James Kennedy, (solo artist as well as previous frontman of popular rock group, Kyshera) has been writing songs, playing the guitar and performing live since he was a teenager at school. He was once hailed as a “warped genius” by critics, and was even pursued by Warner Music and Sony. He has recently finished writing a book which will be published with Unbound, where he talks about his experiences in the music industry. I recently interviewed James to explore his life, music and career, and found his positive attitude, hard work and commitment to music inspiring. Here is the result of our conversation....
Thanks for taking time out for this interview, James. Can you tell me - when did you first realise you wanted to pursue a career in music?
I think for me it was always a natural progression towards it rather than any particular moment. I was raised in a house where good music was always playing and when I started playing Guitar (not by choice, but as a result of a random birthday present from my Dad – I later found out that he nicked it from somewhere, which is the only reason I got a Guitar – it could have just as easily been something else!); when I started playing Guitar and got more deeply involved in the mechanics of music, that was when dreams of rock stardom started to become a conscious part of my thinking.
Who were your biggest musical influences growing up?
Whatever my parents were blasting, which luckily for me meant Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles.
You have spoken openly about having issues with your hearing. Has your hearing impairment made life more challenging for you than you anticipated?
I'm divided on this. I have always had a 'just get on with it' mindset and up until very recently, I hadn't even really considered myself to have a hearing problem, but as I look back I can definitely see how my hearing impairment affected me socially and in school. I have always been a kind of 'lone agent' doing my own thing, teaching myself everything and doing everything for myself and I've come to suspect that much of that may be due to the social difficulties I experienced early on with my hearing. These things are subtle though and I'm not sure where the line between hearing problems and my natural character stands.
You have been very honest in the past about your mental health. How is your mental health now compared to a few years ago when you were struggling?
My mental health is WAY better now than it was a few years ago, but there are still core issues that resurface and probably always will, so I think that it's an ongoing maintenance situation. I've got more balance now and I better understand the consequences of pushing myself too hard and thinking in certain ways. I did CBT many years ago but I continue to apply its lessons still. It's a year this month that I stopped drinking. I've also been able to quit smoking, lose negative people from my life and better understand my own demons all because of the teachings of CBT.
I wanted to ask you how you adjusted to going solo after the break-up of your band, Kyshera, a while back. Do you prefer being a solo artist as opposed to the days you were in a band? Is it better now, in the sense that you have total, artistic control?
I always had complete artistic control in the band too – I wrote all the music and words, produced the albums, conceptualised the artwork etc – so in that sense, the process is very much the same. What's different now is everything else that surrounds the music. Being in a band is the best thing in the world, you're part of a travelling gang with no allegiance to anywhere or anything other than getting to the next show on time. You pick each other up when you're down, you get into trouble together, you share the experiences, have a laugh and hit the stage with shared intention.
Being solo doesn't have any of that – but it doesn't have any of the 'other stuff' about being in a band either – people messing you around, depending on you way too much, not doing their fair share, people quitting the band half way through making an album, people hijacking the bands hard work by getting you banned from venues for doing stupid shit etc. So both have their pro's and their con's.
What's inspired the book Keeping On that you're currently working on? Can you tell us more about why you decided to do this?
When the band broke up, I felt that I was at a new crossroads in life. Up until that point, everything in my life had been about the band and my vision for my future was still very much all about the band, so when that came to its end the way it did, it forced me to consider other avenues. It was a definite end of an era for me and I decided to close that chapter in a literal sense by sharing everything I'd lived through up until that point, in a book.
Can you describe what it's been like for you, writing the book? Has it actually been quite therapeutic setting everything down on paper that you've experienced so far?
It was really therapeutic – and insightful. Being able to look at my journey in a complete sense and bring a kind of context to it all helped me to understand it better and find peace with a lot of it. I discovered patterns in my life (and myself) that I hadn't previously been aware of and there were moments when it was very difficult revisiting certain times and others when I was physically shaking with rage, unable to write the words. So it's definitely been a cathartic experience that I'm glad I've done but I doubt I'd ever do again.
What are your future music plans – is another solo album on the way?
Totally! I'm working on the next album right now! The book has set me behind schedule a little but it's all about the album now – I have a very clear idea of how the new record is going to sound and I can't wait to get it out there.
Your voice is stunning. Did you ever have vocal lessons? Are there particular styles/songs you find harder to sing?
Aww, thanks! I've never had vocal lessons and I only started singing because I didn't have a singer so I just decided to have a go myself, with the aim of someone else doing it further down the line. My voice has definitely changed over the years though and after what must be easily several thousand gigs by now, I've developed this kind of gravely sound to my voice which I can't shake off. As I'm getting older, I find the earlier Kyshera material harder to sing because it's so high and wordy ha ha!
Do you ever feel pressured to live up to your own (or even fans) expectations?
I am constantly pressuring myself! Nothing I've ever done has lived up to my expectations of it and I'm constantly trying to better what I did last time. I'm the worst for never acknowledging my wins, I just keep immediately moving on to the next thing and tormenting myself about getting it as good as possible. As I mentioned though, ultimately my main criteria is to be honest – as long as I feel that my intention was pure, I can stand behind it.
You seem to have a really dedicated fan base, James. How does it feel seeing the huge, positive responses from your listeners?
Ah, it really is amazing. For me, it feels much more like an extended family than a fan-base – social media has played a big part in that, as my fan-base has very much grown from that culture, so straight from the outset we've all had a pretty involved relationship with each other. I know many of the guys by name, I chat with people directly as often as possible, like minded people across the world have become friends (and even partners) through being a part of it.
Would you say you're happy with where you're at in your life right now?
Yeah, I would. But there's something in me that just won't let me be comfortable, I'm always pushing myself forward to the next thing. It's a problem I've got. I live in a lovely house, I don't have a day job, I see my family regularly, I'm fit and healthy, have all the free time I want – yet there's still this thing in me that refuses to chill. I'm always scheming my next project or pushing myself harder with my current one.
Where would you like to see yourself in 5 years from now?
I always like to feel that I'm growing. So in 5 years time I'd like to be doing what I'm doing now but at a higher level – reaching new audiences, expressing new feelings in new songs – and hopefully not having to do so much of the back end stuff that I have to do as an independent artist.