Fiona Kennedy was not put off by the sight of Liberace’s knees on her return to the studio for her first album for ten years, finds Fiona Shepherd
What do you get the man who has everything? The man who, in the words of his wife, already has the sit-on lawnmower? If you are singer, actress and broadcaster Fiona Kennedy, you write him a song. In Nashville. With your friend, who just happens to be the much respected fellow singer/songwriter Beth Nielsen Chapman.
Who Would Have Thought It? was written to be performed for husband Francis at the couple’s 30th wedding anniversary but, true to its title, took on a life of its own when Kennedy began to perform it publicly.
“It was getting such a lovely response,” she says, “so I started to look at what I had in my bag of songs. I’m always writing music or lyrics, but I think it’s what you do with it afterwards. I got really fired up and it started from that one song.”
“It” is Time to Fly, Kennedy’s first solo album in a decade, a project which crept up on her among all her other work in music, theatre and charity. A trip to Malawi with the charity FROM Scotland (Famine Relief for Orphans in Malawi) provided the next link in the chain.
“It got me thinking, is there anything we can share which can be positive and helpful, and I think music is something that is an international language,” she says.
The Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Marcus Hummon provided a further Nashville connection. The pair had previously worked together on Kennedy’s Fringe show The Kist, celebrating the transatlantic musical connections forged by Scots immigrants in North America. One of the key songs from that production, The Crossing Over, was written in the unlikely setting of the Liberace Room at Warner Brothers Nashville Studios. “There was a huge cardboard cut-out of Liberace in shorts and a grand piano with a candelabra,” recalls Kennedy. “I burst out laughing and said ‘is this supposed to be inspiring? His knobbly knees are putting me off’.”
The Crossing Over now provides the rich, emotional conclusion to Time to Fly, a calming, centred collection of originals, co-writes and covers imparting a lifetime’s experience. There was plenty to draw on – the ever-engaged Kennedy was born into music as the daughter of renowned Gaelic singers Calum Kennedy and Anne Gillies and began performing with her family as a child before finding her own path through acting and television presenting.
“Every step along the way there was something that inspired me to get the bones of a song together,” says Kennedy. “It’s only when you start pulling together all the songs you actually see there is a thread here. I didn’t sit down and say ‘I’m going to make a record about my life’s journey.’ It wasn’t a navel-gazing exercise, it was evolving all the time. It’s like being in a sandpit, sometimes you find that perfect shell and you use that in a song.”
The result is a very natural marriage of Celtic pop and Nashville country, ranging from the Gaelic Christmas carol Christ Child Lullaby to the pop attitude of Cold Brew, the kind of number Taylor Swift might drown in production but which sounds charming and organic in Kennedy’s hands.
Guest musicians include fiddler John McCusker and Ross Wilson of Blue Rose Code, who duets with Kennedy on a tender cover of Always On My Mind, but Kennedy’s closest collaborators were Calum MacColl, fellow offspring of folk royalty, who provided all the arrangements, and producer Calum Malcolm, best known for his work with The Blue Nile but who had previously worked with Kennedy’s father on a number of his albums.
Kennedy has described her parents as “the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor of the Gaelic world”.
“They were a very glamorous couple and both artists in their own right,” she says. “We all grow up in the household we grow up in, and it was normal for us having parents who were very well known at the time.
“I was keen to explore, so I was slightly rebellious in that I didn’t always go down the obvious route of Celtic music. To annoy my father in particular I would say that I wanted to study law. I loved the idea of being a cross between Ally McBeal and Perry Mason and I’ve always been interested in human rights and fairness. But my father said ‘you can’t possibly be a lawyer, you’ll be letting the family down!’”
Kennedy won a small but significant early role in cult classic The Wicker Man. “To get it into perspective, I probably had about six lines,” she says. “It wasn’t exactly a big role but I was part of something that I felt was very special at the time. I was in complete awe of Edward Woodward because he was such a superb actor and a lovely man. They asked me to sit in a trailer with Britt Ekland and speak to her all the time because they wanted her to pick up a soft Scottish accent. In the end, everything was dubbed – even her bottom was dubbed!”
Unlike her own daughter, the actress and model Sophie Kennedy Clark, there was no avid ambition to pursue a film career. Instead, Kennedy side-stepped into television, most notably as co-presenter of the long-running and much-loved kids’ show Record Breakers, which she remembers as her dream job “because it encompassed so many different things – I got to sing, we did skits and sketches, I got to meet all kinds of amazing people, and work with Norris McWhirter and Roy Castle.”
Kennedy has continued to confound expectations across her eclectic career, which has also taken in West End theatre productions, collaborations with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and patronage of a number of arts organisations and projects around her Aberdeenshire home – all of which provided fodder for the gentle wisdom of Time to Fly.
“We’re all multi-faceted, and I don’t know too many people who love being pigeonholed,” says Kennedy. “I love diverseness, because it tests you, it broadens you, and it keeps you interested in all kinds of different things.”■
*Time to Fly is out now on Pixie Productions