t’s mildly ridiculous how effortlessly cool Maria Doyle Kennedy has always been about her career.
Even when The Commitments first made her a star back in 1991 – and a pin-up around the world – the young Bray lass seemed to shrug the whole hullabaloo off.
And it happened again, when The Black Velvet Band – formed with hubby, Kieran Kennedy – signed with a major label. Maria was happy, but far from hysterical.
And today, with acclaimed solo albums and a constant stream of big-screen and TV hits (including, most recently, Sing Street, Orphan Black, The Conjuring 2 and Striking Out) to her name, Maria Doyle Kennedy seems nonplussed. Just happy with the work rather than bothered with all the fuss.
It’s a good way to be, of course, given the ever-hungry beast that is celebrity culture, and it’s a calm and collected approach that permeates Maria Doyle Kennedy‘s latest, eponymous album, her ninth. So, plenty of songs to choose from when the former St David’s schoolgirl returns to town for her second headliner at The Whale on Saturday, December 3rd.
We managed to grab a few minutes with Maria in-between her films, her funk and her family duties to talk about music, movies, memories, Mermaid Records and a few other things beginning with ‘m’ that I can’t remember right now…
You reportedly spent the past five years wandering the globe with your family preparing songs for this album, the longest gap you’ve left between platters. Rocker’s block…? We spent half of each of the last five years away from home; it was interesting to move as a family and the experiences, both musical and otherwise, had a profound influence on the songs for this album. It took 5 years between Sing and Maria Doyle Kennedy – I always think I will be quicker, but there’s no getting around it; I am ridiculously protective of the songs, and it takes me ages to piece the thoughts together, and to be happy to send them out into the world. The longest break between albums of original songs was actually 6 years, during which I very nearly broke Kieran’s heart. I drove him insane while making Mütter. I wasn’t short of songs but could not decide what was the best incarnation for them, and recorded several completely different versions of each one. That album was released in 2007, and the companion volume, Mütter’s Daughter – which contains the alternative song versions – was released in 2015.
With 2012’s Sing – featuring duets with the likes of Damien Rice, Paul Brady and John Prine – being described by Hot Press as ‘Maria’s masterpiece’, was there a pressure to follow-up such an acclaimed album? If you care about what you’re doing there’s always pressure involved. I mean, nobody wants to make something that’s crap, do they?! Maybe pressure is the wrong word, but there’s anxiety and self-doubt, and a huge desire to make something that can offer some comfort or thought or provocation. It was a big thing for me that John Prine, and Damien Rice, and Paul Brady, thought enough of our songs that they recorded them with us. It was an injection of belief; I wouldn’t want to let them down.
You’ve called the new album simply Maria Doyle Kennedy – a reflection of finally capturing the real you in your songs, or you just couldn’t think of a groovy title…? Oh, the real me – doubts,fears. hopes,loves,ugly embarrassments, the entire woodshed – is in all the songs I write, there’s no hiding. what would be the point? Some people refer to their songs as children; I think of them more as a sort of crop, and an album title has to somehow represent the whole bunch, truthfully. We tried lots of different names for this album but nothing was entirely right. Some were very close but just not the whole shebang. Using my name was Kieran’s suggestion and the only option we both agreed on.
From your constant work with hubby, Kieran Kennedy, to more recent collaborations with the likes of Feist and Jarvis Cocker, and the above-mentioned duets, there must be a real love of sparking off other musicians. Do you seek people out, or do these collaborations just happen…? Like most of life, it’s a combination of intention and random connection. I wouldn’t make music without Kieran, we are halves of a whole. If you have seen us perform live, then that bit is obvious… I approached John, and Damien, and Paul, for the duets on Sing as I knew that they were the perfect voices for those songs. I got to know Feist when someone brought her to one of our gigs in Toronto. We hung out afterwards and became friends, and then she invited me to work on her Century video with Jarvis. I do really love working with others though; once you get over your nerves and figure out a communication shorthand, it’s like accessing a whole new well of ideas and colours, and sounds.
Talking of your hubby, the two of you completed a short film, A Different Kind Of Day, written and directed by your fine self with production and scoring duties handled by Kieran. The trailer looks sweet – where and when will that be released, and what was the spark…? The film was motivated by a desire to challenge people’s preconceptions about difference. Often, a person who has a disability is described solely in those terms and that is ridiculous; their disability is just one aspect of them, one aspect of their personality. It is a sweet film, I’m very proud of it. It’s about to head off on the festival circuit, so will be on general tv and cinematic release in the autumn.
The actor’s life has been good to you too, never moreso than in recent years, with the likes of Orphan Black, Sing Street and that swingers classic, The Conjuring 2. All part of a cunning career plan, or just luck? I don’t think I would know what ‘career’ meant if it bit me on the backside.
You’ve released 10 Maria Doyle Kennedy albums on your own Mermaid Records label – a label born out of necessity, or did you just get tired of record company shenanigans? I think it’s 9, but who’s counting! Setting up my own label in 2000 was absolutely born of necessity. Nobody was going to give me a record deal in my 30s It was a question of doing it myself or not doing it at all. I’m very glad I did take it on, but there are definite pros and cons. Getting to make the music you want to is fantastic – figuring out a way to tell folks about it is a constant challenge. Very few musicians – Jack White excluded – are marketing wizards.
Just as the class line between TV and the big screen has been obliterated, it seems that genre border between acting and music has largely gone too. Was it ever an issue for you? Working in one meant not being accepted in the other…? My biggest mentors, Patrick Scott and Patti Smith, constantly moved between art forms, and they showed me that it doesn’t matter what medium your art takes, it is all coming from the same well. What matters is the intention and desire that you make it with.
From The Black Velvet Band to Pride, you’ve covered a lot of ground – what can people expect to hear when you play Greystones on February 10th? Playing live is the thing we do best and intimate theatre shows are my absolute favourite. For those 2 hours, we are all part of the same experience, a melodic human connection. It’s a special thing that I never take for granted. Greystones has a special place in my heart too – formative school years will do that to you.
Were you a happy teenager? Do you see those years as golden, or molden? I did have a lot of fun, and am still very connected to some of those friends, but, I found it difficult and confusing too. I was pretty reckless… I feel lucky to have made it through, and I wouldn’t like to go back there.
You have four kids of your own now – Lewis, Jesse James, Daniel and Salvador; have they expressed an interest in following in ma and pa’s footsteps? Not a bit of it. They call us Sharon & Ozzie, and think that we’re lunatics.
You’ve spoken before of how Kilbrittain’s finest artist, the late, great Patrick Scott, was both a friend and an inspiration, especially his belief that age could you make you better as an artist. Given just how busy you are of late, does it feel that way…? I hope so. I think I’m definitely getting better at songwriting; there’s no way I could have written this last album at 20. Maybe the thing is that you get a little better with each album, and eventually you make something perfect… Then you pop your clogs!
You’ve been described as ‘an Irish Patti Smith’ – flattered, or does such signposting annoy you? You can compare me to Patti Smith any day of the week. I’ll take it!
Finally, anything else you want to share with the group…? I’m really looking forward to playing in Greystones. I’m especially wondering who I might meet that I haven’t seen for over 30 years…
Maria Doyle Kennedy plays The Whale on Saturday, December 3rd 2022. Info and tickets right about here.
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