This time of the year Tralee recognises one of its favourite Sons Christy Hennessey and we chat to founding member of the Christy Hennessey Festival Weekend Francie Conway about his own life in the entertainment industry
Francie, you have strong Kerry connections but some of our readers may not be familiar with your background. Can you tell them what Kerry and Tralee mean to you?
Well I’m from Tralee number one. Born to parents Peggy and Denis Conway, my mum came from Kilmoyley and my dad from Lixnaw. My mum was one of the first ladies to run a business in Tralee and when they opened the pub in Tralee it was the first pub to have live music in Kerry. They used to have music there on a Friday and Saturday.
You were a founding member, and still a teacher, of the Rock School in Ballyfermot College of Further Education. How important is this work to you and what do you think of the talent that is coming through those courses?
You have to imagine that I left Ireland in 1979 and I went to live in Amsterdam. Then the following summer I met, by chance, the record producer Chris White in Spain. I was a huge fan of Chris because Argent was one of my favourite bands and Hold Your Head Up was one of my favourite songs, and still is. To meet the guy who wrote the song and produced all these magnificent artists and bands was quite an honour and a thrill for me. Then he said he was writing some songs and he wanted me to sing the songs because he thought I had a unique voice and he wanted to use the voice to showcase the songs.
He went back to London at the end of the summer of 1980 with a cassette of me singing some songs and he played it to Russ Ballard, the great British songwriter, and Russ said “who’s the singer, this is a really good voice, we should look into this more” and then he and Russ Ballard brought it to the great Don Ellis from RCA Records and a couple of months later I had a major recording contract with RCA Records. Coming from Tralee to having a major deal and contract with RCA Records was an incredible jump but the reality of it was that I didn’t know what a recording contract was. I didn’t know anything about the business, I didn’t know anything about the industry, we were one of the first colleges in Europe to do contemporary music, and when I came back to live in Ireland it felt really important for me, because I didn’t want any young Irish musicians heading off again to England, to America, to the countries you have to go to work internationally and be in the same position as I was. I think I signed my first contract in a carpark without even reading any of it and I swore if I could actually get involved in something that was going to help that, then this situation won’t happen to other people and it would be of benefit. The Rock School in Dublin at the moment has produced some of the most well-known and recognisable artists within the Irish music industry. Mundy recently sent me a poster from Australia from a gig last March and on the poster in a big theatre in Australia it had Mundy, Lisa O’Neill and the Young Folk and Mundy’s comment on it was “is this the Rock School on tour in Australia?”
Yesterday I was on a flight and I saw something about Damien Dempsey in Cara magazine, when I first met Damian he hadn’t written one song and now he is one of our national treasures. He’s the talent that is holding the mantle for Irish music and the direction that Irish music is going in the future.
You have a new record that is getting a lot of reaction on social media and other areas as a result and back story to how it came about. Tell us a bit about how the creation developed?
Well it was very simple. I was in Mountain Studio in Montreux, Switzerland, Queens studio, and David Richards, from Queen, and I were working on some tracks and I was reading Alastair Campbell’s book ‘The Blair Years’. I know not really rock & roll and not very exciting but I enjoy reading political books etc. Alastair and I were friends around the same time that I met Chris, we were busking partners together in Brussels. In the book, he was describing the first time that he met Princess Diana and he described her as “Drop dead gorgeous”. I just said to David that she must have been something really something else for Alastair to make that comment. She must have been amazingly stunning. David said “what did you say he called her?” and I said Drop Dead Gorgeous and David turned around and said “that’s a song title mate, let’s do something with that”. So after we had finished the recording session, as we did, we took a break for dinner. On returning to the studio and we said ‘let’s try and write a song around the title Drop Dead Gorgeous’. Basically the song started that night, David and I went through a couple of different drafts of it and then with the sad story of David passing away at Christmas in 2013 everything was left there. Last year I got the music files off the computer in the studio and we opened the files and it was horribly heart-breaking to experience it. Some days I would go to the studio and would last maybe an hour or two, some days I might last a little bit more and then I’d hear David’s voice in the headphones, that was the end of the recording session. It was like a ghost in the background.
You are in Tralee next month for the 8th Year of the Celebration of Christy Hennessy Weekend in the Ashe Hotel on 3rd & 4th November. How did you come to be involved and what does the legacy of Christy mean to you?
Well how I became involved was very simple. I was approached by IMRO saying they wanted to do something for Christy and they wanted to put something together as a tribute and in honour of Christy Hennessy. They knew me as a musician and with my work with the college, I had a good standing within the song writing community in Ireland and it started from there. They didn’t really have a view on what to do but knew that they wanted to do a song contest so as to try and bring a bit of attention to it. They left everything entirely up to me, so I had a big decision to make, the obvious thing would be to have had a weekend of Christy Hennessy songs and music but I think if you had 2 days of people singing covers of somebody’s songs it would be fairly tough going, and we certainly wouldn’t be in the eighth year. I know that Christy Hennessy had a lot of turmoil as a song writer, he didn’t have it easy, and I think from knowing Christy the legacy of being able to celebrate Christy Hennessy in song writers. He would absolutely love that we are providing a platform for song writers both established and up and coming. As it is a weekend of course we have an opening ceremony featuring songs of Christy, but then it is showcasing song writing and giving song writers a platform so they can perform their own material. For many many years Christy Hennessy, or Christy Ross as was known around Tralee, would have given anything to have that sort of platform as a song writer. So for us to be able to do that is quite important.
Finally Francie what are the plans for the coming year and can your fans in Kerry look forward to any gigs in the next 12 months?
I’ve actually started gigging, I hadn’t actually planned on starting but Finbar Furey and I toured a lot together as a two piece, I enjoyed that very much because Fin is one of my very best friends. I started recording a lot with Matt Kelleghan from Moving Hearts and we did ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’, we did ‘Troubadour’, we did ‘Broken Shoes’ with the legendary Jan Ackerman from Focus and then we did the record ‘Somewhere in Heaven’ with Christy Dignam from Aslan. All that brought me back into the old world that I used to love and then of course last year I went back to Switzerland and collected the files from David and we have ‘Smoke on the Water’, ‘Peace Love & Rock & Roll’ and now we have ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous’ finished. The response we are getting to Drop Dead Gorgeous is, you could say surprising but it is a good sounding track. I am surprised at the power of Social Media when you have someone like Alastair Campbell behind it. So I started doing shows here in Dublin and Cork Film Festival in September.
I’m also doing solo shows featuring special guests, the next gig I’m doing here in Dublin Rob Burke is going to join me. Rob was with us in the Troubadour Club when we first started the Christy Hennessy weekend and he is a fine piano player and singer songwriter. He has written with the great Paul Williams, he’s co-written with the guys who wrote ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ for the Eagles.
It’s going to be a kinda special gig because when I was a kid and I was playing with the band Clutch in Tralee, we started getting national attention so every two weeks we used to play in Toners in Dublin which was one of the well-known rock gigs at the time. We used to stuff Toners and it was a great craic to play in and we got great attention from it. That’s how we got gigs all over the country at the time.
Christy Hennessy Festival Weekend
takes place on Friday 3rd and
Saturday 4th of November 2017
in the Ashe Hotel, Tralee