Arts

Brenda Kennedy keeping the magic of late husband Bap's music alive

Belfast musician Bap Kennedy's widow Brenda pledged to keep his music alive for his fans before he died last year from pancreatic cancer. As his first anniversary approaches, she tells Joanne Sweeney about their relationship and how Bap never got to see his final album Reckless Heart

Brenda Kennedy, wife of the late Bap Kennedy, at her home in Holywood this week Picture: Mal McCann
Joanne Sweeney

AS THE first anniversary of the death of Belfast musician and songwriter Bap Kennedy approaches, his widow Brenda is honouring her promise to him to make sure his music lives on.

The couple spent more than 10 seamless years together, having found each other in their 40s, and were content to spend every hour of the day in each other’s company, whether it was working on their music or simply hanging out.

Sadly, Bap never had the pleasure of having his last album Restless Heart in his hands before he succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the Marie Curie Hospice in Belfast on November 1 last year.

However, Brenda reveals that she managed to play the tracks from his posthumously released album to him while he lay in his hospital bed on the couple’s ninth wedding anniversary last October 1.

“I really didn’t know what to do for our anniversary as he was really ill at the time,” she says. “But I had recently bought a wireless speaker so I brought it in and played Restless Heart to him in the hospice.

“The tracks were the ‘roughs’ as it’s called in the business as the album was not released until after his death but it was enough for him to know that we had treated his music well and the album was in good hands.”

Reckless Heart has since been shortlisted for the Northern Ireland Music Prize, which will be announced on November 11.

It’s only now that Brenda has been able to speak publicly about Bap since his death. As she says herself, she retreated into a life of solitude over the past year, supported and loved by friends and her grown-up children Christine and Kenneth and grandson Ethan, who Bap was devoted to.

Brenda played bass guitar in Bap’s band and was also a vocalist, layering her voice over his in perfect harmony. The couple travelled the world together as they toured but loved to return to Holywood, where they called home.

As she starts to release a track from Restless Heart on the bapkennedy.com website each day coming up to his anniversary next Wednesday, the former solicitor says that describing Bap as 'the love of her life' or ‘soulmate’ cannot really explain what he meant to her, or she to him.

“Those words just don’t explain it. He was everything to me; we were constantly together and never stopped talking to one another,” explains Brenda. “Bap would often say how much time we spent talking and friends have remarked how they never would see one of us without the other, but it never seemed too much. It seemed just right and we were very happy.”

Bap, the brother of singer Brian Kennedy, was a much-loved musician who struck an emotional chord with fans and musicians at home and around the world with his music.

Raised on the Falls Road in the west of the city during the height of the Troubles, he initially found success as the lead singer with Belfast rock band Energy Orchard in the 1980s-90s.

His songwriting skills and the quiet, universal appeal of his lyrics meant that he was sought after by music greats such as Van Morrison, Steve Earle, Mark Knopfler and Shane McGowan of The Pogues, all of whom he collaborated with.

He and Brenda met, not through music, as she was not aware of him as an artist before that, but through their shared experience working with people with Asperger’s syndrome and autism.

Brenda has Asperger’s, as does her son Kenneth. They were introduced while she was giving a talk to parents at the National Autistic Society where she worked, coinciding with Bap volunteering to work with teens who were struggling with their condition. It later turned out that Bap was also diagnosed with having Asperger’s, something which Brenda said "blew his mind”.

He had recently returned to Belfast after living in London. He had spent two years working in a pawnshop and gained a qualification in gemmology, after becoming disillusioned with the music business.

And, after having had a 'rock and roll lifestyle' for years, he was finally sober.

“People don’t realise that Bap had such a big heart and he genuinely enjoyed working and helping young people. Bap was really getting himself together around that time when we met,” Brenda recalls.

“We didn’t meet through music but once we began to talk and he came to work with Kenneth, we both realised that we just clicked. It was obvious. Slowly things began to develop between us and about a year later we married. He encouraged me to get back to my own musical creativity and was so generous with his support, as he was with everyone in the business.”

Bap’s Facebook page and website have been inundated with messages of love and support since he suddenly became ill 18 months ago with crippling stomach pains. Major surgery revealed that he had cancer and that it was terminal. He died after six months, Brenda spending two and a half months at his side in the hospice.

Bap chose to write a moving blog about his illness, his Asperger’s, what his music meant to him and how he was humbled that it touched so many people.

In one of his final posts, he wrote: "It’s breaking my heart to find out now when I have so little time to do anything about it – but I am also very happy to feel the achievement. It’s what I always wanted. Not money. Not fame. I always wanted people to feel what I feel. The magic of music."

Many of his songs were deeply personal. The ones that fans have told Brenda meant most to them were The Right Stuff, Under My Wing, Howl On, Moonlight Kiss and Working Man and The Beauty of You, which he wrote for Brenda.

“There have literally been thousands of emails and messages of support from people all over the world. And I cannot thank people like music producers and managers such as Rod McVey, Travis Hill and ex-Virgin Records boss Willie Richardson who helped me get the album mixed, produced and released throughout the world. And of course, all the staff at Marie Curie for all their care.”

As Brenda slowly comes to terms with a life without her husband, she adds: “Bap lived for his music. He was such a perfectionist in his songwriting and recording. He would spend a month writing just one line or walk along the beach for hours to find the right word.

“There’s no doubt that many people believe that Bap didn’t reach the success he deserved and some of it was probably down to his Asperger’s, but Bap just didn’t have the ego to drive his own career. He was always more concerned in helping and support other people’s music above his own and wasn’t able for the shark-infested waters of the music business.”

:: For further information on Reckless Heart and Bap Kennedy’s music, visit www.bapkennedy.com

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