‘If I needed a guide to go up a mountain, I’d choose someone who knew the way,’ says Nigel Kennedy. ‘So if someone is telling me what to do, they’d better know a little bit more than me.’
In September, Kennedy’s Jimi Hendrix tribute at the Royal Albert Hall was cancelled after organisers Classic FM deemed it ‘unsuitable for our audience’. It still rankles: ‘I reckon I know more about my particular art form than some guy sitting behind his desk,’ says Kennedy, ‘and so I can’t quite take it when people start saying what is classical music and what isn’t. To me, Hendrix’s “Little Wing” is a kind of Celtic-sounding melody. I do it in a Vaughan Williams-esque type of way so it’s very classical. In fact, my rendition of The Four Seasons would have been much more raunchy and less classical than the Jimi Hendrix stuff.’
It’s been more than 30 years since Kennedy’s controversial recording of The Four Seasons (the bestselling classical album of all time). He’s now 64, but he still has his distinctive hedgehog Mohican as well as a slit in his left eyebrow. These days though, he’s also a country man. He lives with his second wife Agnieszka and their ‘very old’ Weimaraner, Huxley, in the Polish mountains near the Slovakian border, where he talks to me over Zoom. ‘Out the back it’s just wilderness with a fair few creatures like wolves and bears,’ he says. ‘You don’t see them very often because they’re timid — but it’s a nice, natural environment. It’s an amazing place to clear your mind without distractions.’
The wilderness suits Kennedy. He has a daily schedule of three hours’ violin practice and two hours composing on a piano, and in the quiet of lockdown he’s written a violin concerto and his memoirs. ‘I don’t really do computers, so I was writing it longhand. Just being able to think about the past was great, because being a musician we live in the present, it’s like our magic moment. Having this luxury of looking back, it helped me learn some aspects about my life and maybe where to go in the future.’
The cover of the memoir, Uncensored!, features Kennedy wearing a pair of brown boxing gloves — not a hat-tip to his short-lived boxing career in the Bronx while he was a music student at the Juilliard School, but rather aimed at musical snobbery. ‘The boxing gloves kind of represent fighting back against bogus authority.’
A child prodigy, Kennedy was six when his music-teacher mother sent him to audition at the Yehudi Menuhin School of Music. ‘I remember my first violin teacher there. He was getting me, as a seven-year-old, to read Shakespeare. And after I’d read some he said: “What do you see between the lines?”
‘So I looked very carefully and said: “I can see the white bit, that’s between there.” He looked really disappointed and slightly disapproving, and so I looked even closer to see if maybe it was sepia or yellow. He couldn’t understand that a seven-year-old is not going to be the greatest interpreter of Shakespeare.
‘[But] it was a great environment where you could hear other people practising beautiful music, pianists playing Debussy. I remember breaking my fingers playing football so I was able to lie around on the lawn listening to all of this amazing music because obviously I wasn’t able to play. And that was good. But the actual interaction between the teachers and the students or pupils, it was devoid of any understanding, and in some cases a lot worse than that.’
Kennedy does light up when asked about his mentor, the American-born violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who paid his school fees. ‘He was inspirational,’ he says smiling. ‘Yehudi was fantastic, he came in, he was charismatic, he played amazing violin — obviously, everyone knows that — but he was very understanding of the children and he was somehow an immense inspiration for a lot of us. When he died [in 1999] it left such a huge gap because he was a bridge between the great old school of violin playing and the more modern one.’
Over the years, Kennedy has definitely represented the more modern school. He’s been outspoken about his drinking, partying and use of cannabis. Today, he still uses the drug for creative purposes. ‘I like working in both states [clean and high]. I like working completely clean because one gets a vantage point, but I am also very much into having a mixture. I like blurring the lines… A bit of ganja really helps. Would we have got ska music, would we have got reggae, without people having a bit of herb? I don’t think so.’
Last month, Kennedy’s son, Sark, was jailed for 33 months after being caught with £15,500 worth of cocaine in his car. The 25-year-old, who lives with Kennedy’s ex-partner, Eve, in Malvern, admitted possession with intent to supply.
It’s a subject that’s impossible not to broach, but there is something about Kennedy’s gentle, affable nature that makes me feel uneasy about raising it, and almost regretful when I do.
Presumably it has been a very testing time, I suggest. ‘Yes, more for him than me,’ he says with a sad smile. ‘I’m there, I love him… Like there are other options in his life, and he’s trying to turn it round. But the more I say about it, then the less chance he’ll have, because I think it’s not helping him to become higher profile.’
Does he plan to visit him? ‘Obviously when I can get into England I’ll be going straight up there,’ he says and then falls silent.
I change the conversation to his beloved Aston Villa and his hopes for them this season. ‘It has been a catastrophic few months for our club because we’ve lost the best talent I’ve seen playing for Villa for the last 40 years [Jack Grealish, transferred to Manchester City in August] and he’s Villa through and through. I was going to the away games with his dad before Jack was even born.’ He turns around to show me that he has Grealish’s name on the back of the Aston Villa shirt he’s wearing.
For Kennedy, his love of Villa and music are two things that go ‘hand in hand’. ‘I would say that when I’m watching Villa, music certainly isn’t important. But while I’ve been shacked up in Poland, music has become very important to me. It always has been — I wake up and play Bach, but it’s not before I’ve looked on the Villa website to check what’s happening at the club.’
A lifelong socialist, Kennedy is vehemently anti-Brexit and disappointed with Labour under Keir Starmer (he let his membership lapse after Jeremy Corbyn stood down as leader). ‘I can’t abide this kind of pseudo-Labour stuff. I’m sure maybe one day I’ll meet Mr Starmer and he’ll be a delightful person, but you can’t get any policy out of anybody in the party. We don’t know what they stand for, they just sit on the fence criticising — and there’s a lot to criticise obviously, but there’s no policy. It’s all so vague.’
Surprisingly, Kennedy also hugely admires Prince Charles. ‘I think Charles is more socialist than the Labour party… So I [would] prefer him to be prime minister rather than king. I think it would be amazing if he was prime minister because he would actually enforce or enact or facilitate some policies which would be beneficial for people at large, whereas does it really make a big difference whether it’s Starmer or Bojo? I don’t think so. I think Prince Charles is actually further left than any of these people we talk about in politics.
‘I’m also a big sympathiser with environmental issues. I hate this idea of animals having plastic down their throats and people not able to breathe in their own environment. Prince Charles was ahead of us all, he was there about 20 or 30 years before us lot.’
As we wrap up, I ask if writing his memoirs has made him see his life differently. ‘Maybe if I’m talking about myself, just to say how lucky I think I’ve been. I whinge a bit in the book, but I’ve been so lucky to meet so many great musicians and to play for so many friendly audiences. That probably has been the highlight of my life — playing concerts and working with amazing colleagues.’
How does he hope to be remembered? He pauses for a few seconds, then grins: ‘It would be amazing if people look back and say: “He always wore such amazing shirts!’’
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Nigel Kennedy’s memoirs Uncensored! (Fonthill Media) and the Uncensored 3CD Box Set (Warner Classics) are out now.
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