Brian Kennedy on cancer, the pluses of a urostomy bag and his Antrim GAA top
Brian Kennedy's three-year cancer battle has influenced his art and his attitude to life. He tells Jenny Lee about initially pretending he didn't have cancer, how urostomy bags aren't all bad and how he came to wear an Antrim GAA top with Pride
"SINGING means more to me than ever," Brian Kennedy announced joyously after receiving the news that his body was cancer free after a three-year battle with the disease.
After being diagnosed with rectal cancer in the summer of 2016, the west Belfast-born singer and writer underwent a number of bouts of chemotherapy and surgery to treat his illness.
Throughout it all he drew upon his music to give him strength and aid his recovery, proudly revealing: "I never missed a gig". This included playing at a benefit gig in Dublin's Vicar Street for his friend, the broadcaster Gareth O'Callaghan, who has the neurological disorder multiple system atrophy, just two weeks after major surgery.
"I did three songs and then went home to bed. I couldn't bend and had to have someone lift my guitar for me. People would have understood if I couldn't play, but I wanted to. I pestered myself to keep going and I guess that's my independent streak. Some may call it stubborn," laughs the 52-year-old.
Kennedy credits some of his ability to "take one day at a time" and cope with his illness to his career choice as a solo musician.
"As a self-employed musician you make your own choices – even going back to leaving Belfast to pursue my dreams in America. You also have to cope with your fair share of setbacks," he reflects.
He admits that having cancer has changed him. "Cancer is very sobering and puts manners into people. I had empathy before, but it definitely gives you a deeper understanding of humanity. Now when someone is behaving irrationally, I now wonder what they are going through. Maybe they've had bad news or are on their way to chemo."
Having had other up-close experience of cancer, including losing his older brother, musician Bap Kennedy, to pancreatic cancer in 2016, Kennedy acknowledges that in surviving cancer he is "one of the fortunate ones".
"Cancer is a lottery. My brother died within five months of being diagnosed and I had a good friend died from brain cancer within three months," he says.
Kennedy was last in Belfast in May for the unveiling of the George Best bronze statue at Windsor Park. He sang You Raise Me Up at Belfast soccer star Best's funeral and admits it's a song that holds a very different meaning for him now.
"A Better Man and Life, Love, Happiness – they all do," he says of some of his past hits, among his best-loved songs. "I was 29 or 30 and in the full of my life when I wrote them and I'm a very different person now. Even Carrickfergus with that line 'Ah, but I'm sick now, my days are numbered' makes you think," says Kennedy, who says he has never once considered what songs he would like played at his own funeral.
"As much as I love a party and a bit of drama, I think I'd rather do a David Bowie and disappear quietly without a funeral," he says.
Kennedy's illness has informed his songwriting and next month he will debut his new seven-track EP, Recovery, at the Edinburgh Festival, with three dates in the Ghillie Dhu Auditorium.
"Music has been medicine for me throughout. I've just finished my new EP and can't wait to bring the new music to the [Edingurgh] Fringe, as well as bits and pieces from my back catalogue and some question and answers in between."
Before then, Kennedy will play two intimate gigs at The Arcadia, Portrush – once a famous venue for showbands – on July 18 and 19. Although not part of the official Live at The 148th Open entertainment, Kennedy doesn't rule out a visit to the famous golf tournament.
"I'm proud of what Rory McIlroy has achieved. I would love to get invited for a glass of Champagne," he hints. "The Arcadia is such a lovely venue. There may even be some musical ghosts there."
Kennedy hopes to "give back" in the future through charitable work and is starting by teaming up with ex-Mrs Brown's Boys star Rory Cowan in recording a duet to raise money for ARC Cancer Support Centre.
"I'm teaching Rory guitar and then the idea is he will play and I will sing. It's being documented in a new television show on Virgin Media."
Most of all he hopes that sharing his battle with cancer publicly will encourage other men to get tested for prostate cancer and to visit their doctors if they notice changes in their bodies.
"Initially when I met people at hospital I would say I was visiting. But I realised that sooner or later news would get out that I was a patient and I thought, hey, maybe some good can come out of this if I could encourage men to get tested."
His nine-hour operation to remove his colon, rectum and other organs in the pelvic area, means Kennedy now wears a colostomy bag and a urostomy bag. But he is far from ashamed of what he calls "the twins", and is keen to break the stigma for the more than 40,000 people living in Ireland with stomas.
"They've altered my life, but only slightly. I can still drive and do full concerts. In fact their portability is quite useful. When I was doing the Pride parade everyone around me was bursting to go to the toilet, while I was happily walking along with my urostomy bag."
At the end of June he joined the Dublin Pride Parade, walking along with a delegation from the GAA. "It's the first time the GAA had publicly paraded at it. My friend Catherine asked if I would come along and I had a blast proudly wearing an Antrim top."
Having come out as gay some years ago, it's no surprise that Kennedy supports the introduction of equal marriage in the north and he adds he would love an invitation to this month's Belfast Pride. "I would love to attend, sing, speak, or whatever," he says.
Kennedy, who has had two fictional novels published, has also continued to express himself through literature. Last year his short story There Was Only So Much One House Could Take, a moving tale of sibling rivalry, death and decay, was published in Reading the Future: New writing from Ireland.
Is there a biography in the planning?
"I did write one before, but it ran into legal trouble before I had even begun. But I certainly have a few more chapters to write now," adds Kennedy, who hopes to plan further Irish gigs later in the year and a tour to China and Japan.
:: Brian Kennedy plays The Arcadia, Portrush on July 18 and 19. For full gig dates and ticket information visit Briankennedy.co.uk.