Martin ‘Bap’ Kennedy usually records in England or America but for his new sixth album Let’s Start Again, he decided to bring together some of the top musicians in his native Northern Ireland to play on it.
Singer-songwriter Bap – not to be confused with the big, crusty round bread famed throughout Northern Ireland – is the brother of fellow singer Brian Kennedy, and cut his musical teeth as lead singer for cult Belfast rockers Energy Orchard, with whom he recorded five albums.
The most local of the local talents he recruited for the album is bass player and harmony vocalist, Brenda Kennedy, a.k.a. Bap’s wife, also a regular member of the live band. A former lawyer and author on books about autism (through Brenda’s connections, Bap is now patron of Autism NI) she came over to the dark side in recent years.
“She’s always been musical but only got serious a couple of years ago with me”, says the good natured singer. “As a travelling musician, it’s hard to keep a relationship together, but if you’re wife is in the band with you, it’s pretty easy! She’s given me a new lease of life for this – when you’ve been doing it a while you can get jaded, but Brenda’s so enthusiastic. I do what I love with the woman I love…”
Bap rekindled an old friendship for Let’s Start Again with fellow Belfast man Mud Wallis, who he started out with in a hard punk band called Ten Past Seven. A country-rocker at hart, Mud introduced Bap to the music he ended up embracing (“what can I say, he always had better taste than me”). Seeing as Bap was making the stuff Mud loves, they decided to make a record together.
That sound, he says, is “country, blues, folk and rock, mixed with a bit of Belfast sensibility. There’s some Belfast disparagement in there, some bar-room philosophy, in search of the great one liner.”
There are quite a few striking numbers on the album, which after the Celtic melancholy of The Sailor’s Revenge has a more upbeat roots-y Americana feel and spans eighteen years of work, including many live favourites like Return to Jesus.
I ask about a few of them, such as If Things Don’t Change, which it turns out was about deciding whether to get out of Belfast in the early 80s, a time when it was most definitely not a happy place to live in.
“A lot of my songs are autobiographical, and you might have an idea for a song that hangs around your brain for years”, he explains. “I remember before I left Belfast, it seemed like a huge step and I thought it might never happen. I knew I really needed to go; it was me about to take a leap into the unknown.”
Though he’d be back and forth, Bap ended up being based away from Belfast for 24 years. He says it’s something he had to do at the time, go out and live an interesting life for a while. But when he started hitting his late 40s, he began to have thoughts of returning. He’s now been back eight years.
“I think it’s a very natural thing. You decide you’ve had enough of a certain kind of life, of these big sprawling cities and you want to reconnect with home, and your musical roots.”
Belfast was a pretty tough place when Bap left it, hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. What he found when he came home, he recalls, was a different place altogether: “It was much more cosmopolitan. It’s a place with a lot going for it these days. Things like the Oh Yeah music centre would have been a dream for me growing up as a kid. Plus you can get a decent cup of coffee now!”
One number that has his city’s sense of humour stamped all over it is King of Mexico, and the Mexican ‘vibe’ is one Bap has a soft spot for, particularly since he found out about Zorro’s supposed Irish origins.
Apparently Zorro was based on an Irish guy called William Longford who went to Mexico and tried to start a revolution. Bap tells me with obvious delight that they even have an annual Zorro fest in Wexford every year to celebrate the connection, which attracts lots of Mexicans.
He hasn’t been to the country, but he nearly has. “I was supposed to go with a bunch of guys to Tijuana at one point when I was in Los Angeles. They told me my music would be very popular there and I should really try and go and meet some people. But I was too drunk to go.
“The night before, I got hammered and the day I was supposed to go I was destroyed so I didn’t go. I have a sombrero though, that was in the studio like a talisman as we were making that track. We gazed at the sombrero looking for inspiration.
For the full interview, see this week’s Irish World newspaper (issue 1 Feb 2014).
To view the interview at The Irish World website click here