John Kelly, musician, actor, performer

Sammy Stein By

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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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