Maria Doyle Kennedy has been making music for nearly 25 years. Firstly, as lead singer in The Black Velvet Band, and latterly as one of Ireland’s most prolific and treasured solo performers. This year saw the release of Maria Live!, a retrospective of her career to date. The release, a “mistakes and all” live album showcased Maria’s voice as one of the finest and most pure of her contemporaries and after almost two years of near-constant performing, Maria will play a final Dublin show of 2014 this week. State.ie met with Maria to discuss music, life, art and influence.
So would you say that having your own label has allowed you to reach a sort of artistic self-actualisation? Your music being well and truly your own music.
Well I’ve had my own label for fourteen years now, so there really is nothing new there. In many ways, though, it was a means to an end. It allowed me to release music when it appeared that nobody was going to do that for me. By the time I had written the [debut] album I wanted to make it just made sense to find a way of releasing it myself.
So maybe self-actualisation is a bit high minded…
Ha ha, well, it’s as high as you can get on Mazlow’s pyramid but I definitely wouldn’t say that I’ve learned or created all that I’m ever going to. I would never say that I’ve finished learning in any way. For an example just look at Patrick Scott. Patrick was a really good friend of mine and he just passed away this year at 93. But what he showed me was that I could constantly learn and develop for as long as I felt I could. In some ways, and certainly in how I see it, you’re constantly learning and when you’re finished learning you start dying. I feel that there is loads more energy with which to learn and explore. And then, musically, every album I’ve made has been different compared to what I’ve made before and that’s what I learned from Patrick above all else; if you find something interesting and inspiring that it can be constantly explored.
Would you consider Patrick Scott to have been an influence?
Yeah, he was an influence in my music and in my life in general. He loved life and used to see all of his life as part of his art. Things like relationships, society and just how he lived his life, these things would all form part of his art and he saw each element as crucially important. When you think about it this way, as opposed to the slightly old fashioned notion of a tortured artist who isolates themselves from all of these things, he believed that life fed into art and that’s precisely where his influence shows. But generally I find art, visual art, to be nourishing in so many ways. It can inspire and ignite you but without pointing you in any direction. And further to this, which is something you generally don’t hear in music, Patrick held this belief that you can improve as you get older. In music people tend to constantly repeat the opposite and age is something to be weary of, which I totally don’t agree with.
Do you mean in terms of a creative stasis creeping in as soon as people “know their audience”?
I mean in terms of getting better. Writing gets better, performances and your voice in general can improve if you allow the changes to happen. This, possibly, comes from life experience but it just makes sense to me that art and expression gets better with life. I feel, personally, that my songwriting has gotten better in the last fifteen years and to have learned from life definitely shows.
Clearly your range has grown over recent years. Do you think that not playing an instrument allows for the voice to develop in ways that it might not if you were behind a piano or a guitar?
Yeah that’s very interesting because I think in many ways it has to develop. Obviously it doesn’t stay the same but allowing it to develop like that is only going to improve it. I mean, I do play piano a little, but that would only ever be for writing or fleshing out melodies. It’s not something I’d use live or in performance at all. I don’t have anything to fall back on if my voice fails so there’s nothing for me to noodle a few bars out of if my voice isn’t up to scratch. In saying that, though, there are still times where I don’t have a great level of control over my voice. It’s kind of like an emotion and in that respect it matters a great deal what I’m singing when it comes down to how I’m singing. There really has to be a connection to the material.
So does this mean your voice is front and centre on new material? And more importantly will we hear any of it in The Sugar Club?
Well we’re only working on new material now so it will be interesting to see exactly where it goes. There will be a few new tracks which have just been finished and I think they might get a birthing at the gig. But this is our only Dublin gig this year and I don’t really want to use it as a showcase for all new material. Actually, we really weren’t sure if there would be any gigs in Dublin this year but since the release of the live album it just seemed like the right thing to do. It feels like we’re closing a chapter on two years of gigging and between the live album and a home gig it seems like we’ve completed a full circle. There will be a tiny kernel of the new material but it won’t take over.
And no better place than The Sugar Club.
Yeah I really love it there, you’re in this kind of semi-circle, this oyster shell from which you can see and hear everything. As a performer you constantly feel like part of the audience in many ways. It really doesn’t help with nerves!
Do you still get nervous about performing?
Oh yeah, without doubt. I honestly though that I would eventually grow out of it but now, after all these years of performing, I have just grown to accept it. This could be a good thing, though. Maybe it shows how seriously I take it or how important each performance is…but it’s still a horrible feeling! This sense of panic, it’s absolutely awful. But, thankfully, once I’m two songs in all nerves disappear.
So just to go back to songwriting, is it an entirely mutual thing between Kieran [musician and Maria’s husband, Kieran Kennedy] and yourself or do you both just arrive with pieces or work on each other’s ideas?
For the most part we write everything together, yeah. But we’ve worked with different collaborators over the years. People like Fergus O’Farrell from Interference, but these things tend to happen by chance more than anything. With Fergus, Kieran and I were in west Cork where Fergus lives and the opportunity arose and we were really happy with it. Generally, though, it would just be the two of us writing together and because we have such a connection and so many years of shared experiences, writing together is just so natural. I couldn’t, for example, explain an idea I had in musical notes or by writing it down. But having such a strong connection to Kieran and years of shared references I can almost describe it in terms of atmosphere, or colour or even emotion. It’s an incredible type of shorthand, really.
So what comes next, after the Sugar Club gig? Will there be even more touring?
No, not immediately. We’re probably going to take a short break from performances because I really need to give myself space to get into a writing mindset and allow it to happen without distraction. As I’ve said we’ve pretty much been gigging for two years and I need to take my mind off the previous albums to get songs ready for what’s next. I’d also like some time to see some exhibitions and allow art to get back into my life.
You can see Maria performing live this Thursday in Dublin’s Sugar Club. Tickets are priced €25 plus booking fee from usual outlets