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From Derby to Dublin

Award-winning country singer Kezia Gill spoke to David Hennessy about her current tour, playing Ireland for the first time and how her late musician father is with her always.

Kezia Gill was a double winner at Sunday night’s British Country Music Awards taking Best Female Vocalist and Best Entertainer, and it was not her first time to win a BCMA.

She has also toured with big names such as The Shires, Tony Hadley and played as far away as Nashville and Australia.

Currently touring the UK, she is now on a run of dates that will see her play in Ireland for the first time with a date at the Workman’s Cellar in Dublin on Wednesday 30 November.

This will mean a lot to the Derby singer- songwriter who says the music in here comes from her Irish heritage.

Kezia told The Irish World it means a lot to take her music to Ireland.

She said: “It was funny because originally we had the first show in Derby and the final show in London, which I thought was quite poignant: The girl from Derby ending up in the big smoke.

“And then when the promoters came to me and said, ‘We really want to put an Irish date in’, I was like, ‘Right Derby to Dublin is the way it needs to be’.

“Because even though I’m born in England, all my heritage is Irish.

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“It just feels like a lovely place to finish the tour.

“I’ve never done a show in Ireland.

“I’m a completely new name in Dublin, and I just hope a few people will come out and take a chance on me.”

Kezia grew up in a musical household – her father and grandfather were steeped in the Irish dancehall culture.

Her rich musical pedigree includes her tenor grandfather, Eamonn Gill, who toured and performed with late, great Josef Locke.

Her late father Eddie – and role model – played the pub circuit and would take a young Kezia with him everywhere.

But it would be a mistake to say ‘some’ of her musical inspiration comes from Ireland…

“I think all of the music comes from Ireland.

“My grandfather was from Derry and a lot of my family, extended family are still all in Derry and over into Donegal.

“And my grandfather was an Irish tenor and he used to sing quite often with Josef Locke.

“And then he moved over to England and met my grandmother, went on to have 11 children, obviously one of which was my dad.

“And the music is strong in all of them.

“Dad was a beautiful singer and he played a lot of Irish music and country music and folk and it was just the influence, I grew up around it.

“You know what? I only have to hear an Irish song and I immediately just think of my dad.”

Kezia first started performing in a trad group she formed with her cousins called Emerald Roses, the name celebrating their mix of Irish and English.

“Some of the first songs that I learned to sing and play on the guitar were Irish songs.

“And one of the first bands I was in- I made a band with my cousins, and we did Irish traditional, and it’s still one of my favourite things to do on a Sunday afternoon.

“There’s a great Irish scene just next door in Nottingham, and we go and we listen to the Irish songs and have a pint of the black stuff.

“It’s still one of my favourite things to do.”

We have seen you with a Guinness on your Facebook, I take it you’ll have a pint or two when you get to Dublin..

“Oh, for sure. We went on holiday a few years ago, and we managed to visit St. James’ Gate and it’s hands down the nicest pint I’ve ever had.”

She may be more often described as a country singer but Irish traditional sometimes finds its way into her music and she finds it hard to choose between the genres.

“I play the pennywhistle and I think what the Irish traditional music really inspired me to do was to write stories, and country music as well.

“It’s a vein that runs in both of those styles of music that rather than just write songs, they’re storytellers.

“You look at groups like The Dubliners and The Fureys, they’re telling stories and that’s why you remember these old songs, because it’s like somebody telling you a story from many years ago.

“And with country music as well, writers like Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. They write stories as well. So I think those early inspirations were so important.”

The trad influence is unmistakable in her song The Bridge in Derry which was written for her mother who joked she was owed one after Kezia wrote Local Man’s Star for her father.

It’s a song that means a lot to your family? “Yeah, it’s particularly me and my mum, because that’s who that song was written for.

“She actually made a bit of a joke once, because I’d written a song about my dad.

“She went, ‘Well he gets a song, why don’t I get a song?’

“So there and then I penned a bit of the chorus.

“We shared a beautiful moment whilst visiting Derry and it was on a bridge.

“It was raining so hard and we were soaked to the bone and because we were crossing the bridge, there was this driving wind.

“The rain was just hitting us, but we’d had the most amazing trip to Ireland. We were so happy we said, ‘The rain is not going to soak in, it can rain as hard as it wants. Nothing’s going to change this feeling’.

“And we call it the Derry feeling.

“And so that’s what that song is about. It’s a very special place to me.”

Kezia wrote the tribute Local Man’s Star for her father before he passed away in March 2020.

Is that song emotional to perform? Will she sing it on this tour? “I will sing it, and it’s always a hard song to sing.

“I mean, like anything, the more I do it, the easier it gets.

“But I think it’s one of those things. I can think I’m fine, I can think, ‘Yeah, I’ve got this’.

“And then suddenly I’ll have a memory or I’ll catch someone in the audience that’s getting emotional, or I’ll catch my mum’s eye and I can break down.

“And what I have learned to do, when I am performing that song live if I do get emotional, I just keep playing the chords. I just take a break and usually, because people understand the story, they will sing it back to me.

“There’s been some wonderful moments where I’ve actually not been able to sing and the crowd has sang it back to me.

“So if the tears come, the tears come.

“There’s not an awful lot I can do about it.

“But usually, I feel immense pride when I sing that song.

“I try not to associate it with sadness, but more love and pride that he was such an amazing man and that I got to call him my dad.”

Kezia and her father at the 2019 BCMAs.

Kezia’s father was there to see his daughter take Best Female at the British Country Music Awards in 2019.

Sadly he was not there to see her win three awards last year at the same ceremony.

Was that hard? “It’s a really strange feeling because when he was actually alive, there was certain things that he couldn’t attend either due to ill health or if I was traveling and I really felt the loss of him not being there.

“Now he’s passed on, I feel like he’s with me all the time. It’s a strange feeling. He’s not there in presence but I feel like since I’ve lost him, spiritually he’s just with me constantly.

“Touring with The Shires, I got to play some incredible venues, one of them being the London Palladium which was a venue that my dad always said, ‘One day, you’ll play the Palladium’.

“And a lot of people said to me, ‘Are you quite sad that your dad’s not here to see it?’

“And I said, ‘Well, he is’.

“And the irony is, is if he was alive, he would probably have been unable to make that trip down to London and to travel due to his health, but actually in death he is with me always.

“I only have to look up at the moon and have a little chat with him if I miss him, because that was always our thing.

“When I used to work away from home, he’d say, ‘We’re both looking at the same moon’.

“So that’s what we do. I look up at the moon and I know he’s looking at the same one.”

The Irish World spoke to Kezia before the weekend’s British Country Music Awards where she was nominated again and would be a double winner.

You must get sick of getting nominated, do you? “It gets really boring,” she laughs.

“Not at all. I’m so disappointed I can’t make the awards this year because it clashes with my Leeds tour date so I’ll be furiously checking Facebook in between sets just to see what the announcement is.”

Kezia recently appeared on an episode of BBC’s I Can See Your Voice where she wowed presenter Paddy McGuinness and judges like Jimmy Carr, Alison Hammond and Amanda Holden.

“It was brilliant.

“I was approached and they said, ‘We’re looking for good singers to mime to fool the judges’, and I was thinking, ‘Is this a good idea?’

“But I decided to go ahead with it. And you know what? It was a brilliant idea because it’s brought me a great little bit of exposure. It was great fun to do. And being on primetime Saturday night television isn’t all bad.

“I was there with five other singers or not singers and we all had to mime and lip sync and basically it was their job to guess whether we could sing or not.

“Much to their peril, they decided that I couldn’t sing.

“When I stepped forwards to reveal whether I could sing or not, there was a bit of a shocked look on their faces.

“I often wondered whether I looked like I can sing.

“And they answered that, the answer is no,” she laughs.

You can try to judge a book by the cover but you need only to look at Susan Boyle’s initial audition to see how wrong people can be.

“Exactly. You make your assumption, but they were eating their words by the end of it, that’s for sure.”

They would certainly eat their words with Paddy admitting that she was ‘not a good singer, a sensational singer’ while Jimmy Carr would add that he was not even ‘slightly surprised’ she had won awards.

Kezia’s most recent single was the powerful Like I Did Before which is the first taste of her next album which will land next year.

“It’s a bit of a new sound for me but I think a lot of that was due to the nature in which it was written.

“I was invited to take part in a writers’ retreat.

“I was put in a room with Kaity Rae, who’s a fantastic writer and producer and she’s an incredible pianist and we started talking about an idea for a song.

“I had the idea about losing somebody and never feeling like the same person again and we wrote this song Like I Did Before, and we never went into it thinking it would be a song for me, or it would be something I would record.

“But the minute we wrote it, I turned to Kaity, and I said, ‘You have to let me record that’.

“And she went, ‘I’d be honoured’.

“I just I fell in love with the song.

“I fell in love with the melody that Katie created and I think the words were quite hard hitting.

“So there was a little bit of a risk because it was a slightly different sound for me, but it’s been really well received, which is wonderful.”

Her BCMA- winning track I’m Here has become poignant for its message about mental health.

“It’s important to me and I think what makes that song so special is that it’s so important to others.

“I think mental health is still something that an awful lot of people don’t discuss, it’s very much something that people deal with behind closed doors.

“And I think when I stand and sing that at a gig, suddenly you look around the room and you see how it touches people.

“You realise, ‘Actually, at some point, we’ve all struggled. Some more than others, but it’s something that we all deal with’.

“And I think if we talk about it, and normalise it, then people will feel a lot more able to reach out and say, ‘You know what? I need a little bit of help at the minute. I’m not coping ever so well’, rather than turning to other things, drink or addiction, sometimes even suicide.

“It’s amazing what just talking to people and asking for help can do.

“That song means a great deal to me and I’m proud to say it means a great deal to a lot of other people as well.”

Kezia played the Craic by the Creek in 2021 when Nathan Carter headlined the festival in its first year.

Like many, she was sad to hear of the recent death of Barry Mohan from the band All Folk’d Up who had also played the festival.

“I was just so devastated to hear the news.

“It just reminds us all that life is so fickle. What a shock that was to read.”

With live gigs off the agenda for 2020 and much of 2021, Kezia was busy releasing music such as her EP The Mess I Made which came out last year.

How good does it feel to be able to play the songs live? “It’s been brilliant. It’s been absolutely fantastic.

“Coming out of lockdown, I think a lot of people are now more appreciative of live music and they’re enjoying being out with friends and being in a packed room where no one has to wear masks, we all just enjoy that feeling a little bit more.

“I think the minute I get out on the stage, all the nerves go, all the anxiety goes and I just want to put on a great show.

“I want to entertain people and I want them to have the time of their lives. And I think- well I hope that that comes across and that people leave with a big smile on their face because to sing these songs live there’s no feeling that beats it. There really isn’t.”

Kezia is touring the UK and plays The Workman’s Cellar in Dublin on 30 November.

For more information, click here.

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