This article appeared in ‘The Book of Interiors’ in Spring 2006. Brian Kennedy went on to represent Ireland at the Eurovision Song Contest the same week this article was published. His self-panned ballad, ‘Every Song is a Cry for Love’, finished 10th with 93 points.
I am idly pulling my earlobes in a Louis Quatorze mirror when Brian Kennedy comes bounding down the red-carpeted staircase of his Edwardian townhouse in Dublin. Its only been a few weeks since the acclaimed Belfast-born singer completed the renovation of the property but its already looking like a well-lived in home. Just a year ago, Brian’s home was on the shores of Lough Derg. But twelve months is a long time in showbiz and with two books out, a new album coming soon and a British tour underway, perhaps Brian needed somewhere more central to base himself. And then of course there’s that wee Eurovision song he is due to perform in front of a staggering 600 million strong TV audience in Athens on May 20th. That’s quite a gig for a child of the Falls Road.
Brian Kennedy was born in October 1966, the fourth of six children to a working-class family living in a huddled terrace in Belfast. Five months before his birth, the UVF declared open war on the IRA and so began the Troubles.
For the boy Brian, it was all surreally normal.
‘I’ve never set out to be political in any sense but because of where I was born and how I grew up, that defined me immediately. We were never involved in anything other than the day-to-day thing of going to school and being shot at and all those kinds of mad things. My parents were just hard working people, sick of being caught up in a war. But they were completely apolitical. We lived in a really tiny house – the eight of us – with just a fire downstairs. It was freezing cold upstairs. My dad did loads of things to bring in the bacon. He worked in the post office. He was a marathon coach. He was a barman for a while. He was unemployed for quite a long time. He was mad about sport. My mother was just mad about being a parent. They were completely distracted by trying to feed us and clothe us and keep us alive. Their generation were very much under the thumb of the Church and the Occupation and so on. No matter where you turned there was always someone else with their thumb out ready to crush your head. Hunger striking was the worst time, I’ll never forget it”.
“When you’re as penned in like that, two things can happen. You either get so used to thinking internally all the time that it terrifies you to think what the world might be like outside. Or else it actually gives you an insatiable appetite for what the world might be like outside. I have a healthy dose of both”.
The opportunity to see that world came when his eldest brother, Bap, formed a band, Energy Orchard, and asked Brian to be their singer. In due course, Brian moved to London and launched his debut album in 1990. By 1996, Q Magazine were praising the 29-year-old for possessing ‘a voice to charm the angels‘ while Hot Press awarded him the title of Best Irish Male Artist. His version of “Crazy Love” featured on the soundtrack to the Hollywood film “When a Man Loves a Woman“. He toured with The Corrs, Tina Turner, Suzanne Vega and, perhaps most famously, Van Morrison.
“Van and I keep in touch socially but I haven’t worked with him in a long time. I was with him for six years and sang on five of his albums and we toured the entire world many times over.”
Brian’s attitude to success is almost exasperatingly positive. “I have a nice temperature of fame. It doesn’t burn me out. It doesn’t make me feel uncomfortable. It makes me feel incredibly privileged. But, like anything, sometimes your currency’s up and sometimes you’re down“.
Such stoicism must have stood him in good stead when, in 1998, his private life became a source of media interest and he was dropped by his record label. His former manager Simon Fuller was among those to express frustration that such a talented vocalist had not yet had that one vital breakthrough hit. Perhaps his polarised childhood prepared him for the highs and lows of fame.
“In the world I grew up in, you just thought about how to get through the day. I didn’t know anyone who thought past the next 24 hours”.
His life did a sudden backflip when he was asked him to front Riverdance‘s show in New York.
“Moving to Broadway was extraordinary! Having my name in lights and a big bigger-than-lifesize poster of me outside the theatre for the whole world to see! My goodness! I know I’ve lived and breathed every inch of my journey so I know exactly how I got here but there’s still that little kid from the Falls Road growing up in the middle of a war thinking, how did it happen!?”
After Riverdance came his well-received 2001 album “Get On With Your Short Life“. And then came his foray into literature with “The Arrival of Fergal Flynn” and its sequel, “Roman Song“. Both books fared well, despite the fact Brian failed his English O-level at school.
“I wanted to get under the skin of how people were [in Ulster during the Troubles], of having to put up with this constant annoyance. The character of Fergal Flynn had to be concerned with his own private physical and emotional war. How would that come out in a teenager struggling to be gay, struggling to find his feet in the family? Coming from a poor background – from a situation where it was a very dangerous thing to be a Catholic – or even to be thought of as an Irish person! All those things confuse your sense of identity. It takes an awful lot to work out who you are because you’re not allowed to be anybody.”
Brian has certainly forged an identity for himself, albeit with his own unshakeable modesty. “I felt so privileged when I filled out my census form to just write occupation, “singer”. It’s nice to sneak in “novelist” as well! But its really such a great privilege that my first thought, most mornings, will be about music or books or gigs or things that are related to the creative life“.
“When I’m writing music and making records, it’s all about movement and pushing the energy around the room. But writing fiction is about creating a little space on the desk and letting the mind do the travelling instead. It’s like crop rotation. Sometimes I get really burnt out being on the road and then I come back home again and I start to travel in my mind. Then I get a bit burnt out by being so sedentary and want to get back on the road”.
From 1998 until 2005 Brian had a home by the shores of Lough Derg in Killaloe, County Clare. The town lies near Kincora, the great fort of King Brian Boru. To the younger Brian’s astonishment, he discovered that Brian Boru’s real name was in fact, Brian Kennedy. However, despite the regal connection and ballad-inspiring landscape, he’s delighted to be living in Dublin.
“I’m very lucky to get a place with this amount of space and a garden so close to town. I’m actually very happy in my own company but honestly I’m much more of a city boy. I love it. It’s easy. I like walking about, meeting people. I like being able to go to the cinema at short notice – or the theatre or a decent supermarket. I’d miss that greatly“. The proximity to the Airport was also relevant for this wandering star.
Brian sold his Killaloe home and purchased the three-storey redbrick in the autumn of 2005. The house was built in 1904 for a well-to-do Scottish Protestant working in middle-management for Guinness. Brian subsequently commissioned a major renovation of the property, carried out by the “amazing” duo of builder Malcolm Porter and painter John Whelan.
“I designed the whole thing“, says Brian, sounding surprised. “It’s very classical, the proportions, the colours, the cornicing … and I had to have chandeliers“.
The house adheres to its Edwardian birthright from the moment one opens the front door to see the red petals of the beautiful stained glass fanlight subtly echoed in the carpet that runs directly up the stairs. White tiles give the hallway a fresh and invigorating sweep, framed by Georgian White walls and classic old style radiators from MacSalvage of South Circular Road. A Louis Quatorze mirror acquired from a Capel Street dealer radiates light into the drawing room next door.
The two inter-connected drawing rooms offer excellent space for entertainment. Their original fireplaces have been restored, including a particularly handsome one of decorated slate. Sofas are bedecked in an array of cushions – silks from Minnie Peters, red velvets from Habitat. A silver snakeskin folding table, adorned with candles and a silver water set, all from The Collection, stands firmly upon the fresh polished oak floorboards.
A piano rests against one wall, with the score sheets of Brian’s own songs fluttering above the ivory keys. On top is a pair of glass candleholders from The Collection, a Tiffany apple gifted by a friend from New York, a John Rocha Waterford Crystal vase and a beautiful Polish glass candelabra. Scattered around are a batch of wooden turtles from Africa, framed platinum and gold selling albums and a signed painting of Joni Mitchell, one of Brian’s favourite musicians. A wall of shelves houses Brian’s vast CD collection while musical chairs takes on a new meaning with options from a classic leather Minnie Peters club chair to The Collection’s wenge and rattan dining chairs to Philippe Starck’s “Louis Ghost“. The whole effect rebounds from a Deknudt design mirror from The Collection. On the mantelpiece, stands an enigmatic bust of a choir girl by an artist called Clare from Kerry. “I love it because you can nearly hear her singing”.
The kitchen is a new creation, very loosely based on the original which seems to have been little more than a cooking grate and fireplace. The room is now replete with Miele cookers and fridges. Sleek wooden chairs from Meadows & Byrne‘s Kiari Range, upholstered in vibrant lime green, queue up beside the glasstop dining table. Open shelves display an alluring variety of crockery – Chinese bowls, Stephen Pearce, Sri Lankan style. Porter assisted in installing and dropping windows to bring in the light.
The garden was an overgrown lawn knee high full of unruly bushes, so wooden fences were erected to the legal standard of 6 foot 6. A magnolia tree stands surrounded by smaller shrubs, a fine outdoor table and wooden benches. On the back wall is a mosaic-tiled sculpture called The Bird of Happiness given to Brain by the composer, Fiachra Trench.
The staircase leads up past a series of paintings by Brian McMahon, Katherine Owens (sometime U2 curator) and a hat-trick from Louis Le Brocquy‘s 2003 Procession Exhibition. The first floor is occupied by the songwriter’s office while the bathroom is tiled in aquamarine colours from Fired Earth to get that “London swimming pool underground sort of feeling“. A cotton bathrobe from The White Company hangs from the door.
The three upper floor bedrooms have had their splendid tiled fireplaces cleaned and restored. In the main bedroom, Brian has opted for a fertile green from Fired Earth. “I wanted one room that wasn’t white. I think bedrooms can take it. It’s very restful“. An antique brass bed is bedecked in linen from Helen Turkington Interiors. The room is are simply decorated with a chest of drawers and side-table from Minnie Peters. On the wall hangs further pieces from Brian’s collection – the optimistic “Herald of Light” by Grainne Cuffe and “Shea’s Stadium” by Bill Jacklin (“to remind me of America“).
In July 2006, Brian will be honoured with a D-Litt Honours degree from Belfast University. If Brian has a game plan, it is simply to “continue making records, keep playing gigs, be as busy as I can be and enjoy living in this house … and get better at cooking and wine tasting and so on”. He says he’d relish the opportunity to try acting if something “really interesting” came along. He wouldn’t rule out script-writing either. The concluding volume of his Fergal Flynn trilogy is in the pipeline but lets give the man a chance to woo Europe on May 20th and go on tour with the new album first.