It’s been 25 years since she released her first album, but now she’s gearing up to launch her second. COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to Fiona Kennedy about winning an ‘80s talent show, singing for Bobby Kennedy, juggling life as a musician with motherhood, and her Fund-it campaign
SHE’S the girl who didn’t return Louis Walsh’s call — but she did sing for Bobby Kennedy Jnr in New York. And now, Bishopstown-reared singer, Fiona Kennedy, is making a comeback with a Fund-It campaign to release her second album, 25 years since she made her debut one.
In 1985, Fiona won RTÉ’s Screen Test, an X Factor-type talent contest, and had a brush with fame. She was on the Late Late Show, she had an hour-long TV show, she supported Kris Kristofferson at Siamsa Cois Laoi in 1985 and she met and entertained the Kennedys. Bobby Jnr was hosting a function for a charity he was involved with in 1988 at the rooftop of St Regis Hotel in New York and Fiona was asked to perform for the charity.
“Bobby Kennedy Jnr got a great kick out of the fact that I was a Kennedy as well and he called me ‘cuz’all night. It was his birthday and I sang ‘Happy Birthday’ for him. (But not in the breathy style of Marilyn Monroe when she sang the same song for JFK!)
“After that, I was contacted by one of the Kennedy aides and I was brought in a black limo to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. There was a family party going on. I remember meeting Ethel Kennedy (Bobby’s mother). I sang and played my guitar at the party and got them all going. They were doing the conga around the house. It was just unbelievable when I think about it now.”
As for Louis Walsh, Fiona didn’t know who he was. Her mother answered his call some time after Fiona’s Screen Test win. She jotted down his name but Fiona didn’t bother returning his call.
“It may have been a mistake or it may not have been a mistake. I was getting calls from all sorts, most of which were showbands. I thought Louis Walsh was just another showband guy and I kind of forgot about it.”
Now, Fiona is half-jokingly asking Louis Walsh to check her out.
“My voice is better than it ever was,” says the songstress and mother of two girls, aged 15 and 21 .
Between winning the talent show back in the ’80s and now, Fiona has been singing, albeit under the radar. When her children came along, she needed to adjust her life and started singing at weddings, allowing her to be at home in the evenings.
Her first marriage broke up and she is very happy in her second marriage, living in Cork.
Following a few gigs with the Lee Valley Delta Blues Club in the Corner House and performing at the Cork Jazz Festival, she realised “that a lot of people do want to hear me”.
“I’ve experienced fierce goodwill from people. I’m now working on my album with Bill Shanley who works with Ray Davies of The Kinks fame. He’s a very well known guitarist and producer from West Cork and now living in Dublin. He has produced the likes of Mary Black and Eleanor Shanley. He was always my dream producer.”
Fiona says she has never been a huge prolific writer.
“I had two or three songs of my own on my first album and the rest are covers. It’s the same with this album.
“I’m writing some of my own stuff and I’m doing covers of Cork writers such as Pat Horgan, a great songwriter and blues player.
“This album will reflect what I’m like when I’m live. I’m very energetic. I like getting the crowd going when I do gigs. I like to energise people rather than drain them.”
Since making her first album, Fiona could never get the kind of record deal she wanted and couldn’t afford to do a follow-up album on her own.
“I’ve never been part of the machine and I’ve never had a big management company behind me.
“I wasn’t living in Dublin or part of that scene. It’s terrible to say it, but that has been a big drawback.”
During her first marriage, Fiona lived close to the border. When she returned to Cork, it felt like she was starting all over again at her career.
“It was tough going. Everyone had seen me on TV. What I also found hard was the fact that there’s a terrible musical snobbery in Cork.
“People don’t know what someone’s life is like. I had to earn a living and go into pubs and sing popular songs and sing at weddings. If I was going to the ‘cool’ gigs, playing all my own stuff, I would have been paid a fraction of what I was getting.
“I’m self-employed. I had to get a house. I was told by someone that because I was doing commercial stuff, I wasn’t wanted (in certain venues.)”
Ever the pragmatist, Fiona says performing at weddings has been her “saviour.”
She wrote a song with Steve Hampson and performed it for the wedding of Dervla Burke (of Crystal Swing fame). She sang at Newstalk presenter Jonathan Healy’s wedding too.
Being a woman in the music industry, she says, is hard.
“At my age, I’m beyond being objectified. But when you have young children, the music industry is a nightmare. You’re out at night and having to get up early the next day to get the children to school. You can’t be tired.
“You have to try and learn songs and juggle everything and on top of that, you’re not taken that seriously when you’re dealing with mostly male venue owners.
“Trying to get a band together is very hard. But I really enjoy playing with a band, which is one of the reasons I’m launching myself again. I’ve played with bands over the years.
“When my album comes out, I’m going to tour it with a band and play the festivals and really try to enjoy it.
“It’s not going to make money but it’s something I really want to do.”
Fiona needs to raise €10,000 to record her album and has already raised more than €3,000. There are rewards for everyone who contributes to her Fund-it campaign. The deadline is March 7. For more see www.fundit.ie/project/fiona-kennedy-new-album.