Tuesday 23 October 2018

Hermione Hennessy: A song to soothe my grief

Susan Daly

Daughters are supposed to adore their daddies. Some fathers do their best to justify that expectation, but Hermione Hennessy has never doubted that her late father, singer-songwriter Christie Hennessy, was one of those dads. "He was the most incredible person," she says.

When news of Christie's death from cancer, caused by asbestosis, broke two Christmases ago, the airwaves were flooded with an outpouring of grief. RTE's Liveline was extended by an unprecedented half an hour to facilitate those paying their respects to the artist whom Christy Moore described as the "most beautiful of men".

Most remembered Christie's good humour, charm and warm on-stage presence. "Dad had always been quite shy," says Hermione.

"Mum remembers the first time she saw him on stage, cracking jokes and falling off his chair to make the audience laugh, and she thought, 'My goodness, who IS this man? I've been married to him for five years and this is a different person!'"

Then there were the songs: he wrote the Frances Black hit All The Lies That You Told Me, and Christy Moore's recording of his song Don't Forget Your Shovel has been described as Ireland's alternative national anthem.

The influential BBC DJ John Peel championed Christie's music from the early '70s, but it was only with the triple-platinum-selling album The Rehearsal in 1992 that Christie -- at the age of 47 -- found himself in the limelight as a performer.

In the following 15 years, up until his death on December 11, 2007, his gently quavering voice and story-based songs about what Juliet Turner once described as "grief and stars and love" finally put him in his rightful place in the canon of classic Irish balladeers.

The public sense of loss was palpable -- one can only imagine the private devastation felt by the Ross family (Hennessy was a stage name).

"When dad died, I was in such a blur," says Hermione, Christie and wife Jill's eldest child, his longtime manager and sometime duettist. "I knew people were paying all these wonderful tributes to him, we were aware that it had hit people, but I didn't want anyone to visit. It was overwhelming."

Asbestosis has its roots in prolonged exposure to asbestos. It often incubates for decades before a virulent cancer develops, aggressively attacking the body.

In Christie's case, it "knocked him for six". He was diagnosed with the disease and died in the same year. His family believe he contracted it while working on building sites in London in the '60s.

"I remember when I was a child, seeing him coming home covered in this white stuff," says Hermione.

"Once the warnings were out there, he was diligent. It took 40 years to incubate and show up. He never drank, smoked or did drugs. He ate well. He was always doing the right thing for other people, and he also did the right thing by himself. So it's really tragic that he probably got it in his very late teens."

Hermione is now patron of the Asbestos Forum, offering support to others facing the "horrible, horrible" fate that Christie suffered.

Her voice drops almost to a whisper when she speaks about the ongoing impact of his loss on her family. "Talking about him will never get easier," she says, smiling sadly.

"I said to a girlfriend after he passed -- she had lost her mum when she was about 14 -- 'How do you cope with this; does it get any better?' She said, 'It doesn't get any better, you just get more used to it.' And that's the truth. You get used to it, but you miss them even more."

One way of coping has been to throw herself into projects that keep Christie's memory close. Hermione's sweet vocal harmonies appear on some of Christie's best-loved tracks, from Messenger Boy to I Am A Star, but she had always resisted her dad's encouragement to record her own solo material. Before he died, he wrote out a list of songs he thought would suit her voice.

"The choices in the list were so spot-on," she says. "He thought I could sing a female version of Hallelujah -- and this was way before the Alexandra Burke thing on The X Factor. And he was right, as he always was, because dad was a great producer as well as everything else. I started managing Aled Jones at one stage to get dad to produce his album. It worked out so well."

In May 2008, Hermione went on the Late Late Show to sing Messenger Boy to mark the release of an album of duets Christie recorded before he died. A busy music industry creative herself (currently working with the likes of Bette Midler and Elaine Paige), she was just off a plane from LA and was hazy on how the performance would go.

"I thought I was going to be duetting or doing backing vocals with this band," she recalls with a laugh. "Then they went: 'Get up there and sing.' My heels were too high, I thought I'd fall over on the walk over to Pat (Kenny) after the song; I just thought, 'Oh God, I'm a disaster'."

She wasn't a disaster, of course. She performed beautifully and her friends began to insist that Christie's instincts were correct.

Nick Stewart, the man who signed U2, gave her the name for the album. "I still wasn't sure what I was doing or why I was doing it, and he just said, 'Daisy, listen to me, don't be stupid, it's Songs My Father Taught Me, isn't it?'"

So, at the age of 44, she has recorded her first solo album, produced by brother Tim and featuring sister Amber on violin. The final song, Soho Square, a duet written by Christie and featuring his vocals, is particularly moving.

The family affair will continue when Hermione, Tim -- also a talented pianist -- and Amber take the album on the road next month.

The family live close to each other in south London, and to their mum. Hermione feels there will be a real sense of purpose to the time they will enjoy together touring, remembering and healing.

"It's a lovely thing for us all to be able to do," she says. "Dad had big dreams, and he had big plans. I hope I can bring some of that to people now. I'm just trying to take it day by day."

Songs My Father Taught Me is out now. See hermionehennessy.com for tour dates around Ireland in April.

Irish Independent

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