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Sunday 17 December 2017

In the name of her father: Hermione Hennessy

Despite her late father's urgings, Hermione Hennessy never had enough confidence to make her own album -- until now. She talks to Eamon Carr

In ways she probably doesn't realise, Hermione Hennessy is very like her late father, Christie, who died of cancer in 2007. She's naturally chatty, witty, compassionate and self-deprecating. She spins out the yarn of how, at what she terms "my ripe old age", she's about to release her debut album.

"It happened by default," she protests. "I'd never have done it if dad was still alive. We talked about it a lot. But I don't think I ever would have felt it good enough. He had very high expectations, impeccable taste and he was an absolute perfectionist."

If Christie was still around, I'm certain he'd be hugely impressed by the charm and elegance of Songs My Father Taught Me.

Hermione has talent. A classically trained pianist, who would occasionally perform with her father, it's a wonder she didn't pursue a musical career before this.

"Dad produced three demos for me in my early thirties and they are stunning," she reveals. "I took them to the head of Warners at the time and he said to me, 'You were born with a silver spoon in your mouth. These songs mean nothing. There's a man on a ladder over there who's the next Rod Stewart. You've had it all'. I just sat there completely bemused. I was too young to say, 'Excuse me, we had nothing when I was growing up. We've come from nothing and it just so happens that I'm able to sing and I can write the odd song or two'. He tore me off a strip, saying things like, 'Look at the state of you'.

"I walked out of there thinking, 'I'm never doing this again'," says Hermione. "I thought, 'That's how nasty this business is'. I'd rather be protecting an artist, somebody like dad. I'll fight for them but I can't fight for me. I didn't believe in myself enough to think he [the record boss] might have been wrong. He was an incredibly important man."

Hermione took charge of her father's affairs. And her knowledge of how the music business works has since been put to use managing artists such as Judie Tzuke, Stephen Bishop and Feeder. Her expertise has also helped Groove Armada, Will Smith and, lately, Elaine Paige. She's arranged for Christie's legendary Green Album from 1972 (the one with Don't Get Yourself A Shovel which Christy Moore later changed and hammed up) to be re-released next month.

It was her father who continually urged Hermione to sing. Today, any talk of Hermione's album inevitably invokes the spirit of Christie. "He veered me towards classics," she says, acknowledging his continuing influence. "He'd play me songs. Nat King Cole, Carole King, Jackson Browne. I think he fancied the idea of me doing an album with songs like September In The Rain and Blues Skies. He said, 'That's the kind of voice that you have'."



tsunami

It was the shock of her close call in Thailand when the tsunami of December 2004 hit with devastating consequences, that propelled Christie to redouble his efforts to have Hermione record.

"I had a very lucky escape," she reveals. "I was definitely blessed. My partner at the time couldn't quite believe it. I'd moved us out of the hotel. It was demolished [by the tsunami]. I ended up in the only place that had tsunami defences. When it happened, dad was on the phone saying, 'Please come home'. I said, 'I'm okay. There are so many people who are traumatised or sick who need to get on a plane'. I was in a cocoon with chaos reigning around me so I turned to writing again."

Relieved that Hermione was safe, Christie began compiling lists of songs he felt were suitable for her to record.

"We talked on the phone a lot then because I was there for three weeks before I could get a plane home," she recalls. "When I got back he gave me a set of CDs. I've still got that pile with his lists."

On the album, Hermione sings songs by Neil Finn, Aimee Mann and Iris DeMent as well as three by her father and one of her own. Her intimate reading of Carole King's Way Over Yonder makes it an inspired choice.

"I didn't know the song," admits Hermione. "It's soulful and I was brought up on the blues. As much as I love Margaret Barry and Joni Mitchell, the first person I fell in love with was Mississippi John Hurt. Dad had a soulful lilt to his voice. I can give it that. It's about purity and simplicity. Dad was always trying to get me to find the bottom end of my voice. He'd say, 'Listen to Doris Day. She managed it.'"

These days Hermione's also a patron of the Mesothelioma Society. Christie died from asbestos-related cancer. "It's a poor person's disease," she says. "It's not madly fashionable. But there's a lot of people dying from it. We need to do something."

Christie was ill for eight months before he died. While Hermione admits to searching for "the ultimate cure", Christie busied himself selecting further suitable songs for her to record. "Although I hate the fact that he couldn't read or write and that he couldn't become the doctor that he wanted to be, the sad thing is, I don't know if he would have been as incredible a writer if he had been able to read and write," she says.

With a five-date Irish tour planned for April, including a performance at the Sugar Club (Thursday, April 8), Hermione is nervous about fronting her own show.

"If I go out with Amber and Tim [her sister and brother], I can talk about him [Christie] with more authority than saying, 'I was his manager'," she says. "I sang duets with him. The closest you're going to get to him is us. It's better than nothing. It feels like I'm doing something. I guess it's helped to take part of the pain away."

Hermione Hennessy's Songs My Father Taught Me is out now

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