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We make sweet music together

By Audrey Watson

Author and solicitor Brenda Kennedy turned to songwriting for a new challenge ... but ended up finding a husband and setting out on a new career.

When author and former solicitor Brenda Kennedy enrolled for a song-writing workshop, she never for a moment imagined that it would lead to a new career — and a husband. But next month, the multi-talented Belfast woman who once ran her own law practice and who has written three acclaimed books on Asperger syndrome, releases her debut album. It’s called Banish the Blue Days and is produced by singer/song-writer Bap Kennedy, tutor on the workshop — and now Brenda’s proud husband.

“This is a complete life change for me,” admits Brenda. “A few years ago, I decided I wanted a change in direction and wanted to do something creative with my life. I’d always had a hankering for writing songs, but being a mum to two children I never had the time.

“My son Kenneth has Asperger syndrome [high-functioning autism] and as anyone who has a child with the condition knows, it takes over your whole life.

“Kenneth is now 19, but when he was younger not a lot was known about the condition in Northern Ireland and my son was a particularly difficult child. It became impossible to continue practising law full-time so I switched to part-time, but in the end I realised I had to stop completely.

“It was a hard decision to make and it was one that I’d thought through for a long time, but I never looked back.

“Caring for a child with Asperger’s is very challenging, but also very rewarding and you can learn so much from a child like that.

“My experience with Kenneth had made me think about what really matters and what’s important in life so when he was six, I gave up law completely and became totally absorbed in the world of autism. I also began looking around for a career that was more worthwhile.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at first, so I volunteered at a Marie Curie hospice for a couple of years and loved it.”

Although he was suffering from Asperger’s, Kenneth was recognised as being a gifted child and at the age of 10 wrote a book called Asperger Syndrome, the Universe and Everything, something that prompted Brenda to pick up a pen herself. She has since published three books on the condition (under the name Brenda Boyd), including a children’s novel. Her first book, Parenting a Child with Asperger Syndrome: 200 Tips and Strategies, remains a best-seller.

“Through Kenneth, I had built up a relationship with Jessica Kingsley publishers,” explains Brenda. “By that stage, I’d become quite obsessed with Asperger’s and was working part-time with the National Austistic Society. Because Kenneth was so difficult, I was gathering every single tip and idea that I could find to try to help manage him.

“I’d always wanted to write and thought that putting everything I’d learned and come across together into one book would be very practical and useful to myself and others — a sort of A-to-Z list of things you can do to work with a child who has Aspergers.

“It turned out to be exactly what people wanted.

“In 2007, with Kenneth in his late teens and my daughter Christine also grown up, I felt the need to do something creative so I bought a guitar and got involved in a small traditional group. But I’d always wanted to write songs and heard about a song-writing workshop, run by Bap, at the Grand Opera House.

“Growing up in north Belfast, none of my siblings were musical though my parents both were. Dad was a civil servant, but he loved music — especially the old ballads. He sang and played piano; he wasn’t taught or anything, he was just a natural. I played piano as well and at Dominican College, Fortwilliam studied music to A-level.

“I had written a few songs as a teenager and had even thought of doing a degree in music at Queen’s University, then changed my mind and went for law. But I always felt that music was something I wanted to go back to and so I went along to the workshop. I’d never met Bap before, but of course because he’s such a successful musician, I had heard of him.

“I was really nervous, but I loved it. Everyone had to write a few songs and perform them, then at the end, we voted for the best one and I won.

“The prize was to perform onstage with Bap at the Grand Opera House — that same evening!

“Even though I was terrified, it went really, really well and I got a standing ovation. Bap told me that he thought my songs were very good and that they should be recorded. He wasn’t talking about making an album, just getting them on record.”

At that stage, did Brenda have any idea that she had found herself a husband as well as a new career?

“Nooo,” she laughs. “After the workshop, we started working together and became really good friends and I started writing a lot more songs.

“Our relationship was about the music for a long time and we worked really well together in the recording studio and got on like a house on fire. We could talk to each other about anything and things just grew from there.”

The couple were married in October last year and now live in Holywood with Kenneth (also a music fanatic), who is delighted with his rock ’n’ roll stepdad and his mum’s cool new career.

“Kenneth and Bap get on really well, which is a great blessing,” says Brenda. “Kenneth is music-mad and like me, plays the guitar.”

As well as songwriting and releasing an album, Brenda has also recently established herself as a respected pastel landscape artist and her work can be seen in The Yard Gallery in Holywood, as well as on the cover of Banish the Blue Days.

With her debut album being released next month and Bap’s new album coming out in July, could there be a bit of competition?

“No I don’t think so,” laughs Brenda. “Our styles are very different. His music is very American whereas mine is more European. We haven’t had many creative clashes either. We always manage to find a way round things. Once we were trying to decide on a line for a song and we couldn’t agree on it at all, so we ended up tossing a coin.”

On Saturday, July 4, Brenda will perform as Bap’s guest at a gig in the Black Box Belfast and then the couple are off on tour to promote Bap’s new album.

“I’m not sure whether I’ll be supporting Bap or performing with him, we’re kind of making it up as we go along,” she laughs. “Bap has been doing this his whole life — he is very spontaneous and likes to play everything by ear.

“This is all so new to me and I’m loving every minute. We’re just back from Holland and last year I accompanied him on the Mark Knopfler tour, which was amazing.

“I hadn’t even a clue how to put on a pair of headphones when I first went into the studio, but Bap says I’ve taken to the music business like a duck to water.”

Banish the Blue Days by Brenda Kennedy is released on June 15. For more info:

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