The Sound Cafe
Behind The Curtain: Harrison Kennedy
By Erin McCallum Photo Credit: Ivan Sorensen
For this month’s issue of “Behind The Curtain”, the focus is on an artist who has already cemented his legacy as a well-known artist in the Canadian Blues community. The music of Harrison Kennedy, however, has penetrated beyond borders – and he’s been making and performing music that’s been heard Worldwide for over half a century. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Kennedy has always left the GTA with a sense of pride that hails from close to home. Rightfully labeled as a “Modern Blues Master”, Harrison Kennedy has performed with many Greats such as B.B. King, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson – to name a few; he has brushed elbows with the Beatles, and is even adorned on a postage stamp. From his time in Chairmen of The Board, where Kennedy served as the lead vocalist of the band while it reached its highest commercial successes, to his solo endeavours, his music has always impacted listeners and industry professionals - and he continues to thrive as an artist and entertainer today. For reference, Chairmen of The Board is a Canadian-Detriot, MI based soul group that was formed in the 1960s, and is still active to date.
It has become customary for me to encourage readers to learn beyond the limitations of what one article provides, and this feature is no different; from JUNO Awards, to selling over 1 million albums commercially, to approximately 40 Maple Blues Awards nominations, and a plethora of other recognitions for his musical contributions, there is information to be found about Harrison Kennedy’s bio – and I urge people to seek it out. For the sake of making good use of this article’s contents, it makes sense to move past easily obtained biographical information and head straight to the substance. Harrison Kennedy and I discussed a variety of topics that offer a sense of who he is as an artist beyond the music listeners hear, as well as the Canadian Blues industry as a whole.
To provide readers with a sense of what inspires Kennedy to lead a professional life in music, it made sense to ask what it is that drives him to arrive at Blues and Roots. He says:
“There are so many things that inspire me – it’s not any single thing. My earliest memory is being brought up by 5 women, and I was witness to a lot of the things they went through to get through life – strengths, weaknesses, and everything they went through to make it through life. I grew up around the Blues in my house…I can remember being about five years old when I wrote my first song – my mom called me up out of bed saying ‘Harry, come on down here and sing that song!’. I didn’t know what song she was talking about, so I just sang what I saw, and everyone loved it. Back then, our house was a place where lots of musicians would stop by and stay because it was back in a time of prohibition, and all the musicians knew that they could stop in and get a drink at our house, so I grew up around that.”
Often, interviewers assume that the music speaks for itself when it comes to understanding an artist’s intention, and questions can remain unasked. Knowing that the inspiration Kennedy has found in music spans almost his entire lifetime, and that he has had an active career for roughly half a century, I asked him what it was he wanted people to know about him as an artist, in a general sense. Kennedy offered this: “I believe I was born with a gift, and I am just trying to reach the depths of that gift. If I can reach the depths of myself, I can probably reach the depth of others. The gift is music, and it has an ability to reach people very deeply, and I think it’s a very powerful thing to be able to do that.”
When asking Kennedy what advice he would offer to aspiring artists hoping to follow a musical career similar to his, he offers advice that seems to mirror a template he has used throughout the course of his career:
“If I were to offer advice to someone who wants to be a full-time artist, I would say this: appeal to the masses. What you put out there has to stand the test of time. Another piece of advice I would give is to write your truth – you never know what song it is going to be that catches on, so to write your truth is important. Musically speaking, it’s always bass and drums that offer a solid foundation for a song. Maybe most importantly, don’t overcomplicate things – music is a conversation – just have a conversation, and if you believe what you are saying, people who are listening will hear it and understand. Some of the very best songs are just an uncomplicated truth, and they are part of a conversation.” (Of note, Harrison Kennedy references lines like “I heard it through the grapevine” as the conversation continued, serving as examples, and he makes a strong point as a songwriter.)
Closer to the end of our conversation, we went to that place ‘behind the curtain’ that offers Kennedy’s insight on the Canadian music industry as a whole. As someone who has been witness to a changing music landscape for a generation, and someone who has travelled the World as a professional musician, it felt like an appropriate question to ask Kennedy what he thinks would help strengthen the Canadian Blues music scene. A loaded - and perhaps difficult - question to ask someone who has managed to navigate that landscape for a lifetime; arguably, he is part of the fabric of artists who have blazed a trail for a new generation. Harrison weighed in, offering his opinion based on his experience beyond the Canadian music scene as a reference:
“On an artist level, the people who are benefitting are getting government grants, and that creates opportunity for them, which is great, and I support that, but not every artist has that opportunity awarded to them. One of the ways to improve the Blues scene as a whole here in Canada is to support it at a grassroots level to expand opportunity for artists who make their living playing music. There are models in other countries that support musicians who make their living playing music through subsidy programs. It would help here in Canada because there are busy times of the year, and times – let’s say in the winter – when you are working less. There is a model that works well and supports professional musicians that way in France, and it allows musicians to have some financial stability while still being able to focus on their profession. I think having a program like that here in Canada would strengthen the music industry, and that model really does work in other countries.”
The conversations between Harrison Kennedy and I have always had the benefit of cutting straight to a place that offers insight and perspective with respect to his music, the music business, and his intentions as an artist. Some of the contents of those conversations are meant to remain between the two people talking, and some of that substance meant to be shared. In sharing portions of this particular conversation, readers can be left with a better sense of who Kennedy is as an artist, and I believe that it does indeed provide a glimpse ‘behind the curtain’. For those who would like to follow up and learn more about Harrison Kennedy, a quick Google search, a visit to Wikipedia, or checking out www.harrisonkennedy.ca is a great place to start. In the meantime, it is worthwhile to walk into a venue that has his name on the marquee – as mentioned, Harrison Kennedy is an actively touring artist, and it’s safe to say that he could be sharing his music in your town, city, or country, sometime soon.
As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention. This article can be found each month as a regular contribution via the Sound Café with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.
Photo Credit: Bruce Greenaway
Photo Credit: Randall Cook.
Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.
Erin McCallumBig Voice. Big Sound. www.erinmccallum.com
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