‘In the ‘60s there was just my mum, her brothers and sisters and…Phil Lynott!’
Dubliner Jess Kavanagh’s strong soulful voice is in regular demand as a backing singer for top bands but she is also pioneering the DIY movement for emerging acts, including her own band, writes Michael McDonagh
One of the benefits of writing for the Irish World is that I get the chance to meet new creative people and discover innovative music and talented artistes that had perhaps slipped under my radar but who are a pleasure to discover.
Continuing our series on the young women in Ireland who are making waves I talked to Jessica Kavanagh who, as a respected and talented vocalist, was a revelation in her enthusiasm and dedication.
Jess has been around a little longer than some of the others, having started off doing soul influenced music about ten years ago, as she has such a powerful voice. She has now moved on to what she is doing now which is more contemporary and cutting edge.
As she may not be familiar to Irish World readers I asked her about her childhood and her influences as a mixed race person in a multicultural Ireland, that has changed so much from the days when Phil Lynott was one of the few mixed race people most people knew or saw around Dublin’s music scene.
“Yes it is totally cool, it is really great, my mother is half Nigerian and so I am what’s officially termed ‘light or white skinned passing mixed race persons’.
Growing up I would be a bit older than most of the other mixed race people emerging on the music scene as say Soulé and Farha Elle are in their early twenties and I am in my early 30s.
“I was born in Dublin and my mother was born in Dublin and I think all my aunties and uncles were born in Dublin – but they were all from mother and baby homes, they would all have been mixed race babies put up for adoption in a mother and baby home. My mother being the first one, with her brothers and sisters following, and they were all raised in Dublin in the 50s and 60s, so basically it was them and a few other families …and Phil Lynott and that was it at the time.
“My mum actually went out for a bit with Eric Bell (Thin Lizzy), she was half Nigerian and she would have known Phil Lynott very well and my sister’s jokey story is that when she was a baby she puked on Phil Lynott, when he was over at the house. She was a baby after eating porridge for the first time, she was not partying with him.
“My mother famously fell in love with the music that was coming out of London and the US at the time and identified with that music as a black woman in Ireland. Because she was mixed race all she had to do was put on an American accent and say she was with the group and get in free when any kind of soul singer was over. She was really into music and was a huge inspiration for me growing up. I would have Aretha Franklin, Bonnie Raitt, Whitney Houston all playing in the house, so that was a huge influence for me.
“For a while we lived in Wicklow then we moved back to Dublin when I was 9 then I went to one of the first project multi racial schools in Kilbarrack, which was near where Roddy Doyle based his stuff and he taught near there and that opened my eyes to creativity, as it was encouraged there.
“My Secondary school was a strict Catholic girls school called Maryfield in Drumcondra and then I went on to do my degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies in IADT in Dun Laoghaire)
I asked Jess how she ended up studying in London.
“While I was finishing that (IADT) I began to think that maybe doing music, as my career was what I wanted to do so I got my scholarship to study for a year at the London Institute of Contemporary Music. At the time in 2009-10 there was no facility in Dublin like it but now there is a BIMM in Dublin. You either went to a jazz college here, like most of the guys in our band, or you did Classical as there was no place to study contemporary music or pop music here at the time, so people went abroad like I did.
With great humour and much laughter Jess impersonated herself flouncing off to England.
“That’s it I’m moving to London and I’m never coming back. I did a year there and I loved it but the people there were younger than me and I wanted to do something with contemporary funk and the people now doing that were my friends back home, so I moved back home and started writing with them.”
Jess is a very busy performer as she runs two or more careers at the same time. She is the lead singer with Barcq, her Dublin based band and tours with them, but she also tours the world singing backing vocals for some top names and when she is not doing all that she finds times to work hard to help other musicians like herself.
So I suggested that she seemed a bit musically schizophrenic doing all this and wondered how she made it work.
“It is just the reality of the time as there is nobody really earning a lot of money from music unless you are incredibly innovative and ahead of the time and know how to manipulate these new platforms.
“There are amazing people that are doing it. Unless you are super technologically aware, as people don’t have managers anymore ,or don’t have agents anymore, or record companies, you just have to do it all yourself.
“In fact Sive (see last week’s Irish World) and I are part of a Do-It-Yourself community collective called Self– Made and I am chairing a discussion at one of the events we are putting on about being a musician and Sive is on the panel in February.
“There is a really strong community and Farah Elle is on the panel too so there will be a lot of discussion about being a DIY musician. So if you doing all this stuff and keeping your fingers in a lot of pies you also have to get yourself round the technological stuff like algorithms and basic graphic design and make sure your content is on point and all of this stuff is going on and you have to maintain your brand on-line and stay ahead and then work out how to monetise it so all your music has to be marketed and distributed and it is quite hard”.
Jess has achieved a great deal in recent years like working with Hozier in America playing at South By South West in Austin, Texas, doing duets with Damien Dempsey and Kodaline, touring with the Waterboys and touring with the Stars of the Commitments, so I asked her what were the most memorable moments.
“My most recent highlight was touring with The Waterboys, which is what I am doing now, singing backing vocals for Mike Scott. His new stuff has moved on from the early folk influenced material and is really interesting. My recent big highlight was when we were touring and were in Oslo and I had heard that Steve Whickam and Mike were big into Prince and that they did an amazing live version of Purple Rain with Steve on Electric fiddle and Mike on vocals, which was amazing.
“I was half afraid to watch it as I’m on tour with these people and I needed to be cool but in Oslo when it came to the encore there was a wonderful energy. I saw some whispering from the wings amongst the band with Mike Scott and then they launched into Purple Rain and it was overwhelming and I have never felt more that I was on the wrong side of the stage and my jaw was completely open. Then Mike ran over to me and said would I sing the octave above him and I went on and did it and that was definitely the most recent highlight for me it was incredible.
“Another big highlight for me was playing New York in October just gone. We’ve done some great gigs over the last two years. We did Other Voices. We did Canadian Music Week in Toronto last year and New York
Jess Kavanagh is such a talented and accomplished singer with her music being influenced by soul, jazz and funk in an eclectic mix.
I asked her what she was focusing on now
“My eclectic thing it’s just maybe the way we all listen to music and we are not all necessarily alike. I’m going to the Rock and Pop Section in the record shop’ or another person is going to the Heavy Metal section at HMV. It is all online and it is all suggested and it’s all-algorithmic so the result is that the idea of genre is meshing and mixing and culture has no barriers. Do you know Wyvern Lingo they are an incredible band that I toured with them and Hosier and they play so may instruments with all kinds of influenced and amazing Harmonies and they are an all female band.
“The world is very eclectic at the moment and that’s very much reflected in how we pursue music. For the last couple of years I’ve got into more instrumental stuff like Gogo Penguin which is a Manchester Band, who do a mix of instrumentals on drum and drum and bass with piano and double bass and drums. Erykah Badu is one of my idols, Hiatus Kaiyote is one of my favourites then there are the greats like Etta James and Nina Simone. They would be people I would listen to very regularly and Aretha.
“I like a bit of Electronic old school jazz and contemporary jazz. I like strong female voices. When I started out in 2005- 6 I was in a funk group and nobody knew where to put us so we would open for heavy metal bands, there was just nowhere for us, nobody knew what to do but it Is funny now as there was just no place for us but now here we are. We recorded some tunes that we released before we did Electric Picnic last year.
“Our expectations for the first songs we recorded were zero and we had not even done a live gig so we were completely wet behind the ears as regards recording and putting out our own music. Now we have done about 18 months of the live circuit and we have done America and Canada and we know alright that the stuff we record has to be good enough for the international market.
“The reality of being a full time musician is that you take this stuff on, like me doing the Waterboys tour, as money is tight but I love it and as long as you listen to your body and pace yourself and take care of your health, it is great. It keeps you fit but it is a juggling act. I do weddings in Kerry or somewhere but that’s what you have to do and I am not complaining. I’d love it if music could support me completely but at this stage we are not there yet.
“In the more modern sense of the word we would like somebody who would be our patron, somebody to help us, be that with money or be that with time, so we are very much in an experimental and creative place and we are sending off our stuff to producers to see what works for us. After I was back from The Waterboys tour we went back into the rehearsal room to focus on where we want to go and wrote three songs straight away.
“We call our music Agro– Soul or Melty Rock or P…d off Sade! We have huge influences with Hip Hop and Classic soul and also electronic as the guys use different pedals and love experimenting with different sounds. There is a very strong big sound thing to our music but at the same time my voice is very soulful so Agrosoul seems a good description or dirty grimy stuff ”.
Will we be seeing her in the UK anytime soon?
“We may be over for Paddy’s Day but for now we are concentrating on writing and developing our sound for the next couple of months, then we will take it from there. We hope to be doing more festivals this year but I will be over with The Waterboys. (London Palladium 27 April)
“Dublin and Ireland is such a small island but it is amazing how much creative talent is going on here and so many of us are all connected and we help each other like Soulé supported us”.