THE musical career of Fiona Kennedy has been a long and winding one. Despite, by her own admission, dropping off the radar, the Cork musician was something of a trailblazer, having first come to prominence in the late 1980s by winning Ireland’s first television talent competition.
Titled Screen Test, it featured a judging panel comprising publisher Noelle Campbell Sharp and music guru BP Fallon, whose hipster speak proved more entertaining than the featured acts. “BP used really wipe the floor with people,” recalls Kennedy. “So when it was my turn to play I was petrified.”
Kennedy was finishing a degree in languages in UCC at the time but music was her passion and she had regular gigs around town. When it came to the live audition, she had nothing to fear from Fallon.
“He was lovely to me,” she smiles “I had a really cool pink jeans and he was mad for the pink jeans. He thought they were fabulous.”
Having negotiated the judges, Kennedy went straight to the final where it came down to a public vote. To her surprise she won.
The following day saw her adorn the front pages of all the papers. But whereas now success in a telly talent competition comes with the lure of a record contract and a clamouring shoal of publicists offering their services, Kennedy was more or less left to her devices.
There were offers from people who wanted to put her in a showband but this held little interest for her.
“I was a folkie at the time. I was playing guitar and singing,” she says, citing figures such as Neil Young and John Martyn as heroes.
Luka Bloom was another. Back then he was simply Barry Moore, Christy’s brother. While she was still in the competition Kennedy was booked to support Moore at a small pub in Dorset St in Dublin, something she describes as a dream gig.
“I was more excited about opening for him then about the final of Screen Test,” she confesses.
A few days after winning the competition she honoured her commitment to Moore’s evident surprise. “I remember him saying to me ‘Fair dues now to you Fiona.’ And I said ‘God Barry, this is more of a thrill now for me.”
Her fame provided her with gigs seven nights a week. She also invested her prize money into recording a self-penned 7in single ‘All You Give Me’. It was produced by Declan Sinnott and Kennedy went to England to get it pressed herself.
Another highlight was a slot supporting Kris Kristofferson in front of 50,000 people at Siamsa Cois Laoi in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
A few years later RTE offered her a one-off show, The Fiona Kennedy Show. While she feels the national broadcaster has been good to her, she found herself battling the producer’s preconceptions of who she was and fighting for the kind of guest acts she wanted.
“They wanted to put on a show that would appeal to the mammies and daddies of that day,” she opines.
In the mid 90s she finally got to release her debut album Crazy Love. Self-funded and self-released, it was a real DIY labour of love. Family life saw her recording ambitions take a backseat as she raised a daughter a single mother. Now married with two daughters, she returns with a new album. Produced by Bill Shanley, The Beach was financed online though a Fund It campaign.
“People came out of the woodwork that I know, that I don’t know, just fans from years ago, all put their money in,” says a grateful Kennedy.
“It gave me tremendous confidence that people wanted to hear me. And that’s a heady mix.”