Maria Doyle Kennedy on Her Latest Album Sing
Maria Doyle Kennedy is a chimera of an artist. She may be best known to American audiences for her roles in shows like Downton Abbey, The Tudors, and Dexter, but her first love is music. Since her latest album Sing was released last year, the Irish chanteuse has brought her haunting brand of folk to audiences across Europe before reaching these shores. I was able to sit down with Kennedy after her recent performance at Highline Ballroom to chat with her about Sing, from its crowdfunding origins to going global.
How did you get involved in using PledgeMusic? Had you finished Sing, or were you just beginning the album?
We had nearly finished recording Sing, actually. We knew it was special and had to get the word out, but how do you do that? You think that when you’re done making the album, you’re done, but we were really only about halfway there because my husband [Keiran Kennedy] and I run our own record label, so then we had to think about marketing. This opportunity presented itself.
The nice thing about the Internet is there is such access these days, so a smaller artist can get heard, but that also means there’s almost a deluge out there. You have to get heard through that. When I first started out making music, the way you got in touch with your fanbase to let them know that you were coming into town was you sent them a postcard, which was prohibitively expensive. Now you can just pop online and say, “Hey, I’m having a gig.” Like some of the places Kieran and I go, we show up and play, trusting that those people will go tell their friends for the next time.
How did you find the PledgeMusic experience?
It was really hard actually. There were people who were paying in because they wanted to be part of the experience, and you knew that you had to give them something more. We wanted to make sure that everyone who paid got the record but something else as well. We tried to update once or more a week, and that could get challenging. Sometimes we’d throw in a song or an old video or a new one. I was surprised actually that there were some people who just gave a tenner, the price of the album basically, and then they never checked back. It was humbling that they had that much faith in the music. By the end of the whole process, I just gave a song away, like, “Here, you are already in. You’re part of this now.” It was incredible, the connection there. This is the way it should be all the time.
What was Sing like for you compared to writing Mütter?
This really did feel like more of a journey. While I think that Mütter will go down posthumously as my masterpiece, Sing is what I love. It’s the mountains and the ocean and everything between, different landscapes. And singing just came up in the lyrics in so many songs while I was writing. It’s just what I love to do.
How important was it to collaborate with your friends on this?
John Prine was the first to get back to me actually, and I didn’t know him at all. I just found a way to send him the song, and when he called me back to say he liked it, I was thrilled. I wrote these songs with these voices in my head, with specific people in mind. Like with “Hola Luna,” I have a deeper voice while Paul Brady goes a bit higher. I liked playing with that.
Also, I wanted to work with real artists. I didn’t do it for who they were. These are people who genuinely love what they do, and they’re not going to collaborate for the sake of having their names out there. When I sent the song to Damien [Rice], he actually said to me, “I hear it. I can hear my voice here.”
How do you translate Sing into a live performance with just you and Kieran playing?
Sometimes the best things are the simplest. It comes from a more honest place. You can hide a shit song behind a wall of sound. Everything can be stripped down to the guitar and the vocals, and we built up from there. It makes it easier if we’re touring without a band, especially since we’re running our own label here.
How do you balance music and acting with having a family?
I’m on my own road. I really am. You know, I just get on with it. I’m really inspired by Patti Smith. She’s so prolific as a woman, from a photographer to a writer and a musician. And you know, nobody asks Tom Waits how he does it. I find that very interesting. I suppose he was already pretty famous as a musician before he began acting.
I get asked to do a lot of things [for acting], but if it doesn’t feel right, I pass. I have four children and want to support my family, so why would I be away from them if it wasn’t something that I cared about? It has to really grab me. Some things I read and just know it’ll kill me not to do it. Plus Kieran will work with other musicians, and I can go off and do my thing too with the acting. It’s healthy for us because our lives are so entwined otherwise. It gives us a chance to breathe, and then we can come back and find that spark all over again. I’d be gigging every day if I could though.
Maria Doyle Kennedy’s Sing and Appalachian cover album The Storms Are On The Ocean, as well as her back catalog, are available now through mariadk.com and other online stores. Kennedy runs her own Twitter account at @mariadkennedy.