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As a management consultant, Michael Kerr advised businesses how to avoid risk... so what made him gamble everything on a career in the music industry?

The Belfast man was destined for the corporate heights when he packed in his lucrative but monotonous 9-to-5 post for the precarious life of a jobbing musician ... and he has never looked back since, as he tells Ivan Little

Guitar man: Michael Kerr has given up the corporate life to follow his passion for writing and performing new music
Guitar man: Michael Kerr has given up the corporate life to follow his passion for writing and performing new music
Guitar man: Michael Kerr has given up the corporate life to follow his passion for writing and performing new music
Guitar man: Michael Kerr has given up the corporate life to follow his passion for writing and performing new music
Guitar man: Michael Kerr has given up the corporate life to follow his passion for writing and performing new music

For more than four years as a management consultant, Michael Kerr dispensed invaluable advice to clients on how to make progress in the cut-and-thrust world of business. But then the Belfast man surprised his colleagues by making a personal decision that wouldn't have been in line with many of their accepted wisdoms.

For, instead of staying in his well-paid job with its healthy prospects for rising through the ranks in his company, Michael gave it all up to pursue a career in the far less certain environment of music.

And now he's got hard-to-impress critics singing his praises after the release of a new EP of his easy-on-the-ear pop songs.

Michael, from Andersonstown, who once played football in the Milk Cup in his youth, was a comparative latecomer to music. He picked up a guitar for the first time in his mid-teens after listening to Oasis and he starting playing gigs in his aunt and uncle's pub in Crumlin, where he also worked part-time.

The extra income helped Michael to buy CDs by a massive number of musicians and Oasis soon gave way to singers like Bruce Springsteen and Ryan Adams, whom he saw in the Waterfront Hall in Belfast.

"Ryan was amazing and he made me think seriously about music, though the songs I was writing weren't very good. But university put a stop to all that," says Michael.

He spent four years in Liverpool studying for a degree in economics.

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"I was always fascinated by economics at school and it gave me an understanding of what was going on in the world," adds Michael, who kick-started his musical career again when he came home to do a Masters in business studies.

He started playing gigs with friends in different line-ups in pubs in Belfast and beyond. "At one point, we were playing four nights a week in Renshaw's Hotel in Belfast in front of students who wanted to hear Galway Girl all night, but in many ways, I learnt my craft."

After he got his Masters, Michael secured a nine-to-five job with a major management consultancy firm and he threw himself into evaluations and economic appraisals, mainly in the public sector.

But he was still making music at night and at the weekends and his gigging eventually made Michael realise that he wasn't happy in his day job.

"I hated it," he says. "It was boring and what I was doing just wasn't me. I dreaded going into the office every morning.

"As soon as five o'clock came round, I wanted to go home. But other people with me worked on for hours with the aim of getting ahead in their careers.

"I knew it could be a lucrative future, but that didn't mean anything to me and it wasn't worth the unhappiness," he adds.

"So, after four years, I decided to quit and concentrate on making a living out of music."

Which is, of course, easier said than done.

Michael set about finding regular gigs and he set up The Knights, a wedding band, the source of steady income for many musicians.

He says: "There was no shortage of gigs in pubs and hotels, but I wanted to do more than sing other people's songs. I was composing my own stuff and I was lucky to team up with musician Paul Tierney, who helped me with my guitar-playing and my songwriting. He also introduced me to a lot of great musicians on the circuit."

The upshot was a weekly residency in The Empire in Belfast with a band called Soul Shaker, who played with him on his first EP.

His second record, The Australia Fund, was made with money he'd gathered together for a visit down under, a trip which never took place.

"I was planning to live there for a year, but it didn't happen and I realised I needed to stay here to work hard on becoming a full-time musician," says Michael (36), who recorded several more EPs, but didn't release them because he did not believe they were up to the mark.

That's not the same with his latest recording, Treasure Chest, which was produced as the result of a collaboration with highly-acclaimed Belfast musician Gareth Dunlop, who's achieved a huge degree of success in Nashville, where his songs have been picked up for movies and TV shows.

A grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland came in handy, too, for Michael, who gave Gareth no fewer than 40 songs from which to choose for the EP, which was recorded at his studio in east Belfast.

"It was great to work with him," says Michael. "I wouldn't necessarily have picked the three songs he did, but in the end I had to admit that he was right. Maybe I was too precious about the songs, but I am happy with the way that things have turned out. I enjoy listening to the songs myself."

Michael is hoping that some of his songs might find their way into the movies, or into advertisements on the television.

"The brief was to make the new EP commercial and snappy, with songs that wouldn't just go on the radio, but further afield," he says.

"I am in talks with a film company about getting a few songs placed down in a movie, but I can't say too much about that. It would be fantastic if it happened."

Michael has been promoting his new EP through a tour of coffee shops across Northern Ireland, where the aim was also to raise money for the NI Hospice.

He's also playing at upcoming festivals around the province and he has set his sights on gigging more in England and down south.

In the modern world, of course, singers need to use social media to make people aware of their music and Michael has so far done all his own tweeting and Facebooking.

"I grew up finding out about new music by watching Top of the Pops, but the industry is all very different now, with stuff coming at you from all angles, and Spotify is how you make your dough and get your name known," he says.

"But what still stands true is that a good song is a good song - no matter how you get it out there. You have to adapt and do so much of the work yourself."

The reaction to his new music has been largely positive and his songs have struck a chord with listeners.

Michael says he tries to write "about all sorts of stuff", from love songs to making tough choices in life.

One acoustic song, Leap of Faith, is about leaving Ireland to find work and it's been played on BBC Radio 1.

But like so many modern-day local songwriters, Michael shies away from the Troubles.

"I was fortunate that I wasn't affected by the Troubles. I was 17 at the time of the Good Friday Agreement and I was never interested in politics," he says.

"And, after 1998, I was part of the first generation of people who experienced going into town in Belfast on a regular basis, so I never had anything to write about.

"There are people who have been directly impacted by the Troubles and they would be better placed than me to go down that road.

"As you get older, you get a better sense of what's going on. So, would I ever write about the Troubles? I don't think so."

Michael says the future is about more hard grafting and determination, but no matter what it holds he insists he won't go back into high-powered management consultancy.

"No way. I would never do that. I am happy working for myself and, if I ever returned to the business world, it would have to be on my terms, but I can't see employers agreeing to that," he adds.

Belfast Telegraph


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