Bap Kennedy (1962 - 2016)

Trevor Hodgett looks back on the 'appealingly intimate' singer's storied career, tragically cut short after a brief battle with cancer

Bap Kennedy, who has died aged fifty four, was one of the most gifted singer-songwriters and performers ever to emerge from the Northern Irish scene and one of the most critically acclaimed.

He first achieved international recognition in the 1990s with Belfast band Energy Orchard who released five albums and, while touring America and elsewhere, lived out their rock’n’roll fantasies with gusto.

‘When you’re young you fall into the same traps everybody does,’ Kennedy later said ruefully of the hard-living band. ‘You take every opportunity to get wrecked so that’s what we did, every day. We were just six young guys from Belfast who thought they knew what they were doing and didn’t have a clue.’

Kennedy subsequently recalled one attempt at rock’n’roll craziness backfiring embarrassingly: ‘Part of the show was my derring-do, throwing myself into the crowd and jumping off PA systems and things. And at Guildford University I noticed a balcony so I climbed on top and jumped off. I remember thinking, “I haven’t landed yet!” It seemed a lot of time had passed and I was still in the air. And then I hit the stage and it was the most horrendous pain. And I tried to sing and just went, “Oooooooh.” A squeak came out. I had to do the whole show white-faced, sitting on a chair.

‘After the show I was carried off and taken to hospital. I told the doctor what happened and he said, “What age are you?” I said, “Thirty.” And he said, “You’re a bit old to be jumping off balconies, aren’t you?” And I said, “I’ll take your word for it, Doctor.” And I never did it again. That was the end of the acrobatics.’

The band had been inspired by Them and appropriately enough Van Morrison took an interest, booking them as his support act. Even more prestigiously their 1992 album Stop The Machine was produced in Los Angeles by sometime Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton producer Glyn Jones. The band, however, somehow couldn’t quite break through to the big time and split in 1996.

‘Our timing was wrong,’ Kennedy later reflected. ‘We came out on the back of a raggle taggle wave with the Hothouse Flowers and the Waterboys but by the time of our second album it was all baggy music and we were out of step.’

Extraordinarily, the singer's first solo album, 1998’s Domestic Blues, was produced by the legendary Steve Earle who, even more extraordinarily, declared that Kennedy was ‘the best singer-songwriter I’ve ever seen.’

Musical titans continued to support Kennedy throughout his career. Van Morrison co-wrote the song ‘Milky Way’ with him; Mark Knopfler produced his 2012 album The Sailor’s Revenge; and Shane MacGowan sang on his song ‘On The Mighty Ocean Alcohol’.

Although he stopped in 2004, Kennedy later admitted, however, that his drinking hindered his career: 'I drank every day,' he said. 'My life revolved around alcohol and I was getting worse. I was in my mid-forties and I was drinking more and more and taking more drugs. It was an unpleasant state to be in and it wasn’t helping the music, it wasn’t helping my career and it wasn’t helping my relationships. After a three day binge I woke up in the back of a pub and I didn’t know where I was. And I just thought, “I’ve got to stop this.” And I did. And it’s never bothered me since.’

2009's Howl On was the first Kennedy made sober. He declared later that his wife Brenda Kennedy, who survives him, was crucial in enabling him to do so: ‘I had to find a way in to making music without any stimulants except for my own creativity and my wife helped me through that. She made me realise that being creative is a reward in itself, that it’s a process that doesn’t need alcohol or drugs.’

Kennedy was an appealingly intimate singer with a poetic sensibility and a knack for writing attractive melodies. The subject matter of his songs was refreshingly varied and included trapped Chilean miners, Elvis Presley and astronauts as well as, more predictably, the vicissitudes of love. His themes included regret, separation, death, displacement and the anguish of exile.

‘If you’re serious about songwriting you’ll eventually boil it down to the same themes,’ he once explained. ‘And those themes are: you’ve got a small amount of time on earth, you have relationships, and people die. Everything else is just bullshit.’

Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer in May and consequently cancelled all his scheduled gigs. An album, Reckless Heart, recorded before his illness, is to be released on November 18.