Arts

Brian Kennedy celebrates 25 years in song

Belfast singer-songwriter Brian Kennedy has come a long way from harmonising to the sound of ambulances on the Falls Road as a boy in the 1970s. He chats to Jenny Lee about his upcoming celebrations to mark a quarter of a century in the music business

Belfast singer-songwriter Brian Kennedy celebrates 25 years in the music industry with a new album and a celebratory gig at Belfast's Grand Opera House

HIS hair may have got shorter and his voice deeper, but 25 years after he released his first single Brian Kennedy is continuing to tour the world and is planning to celebrate a quarter of a century in the music industry with the launch of a double album and a special anniversary concert in his home town.

Last Sunday, Kennedy sang alongside the choirsters of St Peter's Cathedral in a special charity Christmas event in Belfast. I asked him what advice he would give to young singers today.

"I don't know how good young people are at taking advice," says the 49-year-old.

"I'm not sure I would have taken advice when I was younger because once you have the music bug it's very difficult to be dissuaded from it.

"I would say follow your heart and don't be afraid to make mistakes."

One of Belfast's most famous musical sons, Kennedy famously harmonised to the sound of ambulances as a child growing up in west Belfast before following his musical heart and leaving the city's troubled streets behind at the age of 18 to "tough it out" in London.

There he busked at underground stations, sang at piano bars and laboured at building sites.

His determination was rewarded when he was discovered by Simon Fuller of Pop Idol and Spice Girls success.

He made a breakthrough in 1990 with his debut record deal and the release of The Great War of Words, from which the two singles Captured and Town are still eagerly demanded at all Brian Kennedy concerts.

Spotted by fellow-Belfast singer Van Morrison, he joined Van’s renowned Blues and Soul World Tour for a period of six years, performing with some of the legends of the music industry including Joni Mitchell, Ray Charles and Bob Dylan. He also backed Van on his albums Days Like This, The Healing Game, Back on Top and One Night in San Francisco.

Kennedy admits that the experience gained from working with Van on the road were crucial to the foundation of his future solo career.

"He made me a better singer, performer, writer and everything. When you are around someone like that, you can't help but be absolutely knocked out how hard he works and how talented he is. It was relentless how many gigs he does each year and how much he challenged himself. It was a real education."

As I spoke to Kennedy he was putting the finishing touches to his Ultimate Collection – his new 32-track double album which musically chronicles his 25-year career with new recordings of the most popular tracks of his career, as well as "one or two surprises".

It's due for release in the new year but Kennedy hopes to have some 'soft release' copies available for audiences at his A Quarter Century of Song gig at Belfast's Grand Opera House later this month.

"I don't listen to my music often so it's been a real joy to go back and hear my voice 25 years ago. My voice is much bigger and stronger these days. I'm a very different person now, so it's been fascinating." says Kennedy, about selecting the tracks for the album.

Kennedy's musical milestones include representing Ireland in Eurovision in 1996, spending six months living in New York in 2000, where he had the role of lead singer in Riverdance on Broadway, and of course singing at that emotional funeral of football legend George Best.

"The album is basically a walk through the past 25 years and highlights that really stand out and mean something too me.

"I wanted to do a Van Morrison tune, so I choose Crazy Love which I recorded for the soundtrack of the movie When A Man Loves a Woman.

"I wanted to do something from Riverdance to remember my time on Broadway, and last night we just finished recording On the Edge of the World from the show, with a gospel choir accompanying.

"And of course there had to be You Raise Me Up."

Kennedy admits that every time he sings You Raise Me Up it takes him back to December 3, 1995 at Stormont.

"It was an honour to be part of the soundtrack of George Best's life.

"I could never have imagined it as a little kid on the Falls Road, but he was such a hero, not only to Belfast, but to the world. I'm eternally proud to be part of that."

As well as becoming a renowned singer-songwriter, the now Dublin-based singer has also made his mark as a novelist with The Arrival of Fergal Flynn and Roman Song.

He reveals that he is "quietly working away on a third book". Rather than another fiction book, it is expected to be a tell-all autobiography by the singer who publicly revealed he was gay in 2009.

"To be an authentic artist you have to be honest to who you are. Being more comfortable being gay these days, or remembering how awful the Falls Road was when I was growing up, can't but influence my song writing."

Kennedy finished a creditable 10th in the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest in Athens with his own work, Every Song is a Cry for Life.

And this year his brushed up on his Irish as he took the seat as a judge on TG4's Junior Eurovision singing competition.

Eurovision is still very much in his heart, but would he ever contemplate representing Ireland again in the competition? "I can't imagine it but I say never say never to anything."

He received major acclaim for his work when he was awarded an Ireland Meteor Lifetime Achievement Award for Music in 2010 and five years on he summarises his musical career as "ever-evolving".

"Music has changed inmeasurably because technology has become such a big part of what we do now. But performing live is still what it’s all about. I can't wait for the next 25 years. I want to play more countries and just keep making the best music I possibly can."

Next year Kennedy plans to continue to do just that, promoting his new album with tours in Australia, America and, for the first time, Japan and Iceland.

:: Brian Kennedy – A Quarter Century of Song, The Grand Opera House, Belfast, Sunday December 20. Tickets and information at goh.co.uk.

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