27/06/2012 at 9:45 am Leave a comment

Recently Sydney Fringe HQ put out a call for internets arts writers to cover some of the projects on the horizon of their impending festival in September. So we found ourselves agreeing and hence commissioned to sit and chat with musician John Francis Kennedy about his show Sons of Sun – the conversation meandering between disparate topics such as music publishing, piracy, Berlin in the 80’s, Elvis, Johnny Cash and the serendipity that comes of saying “sure thing” when something comes up.

It’s this last one that piques the imagination – as Kennedy recounts his background living in Europe after finding success in the Australian music sector “just as Aussie music was taking off”, perhaps embarking overseas was not the wisest of choices? But he regrets nothing. A chance invitation to perform at the Berlin Independent Music Festival (before the wall came down) lead to a chain of opportunities knocking, eventually leading the Australian songwriter to represent German music at an independent music event in Texas called South-by-South-West (you may have heard of it). Before it was cool, natch.

Forgetting about what we were actually interviewing about for a minute it had to be asked: Berlin circa 88-89? Do tell. “The West German Government at the time was doing whatever it could to attract people to the city. So these giant arts festivals were everywhere. Just about everyone was an artist – but you never forgot the city was surrounded by walls with guys carrying machine guns who would kill you.” Asked if the music scene was what drew him to the city, Kennedy laconically muses how it was totally counter-intuitive for his laid-back country style. “Berlin was very dark and heavy-rock; Nick Cave kind of stuff. But they were paying me to go, so… off I went.” It’s these kind of life-changing opportunities that can tumble all kinds of creative dominoes when taken with both hands. Kennedy’s subsequent journey charting across different countries, continents, ideological and technological shifts, eventually landing back in Sydney.

It’s here that Kennedy found the next chapter of opportunities knocking, covering Roy Orbison’s Only The Lonely for a tribute album on Foghorn records. The track never made it on the album but it opened doors to the possibility of further work. The label suggested the track go up on iTunes anyway. The power of “Why Not?” in full effect, as this then lead to the Sons of Sun releases Volumes I & II, in turn leading into the collaboration with playwright Kieran Carroll and actor Matt Charleston on the music-biography-theatre-event based on the life of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and some of the artists who started their careers there. You might have heard of a few; Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Rufus Thomas among others.

“It’s not a musical. There’s a band, but the actors don’t burst into song…” says Kennedy. So what is it? We recall the expression coined by Benito DiFonzo about his Bob Dylan based “theatrical talking blues” The Chronic Ills of Robert Zimmerman; Kennedy nods – “I know Benito, he’s been helping out around the edges during the development process…” Once again the conversation digresses into the close knit music/drama crossover sector in Sydney’s Inner West. The band behind Sons of Sun can be seen playing at staple music icons like The Rose of Australia in Erskineville for those keen on sampling some of his handiwork before the festival rolls around in September. John Kennedy & the ’68 Comeback Special are the latest in a string of incarnations harking way back to his early career in the pubs of Brisbane. So it’s not surprising this show is loosely connected with some of our creative institutions, and fitting it’s playing upstairs at the infamous “Sando” in Newtown. “They’ve been looking at getting some theatre up there for a long time…”

Curiouser and curiouser. This interview keeps taking surprising turns, but the hour is almost up. One more comment on the music publishing industry vortex-of-uncertainty before we wrap things up? Kennedy shrugs. “Back in the eighties it was all CDs taking over everything, and the label I was on in Berlin insisted on printing vinyl. If we can’t adapt to change then we’re not going to make it.” Of course, now vinyl is retro again and those prints might well be worth the price of a small car to the right collector. Here endeth the lesson: say yes to things. You never know what you might find.

SONS OF SUN, premiering at the Sandringham Hotel as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival Friday September 21 to Sunday Sept 23, 2012.

Entry filed under: Sydney THEATRE.

HOW TO GROW A BEARD “We Could Have A Conversation…”

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