John Kelly, musician, actor, performer

Sammy Stein By

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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.
About John Kelly
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