Nigel Kennedy is as controversial as ever – but a man you can’t help but like
PUBLISHED: 12:38 07 May 2014 | UPDATED: 12:38 07 May 2014
Standing on the doorstep of his Belsize Park residence, Nigel Kennedy doesn’t greet with a handshake, but a hug. In one swoop, this gesture betrays the spiky-haired violinist’s divisive status over the years.
"I’ve never experienced difficulties with musicians when I can actually just sit down in a room with them. To be honest, perhaps a lot of that early controversy was just from people jealous I was selling a lot more records than them"
To some, it’s another sign of a maverick willing to reach out beyond the stuffiness of classical music, but to others it showcases a former enfant terrible still nursing a bad case of Peter Pan syndrome.
Since his popular – or, debatably, populist – cover of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons stormed the classical charts back in 1989, Kennedy has certainly had his fair share of critics, but the man’s never short of friends. As we enter the endearingly ramshackle living room of his urban cottage, he beamingly introduces his publicist, Dan, and a “bloody brilliant” acoustic guitarist called Doug through his oft-maligned mockney chirp.
Beneath us, a carpet of instruments, torn rizlas and empty bottles of Veuve Clicquot makes for a scene stereotypically bohemian and it’s hard to understand why Kennedy never just packed in the violin for rock ’n’ roll. “If you ever saw me trying to play guitar, that’d be a ready explanation,” he later jokes.
Nonetheless, in his upcoming Roundhouse show, Bach to the Future, the world-renowned performer will pay tribute to Hendrix and co as he ploughs through a set comprising his favourite musical pieces, which also encompass jazz, gypsy, klezmer and, of course, classical.
While two manic canines – Huxley and Bully – sniff around our feet, Kennedy explains that he’s looking forward to an intimate affair at the Roundhouse.
“I saw Jay Z play there a few years ago and it was quite a small venue for him, but that’s what I like. I need to be able to look the back row in the eye at my shows; I don’t think I ever feel completely comfortable otherwise.
“You want to be able to interact with the audience and bring them into the show; it’s all about how they feed the music. Would you like some tea by the way?”
He goes into the kitchen and returns with a tepid teapot, a warm carton of milk and an Aston Villa mug, placing them each in front of me. “Sorry I didn’t know if you wanted milk – I never drink the stuff, so help yourself.”
By all accounts, last year was a vintage one for the 57-year-old. A sell-out tour drew rave reviews from The Guardian and The Times, while The Independent declared the Last Night Of The Proms the best in years “thanks to a resplendent performance by the evergreen Nigel Kennedy”.
Typically, however, trouble was never far from the door. During the night, Kennedy performed with a group of young musicians from his beloved Palestine – a country he has been passionate about since he dated a Palestinian as a student in New York – and declared: “We all know from the experience of this night of music that giving equality and getting rid of apartheid gives a beautiful chance for things to happen.” Due to the BBC’s strict policy of political neutrality, the programme was censored for the first time in its history as BBC governor Baroness Deech called on Kennedy to apologise.
It is a decision that still grates. “I thought that was pretty shocking. They also censored my programme notes, you know, where I’d just said some lovely things about my friends. I was told that you have to represent both sides in such a debate, but what does that mean? That you can have someone opposing apartheid, but only if they have someone sitting next to them supporting it?”
Nonetheless, for someone who consciously or unconsciously seems married to controversy, it feels impossible to dislike Kennedy as a character. Bouncy, attentive and a natural conversationalist, the harmony within his young Proms orchestra looked infectious.
“I’ve never experienced difficulties with musicians when I can actually just sit down in a room with them. To be honest, perhaps a lot of that early controversy was just from people jealous I was selling a lot more records than them.
“When I did The Four Seasons, it came at a point when Radio 3 were sometimes getting no more than 250 people listening to them, but suddenly there I was selling two million copies. If some people like the music, they like it, and if they don’t, well it’s too bad.”
It is ironic then how, at this moment, Kennedy’s manager, Terri, walks in to check if he’s prepared for his Radio 3 session, which the station has been excitedly publicising all morning. Kennedy starts to wax lyrical about a new jazz interpretation he and Doug were working on the night before, before quickly interjecting as Terri picks up the teapot. “Oh don’t use that milk, it’s a few days’ out of date, I think.”
I look down at my now empty Aston Villa mug in despair. “Ah it’s fine really, I tried it out on Doug earlier. Didn’t I, Doug?”
A voice shouts out from within the kitchen, “Yeah man, that’s some damn fine milk.”
One of the secrets to Kennedy’s success has always been surrounding himself with colourful and extraordinarily talented individuals. Just a few weeks before we talk, Gary Lineker came to visit and the pair engaged in a bizarre game of ‘kitchen golf’ that resulted in three broken windows. But despite the damage, this sizeable property has become home over the past 30 years and provided a perfect artistic hub in the capital to draw inspiration from.
“I do feel like a real member of this community,” Kennedy adds. “I played a gig at a local church last year for an event about preserving Hampstead Heath and I think that’s very important.
“We take Bully up there a lot and he frightens the joggers. He’s a totally cool dog you know, but because he’s a bulldog he gets them into a right funk. The other day, one of these geezers started veering off the path just to get away from us and he tried to jump a fence. He ended up impaling himself on all its paraphernalia, was a strange f***ing scenario.”
The road to this enviable abode hasn’t always been easy. Kennedy’s decision as a student to appear alongside renegade jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli was met with horror by his teachers at Juilliard, who warned that it would scupper any chance of landing a classic record deal.
“And they were absolutely correct. Sony saw what I’d done and pulled the plug on our whole deal – it was about nine years before I’d get another one and I went on somewhat of a hiatus.”
Outside of his career, he has also ridden a number of turbulent relationships. He now divides his time between Kraków – where he lives with his Polish second wife, Agnieszka – and London, where his ex-girlfriend and 17-year-old son Sark are based.
Pointing towards a load bearing ceiling post next to us, I remark on the height marks notched up on its edges, which are all labelled with Sark’s name and now reach six foot. They hint at a marked contrast to the conditions of Kennedy’s own upbringing, where his Australian musician father – unaware that he had impregnated Kennedy’s mother while visiting England – did not meet his son until his 11th birthday.
“I see Sark quite a bit, but he’s old enough now that he’s got his own life and a schedule to keep. In the past, though, I used to have 10 days a month where I could be a real hands-on father and pick him up from school and spend quality time together.
“Kids do need their parents even if they’re not together. If it’s a boy, you just need to have a man’s influence around and if it’s a girl, well, you need someone there to make sure they don’t fall in with a dodgy geezer, don’t you?”
And with that, Kennedy picks up his violin and heads to his car; showing me the door and dusting off the dog prints that now adorn my dark leather bag. In a moment of symmetry, he departs with a hug and I’m left wondering who would ever want to rob such an entertainer of such passion.
Divisive he may be, but for those on his side, he makes those Belsize streets just look a lesser shade of grey.
Nigel Kennedy’s Bach to the Future comes to the Roundhouse on Saturday May 17. Visit roundhouse.org.uk.
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