I first came across Bap Kennedy in 1989 when his band Energy Orchard supported Joe Cocker at Sheffield City Hall. Their songs were a mixture of Country-Rock, Celtic-Folk and the burgeoning Indie movement that was sweeping the charts at the time, but it was their clever lyrics and sheer joy at being on stage that made me a fan.
On my return home I raved about them to a friend who managed a Record Shop in Newcastle and two weeks later he presented me with a copy of their first 45RPM single – Belfast and a free t-shirt that accompanied it, which I proudly wore at their first Newcastle gig a month later. As I hung around the bar in my natty t-shirt I was approached by a flame haired young man who wanted to know where I’d got the garment from and why I was wearing it. I explained my story and he introduced himself as Joby Fox, the bass player with Energy Orchard, who then virtually manhandled me backstage to meet the band were I was invested with the title ‘Energy Orchards’ First Fan’!
Sadly Energy Orchard hardly bothered the chart compilers but gained a fantastic reputation for their live performances and went on to support a myriad of major International acts like Van Morrison and Steve Earle; but their records didn’t sell very well and after 7 years they disbanded and went their separate ways.
A matter of weeks after the final gig, the bands’ singer Bap Kennedy was sitting in his London home pondering the future when the telephone famously rang and Steve Earle invited him to Nashville to record an album. 13 years later he is about to release his 7th Solo album and I spoke to him over the Christmas holidays to discuss his career so far.
“I’d been in a variety of bands since I was 15 or 16, mostly doing covers and a few rotten songs I’d written along the way and by the time I was in my early 20’s I was living in London working on building sites during the day and playing in bands at night. As you’d expect with a bunch of young Irish guys living away from home we spent most of our free time in pubs drinking and catching up with old mates. In ‘85 I was hanging around with a bunch of mates that were all musicians from my old part of Belfast and we spent the next two years saying ‘we should form a band!’ Eventually we did and called it Energy Orchard.
We spent the days leading up to our first gig arguing about what we would play when someone produced a cassette that he’d bought in France, of a group called Them who were also from Belfast but no one had heard of them! We were knocked out when we heard it and decided to copy the songs note by note, which formed the basis of our set for the first few months.
That Them cassette really got us motivated to write our own songs in that style. We were nearly in the ‘right place at the right time’ because there were a load of other bands and singers coming out of Ireland at the same time – the Waterboys and Hothouse Flowers were the most famous and we soon became part of the ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ crowd even though we sounded nothing like them; but it did get us a record contract with MCA!
We hardly had a day off in the next 6 years – tour/record/tour/record and we had the best time that 6 guys from Belfast could ever dream of having but we were unprepared for the politics of the Music Business. With hindsight we didn’t take care of the ‘business’ part and before you knew it the years had flown by and we were the ‘best support band in the World’ spending as much time arguing about t-shirt designs as we did writing songs.
Before things got too out of hand we delivered one last album – ORCHARDVILLE, which we recorded at our final gig on St. Patricks Day and we parted as friends.
Soon afterwards I was sitting at home wondering what I was going to do, as I no longer had a record contract when Steve Earle called out of the blue. He’d been a great supporter of the band and we’d toured with him once which was the maddest most chaotic thing I’ve ever been involved in; but he was now clean and invited me over to Nashville.
The next thing I knew I was in a studio recording an album with Steve, Jerry Douglas and Nanci Griffiths plus some of the best session men in the world looking to me for guidance!
Being in the studio with musicians like that was a fantastic experience; recording with Energy Orchard could be like a visit to the dentist!
Every track was done in 2 or 3 takes and the sound was better than I could have dreamed of and it peaked at #8 in the Billboard chart plus 4 songs from DOMESTIC BLUES went on to get used on film soundtracks.
Because of the success of that album I then got to write and record HILLBILLY SHAKESPEARE; which was a labour of love.
By the time I recorded BIG PICTURE in 2005 I’d met and married my wife Brenda and was getting bored with ‘life on the road’ and was looking for something different to inspire me musically. That came from Mark Knopfler, who I’d known for years after touring with him years earlier. It was another situation where every time we met up we’d say ‘we should record together’ and not get around to it; but this time we finally did and with the help of Van Morrison and my old mate Shane MacGowan we created an album that I’m really proud of and not long afterward its release Brenda and I moved back to Belfast, which has rekindled my love of songwriting and I set up my own label Lonely Street and set about writing and recording HOWL ON. I was listening to a lot of Hank Williams and Sun era Elvis at that time and thought that both of their lives had a lot in common; with both having more than their fair share of heartbreak alongside their success so I took that as my starting point and then included some other Americana theme from my youth and it seemed to work, as the album was another decent seller for me.
It usually takes me a couple of years to write enough songs for a new album; but living where I do next to the Loch on the outskirts of Belfast and the mouth of the river, I took my notebook out with me on my daily walks regardless of the weather and the ideas were now flowing naturally. I’ve been fascinated by the sea ever since I was a boy, but these days it has taken over my life and most of my recent ideas for songs have been influenced by the sea but I never wanted my next recording to be a concept album; it’s just that the sea and the coast is great for songwriters with an over active imagination. I can’t remember how many songs I finally took to the studio with me; but Mark (Knopfler) had the final veto and I think he has selected the very best 12 for the new album, SAILORS REVENGE.
To some degree the songs came quite easily, with the opening song Shimnavale written soon after we returned to Northern Ireland after visiting a friend who lives in Shimnavale which sits in the foothills of the mountains and is also close to the sea. After discussing my reasons for leaving years previously and then coming back, I felt that I was part of the age old Irish tradition of leaving home to make your fortune (cue laughter) and eventually returning to your roots. It’s a romantic song in the loosest of terms, but life comes and goes in a flash and it should be recorded; which I’ve attempted on a few of the other songs too.
Jimmy Sanchez is part of that chain. Jimmy was the youngest of the Chilean miners. His story fascinated me as he’d led a bit of a wild life up until the accident and, even though he had a new baby waiting for him, he believed that God wanted him to stay underground until he changed his ways – which he appears to have done.
That took me to Working Man which is about an honest blue collar, family man looking back on his life. I worked on building sites for a lot of years and was lucky that music took me in another direction; most people don’t have that choice.
Coming from Northern Ireland I’ve always steered clear of politics and religion but had started to feel the urge to write ‘something’ about religion without being too contentious and that’s how Return to Jesus came about. I don’t trust organised Religions (I’m from Northern Ireland, remember) but because I’m curious by nature I’m interested in other peoples beliefs especially the older they get, which is why I’ve taken a humorous and flippant approach to a very serious subject.
All of the songs are personal in a number of different ways but the song I’m most proud of is The Beauty Of You which I wrote for my wife Brenda, who plays bass in my band now and sings with me on the final verse. I don’t write many ‘love songs’, but when you get it write it’s always a killer theme!
After recording for all these years having Mark Knopfler as the Producer was a revelation. To some degree the process was bang-bang-bang, but he was very focussed and knew exactly what he wanted from everyone in the studio and wouldn’t compromise on anything; plus he taught me a few new techniques to improve my voice. Simple things that I’d never done before like ‘warming up my vocal chords’ before singing and he even bought me a new mic that brought out the best in my vocals.
The next job will be touring the UK in the Spring to promote the album, which I’m looking forward to because; after touring so much with Energy Orchard I’ve avoided long tours like the plague; but I’m now enthused by music again and Brenda has insisted that we go back on the road, so I guess we’ll see you in a town near you soon.