Bap Kennedy: Musician’s musician who died at height of powers

Obituary: Talented Belfast songwriter had US hit album and worked with Van Morrison

Bap Kennedy: June 17th, 1962-November 1st, 2016. Photograph: Courtesy Bap Kennedy’s website

Bap Kennedy: June 17th, 1962-November 1st, 2016. Photograph: Courtesy Bap Kennedy’s website

 

Bap Kennedy, who has died in a Belfast hospice, was one of Ireland’s greatest contemporary songwriters and also a first-class singer. He died at the height of his powers. His songs were positive and profound and often romantic without mawkishness.

Kennedy was a musicians’ musician who never achieved the success his talent deserved. His greatest commercial success was making the Top 10 of the Billboard Americana charts with his album Domestic Blues. It was only after he made his illness public that he realised how many people he had touched through his music.

Belfast was always at the heart of his music and at the centre of his personality. He once went on a trip to Nashville with a group of other songwriters. At breakfast, the others were talking of possible deals and American stars with whom they might work. Kennedy turned around and said: “Do you notice how everything in America comes with extra bacon?”

His achievements were greater because he suffered from Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder. Shortly before his death, he went public with the diagnosis. His Asperger’s made negotiating the business side of music difficult. While admitting those difficulties, he called the condition “the engine of my creativity”.

Kennedy performed with some of the big names, such as Van Morrison and Shane MacGowan, formerly of the Pogues. He co-wrote Milky Way with Morrison, and MacGowan performed his work. His song Moonlight Kiss was used in Hollywood box-office hit Serendipity.

Recording contract

He got the name “Bap” from the baps – soft round bread rolls – produced by the nearby Kennedy’s bakery. He was educated at St Paul’s Primary School and the Christian Brothers Grammar School, both in west Belfast.

Punk arrived when Kennedy was in his mid-teens. At 16, he joined his first band. At 18 he formed 10 past 7, which got a recording contract and appeared on television. At the time, his was just another small band, and he one of many apprentice songwriters.

In his mid-20s he moved to London. Hoping to make the breakthrough to become a professional musician, he worked on building sites.

Diamond expert

In his early 40s he became disillusioned with the music business and took a job in a London pawnbroker’s. That inspired him to study to become a diamond expert.

In his mid-40s he returned to Belfast. When conducting a songwriting workshop, he met his wife-to-be Brenda. She realised he had Asperger’s and directed him towards professional help. Thus, his last decade was both musically productive and personally content.

While he would not have rejected commercial success, he said it was not his primary aim: “I always wanted people to feel what I feel. The magic of music.”

Earlier this year, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He said he wanted to “fix the things I can and put as much love as I can into the world before the boatman rows me across the big river”.

He is survived by his wife Brenda, stepdaughter Christine, stepson Kenneth and grandson Ethan. He is also survived by his mother Lily, his father Jim, sister Marian and brothers Jim, Brian, Stewart and Paul.