'If I were a contestant, I'd choose Bressie'
Shea Tomkins talks to Brian Kennedy about music, working on The Voice, and the other judges...
WHEN IT comes to sizing up potential superstars, Brian Kennedy is more than qualified to sit in RTÉ''S Sunday night hot seat and tell people if he believes that their singing has the power to stop traffic, or not.
For five years he worked as a lead vocalist on blue-eyed soul king Van Morrison's world tour, and has shared the stage with legendary artists from Bob Dylan to Ray Charles. He has also featured on the soundtrack to hit Hollywood film When A Man Loves A Woman, represented his country (credibly) in the Eurovision Song Contest, and successfully turned his hand to writing novels. We caught up with the Falls Road man to find out if he is enjoying his time as a judge on The Voice Of Ireland, and if he were driving along in the privacy of his own car, which of his fellow judges' CDS would he most likely be listening to.
You haven't a bad voice yourself. Who was the first person to take you aside and say you were easy on the ear?
It happened very early for me. I went to a very full-on hard-nosed Catholic boys' school on the Falls Road. Singing was not the top priority; it was either football or fighting. We had a very nice teacher called Mr Ewings who heard me singing. He was trying to put a choir together and he tested the class by asking each boy to sing a line or two, and afterwards he asked me to stay behind. I was 12 or 13 at the time and I was mortified. Here was this person who was in a position of power and he told me I had the makings of a very good voice and I remember thinking 'well what does that mean?'. I didn't know any singers. Nobody was well known from Belfast for singing as far as I was concerned, and certainly not from the Falls Road.
Do you ever compare the voices you are hearing on the show to your own voice?
I've always sung in my own accent and you can hear a Northern tone or an Irish sense to what I'm doing. There seems to be a generation of young people these days that are very homogenous sounding. They are very influence by the likes of Rihanna and Beyonce, and people like that. Given that the competition is called The Voice Of Ireland, I would like the winner to at least sound like they are from Ireland. I hear plenty of nerves and hunger in their voices, all the things that I had myself. But so far I don't hear anyone that sounds like me.
Did it make it easier not having to look into the contestants' eyes when trying to decide if you liked their voices?
In this world we have become very used to the visual telling us how to react to things. It's wonderful to have to look deeper inside yourself, and stop trying to guess what a person might look like. I need to feel that I can believe the singer I'm listening to. It's easier to do that if I'm
not distracted by a haircut or an outfit, or something like that. Does the face matter in the industry? As much as I would like to say 'oh you can't judge a book by its cover', I'm afraid it's the opposite. That's why The Voice works so well. For once in our lives we're not judging someone by how they look, but by how they sound. In this industry the face does matter, absolutely. There's a whole visual side to things that is important, and goes hand-in-hand with singing. With some people out there it's all about how they look, and nothing to do with how they sound. Do you think that when Madonna gets to the end of her career somebody will go, 'my God, what a great singer' or 'what a great person'. She'll get to the end of her career and we'll think, 'wasn't she fit until the day she died'.
Who has the best voice from your fellow judges?
That's an unfair question, but I like it. Sharon, because I know her voice the best. I'm a fan of her singing.
Are you the type to flip the Monopoly board into the air if you're losing?
I am competitive and entered the Eurovision Song Contest going in there to win. When I release a record I'd prefer if it was number one than number two. I'm competitive in the moment, but I'm also good at realising that I might not win everything all the time. One thing about this industry is that you learn about failure very quickly and it actually makes you stronger. As long as you know that, you'll be okay. Failure is about picking yourself up and starting all over again. Failure should make you stronger rather than weaker.
This country has thousands of fine singer-songwriters. Why do you think none of them are representing us at Eurovision?
Are they putting themselves forward? Eurovision is seen as something of a game and is more about the visual. I went into it in a very serious way because there are so few things in this world where you can represent your country. So I did it from a proud to be Irish point of view. It's a good question. I'll put it out on Twitter and see what kind of responses we get.
If a professional Irish act were needed in the morning to go and serenade President Obama, who would you pick to represent the country?
I love Ryan Sheridan and what he's doing. He's original and sounds Irish to me. He's got great energy and can play all sorts of instruments. He's a good example of what we can offer the world and I'd put his name forward for sure.
Who is the biggest messer among the Voice judges?
They think I'm the biggest messer, in unison. It goes in twists and turns. Sometimes Bressie will be mucking around. Kian is not that serious but he's not that jokey either – he's somewhere in between.
If you were a contestant on The Voice and all three judges turned around to fight for you, who would you choose and why?
Probably because I know Sharon so well, I would choose Bressie. He's the one I know the least about and I think that he is very hungry. Kian is at the end of a very long career with a very successful band. Sharon has been through the exact same thing, with an incredibly successful pop band. Here's Bressie at a very early stage of his music career, and it would be interesting to go on that journey with him. As I get to know him I see that he's a wonderful musician with great insight into music. I'd probably choose him because he's an unknown quantity.