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Brian Kennedy: I'm going in the right direction but I'm not out of the woods yet as regards my health

Ahead of his concert at the May In The Marquee festival at Glenarm Castle this Sunday, Brian Kennedy talks to Stephanie Bell about his cancer battle - and reconciling with his late brother Bap


Brian Kennedy visits Glenarm Castle ahead of his gig on Sunday

Brian Kennedy visits Glenarm Castle ahead of his gig on Sunday

Brian on stage

Brian on stage

Brian in his younger days

Brian in his younger days

Brian's brother, the late Bap Kennedy

Brian's brother, the late Bap Kennedy

Brian Kennedy visits Glenarm Castle ahead of his gig on Sunday

It was an unexpectedly emotional moment which took Belfast singer Brian Kennedy by complete surprise. Listening to the radio a few months ago he was profoundly moved when a song by his late brother Bap was played.

He says: "It surprised me the great sense of comfort I got from it.

"It just shows how people can live on through their music."

The summer of 2016 is one he will never forget.

His brother Bap was diagnosed in June with terminal pancreatic cancer, and just two months later, doctors told Brian that he had rectal cancer.

Although he has yet to be given the all clear, he is grateful that he is making a good recovery and his mood is upbeat and positive.

A prolific artist with a career spanning over three decades, Brian has continued to tour and perform while undergoing treatment and has recorded two new albums. He has also recently published a collection of short stories.

He has come through radiotherapy and chemotherapy and a recent scan confirmed the cancer has not spread.

While he is still visiting hospital for check-ups, he says of his health: "I'm going in the right direction although I'm not out of the woods yet. A recent scan showed that it has not spread to any other part of my body.

"I still have ongoing appointments but part of my recovery now is focusing on being well and I don't want to be defined by it. I know talking about it can help people but I don't want to keep going over it. I prefer not to talk about it.

"I don't think you can go through cancer and it doesn't change you. You certainly find out who your real friends are. Cancer is such a cruel disease and some people get it worse than others, but on the flip side so many people are now surviving it.

"I found that some people are incredibly kind just out of the blue and I've had so many well-wishers.

"I was speaking at Queen's University in Belfast this week and the kindness of people at that event was wonderful."

In the past, Brian has talked openly about how he became estranged from his brother Bap.

That all changed, however, in the summer of 2016 when Brian realised that he was going to lose him and was determined they would be reconciled.

Brian visited Bap in the Marie Curie Hospice, where the brothers talked for the first time in many years.

"Estrangement becomes like a very bad habit," he said of that emotional time.

"It just becomes the norm. We just got used to not hearing or seeing each other.

"I got to see him again and gave him a hug and if anything good has come out of this, it was the chance to see him again.

"I think that cancer puts manners on the best of people, the best of situations and the worst."

Bap's death aged 53 put into focus just how cruel cancer can be and Brian still feels that loss today.

He says: "It is incredibly sad that God love him, Bap only got six months. It is hard to believe that two years will have gone by (since he passed) this November."

Brian (51), who lives in Dublin, will be back in Northern Ireland on Sunday for the In The Marquee Festival at Glenarm Castle. An Evening With Brian Kennedy will form the finale event and fans will be treated to some of his early hits such as Captured, A Better Man and Put The Message In The Box, as well as recent recordings.

Although he hasn't lived in Belfast since he left aged 18, Brian says he is happy for any chance to come home to Northern Ireland and is looking forward to the concert: "I can't wait. I had never been to Glenarm Castle before but what a beautiful spot it is.

"I love any kind of excuse to come up to Northern Ireland which is ever-changing and a completely different country now from the one I grew up in.

"I love to meet the new generation of people growing up now which is why I enjoyed going to Queen's this week where I was talking about my experiences. I was able to reflect on what it was like for me and how hard it was."

He described growing up as one of six children on the Falls Road in west Belfast during the Troubles as "hellish".

He escaped as soon as he could, moving to London where he initially survived by busking in the train stations and outside the Dominion Theatre.

The fact that he and his brother Bap both turned out to be talented musicians proves, he says, that music is not something you learn, but is instinctive.

He says: "Our parents were not musical and all of our other siblings weren't either. We never had any music lessons growing up.

"I think it is testament to the fact that you just don't know where music comes from, either you have it or you don't."

Though he struggled to get by financially when he first moved to London, camping out in various illegal squats, it wasn't long before Brian's talent was recognised.

He was discovered by Simon Fuller, the man who created TV's Pop Idol and managed a host of stars including Annie Lennox and The Spice Girls.

He has spent most of his career touring in Ireland, the UK, Australia, Germany and the USA, building a massive international fan base.

Of course, his work with Van Morrison has been well-documented and the two have remained friends throughout their careers.

Brian's big break came when Van invited him to a rehearsal that resulted in him being featured as guest lead singer on the now unforgettable Blues and Soul Revue.

And courtesy of Van's continuing mentoring and generosity, Brian ended up touring the globe with Morrison over a six-year period.

At the same time he was working on his own material, releasing second album A Better Man in 1996 followed by Now That I Know What I Want in 1999. Both went to number one in the Republic - and went platinum.

Brian's career has also brought him into contact with many big stars over the years, but as he was a big fan of Kate Bush growing up, he treasures not only meeting her but forging a close friendship.

He says: "I have been out to dinner with Kate a few times and also to her house a couple of times for dinner.

"She is fantastic company, everything you would think she would be - and so down-to-earth. She is such a beautiful woman with this amazing damson purple hair. I've always admired her."

It was his heart-wrenching performance of You Raise Me Up at the funeral of Northern Ireland football legend George Best that finally earned him a spot in the top five of the UK charts.

Today he says that performing at Best's funeral remains one of his proudest moments: "Looking back my proudest moment seems to change all the time, but singing at George Best's funeral and also performing along with Van Morrison at Bill and Hilary Clinton's visit to Belfast stand out for me and always will.

"They are moments which are part of our history."

Brian is open about his sexuality but never discusses his relationships.

He likes to keep that side of his life private, saying: "I always stay well away from that kind of thing. I don't mind keeping a little bit of mystery going on."

But he has made no secret of the fact the Troubles, lack of opportunity and being gay were all reasons why he left Belfast in the first place.

He does, however, retain a great affection for his native city and says that he takes it with him wherever he goes.

Since leaving Northern Ireland he has lived for spells in the United States and London. For the past 15 years, he has resided in Dublin.

However, he still doesn't see Dublin as his home and is always ready to move wherever the music takes him.

"There were no opportunities for a young fella like me who also happened to be a young gay person, emerging from that world," he says.

"I went to London to escape and thankfully everything worked out.

"I could live anywhere. Who knows where I could be this time next year?

"I don't set down roots, I go with the flow. Currently I'm in Dublin where I have great friends and I'm happy at the moment."

Charming and fun to talk to, nevertheless there is no doubt he takes his work very seriously.

Perhaps not surprisingly, he continued to perform right through his cancer journey, even going on stage with his chemo drugs strapped to him.

And while receiving treatment last year he released two new albums, Brian Kennedy Live at Vicar Street and a collection of Christmas songs, Christmassy, last December.

Brian adds: "I just love keeping busy and having the chance to be creative.

"I'm off to China and Chile later this year and there will be lots of creative output.

"As long as I'm busy and able to be creative, I'm happy."

An Evening with Brian Kennedy will take place at the May In The Marquee festival, Glenarm Castle, this Sunday at 7pm. For tickets and information see glenarmcastle.com/events/mayinthemarquee

Belfast Telegraph