In the last in a series on creative people and the places that inspire them, Sheena Hastings talks to songwriter and producer Eliot Kennedy.
THROUGH an anonymous black door in Brown Street in the centre of Sheffield’s Cultural Quarter. Left into reception – a desk in front of a wall decorated by silver, gold and platinum coloured disc-shaped music industry awards that catch the light and dazzle. On through the kitchen that services the five music studios here, with their peripatetic population of artists, producers and engineers. The place is workmanlike, not lavish.
It’s 9am, but the sound-proofed engine rooms on either side of the rabbit warren corridors are already warming up. Who knows what gems Steelworks Studios are turning out right this very minute. Artists still on the cusp of stardom and huge big international names pass this way.
Sure, the studios have all the right kit, the place has a reputation for being well run and costs a lot less than studio hire in London. But the biggest draw is Eliot Kennedy.
A songwriter and music producer with a worldwide reputation, whose work spans strings of number one pop hits that have launched and relaunched careers (Lulu, the Spice Girls, boy band 911) and co-writing material with such luminaries as Bryan Adams and national treasure Gary Barlow. Kennedy is a big hitter.
He’s also very tall, and his presence – though warm, smiley and unassuming – dominates the space he inhabits. He’s now standing in the middle of what was once a dream when he was growing up in North Anston on the outskirts of Sheffield.
He taught himself the keyboards, and by 13 he and his brother were writing songs and playing in a school band. His natural bent was not performance but production, though, and he wanted to land a number one single by the time he was 25.
Today his best friend is Gary Barlow, whom he started working with 20-odd years ago. Their many professional adventures have included co-producing the catchy, earworm Jubilee hit Sing. The relationship started when Kennedy was called upon to help with the writing and production of songs for the Take That album Everything Changes, including the title track – which went to number one on Eliot’s 25th birthday.
An enduring relationship developed, and in 2012 the two travelled around the Commonwealth recording voices and instruments which were then blended with a symphony orchestra and the Military Wives Choir for Sing, penned by Barlow and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Kennedy shows me the tiny Zoom stereo digital recorder (cost: £200) that he used to gather all the material.
“My first thought was to take a small portable studio, but that was impossible, as we were recording and filming material on the top of mountains at times. But this and a good laptop were perfect.”
Kennedy and Barlow clearly trust each other’s judgment implicitly – although Eliot says that if he’s taking the producer role on a track, then he has the final say.
“We rarely disagree, though,” he adds. “He and I have a lot in common, I suppose. We’re around the same age and we both grew up hearing a lot of classic songs in local working men’s clubs. In my case it was because my dad and sister both sang in the clubs. We work well together. Sometimes I’ll come up with a chorus to start a song off, or Gary will send over a few lines or a tune to get me thinking. In the song writing partnerships, I mainly do lyrics.”
The two have also worked on talent show The X Factor together – in 2011, Kennedy agreed to take a role in artist development.
“It was full-on for months, and I wouldn’t do it again,” he says. “But I have nothing against those shows, as they don’t promise singers the earth. They know that the real work starts afterwards.”
He’s not long back from Helmand Province, making the documentary special Journey To Afghanistan with Barlow, which aired last week on ITV. Giving a window on the life of British forces, as well as entertaining personnel stationed at Camp Bastion, some military personnel were recruited to play and sing in Gary’s band and perform live. “I’ve never been in a band on tour so I’ve never known that ‘one of the boys’ thing,” says Eliot. “There is a great sense of brotherhood and camaraderie at Camp Bastion, but also an intensity that made me want to come home after 24 hours.
“People out there have big hearts and they’re true professionals. I always took for granted what our armed forces do for us, but now I feel true respect and admiration.”
Back safely in the cocoon of the studio and spinning plates in the air that include producing Donny Osmond’s next album, launching former X Factor contestant Janet Devlin’s new single, co-writing the stage musical of Peter Pan story Finding Neverland with Gary Barlow and masterminding his own artist development academy, Kennedy is surprisingly relaxed.
“I have a great team here, and I know the academy is in safe hands when I’m not around. I opened it last year to teach young artists about every aspect of the business and how to handle their own career. Gone are the days when you can afford to come in and just stand in front of a mic. You have to understand the engineering, the production process, money, marketing, touring. Equally, anyone wanting to be a producer has to learn that just having a baseball cap and sampler won’t make you into one.”
The studio actually looks less hi-tech than a TV control gallery, and certainly nothing like the Starship Enterprise.
“I’ve kept the older equipment with valves because it gives a real warmth to the sound that I like. I blend this with more modern production methods, obviously. This is an unconventional studio, in that there’s no mixing desk. I use Logic software on the computer.”
All five studios may, at times, be working on different aspects of the same track. A large item in the current workload is the Osmond album, which is being produced in Sheffield without the American singer setting foot in the city.
“He sends me sound files of his voice, and at this end we get the musicians in to provide the other elements. We Skype regularly, and from start to finish and I’ll go over and see him in Las Vegas for a week during the last stages.”
Among the studio’s knobs and buttons, computer kit and different kinds of keyboards it’s strange to see a book – the Bible – sitting on a tiny table next to a bronze figurine that turns out to be the Ivor Novello Award Kennedy won for co-writing Boyzone’s number one Picture of You.
It may not be very rock ’n’ roll but Eliot Kennedy is a committed Christian and says the Good Book is there because he likes to “read the odd thing” and it also provides inspiration.
“Particularly so when Bryan Adams and I were asked by Harvey Weinstein to write the big song for the end of the Bobby Kennedy movie Bobby. It had to have the best, the most heartfelt and honest lyrics I could come up with.” They delivered an inspired gospel anthem sung by Aretha Franklin and Mary J Blige and it won a Grammy.
The next few weeks will be taken up by that Donny album and by time spent in a hotel in New York, working on the final songs for Finding Neverland, which is due to open on Broadway then the West End from next autumn.
“You have to find a balance and provide a decent narrative, not just brief, unsatisfying links between numbers. We’ve found the process of writing for the stage a challenge but great fun, too, and so far the director Diane Paulus seems happy.”
The music business can be tough on family life, and Eliot misses his 12-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter when he’s travelling. He and his wife divorced some years ago.
Kennedy may live in upmarket Millhouses these days, but he retains a great fondness for the area where he was born.
The next live gig he’s organising is in March at his old comprehensive school in Dinnington – and youngsters can expect a few special guest stars once ‘old boy’ Eliot opens his little black book.
Eliot Kennedy’s musical roots
Born in Sheffield, Eliot Kennedy began song writing while at Dinnington High School.
He trained as a sound engineer at weekends while working in a Wimpy bar during the week, and later set up in business with help from the government’s Enterprise Scheme.
His first big success as a producer was Independence, the hit title song of the 1993 album of the same name by Lulu. This led to further work with artists including the Spice Girls, S Club 7, Atomic Kitten, Dannii Minogue, Bryan Adams and Take That.
He has organised large-scale events including the recent Women of Steel concert in Sheffield and produced the Welcome To Yorkshire charity single On Ilkla Moor Baht’At.