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Nigel Kennedy talks ahead of Birmingham gig

Entertainment | Published:

We're seated in the living room of his London pad – Nigel Kennedy has spent the day being interviewed about his stunning new album, My World.

Having been interrogated by Aunty Beeb, The Guardian and others, he musters himself for one last chat.

It's home run time. Get this interview wrapped and then he can switch off.

This one, however, is a little different. He's not under pressure to spin out delightful stories or to mind his 'p's and q's'. He's on home turf. He's safe as houses. He can relax and enjoy himself, be as anarchic and rebellious as he likes.

Nigel is one of music's true punks. Though he inhabits the sometimes stuffy world of classical music, he's more Maverick than Mozart. Actually, he doesn't like Mozart at all – 'nah, not my thing'.

He grew up in Birmingham...or, as he corrects us, in Solihull. And he does the posh 'Soul-ee-hall' accent, then erupts into laughter. He's a wild card.

But don't be confused into thinking maverick translates to lazy, or indolent, or any such thing. When it comes to his music, Kennedy is ferociously driven. A 24-carat perfectionist, he starts each day with four hours' practice and is meticulous and diligent. Having been playing music seriously for some 50-plus years, he continues to seek improvements.

Kennedy is one of the most important figures in classical music of the late 20th century. He popularised it for the masses, making classical cool at a time when it was widely perceived as dickie bows and penguin jackets. His recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons remains a record-breaker, having shipped more than two million copies and made him a superstar.

He'd learned at the feet of Yehudi Menuhin and the great master is eulogised on his new album, My World.

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Yet Menuhin isn't the only beneficiary of Kennedy's musical tribute. The album, out next week, also features dedications to Stephane Grappelli, Isaac Stern, Jarek Smeitana and Mark O'Connor. The second half features music written for Chekov's Three Sisters.

Kennedy, aged 59, is thrilled he's been able to pay tribute to his great mentors.

"Some of the dedications were written before and recrafted for this album. Some are completely new. I thought it was a good time to pay tribute to people. It was the time to say thank you to people for what they gave to me, through music."

One of the most remarkable tracks is Solitude, which was written for Menuhin, who gave Kennedy a scholarship when the prodigy was still a child. That act of kindness helped to shape his life and career, setting him on a path to international success.

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"Solitude is one of the older ones. I was living in Malvern when I first started on that. It has a very pastoral feel to it, you know, there's that openness you get when you're out on the hills.

"The setting for it was important because Elgar was from Malvern and Yehudi Menuhin was very much associated with Elgar. We had some wild times during those years. We'd go to Elgar's grave and let off fireworks.

"It would be late at night, and we'd be 'c'mon, let's go and let off some fireworks'. It was that kind of thing. I wasn't touring the world a lot at that point with concerts so I had a lot of time to hang with my mates and do things like that.

"It was a long time ago. It was before the birth of my child, who's 20 now."

Another stand-out track is Melody In The Wind, written for Kennedy's great friend, Stephane Grappelli. Grappelli introduced Kennedy to jazz, encouraging him to play in a free-flowing style.

"Stephane played it when he was alive. It was one of the last things he did. He was really sick at the time but he was determined to do it.

"He was in his flat in Montmartre. He was coughing really badly but it was a matter of pride for him that he wanted to be professional and do it.

"He was really too sick to do it and if you isolate the violin track on its own, you can hear him coughing away as he's doing it. But we managed to equalise the coughing out of it and he was determined. It was one of the last recordings that he ever made. It was kind of like a big honour that he thought the song was worth playing and that he actually played it."

And what did it mean to him to pay tribute to such an esteemed group? He ponders the question, then deadpans. "Nothing, man."

What?

Nigel with his Classical Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Classical Music back in 2000

"Nothing." And then he erupts with laughter again. "One-nil. Gotcha."

The laughter falls away and he continues. "It was kind of like a big honour."

Kennedy enjoys writing. Though, paradoxically, he avoids the violin when he is doing so. "I write on the piano primarily, then I tailor it to whatever instrumentation I have got. I don't want to be biased by the violin."

He writes here, at his home in London, where there's plenty of room and where he's surrounded by quiet. "I need peace to write," he admits. "I go somewhere where there's no noise at all. I'm not like John Cage who had his flat in Greenwich Village and opened his windows and got inspired by the noise of taxis.

"I have to have complete quiet and then some music might just start."

He never writes down his compositions. "Nah. I don't write anything down. I'll play some s**t on the piano. If I can't remember it the next morning it means it was s**t. If I can remember it, it's got a chance. It's a good sifting process."

He'll be playing live again soon, returning to the Royal Albert Hall in March for Nigel Kennedy and Friends. The show may soon follow at Birmingham's Symphony Hall, a venue he loves.

"Birmingham's a special city, obviously, because I've got a lot of friends up there. They're not musicians, my friends, but I know I've got to do a killer show. There's going to be Villa fans in there so I've got to do good for the pride of the club."

Ah yes, Villa. Kennedy loves the club almost as much as his violin. The last time he played in Brum, Jack Grealish was in the audience watching. "He's one of them players, like Martin Peters used to be, who can just ghost past people. And he's a local boy, too, which is great."

"Grealish might not do everything by the book but he's a sublime talent, innit. I really hope he's got a long future with the club and I hope he can excel and play." He picks up a Villa shirt from the floor. It was gifted to him by Gabby Agbonlahor and we talk about how he could have been a £100,000 a week player at a club like Arsenal. "But he only wanted to play for Villa. We need more of that type of player."

Kennedy used to be mates with some of the Villa stars of yesteryear, like Steve Staunton, Andy Townsend and Ray Houghton, not forgetting Deano Saunders (well, not like many Wolves fans can forget his stint in charge of the club is it?).

"I remember Gareth Southgate when he was playing for the team and how dedicated he was," Nigel adds. "It reminded me very much of what it's like to be a musician. He just loved every aspect of the game. And he was dedicated to it in a proper professional way, he was great.

He doesn't wallow in the past, though he'd have every reason to. Kennedy changed the game, publishing an autobiography, Always Playing, in 1991. He's been busy since, it's about time he did another one. He won a BRIT by beating rock bands and re-imagined the work of Jimi Hendrix. Such glories as Four Seasons are quickly passed aside.

"Four seasons – what, they've discovered a fourth one? I better keep up with that.

"Nah, look, I'm really happy about what happened the first time round with that album because it got me into being a household name and it put me in a position where I don't have to do what anyone tells me, like record companies or promoters. They've got far less leverage because I've got some success behind me."

Success was a laugh. He got invited to all the right places with all the right people. Though, after a while, he tired of it. He's a musician above all else and the trappings of fame don't sit well on his shoulders.

Nigel with the FA Cup in his Villa shirt outside the old Wembley Stadium with then-four-year-old son Sark ahead of the 2000 Cup Final v Chelsea

"The success was alright. It was good until I had my kid and then I didn't want it any more. That's when I took a lot of time out. You don't want people coming up to you all the time talking above the kid's head.

"It's bad enough with girlfriends and that. But a girlfriend or a wife might be ready for it and might have chosen to come into that but a kid hasn't chosen it. So I took a much lower profile after he was born and it was better for him as a kid."

But don't imagine he's some old codger who's not down with the towns. He doesn't want to be some ageing dullard who criticises people because they were born in a different generation.

"I ain't gonna say how good it was in the old days," he adds. "There's a lot of ways that music can get through now, and really good music. There's probably more good music than ever before, particularly in experimental and contemporary genres, with people writing and getting music out without record companies. That's fantastic. This other celebrity TV culture type of s**t is a little bit superficial, to put it mildly, but some people like it."

We move onto Hendrix. "He's dead." There's more laughter. "Two-nil."

Kennedy broke down barriers when he recorded Fire for the 1993 album Stone Free: A Tribute To Jimi Hendrix. It was followed by his own album, The Kennedy Experience, which featured improvisational recordings based on Hendrix material.

That led him into a world of rock and he's worked with musicians from Talk Talk to Sir Paul McCartney and from Robert Plant to The Who, while Kate Bush also called on him.

"Macca? Sir Paul? Yeah. I've got a lot of stories. I'll tell you the polite ones, man. I can't say the real s**t. I remember having good jam sessions with him. He said he wanted something romantic. He wanted it to sound like George Harrison's guitar or something. So I did something, it was just one take, where I was emulating a guitar sound on the acoustic fiddle. The challenge creatively is to get inside someone's head and understand what they want.

"With Robert Plant, he had a band comprising mainly of Americans at the time and they started getting a bit fussy about the volume of the electric violin. We were trying it out at the King's Head pub in Putney, or wherever it was. And he just turned round to me and said, 'hmm, turn it up Nige'. These naff Americans, f***ing hell."

Working with The Who was a blast, too. He played Baba O'Rielly with them at The Royal Albert Hall.

Nigel Kennedy struts his stuff at Birmingham Symphony Hall in the shirt of his beloved Villa

"My kid was about four at the time and I wanted to go for a walk with him in the park rather than play with them. Pete Townshend started getting a bit on my case because he hadn't invited me, it was Roger Daltry who invited me. So at one point it got quite heated between me and Townshend. I said 'look man, I don't need to be here. I'm just as happy going off and playing with my kid in the park and taking him to the swings'.

"Immediately Townshend became a lot more respectful and everything started going really well. It was just an amazing experience that I could easily have lost by taking the kid for a walk in the park."

He's looking forward to bringing his Nigel Kennedy show to the Royal Albert Hall, but it is the Symphony Hall he has the most love for.

"Well, Symphony Hall is in Birmingham, so it's got to be good. It has some of the best acoustics in the world. It's this amphitheatre, a gladiatorial thing. You have the audience looking down and you are surrounded by them. You can communicate with everyone on an equal level."

By Andy Richardson

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