For over 30 years, Belfast's Bap Kennedy has been getting on with the business of making music. Whilst he might not be a household name, some of the most acclaimed songwriters in the world have been queuing up to express their admiration for him.
Van Morrison, Steve Earle, Shane MacGowan, and Nanci Griffith are just a few of the people who have sung his praises. Now Dire Straits’ guitarist and vocalist Mark Knopfler has added his name to the list, producing and collaborating with Kennedy on his new album, The Sailor’s Revenge. But for the man who once had an album entitled Hillbilly Shakespeare, it’s all in a day’s work.
Kennedy's humble beginnings are a far cry from his current incarnation as a sensitive and reflective acoustic songwriter. When punk exploded into the mainstream, the young Kennedy was in the midst of it. As Belfast struggled not to collapse under the weight of sectarian violence in the 1970s, the rallying call of the Sex Pistols provided a vital spark of inspiration.
'It was an amazing thing here,' says Kennedy. 'At the time, Belfast was the bleakest city in the world, and it was the first thing to galvanize teenagers. There was no music scene to speak of, and everyone stayed in their own neighbourhoods. Punk rock was like a Technicolor flash of fantastic… anyone could join a band, you didn’t need to play. For me, it was the greatest moment in my life.
'I was 15 in 1977, and only getting started. By the time we had a band together, it was 1978, and it had already become something else. We’d learn a Sex Pistol song, but it was already Public Image by that point! We’d get together with the band, and play acoustics at night.
'There was always an acoustic element, even then. We didn’t do acoustic punk songs, though. We wouldn’t have went out and played those songs, but when you had a couple of drinks in you, and a few girls round, you wanted to show off your sweet side!'
The young punk had caught the songwriting bug, and soon did what every self-respecting aspiring bard does – he upped sticks and moved to London.
'It seemed like what you had to do was just go to London, and get a record deal. It was just part of the process,' Kennedy shrugs. 'So I did, and it took me about three years of living on potato skins and working on building sites, but that was all I wanted to do.
'The band was Energy Orchard, and we all came from Belfast. The right elements of the band just came together. Bass player, drummer, keyboard player: we all met on building sites. We didn’t bring our instruments to work, though…'
Energy Orchard infused Kennedy’s take on punk music with an unashamedly Irish sensibility. Finally unafraid to break out the acoustic guitars in the daylight, Kennedy and his fellow bandmates found that paying their dues in London was an effective route to success, courtesy of a very unexpected fan.
'We ended up being part of that “raggle-taggle” thing, with the Waterboys. In London, there was a big Irish scene, and it was hip to be Irish in the 80s. Steve Earle came backstage to see us in the Marquee, and asked us did we have a record deal. We went, “No”. He went, “Do you want one?”, and we went, “Yes please!” So we ended up signing to MCA records.'
With the support of a maverick songwriter like Steve Earle, and a sound that was suddenly commercially viable thanks to the Waterboys, Energy Orchard’s self titled debut was released in 1990, winning over the critics, but struggling to set the charts on fire. The stage was set for a long, hard slog to the top.
'We toured so much. Then after a while, we stopped bothering. If you live that lifestyle for too long, it kills you. You come home from a tour and you look like something the cat dragged in, and then you’re off again. You’re playing a big hockey stadium with Steve Earle, and everybody thinks it’s amazing.
'If they saw the state of you the next day... You haven’t eaten a proper meal in weeks, you’re living on cigarettes and booze. The reality is different, and there’s a price to pay. Everybody does the same thing – it’s the same old story – and there’s a few casualties along the way.'
Energy Orchard had disbanded by the late 90s, with Kennedy launching into a solo career, once again assisted by Earle. The critical acclaim continued, with his songs ending up on film soundtracks, whilst he collaborated with some of the biggest names in music. But all the while, the spectre of alcohol still haunted his career.
'I gave up drinking eight years ago, because I had to,' Kennedy says. 'You do a gig, go back to the promoter’s house, do another gig, stay up all night and get hammered, and then go to another town. It just kills you. I was offered a tour, and I thought about turning it down, because I was worried the drink was going to kill me.
'I just thought to myself that if I was planning my life around the drink, then there’s something wrong here. I decided to knock it on the head, and was worried I’d be really bored on tour, but it’s exactly the opposite. It gave me the freedom to do things, rather than being chained to the bottle.'
This freedom meant that the records kept coming, with Howl On (2009) focussing on the moon landings, a subject that had fascinated the singer for most of his life. Whilst the sound had matured, it was obvious that this was no generic singer-songwriter album.
'I like conceptual things, and the moon landings was always in the back of my head, but it really came out when I read the book Moondust (by Andrew Smith). The astronauts looked at the earth from the moon, and all they saw was their home, there were no borders.
'That was a really great perspective, and it really meant something to me. There was a very human level to it, as well as a philosophical element. And I liked the challenge.'
Kennedy's new album, The Sailor’s Revenge, continues this theme of storytelling. The song ‘The Right Stuff’ features on both albums, providing a thematic link between the two.
'That song was really about the kind of guys the astronauts were. Their comradeship made me think about the band. When we were together, we thought we were always going to be together. I’m going to be 50 soon, and we’ve all grown up, and you start seeing that there’s a finite amount of time we have on earth. The comrades I had in the band, it’s the same for anyone who’s been in a band… It’s real.'
Collaborating with Knopfler on The Sailor's Revenge seems like a far cry from Kennedy's punk roots, but he feels more than comfortable with the association and the relaxed sound it has produced.
'I make records, and put them out. You never know where the record is going to end up. Somehow or other, Mark Knopfler got hold of Howl On, and I got a phonecall. I went off on tour with him, and obviously you get to know somebody.
'One day he suggested we make a record together, but we were both about to make our own albums, so we put it off for a year or so. But then we were back on tour, and he goes, “Have you got any songs?” So I played him ‘The Sailor’s Revenge’, and he goes, “Do you have any more like that?” It’s great to have people like him interested in your work.'
No one could have imagined how the music industry was going to pan out in the nascent days of punk. The days of paying your dues seem long gone, with record labels losing the clout they once had, and artists struggling to make a living from their trade. For the man who started out playing acoustic guitars at night to impress the girls, it’s a changed landscape, albeit one that he continues to plough his own furrow in.
'Being a musician can be very frustrating, and the record industry is getting more frustrating with every day,' Kennedy explains. 'You used to put a band together, play a few gigs, and get a record deal. Now, nobody knows what to do. I would find it hard to get started, and I wouldn’t know how to get into the music business now.
'I’ve been making records for a while, and I can do what I want. I’ve got my own little niche. In the old days, those records were like life and death, and now you can’t do that anymore, there’s no mystery. Where’s the Bob Dylans or the Van Morrisons? I mean Jedward are 21… Bob Dylan made his first record when he was 21!'
But of course, only a fool would write off Jedward’s second album at this early stage, right? 'I preferred their early work,' Kennedy quips, deadpan.
The Sailor's Revenge is due for release on January 30, when Kennedy will perform and sign copies at HMV Belfast at 1pm. Kennedy will officially launch the album at the Empire Music Hall in Belfast on February 23, 2012, as part of the Pan Arts Belfast Nashville Songwriter's Festival.