Sheffield songwriter and the healing power of music

Kennedy with his friend Gary Barlow.
Kennedy with his friend Gary Barlow.
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Sheffield’s award-winning songwriter Eliot Kennedy has launched a charity album in Mental Health Awareness Week. He explains the motivation behind the music.

IN November 2013, I travelled to Camp Bastion with Gary Barlow on a mission to entertain the troops. It went on to become an ITV documentary, Journey to Afghanistan.

Music producer Eliot Kennedy in his Sheffield studio. (YPN).

Music producer Eliot Kennedy in his Sheffield studio. (YPN).

It was an inspiring time but it was scary, too. Only a couple of weeks before we arrived there was an incursion into Camp Bastion that cost lives and caused serious damage.

I was thankful for the defence walls that Camp Bastion was made out of (and named after). I didn’t know it then, but it was a Leeds entrepreneur and philanthropist, Jimi Heselden, who invented the Hesco Bastion ‘blast wall’.

As well as being used in every major conflict since the 1991 Gulf War, his invention is deployed as emergency flood barriers, and has saved countless lives. Jimi died in a tragic accident aged 62.

In his lifetime, he donated many of the millions he made to charity, including Help for Heroes. A former unemployed miner, who grew up on a Leeds council estate, Jimi never forget where he came from, or how he made his fortune.

When I met his daughter Jo, a budding singer, she wanted to continue her father’s legacy to raise funds for Help for Heroes. We both felt strongly about the cause, but we specifically wanted to raise awareness for mental health services.

Last November, with a special appearance from Gary Barlow, we performed the first ever concert in aid of Help for Heroes’ Hidden Wounds – its psychological wellbeing service – raising £60,000.

With missing limbs and scars, you can see that someone has been through hardship and pain, but with anything psychological you can’t see it.

Loss – whether it be the death of a loved one, or the sense of losing oneself through mental illness – touches us all. In Jo’s case, it was the sudden death of her father and the hole it left in her life. And so I wrote the title song for our charity concert and album – Hidden Wounds – for her.

But I also wrote it for me, and for all of us who carry hidden wounds. I am passionate about widening the conversation around mental health. You don’t need to serve in war zones to experience trauma.

Music is the backstage pass to everybody’s soul. When words fail, as the cliché goes, music opens up the doors to expression. It can get you through tough times. You might not be able to talk directly about an emotion, but you can through a song.

As a 12 year-old-boy, going through an intensely difficult time, my touchstone was Kate Bush and her Hounds of Love album. When she performed at the Hammersmith Odeon in 2014, I was in the audience, in tears. The floodgates opened.

When I was 12, my mother was institutionalised for a year. Her mother – who was her best friend – had died, and my dad was an alcoholic. Their marriage was torturous at times. Mentally, mum lost herself and Dad was often AWOL.

I took on everybody’s problems and grew up fast to shoulder the responsibility even though I was still just a child.

After the doctors worked out the right medication for my mum, she came home. Not only did we get her back we got her amazing sense of humour back, too. I saw first-hand, through my mum’s experience, how important mental health services are and gained a deep respect for mental health treatment.

Remarkably, my parents made it to their 50th anniversary and became inseparable, as close as any two people can be. My dad worked hard to beat his drinking.

The government’s plan announced this week to improve mental health services, is a welcome one. But as well as improving services, awareness is also crucial.

Prince Harry and William have done remarkable work with their Heads Together campaign and I’m really proud to be a part of this wider sea change.

I’m a great believer in talking. I’m not afraid to talk about my mum or dad, and, after my marriage failed, I wanted to work out why I wasn’t doing relationships well and how to fix this.

Everyone has a pattern of behaviour and mine started as a kid. I had to be responsible for the world, because my dad hadn’t been. I had to learn the difference in how to care and help people, while acknowledging they are responsible for their own actions and life.

My childhood motivated me to be a different kind of dad. I put those demons to rest and now I’m incredibly thankful I have fantastic relationships with my children.

But as a father, and someone who works in the music industry, I’m acutely aware of how vulnerable young people are in our Kardashian-obsessed culture and the bizarre narcissistic rise of the selfie.

Selfies terrify me. Suddenly, it’s not just a photo and a snapshot of a memory, it’s a window into someone’s life they want you to think they have, rather than a life they actually live or own. You can edit reality, reduce yourself to fakery.

Research has shown being obsessed with taking selfies is a sign our psychological well-being is damaged. Body image and insecurity are co-related to anxiety and depression, and disorders such as anorexia are on the rise. We need to internalise new ways of valuing our authentic selves.

For our kids, the playground now isn’t just the playground. These days there’s a wide web of peer pressure and, sadly, bullying. Now more than ever people need to talk, especially younger people, before they go too far down the rabbit hole.

As a society, we are still years behind understanding mental health and the way the brain works. Ultimately, though, we’re all the same – we’re all vulnerable. That recognition in itself makes us realise we’re not an island and that we have to build those bridges to reach each other.

We’re not in a big dark hole alone, it just feels that way sometimes. Nothing gets solved in silence. No one wants to hear that someone ended their own life because they were lonely.

I hope our Hidden Wounds project will play a small part in this bridge building. I believe it’s about connecting to the person next to you. The more you connect, the more positive energy you get back. It’s the most important thing we do.

One of the veterans at the gig we did last November said to me, “it’s amazing you’re alright about standing on stage and talking about mental health”.

I said: “You know what, that’s okay with me. I don’t need to think I have to be cool.”

There’s nothing cooler than exploding myths like that. It’s exactly what we need to be talking about – from every stage.

Hidden Wounds, featuring Joanne Heselden-Edwards, is available from today via iTunes and Amazon. All profits go to Help for Heroes.

Eliot Kennedy wrote the Broadway hit musical Finding Neverland, which is currently touring the United States, with Gary Barlow. His next musical with Barlow will be Around the World in 80 Days.

Eliot Kennedy: A life in music

Born in Sheffield, Eliot Kennedy began song writing while at Dinnington High School.

He trained as a sound engineer at weekends while working in a Wimpy bar during the week, and later set up in business with help from the government’s Enterprise Scheme.

His first big success as a producer was Independence, the hit title song of the 1993 album of the same name by Lulu.

Since then he has sold 80 million records and written and produced hits for stars such as Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion, Bryan Adams, Take That and The Spice Girls.

Eliot has organised large-scale events including the Women of Steel concert in Sheffield in 2014 and produced the Welcome To Yorkshire charity single On Ilkla Moor Baht’At.