Eliot Kennedy has written songs for Mary J. Blige, the Spice Girls, Celine Dion, Boyzone, Bryan Adams, S Club 7 and Take That. Now the Sheffield songwriter is celebrating his 50th birthday with a charity concert in his home town – and he’s invited his musical friends. He talks to Ann Chadwick.
“Music is the backstage pass to everybody’s soul,” says Eliot Kennedy. According to the acclaimed songwriter, it offers us a bridge to our fellow human beings. The more you connect, the more positive energy you get. Kennedy glows with it. “I turn up every day with the same intention, the same passion and energy.”
It’s a quality that has secured not just professional partnerships with the likes of Gary Barlow and Bryan Adams, but solid friendships spanning more than 20 years. Does the songwriter to the stars ever get star-struck? “If you’re honest about what you do in the music industry, people can see it and they relate to you. But listen, I’m still a Bryan Adams fan, I’m still a fan of Take That, I won’t ever lose that respect. I just have the privilege of calling them friends.”
Kennedy’s first record that saw the stars align was Take That’s Everything Changes, co-written with Barlow (1993). It went straight to number one, where it stayed for two weeks. “For all kinds of reasons, it’s a significant song. Not only was it my first number one record, it ties in with the ambition I always had to have a number one by the time I was 25. It went to number one on my 25th birthday.”
The success of the song left Kennedy “freaked out”, as he explains: “Opportunities were coming I wasn’t sure I was ready for.” He convinced Sony, who he’d just signed to, to fund a studio in his home. “I just wanted to work with new artists to really learn my craft as a songwriter. That was the turning point in my entire career.”
The next milestone record was Say You’ll Be There – his first global success for the Spice Girls. “They just drove to Sheffield to find me. I wasn’t in a phone book so I thought that was pretty dedicated. They all crashed at my house while we were writing songs together. It was a whirlwind of a time.”
The stars continued to align.
“Once the Spice Girls move into your house, you very quickly run out of space. I needed a bigger studio, which is when I started Steelworks in Sheffield with two other artists. It was a prudent decision and a really crucial one.”
Kennedy went on to have a hit record in the charts every month for the next five years. “It became this incredible factory for writing and producing records – S Club, Five, Billy Piper. Then I had a big hit with Boyzone [Picture of You (1996) won Kennedy an Ivor Novello]. I just felt, crikey, we’re really in the middle of all this.”
Which leads us to rock legend, Bryan Adams. “I’d gone to see Bryan at a gig the night before in Sheffield Arena, just because I was a fan. The next morning I was in the supermarket and my mobile phone went, he said it’s Bryan Adams here. I said, is it heck.” Kennedy laughs. “He said, no it’s Bryan Adams, I really love your Spice Girls record and do you want to get together and have a cup of tea. I just pushed the shopping cart and left it in the middle of the aisle, got in my car and drove.”
The pair wrote Baby When You’re Gone (1998) featuring Mel C. “To this day it’s still the biggest radio play record that I’ve had. Bryan said it’s just a bona fide smash. He plays it all around the world. It was significant because it was a new writing relationship with one of my idols.”
After that humble cup of tea, enter stage left Celine Dion. “Bryan said to me ‘El, when you came in to the room I thought to myself that’s a multi-million dollar meeting’. I said ‘did you really?’ He said ‘I swear, I thought to myself, we’re going to write some big songs together’. And we did.”
The pair wrote the title song to Celine Dion’s massive hit album, Let’s Talk About Love. With 33 million copies sold worldwide, it is one of the best-selling albums in history.
“We then did the Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige song that won a Grammy.” Never Gonna Break My Faith was written for the 2006 film Bobby, about Robert F. Kennedy.
Meanwhile, Gary Barlow endured his much publicised depression following Take That’s split in 1996. “Gary had pretty much become a hermit by this stage and was practically locked in his house.” Kennedy made the decision to leave Steelworks to “drag” Gary back into making records. He moved to Cheshire to run a production studio with him.
“We hit the ground running. Delta Goodram was also one of our first artists and had multi-platinum sales. We did three Blue albums, one of which was Guilty, with a hit single. That was the next phase for me. Gary was getting hungrier, and it was the rebirth of him. I was really proud of that. It wasn’t long after Take That started again. He was ready to go again and he hasn’t stopped.”
After playing a pivotal role in mending the hearts of millions of Take That fans, Kennedy found himself in an uncharacteristic slump.
“I had a bit of a dark time. Once Take That started again I moved back to London, I was back in the trenches on my own. I’d left Steelworks to create this new team with Gary and all of a sudden my songwriting partner was gone. Eventually I decided I couldn’t live in London anymore, and bought back the Steelworks from my old partners and moved back to Sheffield. I rediscovered why I loved songwriting.”
You can’t take the boy out of Yorkshire. “If you’re a Northerner you never lose touch about what it is about the North. It’s almost unquantifiable, but it’s soulful. People treat you as you treat them. You don’t waste energy pretending. I’m able to function here.”
Just as Sheffield re-energised as a city, Kennedy did as an artist. “Having a renaissance was crucial. Out of that came a whole different kind of creativity. Gary and I still worked together, in 2012 we made the Queen’s Jubilee record, Sing, and that was the biggest record of the year.” The pair toured the Commonwealth to shoot the video, with a cameo from Prince Harry.
In 2013, Barlow and Kennedy travelled to Camp Bastion on a mission to entertain the troops. It became an ITV documentary, Journey to Afghanistan. (Barlow was a special guest in Kennedy’s 2016 charity concert, raising £60,000 for Help for Heroes.) Then came a role as talent director on ITV’s The X-Factor, where he mentored Little Mix.
“I’d gone to live in Hong Kong on and off to develop an international music project. It was a really brilliant thing for me to do at that time. When I came home and we did X-Factor and the Jubilee record it was the birth of starting to write Finding Neverland (with Barlow), which is the most recent phase of creativity for me.”
The musical opened in 2014. Jennifer Hudson debuted the song Neverland at the Tony Awards and the production starred Fraiser’s Kelsey Grammer. “We told the director, ‘we’re not Broadway writers, we’re pop tarts’, and she said that’s what I want you for. It was ultimately the most creative fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.”
Three years on, Finding Neverland is still touring the US and it comes to the UK next year. The duo went on to co-write Around the World in 80 Days, and Calendar Girls with Tim Firth. In between writing musicals and performing at the Oscars (twice), Kennedy worked at developing future stars. At present, Steelworks has a number of young musicians under its wing. Unlike his work on The X-Factor, with the artist development process “on caffeine”, Kennedy takes up to a year to develop new acts. His Next Big Things are ones to watch.
“Charlotte Hannah and Will Jennison are both performing at my birthday gig, two artists I’m extremely focused on this year. That’s going to be a big deal to perform their first singles in front of that audience.”
On the brink of 50, Kennedy feels that he’s in the most creative period of his life. “I’m writing a brand new musical about the immigrants that built New York.” It’s inspired by the famous image, Lunch atop a Skyscraper, with steelworkers on a girder 840 feet above the Rockefeller Plaza. “I think the timing to celebrate that diversity and richness that comes from immigration in a city like New York, literally built by immigrants, is a good thing to do.”
Hamilton eat your heart out. Does he plan to send Donald Trump an invite? Kennedy laughs. “Music gives you access to people’s humanity, you can actually do incredible things with that. That’s a really powerful tool.”
His 50th concert will raise funds for three hospices in Derbyshire. “A bunch of people in a room, with the right music and the right attitude, you can actually change people’s world. It’s joyful.”
By Ann Chadwick
Eliot Kennedy: 50th Birthday concert in aid of #ChallengeDerbyshire, March 29, 2019, Sheffield City Hall, featuring Gary Barlow, Alfie Boe and S Club. Box office: 0114 2789 789 or visit www.sheffieldcityhall.co.uk