The renaissance man of Irish song
From being the 'next U2' to directing €1m Guinness ads to missing out on the Oscars, Nick Kelly's career has taken some amazing twists and turns
Thirty years ago, in the wake of the enormous global success of The Joshua Tree, the record industry descended on Dublin in a bid to find the next U2.
They were on a fool's errand - even Bono's greatest detractors would admit he is one of a kind - but that didn't stop them signing up a glut of bands. Many of them were pedestrian, including Cactus World News and Cry Before Dawn, but others - like An Emotional Fish and The Fat Lady Sings - had oodles of potential.
The Fat Lady Sings were particularly admired. Fronted by the urbane Nick Kelly, they weren't as shackled to their country as their peers and when they relocated to London, the smart money was on them 'making it'. After two well-received albums they parted company and joined a long list of Irish bands that should have reached a wider audience.
"I was never going to be a pop star," Kelly says, admitting that he didn't possess that hard-to-identify 'something', "but it was a fun time where we got to make music and go on the road and just be creative".
Those Fat Lady Sings albums still stand up today, especially their first, Twist, with it smart singles 'Arclight' and 'Deborah' - but Kelly quips that he doesn't like to look backwards. And why would he when he has just directed a feature film that has been attracting lots of advance excitement and scooped a prestigious prize - for Best Irish Feature - at the Galway International Arts Festival?
The film is The Drummer and the Keeper, a Dublin-set story looking at the unlikely friendship of two very different young men. Gabriel is a drummer in a rising rock band. Christopher is a late teen with a passion for goalkeeping. They are united by mental health issues: Gabriel has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder; Christopher has Asperger's syndrome and lives in a special care home. They meet when Gabriel's therapist urges him to partake in a mixed-ability football match, which sees Christopher in goal.
"I'm interested in the idea that, in times of need, it's often the very people we least expect that are there for us most," he says. "Sometimes those closest to us don't know what to say or do. Christopher and Gabriel are going through a tough time and in the normal course of events their paths wouldn't have crossed at all."
And while they may have been brought together by a common adversity, they discover a shared understanding - even if there are many obstacles along the way. A film looking at mental health has come along at the right time, because Ireland seems to be more willing than ever to talk of a topic that was once taboo.
One senses that Kelly has taken great care to try to convey the experience as authentically as possible, especially as his 12-year-old son, Finn, is on the autism spectrum. "And yet," he stresses, "everybody's experience is unique."
Kelly's cast - whose number includes a barely recognisable Peter Coonan and his Love/Hate co-star Aoibhinn McGinnity - is headed by Dermot Murphy as Gabriel and newcomer Jacob McCarthy as Christopher. Murphy has been on the radar since his days in RTÉ's popular restaurant drama Raw - "and," Kelly says, "he's a drummer, which was great, but not essential" - and he's good in the part. But it's McCarthy who steals the film. Kelly says he knew in his gut as soon as he saw him perform that he had found his Christopher, and an early read with Murphy convinced him they would work very well together.
The film was funded by the Irish Film Board to the tune of €350,000 and was shot in a brisk 20-day period early last year. "We did a lot of rehearsals in advance," Kelly says, "and that really helped us when it came to the time that the cameras would roll." It was something Lenny Abrahamson also did in advance of shooting the low-budget What Richard Did and The Drummer and the Keeper will be distributed by Element Pictures, the production and distribution company behind all Abrahamson's films.
Besides writing and directing his film, Kelly also contributed several of his own songs to a fine soundtrack overseen by John Gerard Walsh. Some of the songs are culled from Kelly's more recent recordings, under the Alien Envoy moniker. The closing credits feature one of Kelly's songs performed by former Fairground Attraction singer Eddi Reader.
"She was really great," he enthuses. "She arrived into Dublin on a late flight, went out to the studio and nailed the song really quickly."
When The Fat Lady Sings quit shortly after the release of the Johnson album in 1993, Kelly was at a loose end. He returned to Dublin and began working in the creative side of an advertising agency. It turned out he was a born ad man. "I took to it quickly and really enjoyed how creative it could be," he says.
He has little truck with those who castigate creative people in advertising as sell-outs. "You'd get that sort of attitude from bands 20 or 30 years ago, but with sales having declined so much, musicians tend to be glad of any revenue stream. Let's put it this way: I'd be delighted if one of my songs featured on a major ad campaign!"
Kelly's ad CV includes two of the most memorable Guinness TV commercials of the past 20 years. The first was centred around the Kerry polar explorer Tom Crean, and directed by Tarsem Singh, who shot R.E.M.'s Grammy-winning 'Losing My Religion' video.
The second featured a then unknown Michael Fassbender striding across Ireland and then swimming across the Atlantic in order to say 'Sorry' to someone he had wronged. The ad was especially popular as it featured the rousing song 'Heyday' from the late Mic Christopher.
"In creative, you're involved in every aspects of those campaigns - the copy, the casting, the soundtrack. You could be working on a project that big for nine months. Both would have had budgets in excess of €1m."
The Crean story has stayed with Kelly ever since and he's working on a screenplay for a film based on the explorer's intriguing life. "I want to keep busy," he says, "and to try to keep the momentum up. It's been quite a while since we shot The Drummer and the Keeper so I wanted to use that time constructively and to be ready to go with something else."
The 'Sorry' ad has poignant memories, too. "Mic had died just before the ad was created," he says, "so he didn't get to see how well people responded to his song. And 'Heyday' worked so well in that ad."
On a happier note, Kelly was instrumental in the casting of Fassbender. "He walked into the room and he had this remarkable presence, even then," he says. "I said to the others, 'This is a guy you really need to see'."
In later years, Kelly has directed TV commercials, and while he argues that such work - including a memorable campaign for the Irish Film Institute's archive that featured Saoirse Ronan - has helped him get to grips with the technical demands of making a feature film, he reckons its his short movies that have best equipped him for the task.
Kelly has filmed several, including the Peter Coonan-starring Shoe, which was long-listed for an Academy Award in 2013. It didn't make the final five nominations, thus depriving Kelly of the opportunity to walk down the world's most famous red carpet, but it helped put him on the radar. Despite an impressive, multifaceted CV, Kelly had to work hard to secure funding under the Irish Film Board's Catalyst scheme. Only three films made the cut out of more than 400 hopefuls. "They're probably worse odds than a band trying to sign a major record deal back in the day," he says.
He adds that he got as much of a kick out of the short shoot for The Drummer and the Keeper as he ever did by taking to the stage with The Fat Lady Sings or Alien Envoy. "The days are long and you're conscious that you have finite time to get the shots right, but it's such a great thrill. And I love that it's so collaborative, too. You're only as good as the people around you, whether they're on the crew or in front of the cameras. But when there's a sense that everyone is really engaged with the project, it's quite a feeling."
And it's a feeling that Kelly wants to experience again even though, for now, he will continue to juggle his film-making, music and ad work as best he can.
"I hope they complement each other, or at least give me skills to do better work. It's still a learning process, and I'm perfectly fine with that."
The Drummer and the Keeper is released on Friday