As he releases his Joni Mitchell tribute album, Brian Kennedy discusses his love for the legendary singer, having dinner with Kate Bush, and singing 'Blue Suede Shoes' with Bob Dylan.
On a warm Los Angeles night in May 1998, singer Brian Kennedy was sharing the stage with Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and the hero of his teenage years, Joni Mitchell. Those three icons were on a seven-date swing through the West Coast of America.
For twenty-something Brian, it was a dream come true - performing with Morrison, meeting Dylan and hanging with Joni Mitchell, who had not toured since 1983. Similar to many Joni devotees, it all started when he got his hands on a battered copy of her 1971 masterpiece, Blue.
London. 1983. Brian was just 18. Frustrated and searching, attempting to be original, the young musician felt trapped in an endless repetition of D, G, A & A minor chords. Fate intervened.
"A friend casually said to me, 'You know people like Joni Mitchell make up their own tuning?'" he recalls. "What?! He gave me a cassette tape of Blue. It absolutely blew my mind, especially when she played the dulcimer. Slowly but surely, I got enough money to buy a chord book that had all the tunings, and I just started from there. You have to forget what you know and go into Joni-land - and that is a whole other terrain."
Joni wasn't Brian's first musical love affair. Growing up on the Falls Road, there was a memorable soundtrack.
"At that time," he reflects, "it was anything that was able to get through the war - Abba, Duran Duran, Culture Club, anything that was on Top Of The Pops."
Later, he became a John Lennon fan. Of course, there was Elvis, and subsequently Meat Loaf and the Grease soundtrack. Kennedy missed punk, having been born just a little too late, but got Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cult and Hazel O'Connor. And then there was Kate Bush...
"My love affair with Kate Bush started when I heard 'The Man With the Child In His Eyes'," says Kennedy. "We were in my friend's big brother's room, which we were absolutely not allowed to be in. That made it even more delicious, because it was illicit. It was 1978 and I was 12.
"Music was still a mystery, I didn't know how it was made. He put the needle on, the scratchiness and the crackling... and then that opening! I remember thinking she's singing only to me. Little did I know I would grow up, meet her and go to dinner at her house."
A rare pleasure!
"I always said to myself, 'If I make a record, there is only one person I want to send it to and that's Kate Bush'. After my debut record, The Great War Of Words, came out in 1990, I asked my manager Simon Fuller to get it to Kate Bush with a little letter, just to say thanks.
"I then went to America, where I ended up singing with Jeff Buckley in Sin-é. He was just starting out and he had a small but obsessive following. I went down to the gig, because I was a fan of his father, Tim Buckley."
Brian ended up jamming with Jeff Buckley, singing Sam Cooke's 'You Send Me' in waltz-time, and got invited to play on the album Buckley was then working on. That was his debut Grace, which would go on to be one of the most influential records ever made.
"But I was going home the next day," Brian grins. "I'd been away for months, I'd completely run out of money. I was heading back to my flat in London. I had no record deal, no clue what I was going to do. I get back to my flat in London and it's a bunch of cards, mail and bills, mostly bills.
"And this one envelope said Brian Wennedy, Wennedy with a big W! I put it on the desk. I thought, I'll open it later, it's somebody who can't even spell my name, ridiculous! When I did open it, it was really lovely fountain pen writing and a lovely card saying, 'Thank you for sending me your album, I think it's really beautiful', all this stuff, I'll never forget it.
"I couldn't make out the signature. Then I looked at the envelope and thought 'maybe they do a K like a W'. Suddenly the penny dropped - Kate Bush! And not only that, but her phone number was in the top right-hand corner and a note - 'Please give me a ring if you fancy a cup of tea sometime'."
A visit to the Bush mansion ensued.
"At the end of this long gravel driveway," Brian relates, "Kate Bush opens the door of her huge house, barefoot, wearing a beautiful lavender silk two-piece suit. She had the most incredible damson purple hair falling down to her waist, a cigarette in one hand, the phone in the other. Exactly like you think she would look."
Kate cooked Brian dinner whilst fielding a call from Prince.
But after Kate, there was Joni. You can see the influence on tracks such as 'Believe It' and 'Hollow' off his debut record - the open tuning, the lack of formal choruses. It's there too on his sophomore effort, the commercially successful A Better Man. Now, 40 years after his pal handed him a copy of Blue, Brian interprets some of Joni's biggest hits - 'Big Yellow Taxi', 'Both Sides Now', 'Woodstock' - on his new album.
"You think you know those songs," he smiles, "until you sit down and sing them, and discover how hard they are to sing. You get a different understanding of what she is talking about by immersing yourself in the song. Her lyricism is incredible. Who else would write a lyric like, 'Since I lost you, I can't get through the day without at least one big boo-hoo'."
For his cover of 'Both Sides Now', Brian interestingly gels the two versions that Joni cut of the song. The first was on her 1969 album Clouds, while the second was an orchestral treatment that featured on the Love Actually soundtrack.
"I think it was a man called Vince Mendoza who conducted that orchestra," Brian explains. "I happened to be in New York. Joni was doing that album live, with a full orchestra at Madison Square Garden. I went up to the box office and it was sold out, but I asked, 'You don't have one ticket, do you?' And she goes, 'Actually, we do have one return!'
"I walked in, sat as close to the desk as I could and saw the whole concert like that. She was magnificent. So, I saw that orchestral version live, all those years ago. On my version, that's me playing guitar, so it is a reference to that, with a little swing to the orchestral version."
Elsewhere, Eddi Reader duets on 'My Secret Place', while Thomas Lang features on 'Chinese Café/Unchained Melody'. But let's talk about meeting three particular legends. Brian started working with Van in 1993 and features on six of his albums, including Days Like This, Back On Top and A Night In San Francisco.
It was no easy gig - with Van's well-known penchant for calling songs out of thin air, you needed to know hundreds of songs. There was rarely a setlist; indeed, Van wouldn't even play the songs that they'd bloody soundchecked! But they might appear in the set weeks later, so you had to have them down.
Brian often opened Van's show, getting the band going, doing half-a-song while also being a hype man for Van's entrance. In true Van fashion, it was never the same song, so Brian would have to locate Morrison and find out the opening track.
"Oftentimes he'd be talking to someone," Brian recalls. "I'd go into his dressing room, there'd be Jack Nicholson or Dennis Hopper, all kinds of people. This one time, I approach Van and he's talking to Bob Dylan. As I'm getting closer, I heard Bob Dylan asking Van, 'Is the guy with the high voice who sings with you on this tour?' And Van goes, 'Yeah, Brian Kennedy'. Just then I arrive.
"I go 'Hello, Bob. I'm Brian Kennedy. I'm singing with Van tonight'. He just looks at me and says 'hi'. Then myself and Van decide on the song. Bob really kept to himself. He was in this huge silver tour bus, and the venues were so big that they would drive in, right up to the back of the stage, and he would stay on the bus until it was time to go work. He'd go on, do a set, come right off and get back onto the bus. We hardly ever saw him."
Still on that '98 tour, the night Carl Perkins died, Brian sang 'Blue Suede Shoes' with Dylan. But it was Joni he really wanted to meet. He watched her from a distance, not wanting to fanboy her, waiting until an opportune moment. Finally, it came...
"I'm in the toilet in Van's dressing room," he laughs, "and I hear a knock on his door. It's Joni Mitchell. In she comes and I'm having a piss! I can't just walk out and say hi! She doesn't know I'm in there, he hasn't told her. Anyway, she left. I'm walking down this curved corridor, thinking, 'Okay, I'm getting closer to meeting Joni'. I turn around the corner, and there's Joni coming towards me.
"I'm thinking, 'Okay, there she is. Alright, I'm under strict instructions to leave her alone'. I was fully intending to do that, but as I got closer, I heard her say, 'Are you Brian?' I went, 'I am Joni, how are you?' Thank God, I went into relaxed mode. We had a lovely chat. She said to me, 'Oh, you know, years ago, someone sent me your first album, because they thought there were real strong influences of mine on it'.
"I replied, 'Absolutely! There was! That's how I learned that open tuning!' And so, we got chatting every single day, and at the soundcheck, she even let me sing a bit."
At the end of the tour, Joni kindly presented Brian with a signed artist print of her Taming The Tiger album cover as a gift, as well as a tour poster. "She wrote on it, 'Brian, you sing like Miles, beautiful'. Like Miles Davis! She'd been signing so much, her fingers were covered in ink. So her fingerprints are on the poster, and I have that framed in my house."
Earlier this year, Joni Mitchell returned to the stage for her first official ticketed headline concert in over 20 years. Celebrity fans included Olivia Rodrigo, Harry Styles, Taylor Swift and her foremost champion Brandi Carlile. Brian coincided the release of his album with her 8oth birthday. As a Joni devotee, I wonder what he thinks her legacy will be.
"She once told me that Bob Dylan watched her one night from side-stage," he says. "When she came off, he said to her, 'It's just so good to hear those chords again'. Because nobody plays guitar like she does. She's having a great renaissance right now with a new generation. I think the work will speak for itself - those records will be reissued, they'll keep coming out. In my small way, I am keeping some of those songs alive too."
A Love Letter to Joni Vol. 2 is out now. Brian Kennedy plays St. Ann's Church, Dublin on December 16. See more of his upcoming gigs here.
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