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Bap Kennedy - Too Long In Exile
The ex-Energy Orchard front man discusses honesty in songwriting, keeping things in perspective and the passion in his Celtic Soul
Bap Kennedy's looking for a light for his cigarette, but nobody in the hall smokes. He mutters under his breath in mock indignation and takes another swig from his bottle of lager. It's late afternoon on a sunny, Sunday afternoon in Newcastle and he and his band have just been through a painless sound check. They are part way through a tour in support of Bap's new album, Lonely Street, which features predominantly acoustic music with touches of country, folk and rock and roll, and the initial response has been good. In conversation Bap Kennedy is softly spoken, well-mannered and seemingly relaxed, but there's a glint in his eyes which tells you that he still has the spirit of the younger, goat-dancing Irish singer inside him. There may be no smoke, but the fire's still burning within for Bap Kennedy.
In London in the late eighties one of the hottest live acts around was The Energy Orchard. Cooking up an energetic blend of rock, folk and maximum R&B, filtered through an ex-pat Irish sensibility, the focus of their early live activity was centred around the New Pegasus in Hackney. The band had all lived within a couple of streets of each other in Belfast and formed when the remnants of two other bands, the Bankrobbers and Ten Past Seven, had united. Bap still remembers those times with affection.
"Those gigs were special. People still talk about those days. It was like the Orchard version of Them at the Maritime. The Pegasus was definitely the one where it all came together and we got our record deal. We never really surpassed those gigs. After that it all turned into shit." But there was more to the band than just creating a post-punk vision of Them; Bap, in particular, appreciated the more mystical side of Van Morrison too. At the time he took the comment that some of the tracks sounded like Astral Weeks out-takes as a compliment rather than as a criticism. As he says now, "That's what we were trying to do. We were trying to marry Them and Astral Weeks."
Their self-titled first album was probably as good a fusion of the two main musical strands as the Energy Orchard ever managed, but musical fashion was changing and the critical rise of the "Madchester" scene took whatever impetus they had gathered away from them. "It was just bad timing, it really was. Just when we were getting our shit together the Happy Mondays were the current thing. We were instantly dated and wrong for the times. Timing is everything. You've got to catch the wave."
Another crack in the Orchard was the growing split in the band as to which style to pursue. Some of the band favouring rocking out more, while the Celtic Soul/Astral Weeks vibe was more Bap's department. "There were like three bands in one band!" he laughs. "We never really had a game plan on what we wanted to sound like."
With their second album, the prophetically titled, Stop The Machine in 1992, the hard rock faction in the band won out and the band, in a desperate attempt to regain their popularity, upped the wattage and opted for more of a stadium rock style. "We were trying to break America and all that and listening to the wrong people. We were in such a mess financially and we panicked. It was just a big, lumbering machine. There were 12 people on the road and everybody's livelihoods depended on that record and it became something else. Once it gets to that stage, desperation sets in and suddenly you make stupid decisions because you feel responsible for these people. You're like, 'Let's do this. Let's try that song. That sounds like a hit in America.' There was just no heart in that record. There are some enduring songs, but the second album is a crock of shit mainly."
It certainly feels like a different band, but the third album, Shinola (1993), was a partial return to form and featured a spectacular version of Van Morrison's 'Madame George', which Bap is still proud of and more importantly for the band, in the short term, was recorded extremely cheaply.
"The second album we recorded in LA and then in Rockford studios where Queen did 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. The final recording bill for that album was something like a quarter of a million quid. The third album cost only nine grand! Once you've got to work within these restrictions you're free from the shackles. But the band was going down hill. There were a couple of guys didn't really want to be in a band, to be honest".
I ask him how he manages to keep things in perspective when he's on the road with a band or involved in long-drawn out studio sessions? Bap thinks this over for a moment or two and then illustrates his answer by recalling an incident when he was recording in America in 1991. "We were making our second record in LA when the Desert Storm thing happened. I really did think that it was the end of the world and I was making a record. When you see other things going on in the world you realise that what you're doing doesn't really add up to a hill of beans. You're just a little band. I suppose you are trapped up in your own little world, but every time you're making records you should look at CNN and see there's real tragedy all over the fucking world."
The Energy Orchard soldiered on with another below-par album, Painkiller and then gave up the ghost with the half-decent posthumous live set Orchardville. Many talented musicians have their one crack at fame and then fade away into a twilight world of poorly paying gigs, no promotion and non-existent record sales. But this would not be the end of the story: fate had other things in store for Bap Kennedy.
Steve Earle was an olf friend of Bap's from the early part of the decade and he threw what appeared to be a life line by inviting Bap Kennedy to record a solo album in the States with Earle producing and playing. The resulting album Domestic Blues was recorded with some of Nashville's top players including Peter Rowan, Jerry Douglas and Roy Huskey Jr. and featured Nanci Griffiths on guest vocals. How was it working over there? "It was pretty good," replies Bap. "The Energy Orchard did their last gig on St Patrick's Day and we went to Nashville two or three months later and made Domestic Blues. It all sort of ran together."
Unfortunately, the recording was plagued with legal and financial complications which held up matters. Whilst waiting for its release Bap played a few gigs with a pick-up band called The Navarinos, named after a local road in London, and managed a left-field Elvis impersonator whose repertoire stretched to covering the works of Joy Division. This was an enjoyable break, but he was relieved when he was able to get back to his main creative focus when Domestic Blues was finally released in 1998 and started picking up decent reviews in the music media. "It had been on the shelf for over a year. I couldn't get a record deal in England and then Steve Earle finally put it out on his own label after a few legalities had been sorted out with the people who had financed it."
The next album that Bap released was something of a departure. Hillbilly Shakespeare was an album of quite faithful cover versions of Hank Williams songs and was a surprise success quickly out-selling Domestic Blues. What was the thinking behind making the record? "That record came out on very little money. The idea wasn't to make money, just to make a record really and try to start the ball rolling again. Things had basically been ever so static for the previous two years. I made it just to get my recording muscles up again and have a bit of fun. It's a very self-indulgent record. I'm quite surprised it sold quite so well in America. It made me enough money to start my own label and that came from Hillbilly Shakespeare. Good old Hank!"
Was he happy with the versions he did on that album? "It's okay. If I had more money and more time I'd have made a better record. I mean, we made that record in a couple of days. The first day of recording we brought down two cases of Stella from Sainsburys and by 11 o' clock we were all blootered. We probably spent more money on booze than we did on the record. We did it for the craic really. I did it as well as I could under the circumstances, though I could do it a lot better now. I'm thinking of doing another one: Hillbilly Shakespeare: Act II - the other batch of songs. Spend a few more quid on it and get a few tasty players in."
The album Lonely Street was released in the summer of 2000 and seemed a natural continuation of what came before. An album of predominantly acoustic, original songs arranged with country textures it is, as Bap says, "About being immersed in Nashville and Elvis and Hank Williams." A little cynically I wonder whether he got the ideas for the songs first, or was it a case of writing a group of songs and then shoe-horning them into shape to fit the album's theme? His answer surprises me with its candour: "To be really straight. I wrote 'Gladys and Vernon' first and then I wrote a song called 'Going Back to Nashville', which is about Hank Williams, which isn't on the album, but it's meant to appear somewhere else. Then I wrote another song that seemed to be about Hank Williams, so I started thinking, 'Hmm. There's a theme here.' I'm now going to sound a complete twat now and spoil all the good work, but when you hear someone saying all these songs being inspired by Elvis Presley and Hank Williams that's mostly crap. The songs all came from a similar place. They hang together quite well, even if you don't know what the theme of the album is about. They still work individually as songs.
But of course, although the description of the album's concept may be more marketing than reality, Bap really does have a high regard for Elvis and Hank. "Their music never let me down. I've never put my favourite Hank Williams song on or my favourite Elvis song and not got that same buzz."
But Bap's love for his musical heroes isn't unconditional though; he'll admit that their material could sometimes be lame. "'No Room to Rumba in a Sports Car' isn't exactly genius. The best of their work is remarkable though. Elvis has been voted artist of the century for good reason and Hank Williams is probably the songwriter of the century. The best of their work, and Hank did a lot of corny stuff too, is unbeatable, there's nothing to touch it."
In terms of live performances, Hank Williams was sometimes a bit hit and miss, especially later on in his career. I wonder if Bap has calmed down on stage since his days in the Energy Orchard when he was renowned for being an energetic showman. "Since the accident I've taken it a bit easy. I jumped off the balcony one night and wrecked my leg so I haven't jumped off a PA system for a few years. I still leap around occasionally. It depends on how the spirit takes me. I still get the goat dancer in me, but I think I'm a lot more mature these days - I like the songs better".
In the song 'Lonesome Lullaby', from Lonely Street, Bap writes, 'I don't want to die for a lonesome lullaby tonight'. Hank Williams, of course, died tragically young, his lifeless body rattling around unnoticed in the back of a chauffeured car as he was driven through a snow-filled night to a gig on New Year's Day. Where does Bap stand on the live hard and die young attitude towards music as practised by so many popular musicians from Hank Williams, through Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain and beyond? "It's something you've got to think about. I only know the prices people pay. I know if you really want to be as good as Hank Williams, then you need to go into the dark side with him. You have to go down there and I don't know if I want to go that far - just for a song and to lose everything."
The album also contains a song called 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning'. Is that a reference to the famous quote about [Hank Williams' alter ego] Luke The Drifter writing the Sunday morning songs while Hank wrote the sin songs for the Saturday nights, I wonder? Bap seems delighted that I spotted the reference. "Well picked up on that one. It's about listening to a Hank Williams song when you've had a row with the missus and how Luke The Drifter changes into Hank Williams."
The album holds together well as a fine collection of songs with a common tone and a sense of honesty, which, as Bap says, can be appreciated beyond the so-called 'concept' of the album. This naturally leads into a discussion with Bap about songwriting.
The music that Bap Kennedy is currently playing could be described as a mixture of country, folk and rock with some soul touches. How does it feel to be playing a predominantly American musical form? Van Morrison has often talked about Celtic Soul and how many of the roots of the music came from the British Isles, so he claimed it was legitimate for him to play it. Does Bap feel that way too? "I always contend that we invented the stuff. It's Scottish and Irish people who went over to America who basically laid the groundwork for what we call country now. So these things resonate with me and with anyone who has any Celtic blood in them. You hear country music and you recognise something. It feels perfectly natural to me to be playing this kind of music. I just haven't got the right accent, that's all!" and he laughs.
Although the current album is lyrically, by nature of its subject matter, American, earlier works by Bap such as 'The Shankill and The Falls' and 'Ghosts Of Belfast' on Domestic Blues are firmly rooted in places Bap knows. How does he feel about the many British bands which appropriate the lyrical vocabulary as well as the musical style and start incongruously singing about 'Rambling down the interstate, waiting on a greyhound'?
Bap agrees with me that the situation can get ridiculous: "These bands are coming from the wrong place with their approach to the music. I'm coming from a place where there's a huge tradition of folk music. You write about things you know about. You don't write about having a ranch in Texas when you come from Hackney. That's bollocks you know!"
How does he get suitable subject matter that inspires him to write? What inspires him to write? How does he break out of the circle of overly familiar subjects? "It's generally just a new way of saying it. It's the same old shit. You're just trying to say it in a different way to how people have said it before. I suppose it's generally song titles which inspire me to write songs. You hear people saying things in conversations. Sometimes, just taking it out of context makes it suddenly sound ambiguous." Does he ever physically record the ideas by jotting them in a notebook? "I have a couple of notebooks. I end up using them, but I don't usually write songs until it's time to make a record. A few weeks before I'll write nine or ten songs. I look in the book and I'll have got loads and loads of little lines, which I put together, and then I just let the juices flow. It's like putting up a shelf or something. You have to spend a little bit of time doing it - you have to be disciplined. You've got to sit in a room for a couple of hours and do some work. The rest of the year, except once a year for those three weeks, you're just getting pissed."
It's surely not as easy as this, and Bap is sometimes a little dismissive of his talents in many ways echoing one of his heroes, Van Morrison, in his workaday and demythologising attitude to songwriting. Bap Kennedy's melodies are particularly memorable, despite using rudimentary chord sequences, and I wonder if he ever feels the need to get a tune down on cassette immediately or risk losing it? "If a melody comes into my head and it's good, then it sticks, if not then they'll disappear. I do believe there are tunes floating through the aether." Finally, I ask him to summarise his views on songwriting and his answer doesn't surprise me. "The key is simplicity. There's only twelve notes. It's the same old chord structures, the same old themes, the same old thing; you're just adding that little something from yourself. The thing that makes it fresh is the sincerity."
Bap Kennedy's music might have the "same old chord structures", but his melodies have the priceless knack of nagging at you until they catch hold in your subconscious and his lyrics capture the mood of the song perfectly with economy and style. It's no surprise that he rates the subjects of his last album so highly in rock's pantheon? "I'd put Elvis and Hank on the same cloud and the Beatles floating just a little way below, and then you've got Van, Bob, all the rest making a circle around them."
And there's no doubting that a certain Bap Kennedy's cloud, while a little lower still, is climbing ever higher.
Original article by Steve Wilcock in Triste 3.