Singer, songwriter and activist John Kelly’s life must feel like he’s on a runaway train. This month sees John begin another tour of Graeae Theatre Company’s riotous musical featuring the songs of Ian Dury, Reasons To Be Cheerful, and the release of a new single, If It Can’t Be Right, Then It Must Be Wrong, alongside Dury’s band mates The Blockheads with Kelly on lead vocals and joint writing credit. He is working with Graeae to teach the next generation of disabled musicians how to write effective protest songs, and before each performance of Reasons To Be Cheerful these new tracks will be played to the audience alongside a performance of the new single. Mik Scarlet caught up with him to get the lowdown.
Recently, Kelly launched a new assistive music tech device, designed in association with Drake Music, the Kellycaster, which gives John the ability to play guitar and other digital instruments. I was lucky enough to meet up with John just before rehearsals for the Reasons to Be Cheerful tour began for a chat, a laugh and a beer or two.
Sat outside the Great Northern Hotel in London’s Kings Cross, ordering our first pint and some sweet potato fries, I wanted to know what was it that got him into music?
“A great music teacher at school. I was lucky to have a teacher that could see something in me. She was brilliant. She worked around my abilities, I had quite a good ear and could sing. That comes from my family. My family are Irish and everyone sings, everyone has their story to tell. At home, there was always music around. The radio was on, or the stereo playing, instead of telly. Music was always all around me from an early age. At school, we put a band together. We made instruments out of the crap stuff in the school cupboard. Tambourines, a bass drum, a broken snare so we had a drum kit, the piano. Basic but fun.”
So what would he say were the highlights of his career so far?
“Blimey, that’s a hard one. I’ve had loads. I can’t believe I’m doing this for a living so I feel lucky if I’m playing in front of an audience of more than one person. I went to America when I was a kid, eighteen, and did a little tour playing Memphis, Nashville, doing the rock and roll thing. The highlight of that was going to Graceland, and some of Elvis’s family came to my show that night. I also got to play with Jerry Lee Lewis’s sister, Linda Gail Lewis. She played keyboards with me and was amazing. Back then it was all guys with the rock and roll image, but the women were just as talented. The Paralympics ceremony was obviously a big highlight. I remember playing the Fairfields Hall, playing my own stuff. I had a fifteen-minute set, which was big for me. But every gig is a highlight. Every time I play I love it.”
The link with Graeae sprang from research and development for Reasons To Be Cheerful, perhaps their most successful show to date.
“My band used to play live a lot, and Graeae wanted a band to play as part of a show they were putting on. I did that gig and Jenny (Sealey) said Graeae were doing development for a show about Ian Dury and I should come along. I’d always known about Graeae through my youth work, as I use arts to explore the issues they face. I worked with disabled and non-disabled young people and used music as my way in, so I looked to Graeae to find something to take my young people to show them that disability art is good and cool. Graeae had always been there. As soon as I became politically aware, I wanted to know, who are the artists I could look up to?”
Politics is in Kelly’s blood.
“I’ve always been political in some way. I went to a segregated school and saw what non-disabled people gained from us. Young non-disabled guys coming into our school doing their Duke of Edinburgh awards, doing good for us. We all resented that.
As a kid you’ve got all these good looking non-disabled boys nicking all the disabled girls, or boys, you fancied at school. We’d give them hell. We’d run them over on purpose.
As a teenager I was thinking how do I fit in? Do I fit in? I don’t want to fit in. I discovered metal, and punk and ska and didn’t want to be around other disabled people. I didn’t want people to know I was at a special school. I didn’t talk about disability at all, but when I started doing youth work I realised it was something important that I needed to open up to. I wanted to make the youth centres accessible as they are meant to be for everyone. I got involved with the British Youth Council, then learned about unions and that kind of stuff.
I was in a band called Another Dead Rabbit, a very political punk band. Then I met Milly Hill, an American equality trainer, on a race and equality course and she talked about the Social Model, which at the time was a new thing. I saw a video called The Disabling Council and everyone who was involved in the political disability movement was in it. It was a video about disability equality.
All that got me political, so I went on a few protests with the Direct Action Network, but all the time I was using my music. Music and politics came about because I saw a documentary about a group of disabled guys who played guitars on trays and thought, wow, I could do that. That’s what I want. I want to play guitar, be in a band and be shouting about equality”
One key aim in launching The Kellycaster is to make assistive music tech that anyone can buy
“Disabled people are brilliant at problem solving, we’ve done it all our lives, and the Kellycaster is that. I want to play guitar, so how can I do it? I was fortunate enough to be involved with Drake, with the talented people they have there, and together we made it happen. The objective was to build a guitar that I could play that was robust, that could survive just short of me burning it live on stage. It has to survive a gig.
When you’re an artist, you have to be focused. You have to be relentless. Like a painter trying to get the right colour. You’re relentless in the pursuit of what you think will be good. I did that with the Kellycaster, striving to make it the best guitar for my needs. But having said that, wouldn’t it be great to make something that other people got something out of? So, the idea is, the software will be open source, so anyone can use it, make it their own or use it with whatever instrument they want. You can make a musical instrument out of a banana people! The Kellycaster, and other accessible music apps, can allow you to use it and have some fun or use it to become a real musician. It has the potential to open up the world of music to anyone”
As part of the new Reasons To Be Cheerful tour, Kelly is instrumental to a community outreach project where the public are being invited to submit their own protest songs, some of which will be played at performances. Is now the time for overtly political art to rise again?
“I won’t say we took our foot off the gas, because that isn’t true, we’ve always been political, but things change. We have Twitter and Facebook so people don’t think they have to go out on the street to protest. You can get an online petition. Some people say 20 people in the streets don’t change attitudes. Some people say sitting on the panels and advisory boards, watching tiny incremental change is vital. I think it all plays a part.”
“Sometimes I am overly political, doing something around disability as I want to see it changed but sometimes I am an artist doing a gig, making sure they are as accessible as they can be, because access is for us all. We have a responsibility to make sure our values are obvious in the work we do. You sometimes have to go into environments that aren’t inclusive or welcoming, to make them see they need to change.
Sometimes I’m an artist sometimes, I’m a disabled artist, and sometimes I’m just an Irish fella. As long as you’re doing it, being there can be enough. When I write a song, I write it for myself, so if someone likes it I’m blown away. The brave bit is putting it out there to critique. My entire life is about change – I want to be better at everything I do. I’m not the greatest musician or singer but I work hard at it. I never built the Kellycaster to be the Slash of the disability world. I just want to play a few chords to write a new song.”
The audience reaction to Reasons To Be Cheerful is electric, and has a profound effect on Kelly.
“I never thought I’d be in the actual cast, as I thought they’d get a real actor in to do my part. It’s exhausting but exhilarating. Even on the first night of the show I thought someone would push me out the way, and say here’s the real actor. It’s just a fortunate place to be. You come off shaky and goose bumps and all that.”
Reasons To Be Cheerful opens at the Belgrade, Coventry on 8th September, then goes on a national tour visiting Derby Theatre, Nuffield Southampton, New Wolsey in Ipswich, West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, Liverpool Everyman and Theatre Royal Stratford East, London.
To find out more about the Kellycaster and other accessible music technology innovations, watch John Kelly in Disability Arts International’s short film ‘Three Adventures in Accessible Music Technology’: