25. Next year, the Belfast-born artist will celebrate a quarter of a century in the music business and plans to release a CD of 25 songs – all new recordings of the most popular tracks of his career.
"You might think that 25 songs is an awful lot, well 25 years is an awful long time," he laughs. "But it's gone by in a flash.
"Half the time I don't really think about what age I am and then someone will appear at a concert with a picture from years ago and I go, 'Who is that child?
Was that really me?' But so far, so good. I look after myself and I go to the gym and get regular check-ups at the doctor.
"However, there are moments when I wonder, 'How can I be almost 48?' Where did the time go? How did that happen?'"
The ever-popular Kennedy returns to Northern Ireland this week for a concert at the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre, Limavady, on Saturday night, where he will be joined by fellow local talent, Londonderry's Eilidh Patterson, who has been delighting audiences across the UK and the States in the last few years with her beautiful, captivating songs.
"I played there a couple of years ago," he recalls. "It's a lovely building and I think it's great to see these new, community-based, arts venues popping up around the province."
Brian, who currently lives in Dublin, will be playing some more concerts around the province later this year, but straight after Limavady, he's off to the Edinburgh Festival.
"I'm playing three dates there and I can't wait," he says.
"Like the show in the Roe Valley, they will be small, theatre-like events, where I'll interact and chat to the audience as well as singing.
"I always do a signing after every show and sometimes the signings go on longer than the concert," he laughs. "But I think it's important to meet the people who have bought your records and put you where you are."
Raised on the Falls Road, Brian was the fourth of six children born to Post Office worker Jim and his wife Lily.
He started singing professionally with his brother Bap Kennedy's first band, Ten Past Seven, but unsurprisingly his distinctive voice wasn't exactly suited to rock music and he left the group to pursue an acoustic singing career.
At 18, Brian headed to London where, after undergoing the usual singer's rite of passage – busking, building site jobs and trekking round the piano bars – he was spotted and managed for a while by Simon Fuller, who went on to be the Spice Girls' guru.
A publishing deal followed and his first album, The Great War of Words was released in 1990. Its two stand-out singles, Captured and Town, are still audience favourites.
His talent also came to the attention of Van Morrison, who invited him to join his Soul & Blues Revival Tour and gave him the opportunity to sing alongside one of his music heroes, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan.
The collaboration with Van lasted six years and also included the historic concert for Bill Clinton in Belfast in 1996, which was watched by an estimated TV audience of one billion viewers.
"I owe a lot to Van and that tour," reflects Brian. "Without him saying on stage, 'I want to introduce a young friend from Belfast,' I wouldn't be where I am today."
Since then, 12 more albums have followed and as well as becoming a renowned singer songwriter, Kennedy has also made his mark as a novelist.
His debut, The Arrival of Fergal Flynn, was published in 2004 and the follow-up, Roman Song, in 2005.
"I've been quietly working away on a third book," he reveals. "I hope to get that out as well sometime next year.
"Writing is very solitary and, for me anyway, I have to be in a very calm state and a place where you know someone's not going to knock on the door.
"Fergal Flynn has one last hurrah. It's just getting the time and the calm space to finish writing about it."
Kennedy's most recent album – A Tribute to Joni – was released at the end of last year and harks back to the early days of his career and the motivation he gained from the Canadian singer songwriter.
He recalls: "I was about 20 years old and had just moved to London and was trying to write songs, but everything sounded the same and I was struggling to find inspiration.
"A friend suggested I listen to someone called Joni Mitchell. I did and she blew me away.
"I started listening to everything she had ever done and began to research writing methods and the structure of her songs. It opened up a whole new world for me and I've so much to thank her for.
"When I was touring America with Van in 1998, I got to be onstage and sing alongside her.
"It was an extraordinary experience and it was a little daunting, but she immediately put me at ease and we ended up having a laugh.
"At the end of the tour, Joni gave me a beautiful signed artist's print of a lithograph of the cover of her album, Taming The Tiger.
"It now hangs in my study at home."
As well as touring with Van and singing for Bill Clinton, Brian's musical milestones include representing Ireland in Eurovision in 1996, spending six months living in New York in 2000, where he had the role of lead singer in the celebrated Riverdance on Broadway show, and performing at George Best's funeral in 2005.
In 2010, he received a Meteor Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of two decades in the music business.
"Once you get into that double-deck thing, you do realise that you've been around for a quite a while," he laughs. "I always thought lifetime achievement awards were for people at the end of their career, but it didn't make me feel old at all. I felt really honoured.
"And here I am another five years later, still working in this crazy industry."
In 2012, Brian was part of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations at Stormont.
"That was just an extraordinary experience," he says. "I got to meet the Queen beforehand at a reception held at the Lyric Theatre.
"Everyone was presented to her and she was very sweet. I didn't know what the protocol was, but there turned out to be no protocol and before I knew it, this tiny little woman was in front of me offering her hand.
"I talked to her about her visit to Dublin, the previous year, and told her that she had won our hearts immediately when she stepped off the plane because she was wearing a green dress.
"She laughed and said, 'Oh, that's good'. She was really lovely and said that she felt lucky to have been able to visit Ireland while Mary McAleese was president.
"It was amazing. Then I had to 'leg it' and try and beat her over to Stormont where 25,000 people were having a party."
Over the years, he has also dipped his toe into the world of television presenting with BBC NI and RTE, been a mentor on The Voice of Ireland in 2012 and was a lively contestant on the first Irish version of Celebrity Come Dine With Me, two years ago.
He lets out a wry laugh when I bring up the subject of the show, which saw him clash constantly with journalist Paul Martin.
The ill-feeling culminated in them lashing glasses of red wine over each other after Martin criticised the song, Message in a Box.
But Brian is philosophical about the bust-up.
"If you can imagine having to have dinner for five nights in a row with four people you really like and competing against them with your cooking skills, it would be really hard.
"So, if you've never met them before and quickly realise that there is one person in particular that you don't like at all and don't think is a nice human being, and you have to eat dinner with them for four more nights, things aren't going to turn out well.
"But it was good television and even now, if I go into an off-licence for a bottle of wine, the cashier will make a joke about it," he laughs.
Openly gay, Brian insists he has no plans to settle down and have a family.
"I'm kind of single," he says. "I have a few situations and connections in my life that I am very happy with and very grateful for, but I don't have a significant other.
"In this line of work, it's very hard to hold down a steady relationship.
"With so much travel and constant gigging, it's a lot to ask of a partner.
"And I really have no inclination to become a dad. Children really need your full attention and I can't even look after a plant, never mind a child," he laughs.
"Even when my friends started having children, it never made me feel broody or think that parenthood was something I wanted for myself.
"It actually made me feel the opposite and I feel really lucky to have so much freedom.
"But that doesn't mean I don't like children, though. I love being an uncle and am very close to my nephew and niece."
Kennedy is a natural communicator – something that's evident at his concerts – so would he ever consider a radio slot or hosting a chat show?
"I would love to do that," he says.
"Especially as I am getting older and have much more to talk about," he laughs.
"I have stood in for people before and did a few guest presenting slots and really love it – so put a good word in for me," he jokes.
"To be honest, I will go anywhere and do anything if the work is interesting. If I was offered a tour or a stint in a musical again – or a chat show (he laughs) – I'd be away.
"I do like to travel and will be going back to Australia next year. I just go where the work is.
"I absolutely love what I do and I love the fact that I've got the opportunity to make a living as a singer.
"As most people know, I grew up in a working-class environment on the Falls Road in Belfast. We didn't have much and I think it's made me appreciate what I've got now.
"I don't think of it as work. I feel lucky to be able to do this for a living – I never want it to end."
Brian Kennedy plays the Roe Valley Arts & Leisure Centre, Limavady, tomorrow, 8pm. Tickets (£21) from the box office on: 028 77760650
From busker to the big time
- In the early Nineties, at a time hen the charts were awash with baggy-trousered indie bands and noisy dance groups, the dark, flowing hair and soulful voice of Brian Kennedy proved a big hit with music fans looking for something a little different
- In the classic fashion of many an aspiring performer, the west Belfast man left home at 18 to busk on the streets of London while living in squats, until he was discovered by Simon Fuller, the pop and TV svengali who would go on to bring the world the Spice Girls
- His first successful single, Captured, from his debut studio album The Great War of Words, was released in February 1990. A string of further singles and albums followed, ensuring Kennedy was to become a regular face on TV screens here
- He has toured with The Corrs, Tina Turner and Van Morrison, contributing to the latter’s albums Days Like This, No Prima Donna, The Healing Game and Back On Top, as well as a version of Crazy Love for the Hollywood film When A Man Loves A Woman
- In 2005, he gave a memorable rendition of You Raise Me Up at the funeral of footballing icon George Best
- The following year, Brian represented Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest with his own work, Every Song is a Cry for Life. He finished a creditable 10th
- Kennedy received major acclaim for his work when he was awarded an Ireland Meteor Lifetime Achievement Award for Music in 2010
- He has performed with Riverdance in New York and appeared as a judge on RTE’s The Voice. Last year he released his album A Love Letter to Joni, in which he covered his favourite songs by the 70-year-old Canadian singer
- Kennedy has also found time to publish two novels, The Arrival of Fergal Flynn (Hodder, 2004), and Roman Song (Hodder, 2005)
- He also received an honorary doctorate in arts from the University of Ulster in 2006