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John Kelly, musician, actor, performer

Sammy Stein By

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John Kelly is a musician who, with his band 'Rockinpaddy' performs in pubs and clubs around the London area. He is also an actor, campaigner for disability rights and in grave danger of becoming something of a national treasure. He is a freelance performer with Graeae Theatre Company, has performed on major stages around the globe with artists including Herbie Flowers, The Blockheads and Linda Gale Lewis and is an active campaigner for disability rights. He has even been known to encourage a captive theatre audience to join in rousing choruses of songs about disability rights. All About Jazz decided to find out a bit more about this intriguing musician.

All About Jazz: What is your background? Where did you grow up and how did you come to music?

John Kelly: I was born in Balham, South London. My parents came from Ireland and settled in the UK in the late '60s. I spent a lot of my early life either in hospital in London or in Ireland with family. I grew up with strong musical influences and consider my Irish heritage integral in that. It's in our blood. Music is one of the most significant parts of Irish culture and perhaps our biggest export. Irish people are steeped in music. It was everywhere when I was growing up. My parents were always singing or playing records. They liked Irish traditional music, Country and Western and Rock and Roll so there was always Big Tom, The Dubliners, The Clancey Brothers, Wolfe Tones and country classics.

AAJ: How were you encouraged in music and where was your first performance?

JK: I was encouraged to sing and perform by the music teacher where I went to school. It was a school for disabled people but this music teacher saw no limit to what the students could achieve. My debut performance was with 'The Seaweed Song' when I was around 8 years old. It was a comical song about how you could tell the weather when you touched seaweed. I remember hearing Elvis Presley songs and performing 'Imagine' by John Lennon. I got a real buzz from singing and later I began to sing in a few pubs. People traditionally always sang in pubs in Ireland. If a singer was bad, the talking just carried on over the top but if they were good there was a lot of, 'shh... shh... listen... lovely...that's lovely...!' Sometimes, the 'Ssshh!' was louder than the singer. When I sang, for some reason people listened.

AAJ: Did you ever see any barriers to your success?

JK: My parents saw my disability as no barrier and I grew up believing my physical disability would not stop me trying anything. Role models were few and there were few disabled people to identify with but I liked Elvis and other artists. I developed a liking for edgy material including Ska, British Metal—short, sweet, high energy tracks, not long self indulgent stuff—rockabilly, rock & roll and punk. The groove and message of reggae's peace, love and understanding along with a message for change and freedom also were influences for me. The songs about freedom had links I feel with some Irish songs and now with the songs I sing about disability stuff. Ian Dury was someone I admired and although he was not really a role model for me at first, he became a huge one later on when I learnt he was a disabled person too. Brilliant! I found I identified with the ways Dury handled his disability and performing, like how he held the microphone and how he made the smallest of movements to the beat. Those were things I could identify with.

AAJ: What were your first bands?

JK: As a teenager, my first band was WAC (We Are Cripples). We were absolute rubbish! We had only a snare drum and a high hat-the rest of the stuff we had to make as our school had few instruments. I had a guitar on my lap and we just made a load of noise basically.

AAJ: so what made you take music and performing more seriously?

JK: When I was maybe about fifteen or sixteen I saw a short film which changed how I viewed performing. It was a short documentary, only a few minutes long, about a group of disabled blokes who played open-tuned guitars on the trays of their wheelchairs. They had adapted their style to hold the guitar differently from the traditional way. It made me see the possibilities of adapting and modifying various instruments.

AAJ: so what happened next?

JK: After WAC I met a mate's brother called Angus who played guitar. We played a youth club gig in Epsom, South England, with a guy called Jim, playing mainly covers and songs with a few chords. 'You Shook Me All Night Long' by AC/DC, 'Wild Side of Life' -the Status Quo version-and 'Stand By Me' by Ben E. King were standards. I then formed The Electrics, a much more energetic band and performed songs by The Ramones and we began writing our own material. The Electrics built up a bit of a following. I'd say a rare Electrics T-shirt might get over 50p now if you put it on Ebay! Our drummer, Gary, went on to become a member of Praying Mantis. I began writing songs with another band member and soon The Electrics became ADR (Another Dead Rabbit)—named after a road trip to a gig in The New Forest. We began gigging in pubs and clubs, playing our own numbers with a few covers. A record label showed interest but the potential brush with fame was scuppered when we went on stage a bit worse for wear when they left us to set up in the bar for too long. Unfortunately, that was the evening the guy from the record label chose to show up.

AAJ: so how did the diversification into acting happen?

JK: I was playing a lot of my own material and I got invited to America to play gigs in Memphis and Nashville. Even though I was gigging relatively regularly, I kept up the youth work I do and work around inclusion. This led to travel and more musical opportunities. I nearly always managed a few gigs while travelling and played in Russia, Poland, Estonia, France, Germany—all over Europe in fact as well as America and most recently Brazil and back to Germany with Reasons To Be Cheerful (the stage show). I learned to set up gigs with 'basic gear' and how to work a crowd in pubs and clubs, to deal with not being listened to or given time to set up, it was all part of the musical learning curve. This continued for about 6 years. Then I became involved with Graeae Theatre Company. I was contacted and asked to take part in the development of an idea for a Paul Sirett show they were producing called, 'Reasons to be Cheerful' based around the songs of Ian Dury and The Blockheads.

My initial thought was, 'F**k! -singing Ian Dury songs—who wouldn't want that?' I did the development work and I remember going home in my mate's taxi on the first evening and thinking, 'Well, that's that. I have lived the dream and helped develop vocals for a show by a world renowned theatre company and sang Dury numbers—and I got well paid. Happy days.' I thought that was that.

However, a few days later I got a call asking me if I would continue as lead vocalist for the live show when it went on tour three months later. I did so but it was not really until I got to Stratford East to open the show after three months of rehearsals I realised this was really happening. I always thought I would stand in until they got a 'proper' singer/actor in. I never seriously thought it was going to be me.

AAJ: You say Dury was not a role model initially but since then it seems clear he has become very important to you (Kelly has a little Dury-esque corner in his flat with a picture of Dury amongst other memorabilia).

JK: Dury became important to me—and more than just a role model but almost a guide. I realized that he had a lot in common with me—the way he ached after working, how he moved and many other similarities. I admired his dare-devil attitude to life and his disability. His spirit was with the show and gave it grit, realism and an unbelievable strength that rubbed off on everyone involved in a lovely way including the audiences who were just amazing. Dury's example gave me a new braveness to start being a bit more risky; just being honest, listening and saying what was in my heart. Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae, has also been a huge influence. She gave me that discipline to listen and find the moment to make it happen. Work hard and of course play hard! After 'Reasons' I went on to perform in other productions by Graeae including Kurt Weill's 'Threepenny Opera' and I still maintain close links with them.

AAJ: When acting or playing what is important for you?

JK: The performance. Whether it is acting, playing or singing and I am just as happy playing to large or small audiences. I play intimate gigs in London or near my family home in Ireland but I also did the opening of the Paralympics when we were watched by thousands in the stadium and millions of people around the world. The Graeae cast from the show (Reasons To Be Cheerful) performed a version of Dury's 'Spasticus Autisticus.' Performing is an emotional experience. As a person I feel both confident and nervous which are contradictory. I feel confident we can have a great fun night if the right conditions are there but I always feel nervous going on stage and playing or singing. I perform a mix of my own stuff and covers depending on the gig. I have a hidden song-writing folder at home where I put all the songs and work on them till I consider them right for me, then I test them bit by bit, and then I share material I think other people will like and that's probably only 10% of what's written in my folder. Usually I know when I get things right from the reactions I get. I still get blown away when I get applause. With 'Reasons' it was incredible, seeing people get up and dance and appreciate what was going on—it was amazing. At a gig when you hear people singing your own songs afterwards it is a privilege and something amazing to see, it's like being given your best birthday present. I feel very lucky that I have the right support and conditions and talented people around him to be able to achieve what I need. It is all about extra work to reach the next level and you want to keep pushing.

AAJ: How do you feel audiences react to you when you perform?

JK: I found audiences really have been appreciative of what I am about and what I am saying with my songs. I enjoy playing in Ireland as they 'get' the idea there about having fun, being in the moment. However, to be honest the same is true of theatre audiences or playing to mates and friends down at my local, though these are often the most nerve wracking gigs. Being a musician is to be in a very fortunate and privileged position. It is important how we set up due to my access needs. I need to be able to make eye contact but it's also how the band interact and interplay. I like to sit where I can see everyone—which is easier at a gig than in a musical production. Audience interaction is vital as you can see how they react to what you are doing and it is important to me that people enjoy, we play better than well, and we all respond to making the moment. It is a relationship. Sometimes, I get, 'what's that bloke in a wheelchair doing there?' but not often. I know loads of talented disabled people and in the music world they still need to be making an impact. Being a musician is very important.

AAJ: Do you have a philosophy on life or music/performing?

JK: My philosophy is not to take things too seriously, or you might end up crying or giving up. I sing and write about love, hope and freedom and I guess some serious issues but really to laugh and smile at the ridiculousness of it all somehow makes you stronger. I feel the more people can be part of it, the better it is. It is funny how some musicians create a bit of a mystique about themselves but I actually like the idea that people see me and think, 'I could do that/or I want to.' I'm sure they could if they put their minds to it and worked hard at it as I do every day. Music has to be about enjoyment, fun-in doing that you can help change stuff. If you get too heavy, you can get a bit too up your own arse. Music enriches your days. It is my beginning, middle, end and everything really. When I play and perform I want people to come, enjoy and have fun, even if the subject is serious and important. I want to try different things. I have a friend who is getting me into jazz—something I am keen to try as long as there's no airs and graces and it can be enjoyed.

AAJ: What about the future?

JK: In the future I want to improve; do gigs that people enjoy, write better material. I want to continue to do pubs and clubs. Whatever the situation I will give the best I can so audiences enjoy it. I am working on a new music project called 'Songs that Changed our Lives' which is around songs that have been anthems to social change or are a marker in our life's journey. I am excited about that. I am politically involved with the UK Disability Movement and the Independent Living Movement—I have been doing a lot of work there. We recently won a high court case against the UK government about their decision-making processes and go back to court in the next few months to fight to save The Independent Living Fund which enables the most severely disabled people to live independent lives, a basic human right. I'd rather not have to fight for these things but we aren't giving up, although these are worrying times for me as it threatens my ability to work and tour. We used a lot of energy with the first win but we will not go away. With the support of other artists, musicians and supporters we will summon energy to keep up the fight because it is just and for the benefit of more, not the few. I have gigs coming up around Christmas so I shall be kept busy and exhausted and I am working hard in the background on some musical projects for 2015.

AAJ: Do you get much spare time and if so, what do you do with it?

JK: I manage to get some time and I listen to all sorts of music. I am kind of an eclectic. Most of it is guitar oriented but I also like 'proper' song-writers and musicians like Billy Joel, Elvis Costello and others. I like dance and electric music; music technology is an emerging area in my solo performance work as it enables me to do so much. I love Erasure, then there's my old favourites The Pogues, Saw Doctors, Toots and the Maytels, Bob Marley, AC/DC, obscure little Irish bands and of course Ian Dury and The Blockheads —I really like their new material and the fact I have got to know these legends a bit. I learn from them, especially Derek Hussey, (lead vocalist) who I have the odd jar and chat with as he lives nearby and Davey Payne came to see us in Truro when the show was there on tour—magic. I like material with an edge—you know, where you can hear a raw vocal still left in the mix, not over produced. Also people who sing in the vernacular like Lily Allen, Billy Bragg, Madness, Chas 'n' Dave and some older musicians like Robert Wyatt. I also have some hobbies—mainly web design and photography —I am not good at them but I enjoy them. I read here and there, lots of music material and I like socialising. I get asked now and then if I'll write and I'm jokingly thinking of writing a book based on my experiences and uses of drinking straws from around the world. Drinking straws and maybe sticks which I use to reach and do things with as my arms don't reach that far. A good stick is very important to me and I always take a small variety on tour with me for different tasks. My mates, friends and family are of course important parts of my life!

AAJ: How do you feel about disability issues?

JK: The idea of, 'I want to see the person and not the disability first' is rubbish as they are all part of the same person. I don't hide the fact I am a disabled person because of how people react or respond to my impairment. I feel being a disabled person has enriched and given me a different view on life but it is not only that which defines me even if it's what people might think is the problem, they are just wrong. It's steps and stairs and stares and attitudes that are the real barriers. Just as important to who I am is my background, culture, family, going to a segregated school, experiencing being different, going to university and realizing I had the same insecurities and nervousness as everyone else had. Disability is not the negative stereotype society feels it is. When you hear a musician with something to say, it changes your perspective and how you feel. Music helps me explore and change myself and if people come along with that and change their own thoughts as well-whether it is about disability or anything else, that is good.

Being disabled is not my defining feature and I will always be loud and proud about it, 'cos I'm not going to hide it. Things have changed since I was a boy and that is because we have redefined ourselves. Music and all forms of art is a critical part of that emancipation. It is about actually being proud of who and what I am because other people have taught me that it's OK to be different. Disabled people are resilient, creative and strong despite often being the most disempowered in our society—it's totally not the stereotype about being 'brave and courageous' but about being creative, risky, subversive, cool, edgy, adventurous and ...just a little bit naughty, wahaaay!

So ended our interview but with one rider.... A few weeks later I met up with Kelly at a free jazz gig as he had said he wanted to try a new genre. His friends Davey Payne and Terry Day were in the band and Kelly stayed and got his introduction to free form jazz of the highest quality with 18 musicians on stage in tribute to Mel Davis. I think he enjoyed it. 'This is Extreme' was comment. In conversation, next day over coffee, Kelly mentioned he was running a workshop for the London Symphony Orchestra the next day around disability issues and we talked about many things. Kelly has many stories—he has a gold record of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions nonchalantly hanging on his wall and his 'phone hardly stops ringing. He always seems to have a new project or idea, from a book on drinking straws to musical opportunities. Meeting up with Kelly is always a positive experience. He intends to go to more jazz gigs and will continue to fight for disability rights. He takes his causes to the High Court, and fights for those who have little voice. He loses some cases but wins some also -small but important steps taking on the establishment and keeping these issues in the spotlight. Of course, music remains high on the agenda and he intends to perform more. I for one, hope he continues performing and we see a lot more of this diversely talented performer.
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