Bap Kennedy: 'Brian is more showbiz than me'
Working with greats like Van Morrison and Mark Knopfler has given Belfast musician Bap Kennedy, whose new album is out now, much more to boast about that just having a famous brother too, says Andrew Johnston
After 36 years in the music game and with seven acclaimed solo albums under his belt, you'd think it might irk Bap Kennedy to have his career distilled into two words - "Brian's brother". That's how Hot Press magazine recently tagged the west Belfast-born singer-songwriter in an article, but the elder Kennedy is taking it in his stride.
"It is what it is," Bap shrugs. "It only ever happens here – down in the south of Ireland, where Brian's relevant, or in Belfast. I gig a lot in countries all over the place, so it doesn't really bother me, to be honest."
The brothers – who in the early days of their musical journey lived together in a series of squats in north London – have had their differences over the years, and their careers have taken different turns, but Bap nixes any suggestion of ongoing acrimony between him and Brian (above).
"I'd very rarely see him," he remarks. "From a very early age, he went his way and I went mine. I'm sure there's some common ground there, but he'd be more a showbiz person than me. I'm steeped in music."
Certainly, having co-written with Van Morrison, been recorded by Steve Earle and sung alongside the likes of Nanci Griffith and Shane MacGowan, Bap (real name Martin) has a CV that's second to none. Meanwhile, an ongoing association with Mark Knopfler resulted in the Belfast-born artist's 2012 album, The Sailor's Revenge, being produced by the ex-Dire Straits star.
But though Bap could easily take some time out to reflect on an eventful life in music, he continues to pump out new recordings. The 52-year-old's latest album, Let's Start Again – which he promotes with a string of Northern Ireland gigs over the coming months, including a headline slot at the Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival on Sunday, March 9 – is a more back-to-basics affair than recent releases, and intentionally so.
"I wrote the songs very quickly, and we recorded it very quickly, which is probably the best way to do it," Bap says. "It feels fresh. We just make an album whenever it feels right. I've always got some songs kicking around, and after we made The Sailor's Revenge – which was quite an introspective record – we thought we'd do something with a bit more of a kick in it."
To that end, Bap hooked up with the man who had overseen many of his earliest recordings in the Eighties and Nineties, the widely respected producer Mudd Wallace, whose credits include the breakthrough Therapy? album Babyteeth.
"I first worked with Mudd 30 years ago when I was a post-punk, sort-of fledgling thrasher," Bap chuckles.
"He used to tell me I should be listening to country rock, not the rubbish I was listening to. Thirty years later, he's right! It's come round full circle, really."
On the title track, Bap sings: "We haven't got much time". It's a love song, but Bap says he likes his lyrics to have "a bit of ambiguity".
"I've been round this sun 52 times now, and you start to realise that there's a finite amount of times you're going to go round that thing. Life is very short. Thirty-odd years seems a very long time when you're 20-something, but it doesn't seem that long now."
Another track, Song of Her Desire, includes the line, "I need the pain to feel inspired," and it's a notion Bap says he returns to time and again in his work: "If you have an easygoing life and nothing much really happens, there's nothing much to write about. But in the music industry, the highs are high and the lows are low. If you're going to be a songwriter, you have to have experiences to write about. It can be negative at the time, but if it gives you a poetic idea, there's a value in it."
Still, in recent years, for Bap, the highs have tended to outweigh the lows. The musician's friendship with Knopfler has allowed him to play many of the world's most prestigious venues, and he now considers the guitar hero a friend – as well as a fan.
"After meeting a few of these guys, you realise they want to hear music as much as anybody else does," says Bap. "They're looking around trying to find something that turns them on. It's great to have that validation from such high-calibre people – Mark Knopfler, or Van Morrison – but at the end of the day, they're working musicians; they're songwriters."
As for Belfast, in the wake of the global success of the likes of Snow Patrol and Two Door Cinema Club and international praise for the Good Vibrations movie, Bap's home city is viewed as a bit of a rock 'n' roll town, and he's all for it.
"Belfast is a quirky place, and it comes across in that film," he says. "It really captures the bleakness of Belfast and the excitement of punk rock. I was a little bit too young when it was really going on, but I caught the tail end of it, and it was very exciting. We used to go to our local community centre and see punk bands, and it was the greatest show on Earth."
Yet in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when he was fronting the cult pop-rock combo Energy Orchard, Bap says Belfast could be a tough place to get ahead.
"You're well-armed with your street credibility, but you have no business sense or any aspirations. All you want to do when you're in a band from Belfast is get a free drink. People can't believe their luck to have record deals, like we did. We just went mad for a couple of years. And then you see other bands who seem to have some kind of a plan. You're lambs to the slaughter in the music business."
Before Energy Orchard, Bap played in the punk outfits Sellout and 10 Past 7, the latter of whom were signed to Good Vibrations in the early Eighties, when Bap was not long out of his teens. Needless to say, he has an arsenal of Terri Hooley memories, including the time the self-styled music mogul decided to put on a punk festival in the Divis Flats.
"It was as anarchic as you can imagine," Bap laughs. "The kids who lived there were jumping between the rooftops of the blocks, like a sport. It was mental. It was also the only time in my life I've worn a kilt, and there's a picture of me wearing it on stage in [Hooley's] book."
These days, Bap likes to use his music as a force for good, and is keen to highlight his work with the charity Autism NI, of which he is a patron. He became involved through his wife, Brenda – also the bass player in his band, and a solo artist in her own right – who has written several books on the subject.
"There's autism in my family, and I've always been interested in the idea that music is a very powerful force," Bap says. "What Brenda and I want to do is raise the profile of Autism NI. It's quite a misunderstood condition. Our job really is to keep the flame going on the valuable work that they do behind the scenes."
When blood just isn't thick enough...
Other musical relatives who have gone their separate ways over the years:
Noel and Liam Gallagher – since a backstage incident culminating in a smashed guitar put an end to Oasis in 2009, it has been five years of communicating only through lawyers and their long-suffering mum for the Mancunian brothers
Ray and Dave Davies – the creative tension that fuelled the Kinks' early success spilled out into one of the longest-running musical feuds in history. With both siblings now pushing 70, hopes are high for them to resolve their differences
Brian Wilson and Mike Love – after years of law suits, the Beach Boys co-founders and cousins reunited for a lucrative tour in 2012. But since then, rights-holder Love has reverted to his touring version of the band, causing Wilson to claim he had been fired.
Bap Kennedy plays the Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart, on Thursday, March 6, and Holiday Inn, Belfast, on Sunday, March 9. For details on these and further dates, visit www.bapkennedy.com. Let's Start Again is out now on Proper Records