Extraordinary Women

‘Extraordinary Women’ is a series of interviews with some of society’s most inspiring and intriguing women. It is an attempt to redefine the conversation around women in the media, without sensationalism but instead to authentically listen to and record their voices.

Maria Doyle Kennedy

Have you ever admired someone from afar and wish that you knew them? Or have yourself almost convinced that if you did know them, you would be the best of friends.The acceleration of the internet and in particular, social media has elevated the number of opportunities which we have access to such people.

I was very honoured Maria Doyle Kennedy said yes to being interviewed for the ‘Extraordinary Women’ series. Maria Doyle Kennedy is as impressive in person as she is on record, on film, on stage and online.


How would you describe yourself both personally and professionally?

I think that’s an impossible thing to do, really. Well, unless maybe if you were a true narcissist that would be all you would do for the entire interview [laughs]. But I’m not. Well, I hope not anyway. I’ve no idea, I think that, and I don’t really see the point in describing yourself either, I mean, the whole journey for me is about figuring out who you are and I keep thinking I’ve done it and then I realise I haven’t a clue and so I learn a bit more. In a way, I feel I’ll suddenly go “lightbulb”, and then I’ll keel over, you know. That I’ll finally get it and that’ll be the end of me.

When I was younger, if somebody had said to me “Describe yourself” I would’ve given it a shot. But I heard other people describe me one time – people who knew me well, friends, and it was not what I would’ve said at all so I realise that actually maybe I didn’t know. Maybe you don’t know. Maybe how you would describe yourself is just some notion we have in our heads of who we might like to be. Yeah, I’ll leave to other people to describe me.

What were the characteristics that you agreed or disagreed with from the opinions of others?

I can’t even remember now, it was so long ago. But it was certainly things about perception or confidence. I was gobsmacked. Professionally though, I think I’m a survivor.

And how does that definition of a survivor influence your multiple careers and professions that you have?

I think that everything you do comes from you. My greatest teacher of sorts was Patrick Scott, a great painter, who is no longer with us. He was a huge influence, support and friend to me. In fact, I ended up producing a documentary about him and I learned so much about his life and his work, but he did lots of different things: He trained as an architect, he was an incredibly skilled painter but it was merely a hobby until he felt he was in a position to make a living from it. He diversified into design and created lots of set design, production design for a movie with John Huston and he even designed fabrics for the Kilkenny Shop back in 60s. He just felt it all came from the same place, and I feel the same way. Singing and acting are different, but they are both ways of telling a story. I think they’ve sort of informed each other. I think that acting has made me a better songwriter, I’m more interested in when I’m writing songs about who the character is and I’m quite taken with being inside their head. I think it’s made me be able to do that a bit better, and also, the gigs are probably a bit more theatrical [laughs].

Were you ever frustrated by society’s fascination to put us into one or two proverbial boxes, considering you have so many interests and skills?

People find it easier to have reference points certainly, but there’s no reason that the reference point can’t be broad, you know? On Twitter they say “What is your thing?” and mine says “Mother, singer, actor” and for me, that’s it. Work-wise, I was a singer first and that role has been constant in my life. I’m always writing songs in my head or observing people and situations with the view to turning them into singing stories. But acting is a different thing and that’s more a job or a label that people give me sometimes.

And which is more liberating?

I enjoy them both very much. Singing is different because I write the words myself and Kieran (Maria’s husband) writes the music, so that’s more of a personal expression. It also means it’s scarier – you’re more vulnerable on stage. That’s dangerous and exciting.

Has the development of narratives from observations into song ever gotten you into any interesting situations in term of those who are close to you? Or those you aren’t?

No, I don’t think so. People say that a lot of our songs are charting our marriage. If you go through the albums, you can probably tell when we were getting on better or worse, depending on certain songs [laughs]. But I think I tend to write in a more general way or I have done, up until recently.

For the marriage referendum, I wrote a song called ‘Pride’ which will be on the next record. I couldn’t believe that we had to have a referendum in a way. So that song is more specific song [laughs].

I also started writing one about Eric Garner, who died when he was being arrested in the States. We were in Canada for a long time over the winter and it’s interesting how news is reported is so differently in various parts of the world. Understandably, there was much more of an emphasis on North America and there was so much discussion on Ferguson and Eric Garner’s death (which took place in Brooklyn). So, I wrote a song about Eric Garner and Michael Browne, which will be on the next record as well.

They are two examples of more specific songs but typically I try to write more generally about observations on life, growing up, and people. I think people are just the most fascinating things in the world. How we manoeuvre through it despite obstacles, whether they’re physical or monetary or social. How we react to each other, how we impact on each other, so incredibly joyful sometimes and so deeply savage others. It’s incredible.

It is. In terms of the music, what first took piqued your interest in the music industry and how did you follow that path?

Is there an industry, Sinéad? [arches eyebrow and laughs]

Domain? Space? Platform?

Ha. One of those. I just love to sing. I think I probably sang before I talked. I find melody captivating and I was singing all my life. I remember my mother said she always knew what kind of mood I was in as a teenager by the amount of singing that was coming from my general direction. So that was it, I just always really wanted to sing.

So many people in the industry met friends in secondary school and they formed bands but I just didn’t. I didn’t meet anybody in school who had the same interests as me in regards to music and I can’t play anything very well. I play a little bit of piano – enough to work out melodies, but not really enough to sort of do a gig, a whole gig, with just me and the piano. That’d be a sorry affair.

However, when I left secondary school and went to college, I suddenly met people who played instruments and liked singing also, and of course, I then joined a band. So that’s what happened. I suddenly met other people like me for the first time and it was totally liberating and empowering. I realised you could create this original piece of something and then perform it in front of people. That was incredible to me and somewhat hard to believe. I still think that gigs are almost sacred spaces. For two hours everyone in the room is ‘plugged into’ the same thing. It’s quite remarkable.

What I think is extremely powerful is that although that cohort of people are plugged into the same ‘thing’, each person emerges with a different meaning or understanding based on their own experiences.

Absolutely. Whether you are in the audience or on stage as the performer, you’re connected. You’re experiencing this phenomena together but what you feel about it might be different. I’m addicted to that feeling and moment.

As a performer, is that connection different for you then when you’re in the audience?

No absolutely not, that human connection and vibe is spectacular regardless of which side of the stage I’m on.

Do you ever experience nerves whilst on / before stage?

Oh no – I am shocking. Even to this day, I am incredibly nervous before gigs. I thought it would get better as I get older but it hasn’t. I get very, very nervous. I’ve just accepted it and manage it by walking, pacing and learning how to breathe. It’s a horrible feeling – one of fear and panic. However, I’ve begun to recognise that it’s a part of me and must be necessary as only in a couple of times in my life have I not been nervous and I never performed particularly well in those instances. The nerves must make me focus but if I’m honest, I probably shouldn’t psycho-analyse it too much but two songs into the performance – I’m fine.

You mentioned earlier that acting influences your music but is the same true of the reverse?

I didn’t ever train in acting and all of my education in that field has been ‘on the job’, in a sense. I’ve been really lucky to work with and question such incredibly talented people but the one aspect which I take from music into theatre and film is that I listen.

In both a song and a scene you have words to learn, you know and have to expect a response from either your fellow actor or musician but sometimes you find that the other person is not actually listening. In their mind, they are so focused on their part that they forget to engage with you, be in the moment and revel in the emotions. That’s insane because the magic of the moment occurs in that collaboration. Most acting is not done alone and most acting is about reacting. You have an idea as to what your part is but someone who is working with you on a scene can do something totally unexpected and it completely changes the dynamic of the moment and your part in it too.

A slight intonation can have a huge impact.

Yes. Or a physicality – standing up, sitting down, a laugh even. To me, scenes are like songs. I listen to and watch what other people are doing, saying and expressing and try to react to that in the most appropriate way for my character.

Were you deliberately conscious of creating this image and reputation for yourself within music and acting?

No. Reputation, my arse [laughs]. I’m not very good at keeping a huge picture in mind as to what I want my career to look like but I’m busy. It’s great.

How do you decide what roles and opportunities to say yes to?

It depends on what the role is – sometimes it’s just rubbish. You read it and think, ‘that’s just shite.’ So of course, you say no to that [laughs]. In terms of gigs, we do try to make a plan for that as we run everything ourselves. Kieran and I run Mermaid Records together, we write the songs together, we record them together, and he produces the albums, answers the emails and updates the website. We do everything ourselves and every so often, we sit down and try to map out the vision for the next album – when will we make it? How will we market it? How will people find out about it?

Why did you choose the independent route?

I am a late-bloomer. Even though I was always singing, it took me a while to cultivate my own voice and to realise that writing my own songs was something I really enjoyed and wanted to do. Some people wake up and are able to articulate that at fourteen or sixteen but I didn’t have that revelation until I was in my 30s. Perhaps that’s because I became a Mum at 20 and for much of that decade, motherhood was my sole priority. I was singing but I was happier to be part of someone else’s vision rather than attempting to create the whole ‘thing’ myself. But ten years later, I realised that this was something that I wanted to do but at that age, no one was going to sign me to their record label. So, it was either I did it myself or not bother. I bothered. We did it.

I am in awe of how casual it all seems to have happened but I imagine it was a great challenge too?

I looked at the record label as a means to an end. I wanted to sing and have a career as a performer and started Mermaid Records was the vehicle to make that ambition a reality. I had written songs and I wanted people to hear them.

You often hear that artists have friction with their record company due to the lack of autonomy. Is that something you enjoy?

Yes. I hated the thought of being told to write a song that was ‘a bit more Mumford & Sons’ because that’s what the market demands. I don’t have to deal with that but the flip-side is that independently, I have to find ways to tell people about my music. Slowly, we have begun to figure that out. We do a gig in a location where we’re relatively unknown but when we return to that venue six months or a year later, there are more people at the gig and a higher number of people know the words to our songs. It’s very grassroots and old-fashioned but it works.

With touring and travelling to so many places, is Dublin still home to you?

We have always lived here and might travel for work or short breaks but Dublin has always been home. It has been a great place for us to raise a family and our life-long friends are here. However, every so often, we migrate for a few months and travel to somewhere we’ve never been before and there’s great learning in that and huge bonding for us as a family. You have to re-identify yourself and as a family, without the ties of home, there are great opportunities to experience things together which we might not get to do in Dublin because we’re all so busy and life just gets in the way. It’s really interesting.

Earlier this year, you were nominated for an IFTA – Congratulations.

Thanks very much.

But are accolades such as that how you measure professional success?

No. God no, I don’t. A successful piece of art – be it a song, an album or a film is something which results exactly the way in which you intended it to. I feel that if you can get what you have in your head out on to a manuscript or a roll of film – that’s success to me. By that, I’m not trying to say that the monetary or popularity aspects are not important but I don’t really quite know how to achieve either of those things and don’t deliberately pursue them.

Thinking more about it, if I was to say that ‘I am a success’, what that would mean to me personally is that I was keeping it together in a way that my children are learning, confident and able people, that we could earn enough of a living to keep us going and to be in a position to financially support our children and that we could continuously find ways to get the material in our head out into the ears and eyes of an audience. It’s still a pretty big ask though [laughs].

You’ll do that this afternoon [laughs].

Yes, I explained that as if it was perfectly manageable.

We spoke earlier about moments and in particular, those instances with a certain magic. Is there any key moment that you can recall that had a huge impact upon each dimension of your career and person?

There are lots of people who I have met who have been open and generous but if I was to pick a single time, it would be the instance when I felt very blocked, creatively speaking. I couldn’t write. I visited my friend Patrick Scott and said that I didn’t know what to do. He was in his 80s at this stage. I demanded that he tell me his secrets and his shortcuts – I figured he had all of the answers by this stage. ‘The meaning of life – hand it over, Pat.’ [laughs]

He shook his head and batted me off like a fly but his response has stuck with me ever since. “Just do the work, Maria.” He was right. I had to keep trying, I had to continue to chip away at it and eventually, ‘it’ all came tumbling out again. You can’t avoid the preparation, the work, occasional disappointment or heartbreak – it’s all part of it. I left him that day with him saying, ‘Just do the work as that’s what you’re going to leave behind. It’s what will sustain you when times are bad and it’s what you’ll be proud of when times are good’. I will always remember him saying that – from the expression on his face to the tone of his voice. I hold it in front of myself and reflect on those words whenever I’m challenged.

What do you want to leave behind?

My plan is to leave behind four children who are wiser and more evolved than I am. That’s my crown. 

Thank you to Maria, Kieran and Chloe for their assistance in bringing this conversation to life. For further information, you can find Maria on Twitter, FacebookInstagram, listen to her on Spotify, and scour through her website here.

Interview originally published July 9, 2015

Sinead Burke