Lins Honeyman spoke to the frontman of the SIMON KENNEDY BAND
Every once in a while the British blues scene produces a previously unheard-of act that sets everyone talking. One such example is Perthshire-based electric blues outfit the Simon Kennedy Band who - mostly by word of mouth - have seen their highly accomplished debut album 'Make Up Your Mind' create a well-deserved buzz in blues circles even before its official release earlier this month. Describing his band's sound as "gospel-tinged, funky and guitar-led blues," Kennedy's first album features a wealth of top class self-penned material that references the Christian faith in a positive, accessible and realistic way whilst simultaneously doffing the cap to the blues pioneers of old and offering up something completely fresh and original to take the genre forward.
Whilst many may regard the Simon Kennedy Band's emergence as something of an overnight sensation, nothing could be further from the truth. Born in Dundee in 1981, Kennedy has been studying the abundant world of blues music since rummaging through his father's record collection and discovering for himself bands like the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream before delving further back into musical history to find that guitar heroes such as the three Kings - B B, Freddie and Albert - had influenced the very groups he was listening to. Before long, Kennedy began to work out blues licks on his father's acoustic guitar and by his mid-20s he had developed sufficiently as a player to enable him to join his first blues band. This in turn led Kennedy to play at various blues festivals throughout the UK and, in recent years, he has had the distinction of performing at elite venues like Jools Holland's Jam House in Edinburgh. In addition, Kennedy has also branched out into production and session work as well as teaching budding guitarists in a trade that now sees him and his band venture out with a fine first album.
Joining Kennedy as co-producer on that first album is Hammond player Mirek Hodun who has had the distinction - in no particular order - of representing his native Poland at the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest, producing for big labels such as Universal and BMG and being named Most Outstanding Jazz Performer Of The Year by St Andrew's University. In addition, Coventry-born drummer Carl Taylor who, as well as being an in-demand session player, has previously occupied the drum stool in jazz pianist Jamie Cullum's band and in various West End productions. Lastly, Kenny MacIntosh - subsequently replaced by his namesake Kenny Gair for live performances - provides some solid bass work on the new album whilst renowned Scottish brass players Jason and Tony Sellars fulfil horn section duties.
I meet up with Simon Kennedy in the home studio annex of his house in the Perthshire village of Inchture shortly before the release of 'Make Up Your Mind' to find out more about the man himself and the road to making his debut album. We sit on the very sofa that adorns the album's cover and, surrounded by an array of guitars including a well-worn Fender Stratocaster and a cherished Les Paul which both feature on the album, I ask Simon how 'Make Up Your Mind' came about. "Basically, I'm a blues man through and through," he advises. "The album came from my love of the guitar but I also wanted to combine it with my faith. I've never been able to write worship songs - I've tried that in the past and it doesn't work for me - but, musically, I've always come back to the blues. I wanted to make a blues album with a few guys that I really admire as musicians and thankfully they all agreed to do it. With the help of my co-producer Mirek Hoden, we came up with 10 songs that we felt were really good and we decided to go for it. Ultimately for me, it's about trying to share the Gospel through music but trying to do it in a way that isn't in-your-face or condescending.
"If I can be as honest as I can musically and lyrically, I hope people will accept it," continues Simon in relation to the subtle Gospel message contained within the songs. "I'm not a preacher - I can't deliver the message that way - but we're all called to share the Gospel and playing the blues is one of the ways that I personally can do it."
The premise of communicating the Gospel through the medium of the blues isn't a new one by any stretch of the imagination with early 20th century blues pioneers such as Blind Willie Johnson, Reverend Gary Davis and Sister Rosetta Tharpe all successfully - albeit sometimes posthumously - finding mainstream success without watering down the faith-related content of their work. "When you listen to blues from any decade, there are references to God," Simon confirms. "Blues is one of those genres where you can say almost anything as long as you say it in an interesting way. With blues music, you could be happy, sad and everything in between about any subject and it allows you to share your heart and soul by being expressive in a way you perhaps couldn't do in, say, pop music which doesn't go as deep down in the soul as the blues does."
It seems that the quality of musicianship was a key factor in the making of 'Make Up Your Mind', as Simon explains. "Ever since I picked up a guitar, I knew I had to make this album and - during the recording process - I knew that the message and the music both had to be as strong as each other. We refused to settle for anything less than our very best and we'd email each other back and forth with different ideas and re-do parts we'd already done 30 or 40 times just to get it sounding as good as we possibly could. If the medium isn't right and the foundation isn't there, no one's going to listen to the message contained within it."
I wonder how a Dundee boy growing up in the '90s finds himself falling in love with a style of music that stretches back decades into his past. "My love of music comes from my dad," Simon clarifies. "I can remember getting up early in the mornings as a child and putting the headphones on and listening to some of my dad's collection of records from the '60s and '70s and the blues scene. The defining moment for me was when Eric Clapton brought out his 'Unplugged' album in 1992. When it was released, I had just started secondary school and groups like Oasis and Blur were emerging but those bands didn't draw my attention. Instead, it was the music of people like Clapton that fired me up and then I found myself going back and finding out who influenced them - blues artists like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy. I knew straight away that I loved the blues and it remains my first love to this day."
When faced with the age-old dilemma of the validity of a white middle-class musician who is light years away from the often oppressive living standards of some of the early blues men and women and the hard times they sung about, Simon gives a considered response. "With Clapton and guys like Peter Green and Gary Moore, I think of them as custodians of the work of the original blues artists. In a sense, they're passing it down to us all and saying 'this is great music but look at the guys who originally did it.' For me, it's all about the journey of finding out where all these songs came from, how all these artists connect and paying my respects to those who've gone before."
Helping him achieve this goal is Simon's co-producer and top class Hammond player Mirek Hodun. "Mirek was a great help on the new album," advises Simon. "He's from Poland and was brought up under the old Communist regime at a time when Western music was banned and you had to go underground to get access to it. Mirek's a musician's musician and extremely talented - you can come to him with the smallest idea and he's able to extrapolate it into something that you can run with. I consider him to be a world class musician and, when you're working with people like that, it makes you pull your socks up and raise your game. I'm really thankful that he was able to co-write and co-produce the album with me as well as having musicians of the calibre of Carl Taylor, the two Kennys and the Sellars Brothers involved in the band as a whole."
Whilst the quality of musicianship on 'Make Up Your Mind' - including some breathtaking lead guitarwork from Simon - is plain to see, the inclusion of a beefed-up brass section undoubtedly adds an upmarket feel to the proceedings and helps the Simon Kennedy Band's debut stand out from other homegrown releases. "My first band at school was a soul band with a brass section and, when I was talking to Mirek at the start of the project, I said we've got to have some horns on the album," Simon enthuses. "A horn section just lifts a band and it was the icing on the cake for us."
I suggest that, in addition to improved recording techniques and production values, releasing and promoting a blues album is a very different process these days. "We've definitely got more ways to share our music," Simon agrees. "The flip side of that though is that it can get lost so easily because there is so much music being shared through social media and it can be difficult to get your work to stand out. You can open up your music to a worldwide audience but only a few people might come across it. I couldn't imagine being in the deep south in the '20s or '30s and not knowing what to do with the recording I'd just made."
With the hope that his band's first outing will reach a wide audience, Simon confirms that there have already been discussions in relation to a follow up. "We have had a conversation about that difficult second album," Simon laughs. "We're hoping to start work in January and I would like to do something a bit more traditional on that one. For the first album, we've done a bit of everything including some Chicago blues, a bit of blues rock and some funk and I think, with the next one, we may have a bit more 12 bar blues on it."
In the meantime, the Simon Kennedy Band are intent on promoting their current product at what is sure to be a packed-out launch party at Dundee music venue Non Zeros followed by a scattering of live appearances across the length and breadth of the country. "We're hoping to play at a variety of blues festivals and clubs throughout the UK," advises Simon. "We want to get out there and do as much live work as we can because part of the process for us is to help keep blues music alive. In our live sets, we'll throw in songs by some of the greats to acknowledge where we've come from musically and that these songs are still out there to be discovered. All we're doing is pointing to those guys in the same way that the likes of John Mayall, Eric Clapton and Gary Moore have done."
In closing, Simon explains the enduring appeal of the blues and how his band's debut fits into the whole scheme of things. "The blues is a very honest form of music," he states. "Sometimes life can be difficult and sometimes life can be great and blues music can cover all those aspects. On 'Make Up Your Mind', there is a lot more positivity than there is negativity. Hopefully after listening to the album, people will come out uplifted. We don't want to leave people in despair - I'd rather give them hope by bringing the Gospel and the blues to anyone who is willing to listen."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.