My Cultural Life: Bap Kennedy

The veteran Belfast singer-songwriter has sadly passed away at age 54, following a battle with pancreatic and bowel cancer

Bap Kennedy is a singer-songwriter and producer from Belfast. During the 1980s and 90s, as frontman of NI favourites Energy Orchard, Kennedy counted the likes of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones as fans. He has worked and written with Van Morrison and his brother, Brian, is also a successful singer and musician.   

When were you happiest in your professional career?
Probably when we signed our first major record deal way back when. There were five or six of us from Belfast and the world was our oyster. We had all moved to London around 1985, my brother Brian and I and a couple of other guys from Belfast who subsequently became Energy Orchard. Between 1985 and 1988 we figured out what we wanted to do and eventually got our record deal. It sounds easy, but it took three years of bad gigs and rehearsals, working on building sites. It was pretty grim. We were innocent and full of hope about a future in the music business, and finally we managed to get the attention of record labels. That was great.

Were you always aware that you had talent?
No, we just thought it [playing rock music] was something we could maybe do, and we wanted to have a go at it. Nobody wanted to work for a living. We all liked hanging around bars and playing music, and we thought that if there was the possibility that we could make a living out of it, then we'd really have a go. And we did.

What is your most treasured possession?
It’s actually got nothing to do with music. It's my diploma in Diamond Gemolgy. I suppose that might sound a little silly to some people, but I decided to do something that wasn’t musical, and I got really into gemology, specifically diamonds. I’m kind of an expert on diamonds. I can tell a good diamond from a poor diamond. It’s come in handy a few times. If you ever want to get engaged, come and see me. I’ll steer you right.

What's your favourite film?
Maybe The Big Lebowski. I like cult movies. I’m a QFT kind of person.

What’s the last book you read?
Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. I also like stuff by Charles Bukowski, stuff that musicians like: On The Road, all the Beat stuff. When I like something, like Post Office by Bukowski, I tend to buy four or five copies and give them to people who I think would like it.

What would be your desert island discs?
I’d have to bring a Hank Williams song. It could be one of many. Probably ‘I’m So Lonesome I could Cry’. If I’m on a desert island, I’d have that one. An Elvis Presley song, and probably something from Astral Weeks, by Van Morrison. That's more than likely. Probably 'Cypress Avenue'.

Which is your favourite Northern Irish band?
My favourite band from here was Ash, apart from the Undertones, who I hated at the time. I didn’t get them originally. Back then I was 16 or 17, and there was that sort of begrudging feeling that you get in Northern Ireland, you know? ‘Who are these guys with their parallel trousers? They’re not even punks!’ And singing songs with baby in them! That didn’t go down well, too transatlantic. But obviously, in hindsight, they were one of the best bands from that whole era. And Ash are kind of the successors to the Undertones really. Sort of soulful, bubblegum rock. It’s a hard one to pull off. I think they’re a very underrated band. They should be as big as Coldplay, but they’re just slightly too cool, I think.

Which Irish cultural figure do you most admire?
It has to be Van Morrison, for many reasons. He exists in the upper reaches of the rock pantheon, with Jimmy Hendrix and Bob Dylan. He’s one of those guys, but he’s from just around the corner. 40 years later and he's recognised as the genius that he is. He sings songs about Belfast, so maybe I relate to Van Morrison because I know, specifically, what he’s talking about. But it’s a universal thing.

Is it easier to succeed in your choosen field in the 21st century?
In my day, pre-internet, pre-digital music, the only way to really succeed was to go and play gigs, and play gigs in London, where the record companies were. Very rarely would A&R men come to Northern Ireland. In London, when we played a gig, there were six or seven A&R men every night, and you soon realise that that’s what it’s all about. They’re always looking for something. But I’m sure they must be trawling the internet these days in the same way that they used to trawl pubs. The internet is another shop window and another way of getting noticed. But at the end of the day, record companies still want you to be a fully-rounded, presentable, marketable outfit. You need to be all-singing, all-dancing.

What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
Be kind to your parents, because some day you might need them.

Culture NI's thoughts are with the family and friends of Bap during this difficult time.