It never fails to amaze how a series of chance happenings can hold sway over the development of an artist’s craft — in this particular case, how the circuitous route between London and Nashville was shortened by a succession of events that led to the creation of Bap Kennedy’s exceptional solo debut, Domestic Blues.
First, please note the inclusion of the word “solo” between exceptional and debut, as Kennedy is no newcomer to the skilled role of songwriter, having spent the first half of this decade (and a few years of the last one) in the London-based but Belfast-bred band Energy Orchard. It was a fortuitous encounter ten years ago that led to Energy Orchard’s signing to MCA, and also later resulted in Kennedy’s solo deal with his new label in America, E-Squared.
“When Energy Orchard were playing London, there was a bit of a buzz going round,” remembers Kennedy in a subtle brogue that reveals his Irish heritage. “And [Steve Earle] was in town and had heard stuff about us from the Pogues and people, and he came around and saw us after a show and we got on fine. And we’ve got on fine ever since.”
Several years later, both parties fell somewhat off the radar. Life for Kennedy and Energy Orchard was “getting less and less everything — it was all getting smaller, the tours were getting worse,” he says. “We saw the writing on the wall, but we had two records to go.”
While that band was winding down, Earle was melting down. “He did the 40 days in the desert thing,” says Kennedy. “I didn’t hear from him from about ’91 to ’94 or ’95.” When they finally did re-connect with Earle, it was through his music: Train A Comin’ was a resonant reintroduction.
“I hadn’t heard from Steve in four years maybe, and one day a guy says, ‘You know Steve Earle, don’t you.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t know where he is.’ And he said, ‘Well, here’s his new record.’ And I went, ‘Fucking hell!’, and I took it home and played it and jumped up and down for joy when I heard it. It was exactly what I wanted to do, a pure country record.
“I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but as soon as I heard Train, I just knew that’s exactly what I wanted to do. That record, but with a drummer. I wanted a nice acoustic, stringy, country blues record, and I think I mostly achieved that.”
He totally achieved that. Streaked with dark humor and awash in self-deprecation, but balanced by some truly beautiful sentiment, Domestic Blues is an impressive introduction to yet another gifted songwriter on the E-Squared roster. And while Kennedy could at times be tagged as Earle’s somewhat sweeter, but no less sardonic, younger brother — Domestic Blues even includes a cover of Earle’s “Angel Is A Devil”, and the two share vocals on a hidden-track rendition of the late Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town” — his songs unquestionably stand on their own.
Earle also co-produced Domestic Blues with his Twangtrust partner Ray Kennedy (no relation), and he plays acoustic guitar on the album. Bap also used much of the same supporting cast that accompanied Earle on Train A Comin’, including Peter Rowan on mandolin and mandola, and Roy Huskey Jr. on upright bass (in one of his final recorded sessions before his death last September). Substitute dobro legend Jerry Douglas for Train multi-instrumentalist Norman Blake (not that you can go wrong either way), and you’ve got an ensemble with quite a heady level of talent. And Kennedy can now say that he actually knows who Jerry Douglas is.
“He hadn’t played on Steve’s record, so I didn’t know who he was; people in the hotel seemed to be more excited about it than me,” laughs Kennedy. “I know who he is now, though, and he’s a top guy, the big cheese, the head honcho. But it was probably better I didn’t know at the time.”
The players on these respective records truly do make the songs come alive. Kennedy himself describes the record as “barroom philosophy with dobros.” Indeed, Douglas’ extensive and expressive mastery of both dobro and lap steel highlight many of the record’s more memorable refrains. The steel work on the title track is simply stunning, and is immediately followed by some sumptuous string interplay from his dobro, Nancy Blake’s cellos and everyone’s guitars on the yearning “I’ve Fallen In Love”.
A pair of very real and timely moving moments can be found toward the end of the record as Kennedy reflects on the long history of what he, and many others, feels has been senseless warring in his native homeland. On both “The Ghosts Of Belfast” and “The Shankill And The Falls” (the two roads at the center of the ongoing conflict), Kennedy’s Celtic heritage is briefly on display (along with some lovely vocal support from Nanci Griffith). It’s hard not to broach the topic on the eve of the peace referendum in Northern Ireland.
“At the moment, [the chance for peace] looks pretty good because people, even the hardline people, are sick of it because it’s a no-win situation,” Kennedy commented in a phone interview that took place less than a week before the referendum’s successful passing in the May 22 poll. “So I think people are going to compromise. It’s just an absurd thing that two roads so close together are separated by all theses years of history and madness, and the people are exactly the same in both places.”
As that issue is (hopefully) laid to rest, Kennedy still has plenty to occupy his time, including a regular Sunday night gig at London pub Sophie McNasty’s and possibly a spate of U.S. dates this summer. He’s also working on a new record. “I’m trying to merge country and trip-hop,” he says, dropping reference points such as Beck and Sparklehorse before adding that he would like it to be “more structured and more country” than either. “A stoner record for country fans.”