The daddy of all daddy's girls
Hermione Hennessy’s father Christie, who died two years ago, influenced everything in her life. Now that she’s finally released her own debut album, his heart and soul shine through her music, her words and her life, writes KEVIN COURTNEY
HERMIONE HENNESSY is a true Daddy’s girl. You might think you’ve met a daddy’s girl before, but you haven’t really met one ’till you’ve met Hermione. She’s the daddy of all daddy’s girls. Five minutes in her company, and you’re in no doubt who’s the Number One man in her life: her father, the late Christie Hennessy. He’s her specialist subject – she’s never happier than when chatting knowledgably about Christie’s life, his music, his innate sense of style, his huge sense of humour and his even huger contribution to Irish music. Suitors beware – you may be measured against this towering man of music and song, and found wanting.
Hermione’s hero-worship runs deep; it was she who coaxed her dad into the spotlight, who nurtured his self-belief, and whose faith in him was so strong she went into music management and AR just so she could help make him a star. She’s an accomplished singer and classically trained pianist, but so focused has she been on promoting her dad’s records for the past 20 years, she’s only now getting around to making her own.
Two years after Christie Hennessy died of cancer aged 62, Hermione has finally recorded her debut album – and she’s still doing it for Daddy. Songs My Father Taught Meis an album of mostly cover versions, based on a list Christie made of songs he felt his daughter would be good at interpreting. The album includes songs by Aimee Mann, Iris DeMent and Carole King, along with a version of Christie’s classic, Oh Jealous Heart, and a duet with Christie, Soho Square.
It may be Hermione’s moment in the spotlight, but she’s more than happy to share it with her dad. This time, though, it was Hermione’s turn to be coaxed on to the stage – the album was made with help and encouragement from friends and family, and more than a little arm-twisting.
“If Dad was alive, I’d never have done it,” she asserts. “There would have been no need.” Hermione remembers when she was a small girl in south London singing a duet with her dad. It was Cinderella Rockefellaby Esther and Abi Ofarim. “I still have that on tape somewhere, I must find it,” she laughs. “Mum said I was singing before I could actually talk. I loved singing, it just felt natural and right, but I never believed I could carry a song from beginning to end. I very much saw it as an accompaniment to him.”
Hermione Ross grew up in Sutton near Croydon, the eldest of three children. Her dad, Christie Ross, was a young singer-songwriter from Tralee who had emigrated to London, working on building sites by day and playing in RB clubs at night.
Her mother, Gill, was a Swedish beauty who Christie met in a disco in Soho in 1963. She was 17; he was 18. It was the height of the mod era in London, and the dance floor was hopping to the sounds of bluebeat and Caribbean music. As her mum tells it, she had been trying to escape the unwanted attentions of a drunken bloke, when she tripped and was caught by a tall, slim, handsome young mod with curly hair and twinkling eyes. “Will you dance?” he asked in his “delightful” Kerry accent. They danced till 4am; not too long afterwards, they danced up the aisle.
Christie cut his first album in 1972 using his stage name of Christie Hennessy; the bearded folkie on the cover was a long way from the ace face of 10 years before, and a long way from the dapper, besuited figure of his later renaissance. The album contained Messenger Boy, which would become Christie’s signature tune, and a song called Don’t Get Yourself a Shovel,which was made famous by Christy Moore under a new title, Don’t Forget Your Shovel.
“He had real political nous – all his songs have a message and they’re dressed up in this kind of flowery imagery . . . something like Don’t Get Yourself a Shovelwas a political song. The message was, don’t start digging because you’ll end up back where you came from, because Enoch Powell is trying to kick everybody out, the Asians, the blacks, the Irish. When Dad arrived in the UK, every hotel was No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs. And I’d remember he’d be out decorating during the day, then he’d come home and dress smart and get a train to go up to Bath or Bristol to do a gig. He’d head out and Mum and I would often hear stories about him being stopped. You know, what’s in the guitar case? And it happened a lot. He got dragged into police stations, and you couldn’t meet a kinder gentleman or a softer person; he looked very Irish, and they were always nobbling him.”
IT WASN’T UNTILthe 1990s that Christie Hennessy released his next album and began to establish himself as a force in Irish music. Meanwhile, Hermione made her own bid for stardom when, at 16, she auditioned to become a member of Buck’s Fizz. She didn’t get the gig, which might explain why there’s no cover of Making Your Mind Upon the album, but she did get a taste of the music industry, and went on to forge a career in music management and A&R, running her own management company, Black and Blonde. Her clients include Bette Midler, Elaine Paige and Stephen Bishop; at one stage she managed her dad, but was genuinely perplexed when she couldn’t make him an international star. “He had star written all over him, but I think he got taken advantage of in so many ways by so many people because he was a lovely person.
“If I knew then what I know now, and the people I know now, and if I had understood the music business on an international level, he’d be forging ahead now. It’s such a shame, but I gave up. I was banging on Warner’s door, saying, he’s amazing, and they went, yeah Hermione, he is . . . the minute they shut the door they’d forget about you. I couldn’t get it. Whereas now, I’d know how to find that route in. I’d know the festivals he should be playing, the agents he should sign to.”
She has inherited her dad’s Kerry lilt – that little dance in her voice when she sings the chorus of Fall At Your Feet, her version of the Crowded House hit. She has inherited his songwriting skill – her songs have been recorded by Frances Black and Roisin O’Reilly, among others. One of her own songs, The Edge of the Moon,is a standout track on the album. She has adopted the Hennessy stage name originally taken by the young Christie when he started out. She also seems to have inherited his endless patience – her dad waited years for his talent to be recognised, and Hermione has waited until her 40s to cut her debut record.
“I don’t think I’ve been ready before now,” she explains. “And though Dad went out and played in the folk clubs and really honed his art, I don’t think he was ready for success until he had it properly, didn’t believe in himself enough, his art and his gift. He was 47 before he had his first hit record.”
Songs My Father Taught Meis very much a family affair; Hermione’s younger sister Amber Ross plays fiddle, while her younger brother Tim Ross produced the album and also plays piano and guitar. And Christie makes an appearance, dueting with Hermione on his song, Soho Square, which he originally recorded in 2005. “Dad always said, take any opportunities that come your way, because you never know what doors they might open. And he was a great believer in grabbing things with both hands and just going for it. And that’s what I’m doing.” While Christie was alive, Hermione willingly put her own singing career on the shelf. Now that he has died, she realises singing may be a more effective way of promoting her dad’s music than banging on record company doors.
“I can be a live face, and it gives me a lot more relevance talking about him. Singing his songs, with Amber and Tim playing too, it just feels right.” She’s under no illusion that her dad is one hard act to follow, but she has inherited something else from him – an open heart.
“Dad was eminently likeable and believable and honest. You earn that. Do I have that? I hope I do. But you can’t make people believe that you have that. It just happens. I feel closer to Dad from doing this record. I don’t feel like I’m doing it for myself and I don’t have that burning desire to be a megastar, but I love singing.
“And yes, Dad was a consummate performer, and the thought did cross my mind that I’m gonna get up on stage and I’m going to be crap, but I’ll give it my best shot. But then I thought, no, they’re paying, they deserve to see a great show, and Dad was always about that, even if there were only three people in the audience, he’d give them the same show he’d give to 30,000.”
Last October, the Ross family gathered in Tralee for the unveiling of a statue to Christie. Hermione sang Oh Jealous Heart, accompanied by Amber and Tim. “It was lovely. But hard. He loved his home town, it was hard leaving him there. I was just thinking, shit, he’s here in this square and I’m saying goodbye, I’m leaving him here.“I asked a girlfriend of mine who lost her mum at 15 how she coped. And she said, you don’t. You just get used to it, and you miss them more with every day that passes. People say, oh, you need time to heal, and I think that’s nonsense. I don’t think that actually happens. Especially not for me, with him, because our relationship was so close.”
Songs My Father Taught Mewill be released on March 5