How Music Works: DJ Kelly-Anne Byrne - “People love stories. I think that’s a huge part of my style”
Niall Byrne talks to Irish people who make a living in the music industry. This week, Kelly-Anne Byrne, DJ and radio presenter
Kelly-Anne Byrne: “You have to have an identity, but there’s a responsibility to your audience. I owe it to them to show them a good time”
Every music lover has one song, one artist that ignites their passion in music and sets in motion a lifelong obsession. For Kelly-Anne Byrne, that artist was Prince and the song was Sign ‘O’ The Times. She was introduced to it by her uncle when she was nine, and he brought her to her first Prince concert in Cork in 1990. it was the start of an obsession.
“I was hooked,” says Byrne. “Every year in secondary school, if people got me for Kris Kindle, they bought me a Prince calendar.”
When Kelly-Anne was growing up, her dad loved Bowie, The Kinks, The Who and The Beatles, while her mother loved Diana Ross, Motown and and taught an aerobics class to the soundtrack of disco records.
Listen to Byrne’s Saturday night Today FM show And The Beat Goes On, or her regular evening show from Monday to Thursday on TXFM, or attend her Burning Up disco club night in the Grand Social in Dublin, and you’ll detect all these influences. Disco, soul, electronic and R&B permeate her selections.
“The Beat Goes On represents what I do when I’m out DJing. In a way, it’s the music my mother passed on to me: soul and disco. My TXFM show is about finding new bands/artists and getting their music out there, as well as looking back at the stuff that inspired me growing up. It represents what my dad passed on to me.”
A radio show doesn’t make an impact without listeners and Byrne’s shows have a loyal following who respond to her easygoing, music-centred enthusiasm, a skill which has been given recognition in the form of a place on the shortlist of the PPI Awards Radio DJ category this year for her TXFM show.
“One of the most important things for me as a presenter is telling stories around records, putting them in context. I remember playing Stand On The Word and telling people it was my grandad’s favourite tune when he first listened to me on Phantom FM. People still come up to me and say they love that story.”
Before her current radio career and before Phantom FM, Byrne was studying film in DIT and it was there she got the DJ bug.
“I was just buying a lot of records and playing at house parties. There was a broadcasting section at DIT. They had a free slot on their broadcasting week and, being into music, I said I’d do an hour. Many people said that it was the best programme, which was funny because at the time I’d never thought about radio. I just loved tunes. So, then I thought maybe I should get into DJing.”
Her first DJ gig was in The Dice Bar in Dublin’s Smithfield, which at the time, she says was known for playing timeless classic music. Byrne dropped a cassette tape in and ended up DJing one Friday night with her friend Amo. She hasn’t been out of work since. Byrne then moved to New York to study playwriting. Her time there, she says, changed her outlook on everything.
“When I left Dublin, I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to come back.I felt suffocated. The lack of risk-taking really bothered me. Living in New York is amazing, but it’s tough. There are many people trying to do what you’re trying to do, so in a way it knocks any arrogance you may have.
“The best thing about living there was that I’d hear the music I truly loved, disco and soul, coming out of car windows and out of shops. People would sing it on the tube. I’d go see DJs such as Jacques Renault and Eamon Harkin and be really inspired. I’d want to ask them ‘what is this record?’.
“My two years there were two of the best of my life, but I love Dublin now. People here are very loyal, when they’re with you, they’re 100 per cent with you. It has changed so much in the last few years too. There’s way more going on and I honestly feel that the yes vote for same-sex marriage has changed the whole atmosphere of the city. It’s much freer than it used to be.”
‘Knowledge is key’
As a now experienced DJ herself, Byrne knows what it takes to make a great set.
“Knowledge is key,” she suggests. “Do your homework. Selection is so important. The balance between taking people on a journey without disappearing up your own hole too much! You have to have an identity, but there’s a responsibility to your audience. I owe it to them to show them a good time.”
As a female DJ in a male-dominated industry, Byrne has had to kick against everyday sexism and misogyny, but generally, has felt supported.
“It [the misogyny] generally comes from inexperienced DJs who aren’t very good, so I pay them no heed,” Byrne says. “When I started out, many male DJs were very kind to me. I remember playing The Odessa and Billy Scurry telling me my selection was very good, that meant a lot at the time because he was and still is Ireland’s best.
“Later, when I played Mother, Keith McIvor of Optimo told me to stop underestimating myself, which has always stuck with me. On the other side of things, I grew up with four uncles, my brother, dad and a grandad who loved feisty women and my mam who always told me I could match any man.
“I realise there are still less women playing as men and I wish it weren’t so. That said, there are many great women playing in Dublin – Ruth Kavanagh from Mother is one of the best DJs we have.
“All I can say about the lack of female DJs is that only women can change that. You can’t go into something saying ‘this is male-dominated, I might not have a hope’ because you’re already setting yourself up for some kind of failure.
“You’ve just got to think ‘this is what I want to do’ and block out any negativity, whether that’s from a man or a woman and work hard at it. I’ve always been very single-minded in that sense.”
Playing your favourite records to an interested and engaged audience is an ideal career for a music nut and Kelly-Anne has carved out a great reputation as a purveyor of quality tunes, old and new, both on radio and in clubs.
“They are so different. I still love the immediate reaction from live gigs, seeing people so happy, dancing their troubles away, seeing the reaction to a new record. On air, I obviously can’t see the audience, but I try to make the show a conversation between myself and listeners.
“It’s really magical when you meet people after and they say ‘oh I loved what you had to say about that Larry Levan tune’. People love stories. I think that’s a huge part of my presenting style. I am extremely lucky and grateful to have a foot in both worlds.”