A conversation with Brian Kennedy
Belfast born Brian Kennedy is one of the most successful Irish singer-songwriters working today. At the time of this interview his last album was A Better Man (1996) which shot straight to the top of the Irish charts and spawned three hit singles, garnering huge airplay. As we spoke he was on the brink of releasing Now That I Know What I Want, which has since also hit Number One. Brian is well known for performing with Van Morrison many times, both live and in the studio, in 1998 touring with Van, Bob Dylan & Joni Mitchell in the USA. I met up with Brian at Belgo’s restaurant in Dublin’s Temple Bar area. He was there that day to perform a live set for a John Rocha fashion show in aid of the Dublin AIDS Alliance. Brian managed to find time after his sound check and before he was due to perform to give his impressions of what Kate Bush’s music has meant to him and how he eventually came to meet her. I started by asking him about whether, as some Kate Bush fans had wondered, there was some link between Brian’s well-known song “Captured” from his debut album and Kate Bush, because of what he had said in a Hot Press interview about hearing “The Man With The Child In His Eyes” for the first time…
Brian Kennedy: Well, the link would be that I went to see the Trio Bulgarka sing in the Hackney Empire in London, and I just was so blown away. And I was lucky enough that the person I was with, her friends were connected with the promoters and they were having a party for the Trio Bulgarka back at their house. I went to that and to thank everybody for the party the Trio Bulgarka sang in the garden, which was just the most extraordinary thing. So the first verse of Captured goes “Oh I just heard a melody, and it almost made me cry”…that’s about them. And then I went onto “That’s not all, there’s something else..” all that whole kind of lyrical thing. Then the second verse talks about “You spoke to me with another tongue, but I understood alright” and that was because I was talking to Yanka Rupkhina, who’s the featured singer, but she doesn’t have a word of English and I don’t have a word of Bulgarian, but we understood each other. And then the second time I went to see them at the Barbican I bumped into Kate Bush, I saw her across the hallway and went over to say hello. And she was very friendly, a bit shy, but very friendly, and I just said “Look I just wanted to say hello I’m a big fan”. And that was that.
ST: Was this before you had sent her your album?
BK: Way before. And I just asked her what was happening with her record, you know, and she gave a kind of laugh and said “ah well…it’ll come out whenever it’s ready”, and I certainly know what that feeling is like! So, then I went on and made my record, the first record (The Great War Of Words), and dutifully sent it off to her assistant, who was called Vivian I think at the time. And that was it. I went on tour with Suzanne Vega around America for two months, and this was me starting the promotion of the first album. When I came back after having been away there was a pile of mail and on the top was this funny wee card that had this lovely kind of very erratic pen…y’know …big strokes, and it said Brian “Wennedy”!.
BK: And I was kind of laughing, did exactly that, “Wennedy?”, what’s that?! So I opened the card and it was kind of slightly lavender fountain pen ink.
BK: And, I was reading it and it was saying some very complimentary things about my record and if I ever fancied a cup of tea give us a ring, and the number was in the top right hand corner. And I was thinking, hmm, who’s this from? And it looked a bit like kind of “Wale…Blush” or something, y’know “Wate…” something. And I was looking at the envelope and I’d seen the way the K had been written…for Kennedy…and I thought, oh that’s the way they write their K’s, it’s very loose, so that’s “Kate”. Okay…oh goodness….it’s Kate Bush! So, I got very excited and all that and a few days later I gave her a ring, when I’d calmed down enough, and called her up and left a message on her machine, and she called me back a day later and that was very nice, and I went to her house for dinner in South London. And that was fantastic, she just kind of opened the door…no shoes and socks, and welcomed me in. And Del Palmer was there and Stuart Elliott the drummer was there also. And he left, and that night we went to a Chinese restaurant, and I had…
ST: We’re getting the menu as well! (Laughs)
BK: ….I had crispy seaweed for the first time in my life, I’ll never forget it.
BK: Because she suggested it, she said it was a really good thing.
ST: This week you’ve been doing a radio show on RTE…
ST: Which is great.
BK: Thank you.
ST: Very good…
BK: Thank you…one more night left tonight.
ST: Tonight as well?
BK: Mmm hmm
ST: Great, I’ll listen in…
BK: Actually you should listen in tonight, there’s some nice things on…
ST: Cool, and you played Maxwell’s version of This Woman’s Work.
ST: A great version.
BK: Which I love, yeah…
ST: And I think This Woman’s Work now is probably her best known song in America, because it’s been used in all sorts of TV programmes…
BK: Oh really is that true? Wow..
ST: It’s a lot more popular than people even realise, y’know, ‘cos it didn’t chart hugely here.
BK: No, I know….
ST: But it’s really well known…
BK: One of my best friends had a baby the week that that came out, that single, and so I couldn’t think what to get her, so I gave her a really lovely version of the This Woman’s Work….
ST: Oh great
BK: ….the Kate Bush single, ‘cos it was about birth and all that.
ST: Yeah, I was just thinking, what I was gonna ask you was have you ever been tempted to record a Kate Bush song?
BK: Many times. And in fact I talked with Kate Bush about it because we were going to…she was going to produce some of my second record.
ST: Wow! No Way!
BK: I know, it’s amazing ‘cos…
ST: This is when…‘95?
BK: 1990 was when I met her…and then I did the Sweetmouth record (Goodbye To Songtown), so I’d made those two records, so I met her, let’s see, when did I meet her properly? ‘92 probably. Then I think that my record company had sent her “Town”…that song “Town” as a possible reissue, y’know if she would consider re-mixing it or recording it or re-recording, something. So she said she was really keen..and would be very interested to get involved in something. So of course I was beside myself with excitement…but my record deal fell apart, so, things got a bit tricky…and then once she started working on her new record she….I suppose she’s like everybody else, you just concentrate on what you’re doing and that’s it. So the time kind of fell apart, and I took off travelling by myself around America.
ST: And you met Jeff Buckley.
BK: I sang with Jeff Buckley on that trip, that’s true. How did you know that?! (smiles)
ST: You mentioned it once in an interview…
BK: Did I.
ST: I was just thinking, how, y’know, I was obviously very jealous that you’d met Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush etc… and I just thought, God he’s met Jeff Buckley as well…and…obviously a tragic story there…
BK: Really tragic story. I remember being in New York, and had taken the train from New Orleans and gradually crawled around right to New York. For a couple of purposes. I wanted to see the Matisse exhibition that was on there in it’s full splendour. And I went along to Sin È with a tape. My friend Catherine Owens, said to me, y’know you should check out Sin È, that’s where people go and play, especially Irish people. So I went down there and I was very surprised that they had heard of me, and they knew my first record, ‘cos this is New York we’re talking about. So they very graciously gave me a couple of gigs, and they said look come tonight, there’s somebody playing tonight. So I went along that night and it was Jeff Buckley…..and he had this hilarious character called Tree Man..literally a man bound with twigs (mimes this)…
BK: …and I noticed on his “Live At Sin È” EP he thanks Tree Man on that, and I met that man….
ST: And of course he does that wonderful Van Morrison song on that.
BK: Yeah! “The Way Young Lovers Do”. And he was really friendly, I just got introduced to him, my friend Catherine said, “oh he’s Tim Buckley’s son” and I had heard of Tim Buckley, and I’d often been compared to him. So it registered and I was curious. And we just started talking, saying hello, and he was by the piano and we sang a bit…he was starting to sing bits of “You Send Me”. We were talking about songs we liked and I was like “Oh I love Sam Cooke, do you know You Send Me?”. So we did a bit of that together. And his girlfriend at the time was saying “Oh God you should get him to sing on your record” and all this, and he hadn’t yet made “Grace”. This was just before “Grace” was made. And so he was really friendly….just a really straight ahead, kind of very friendly, very handsome fella y’know.
ST: You must have been…it must have been…how did you feel when you heard that he had died?
BK: I was..well…I was devastated..because I mean, what a loss on every level. On every single level.
BK: And I’ll tell you who told me, Ron Sexsmith told me.
ST: Oh wow…really?
BK: Yeah…and we were at a festival.
ST: He supported you a few times…
BK: He was my fantastic special guest one time. A couple of times….but we were at a big outdoor festival and he wanted to meet Van and I was going to introduce him to Van, ‘cos I was doing a set with him that night, and he said “God it’s terrible about Jeff Buckley isn’t it?”, and I thought he was going to say something like, y’know his record’s gone back again or y’know, something. And I was going “Well what’s that?” So he told me he drowned and everything. I mean I wouldn’t say I knew Jeff Buckley, I met him, I sang with him once, certainly not knowing him. But even then I was really disturbed….all day, all the next day….
BK: And you just didn’t know what to do….y’know…amazing.
ST: Just to get back then to Kate and the initial influence. You had heard “The Man With The Child In His Eyes”…..
BK: That’s right. When I was about 12 or 13, it was one of those kind of illegal situations where we were in my best friend’s brother’s bedroom with the vinyl record player. And he put it on. And first of all the experience of the crackling….the speakers…the warm stuff that I can articulate now, at the time I was just absolutely transfixed with her voice, the words, the song, the mood of that song. More so than Wuthering Heights….
ST: Is this the single then that you put on?
BK: No it was from the album. We just happened to put it on that track “The Man With The Child In His Eyes”. And I was just knocked out. Really knocked out y’know. And I just thought to myself..God if…I don’t know what I thought at the time but I remember thinking if I ever get to make music I’ve got to send it to that woman. Just to tell her thank you for making it seem…I really plugged into that recording. It was a real inspiration, and it became more of an inspiration as I got older in fact…and then when I got to know her a bit it didn’t….it made me more of a fan actually.
ST: Really, yeah?
BK: More of a fan. Because, well first of all it was easy to separate meeting her and the music…but at the same time, some of the best people I’ve ever met are very down-to-earth, very straight ahead, and that’s what she’s like. In my experience of her, my limited experience of her…but that song…it’ll always remain special because it was one of the first things I ever heard. And especially with me starting to really wake up as a singer…it’s important…it’s a real…when I think of my childhood and key moments of music, that’s right in there.
ST: And talking about cover versions etc..where throughout her whole body of work…are there certain songs that you thought….that you sing in the shower or whatever….
BK: Well, I was going to do a version of Army Dreamers.
BK: Yeah…’cos I love…
ST: Acoustic and….
BK: Well, not only that but I just love the subject matter. It’s funny and it’s very sad at the same time.
ST: Yeah, it’s one of her most beautiful songs in a way, it’s so touching….
BK: I love it. It’s so well written. It’s an amazingly written song. And, I talked about doing that, and she said she’d be very keen to hear it and all that…and..but again..these things are talked about, and often they just don’t happen. So then I moved off and made my own record and I didn’t record that song. But if there was ever a tribute record or something and I was ever considered for that record…
ST: Oh, I think you might be…
BK: I may do that one….or…what else have I been listening to? Actually, I was driving yesterday and I was listening to….you know that 12″ re-mix of The Big Sky? I love that.
ST: Yeah, yeah, with all her family on there…
BK: It’s really good….
ST: Looking at the clouds….
BK: “That cloud looks like Ireland”
ST: “It looks like industrial waste”
BK: Yeah…it’s very funny.
ST: I was gonna ask you…somebody asked you once in an interview about “Carrickfergus”…you’re often asked to sing that song and you say yourself it’s one of your favourite songs to perform because it’s about yearning. And I think that’s true of so much of Kate Bush’s work, she kind of captures that kind of thing….
BK: Yeah. I think so.
ST: And it comes through in your own work as well very often….
BK: Well, I think especially if you are singing words that you’ve written yourself…and of course “Carrickfergus” I didn’t write….but I connect to it so heavily, I couldn’t even really tell you why. It just seems really ancient that song. The emotional quality of it seems very very ancient…and here’s me singing it today later on, 1999, in a cafe in Dublin for AIDS Alliance, for a worthy, very sad 20th century…blues, really….disease, y’know. I think if you’re a writer, and especially where Kate Bush is concerned, because she basically writes every single thing that she does, I think there’s a deeper connection to the spirit of somebody if they’re singing their own words. And given that the voice is the ultimate instrument really, because it comes from how you’re made up as a….physically as a person. What particular muscles connect with which ones in your throat, what accent you’ve grown up with and so on…to basically formulate the sound that then comes out of your throat. Some people….the combination of some people is irresistible, the combination of some people makes you want to cover your ears!
ST: Yeah, ha ha ha!
BK: It’s really interesting why that is. And why some people without even trying get to the core of you with one sentence, and some people don’t. I mean, at all times I think it’s a two way thing, music is the language of emotion, that’s what it is. And the voice, surely then is the sound of emotion. That’s what it sounds like.
ST: About yourself, because it’s only fair that you should get a plug on this thing..not just Kate Bush…
BK: I’ll happily talk about Kate Bush….
ST: How are you getting on with your new album?
BK: It’s basically done. I mean, I know, at this point I’ve recorded about four albums.
ST: Four albums worth of material?
BK: Oh yeah, there’s about 45, 46 things down now.
ST: Wow! Are you entering the realm of the box set?
BK: (chuckles) Well, see one of these days I suppose it could be the “live & unreleased” box set with exclusive pictures…won’t it, I suppose…
ST: Oh yeah…”reissue, repackage…”
BK: Actually one of the best things I have, (one of the times) I saw Kate Bush, I went round to her house and she cooked dinner this time. And she gave me her box set.
ST: Lovely, it’s great isn’t it?
BK: It’s so beautiful. And it hadn’t been out that long. So I was really, I was amazed to get that, it was amazing…now what was I saying about my record? (Laughs) Well, I recorded about seventeen songs in a church. Mostly un-accompanied…and with Calum MacColl and me, a couple of guitars and so on.
ST: Where was this?
BK: In Belfast. I also did a few short stories that I’d written myself and narrated in locations around Northern Ireland.
ST: Yeah I’m dying to hear your stories because I’ve heard you talking about them, are they coming out in published form or….?
BK: Well, hopefully eventually, but my plan would be for the next studio album to have a limited edition CD and have me reading one or two on there, and the recordings are already made. So it’s just a question of the record company agreeing and us all agreeing on the best way to do that. And every now and again release them like that, so that they have a bit of a life. And then, at some point have a book, y’know, ‘cos I’ll just write them whenever I get time and whenever I feel inspired to do it.
ST: What sort of things do you write about?
BK: Well obviously they’re autobiographical to some degree…because again it’s…see I think of it all as one voice, whether I’m singing or talking or writing, or whether it’s a story or a song or a poem, it doesn’t matter, it’s just the voice. And my whole thing is my voice. So naturally, I mean I write about things I know about, first of all. And what I know about the most is where I grew up, how I grew up…and what music means to me, what love means to me at a particular time, and what lack of love means. And so on and so on. So all those things, human things, are in there, just in terms of how..that they’re going through my “sieve”, y’know, that’s all. And I’m honest, very honest in them. And, hopefully they’ll see the light of day.
ST: So, when was the last time you saw Kate?
BK: I saw her about two years ago, the last time I saw her. We did a show with Van, and Robert De Niro came and Bob Geldof and Kate and a couple of people, and we all went to dinner at this place called Julie’s in Notting Hill…..
ST: Oh my God….to be a fly on the wall.
BK: It was extraordinary…I mean…
ST: Like some sort of surreal dream….
BK: It was…that’s what it was like. Ray Charles was playing and I think Robert De Niro was somehow connected with him, so that’s why he was there. And, again, I never met more friendly people. I mean at the end of the night he came straight over to us and shook our hands, looked us right in the eyes and told us how much he enjoyed our performances, y’know, really made an effort to say hello and thank you, and off he went…and Kate was there, and I talked to her for a bit, and she said she’d had a year off and was gearing up to start stuff again..that was two years ago, so I….
ST: We hear little bits every year or so..(laughs)
ST: Well, y’know, the gist of my web-site is really just to kind of try to take the focus off y’know any kind of idolising her as a figure and more, just getting back to basics…
BK: Well, appreciating her as an artist.
ST: And also that people know that she’s alive and that she’s working on material….
BK: Sure, yeah. Well, I think people should be appreciated while they’re here, you know. Joni Mitchell was ignored for years, and people so often don’t really celebrate people until they’re dead, and you just think…Kate Bush…is one of the most gifted individuals in the world, you know? That’s how good she is. She’s a true artist in that she does things how she wants to do them, regardless. And so she should. And I’m glad of it, and I think if every record is of the quality that her records are when we do get them, then they’re worth waiting for. Like Paul Buchanan (The Blue Nile) says, somebody said to him: “Why do you make so few records?” and he said “Why do people make so many?”
And so we wound up the interview at that point. I’d like to hugely thank Jane Blackley, who runs Brian’s web-site, for all her efforts, without whom this chat wouldn’t have taken place. Thanks! And of course enormous thanks to Brian K, who very enthusiastically made himself available in the midst of a very busy schedule. Brian is exceptionally friendly, warm & considerate. A great person and hugely talented artist who deserves every success with his album and future projects. Thanks again Brian!
To find out everything you need to know about what’s happening with Brian Kennedy and his music then visit the excellent Official Brian Kennedy Web-site http://www.briankennedy.co.uk This conversation took place on Friday 18th June 1999