Dexys’ Kevin Rowland, a huge star in the 80s, on why he prefers today’s pop music industry and his love of Co. Mayo
Last month at the Embassy of Ireland’s special concert at the Royal Festival Hall to mark the centenary of 1916, Imagining Ireland, one performer stood out among several outstanding performances, Kevin Rowland of Dexys (formerly Dexys Midnight Runners), a band that was phenomenally popular in the 1980s.
He gave what was arguably the definitive performance of that old standard Carrickfergus. It was, therefore, no surprise to learn that he and his band are next week bringing out an album of standards called Dexys Do Irish Country and Soul. When he did this interview it was not long after he had just signed 3,000 copies of that album but he was unfailingly engaging, pleasant and polite.
Like many in this country with Irish parents – he was born in 1953 – his childhood straddled both countries:
“I was born in Wolverhampton, lived there for a year, we moved back to Crossmolina, we were there for three years, I started school, went back to Wolverhampton and when I was ten, just turning eleven, to London, moved back around ’58 or ’59 and grew up in Harrow which was full of Irish. It was very fertile, creatively, given the amount of people, even growing up in Harrow a lot of the kids at the front fashion wise and music wise, had names like Brennan and Galvin.”
So is being Irish part of your identity?
“It’s definitely part of my identity, definitely had a massive effect and I definitely have gone through phases in life where I’ve thought everything Irish is great and everything British is rubbish but I’m not there now. That’s not a good place to be, it wasn’t a good place for me to be so I had to get away from that.
“Now I think I’m at a pretty good place with it. I think growing up here with Irish parents was quite a different experience because lots of my friends were also second generation Irish.
I think it was quite a strange experience because on the street you’re English and you go home to this Irish family and when I meet other second generation Irish people there’s almost an immediate bond or acknowledgement of it, you start joking around in Irish accents, not mocking but, you know, we’ve heard those accents all our lives so we speak them, like I do with my sister or whatever, you know, imitating me mum.
“So, I think it’s quite a different experience. I think it had an effect, I think Irish people here weren’t viewed massively positively in those days. There were expressions like ‘he’s just got off the boat’. There was a lot of that ‘Paddy’ stuff so a part of you wanted to be, or was in to, the Irish culture and a part of you wanted to be like your English mates.”
When it is pointed out that just as he was growing up with the Irish standards many of his contemporaries (and younger) over in Ireland at the time were looking away from that, indeed to some of the soul-infused music that he produced, and that of those who inspired him, and it’s refreshing to hear it fused in his renditions, he replies:
“Well, that’s good to know, because we grew up here and we’re immersed in all that soul and it would have been wrong, for us, to maybe go to Ireland to record it with a load of Irish musicians and Irish instruments, there’s some but largely it’s Dexys Do Irish Country Soul.
“Just to say on that second generation thing I have to say I do feel I can’t, I think it’s staggering the amount of second generation Irish recording artistes who have come to prominence in the UK over the last forty years. John Kelly mentioned some of them, John Lydon, Boy George, Morrissey, Cathal Smythe from Madness, Siobhan Fahey of Bananarama and Shakespeare’s Sister, the Gallaghers, there’s probably more but I can’t remember them all offhand, significant singers, Shane McGowan, we’d have to include ourselves in there somewhere, Dusty Springfield, Gilbert O’Sullivan, there’s been a hell of a lot.”
This, he says, is because it was possible for them to flourish in the much wider, broader community that was London and that far more Irish have prospered here – by their own efforts – than have found it adverse. He still maintains his ties to his parents Mayo homeland, visiting frequently over the years although a little less so in the last couple of years because of work commitments.
Asked if there is a particular target audience – in addition to the cohort of very loyal Dexys fans, he replies:
“I just get the ideas to do things and then try and follow those ideas and bring them to fruition as best as I can. “I’d like people generally to like it, I might be naïve but I think some of those songs might be picked up and played on the radio and it looks like maybe they will, I don’t know. But I just wanted to do our own versions of them.”
Are there any youngsters out there whom he’d caution against taking up a pop career?
“No, I’d never do that. I’d encourage anyone to follow their heart really, do what makes them feel good. I think I didn’t know that when I was young, I think I thought that work was separate, work was something that you don’t enjoy.
It’s like ‘that’s that’ and you just get on with it, not that anybody said that but that’s kind of what I thought but if you do what you want to do, what you enjoy doing, you’ll probably do it well, you’ll certainly be more enthusiastic rather than doing something you don’t like.
“It’s a gift to be a musician and not only that music is its own reward, doing it is the best thing, just making the music. That’s why I feel good now, I’m making the music that I feel happy about.
Read the full article in this week’s edition of The Irish World…