- 11 Oct 19
As they gear up to release their first album with Marshall Records, Keywest’s frontman Andrew Kavanagh discusses the state of Dublin’s busking scene, his mental health journey and the excitement surrounding Ordinary Superhero.
“I have six aunties,” Keywest’s frontman Andrew Kavanagh, says with a smile. “In the family it’s my mother and her six sisters, and they’re all a bit mad. I was the oldest-born here in Ireland, so a lot of my aunties are quite young – they feel more like sisters.
“I wrote the song ‘Ordinary Superhero’ about them. Two of them are single mothers and I watched the difficulties they had to overcome, which had never even occurred to me before. I’ve tried to understand how they carry that weight and make it seem so effortless. It needs to be spoken about more – not just single mothers and fathers, but all the different people who are dealing with challenges that we turn a blind eye to. An ordinary superhero is just an ordinary person doing extraordinary things.”
Back in Dublin after a heavy few months of recording and touring across Europe, the singer better known to his hordes of fans as Kav, has the calm confidence of a man on a mission. While Keywest are no strangers to the demands of the music world, having built up their platform from street performers to chart-topping recording artists, there’s a buzz of a kind which suggests that their latest studio album, Ordinary Superhero, is set to catapult the band to unprecedented heights.
“This is the first time we’ve physically released an album in Britain and the rest of the world,” he explains. “It’s a bit of an apprehensive experience, because there’s so much space there in the world for us to fill now, which is something we don’t really know how to do! In Ireland we were able to grind it out and build a fanbase. But in Britain we rely on these much bigger entities – because it’s huge!”
Running my own race
Ordinary Superhero is Keywest’s first release since they signed with the prestigious Marshall Records back in November. Since then, Kav and his bandmates, Andrew Glover, Jimi Lock and Harry Sullivan, have found themselves spending the majority of their time building up their profile in Britain and Germany, with plans to head Stateside for a decent chunk of 2020. The perks of signing with the label also included getting Ordinary Superhero mixed and mastered in the legendary Abbey Road Studios.
“It was a bit weird, getting used to having a team involved,” Kav admits. “But Marshall haven’t micro-managed us. A lot of record labels these days are only interested in bottom-line – getting a band in, and quickly turning out a profit. It’s a commitment, for a label to say that they’ll support you and roll with you.
“This was also the first time we really got to take a chunk of time to do an album. When we were independent, we usually had to record it in between everything else. This felt different, and we became more aware of being consistent throughout the record.”
While Keywest look primed for international success, years of struggle and hard graft have exposed Kav to the self-destructive cycles and traps that are rampant in the music industry. Wherever you turn, mental health is a factor.
“A lot of people in the art world are dealing with mental health issues,” he notes. “I lost a friend of mine, who was a musician, to suicide just a couple of months ago. Until I lost someone very close to me, I didn’t realise how poignant it all is, and how much we all need to talk about it. It’s a bit like smoking. At one stage everybody smoked, but with enough talking and enough education, people stopped. If you have a voice, you have to talk about these things in whatever way you know how.”
Kav found that his own struggles with mental health stemmed from constantly comparing his successes to others.
“Until I was achieving the same successes as my peers, I felt like I hadn’t achieved anything,” he recalls. “It meant I was underestimating my own achievements. We were buskers, making music for people on the street – it was a simplistic approach. Then we started thinking, ‘We want to get played on the radio and we want to play big shows’. But for every milestone we achieved, it wasn’t enough. We played the Olympia and sold it out, but I was still thinking, ‘Well, I didn’t do four nights and sell it out!’ I was always holding myself hostage to whatever I hadn’t done.”
When combined with pressures like these, life on the road can be devastatingly hard for many musicians.
“Artists are always in their head,” Kav nods. “There’s big financial difficulties at times. It can be very hard to maintain social connections and relationships while you’re on the road. I was pursuing this finish line that kept moving further away, until I got to a point where I said, ‘If that’s going to be the rest of my life, I don’t want to do it’.
“So I’m switching the way I think now. I want to go back to basics. I want to play shows and to make music for people who enjoy it – but I’m also focusing on my own life. For now, my approach to my mental health is running my own race.”
Dublin's very boring
While playing FIFA with the lads helps life on the road feel slightly more like home, the physical demands of touring can be equally testing. There is a huge element of stress involved.
“The last tour was particularly tough,” he admits. “I picked up a chest infection halfway through it, and I still had to perform. We pulled out every trick under the sun to get me on that stage. I’ve also managed to pick up strep throat twice this year. You have to be very careful. If one of the lads gets sick, I’m travelling on the train by myself – that’s the rule!”
Of course, the time spent performing on the street has gone a long way in building up Keywest’s resilience. While they’ve stepped away from the Irish busking scene for now, Kav has clearly been keeping a close eye on recent developments.
“When this album’s out and things have settled down, I’d like to come back to the busking community and make my voice heard,” he reveals. “Street performance goes through the same course everywhere – there will always be just a few people complaining to the council. The people who get pushed aside are the public and the musicians. Ask the everyday people: they want music on the streets.
“The rules aim to control things, but what they result in is an entire street of singer-songwriters doing the exact same songs. You miss out on the variety – like the circus performers. They banned backing tracks in Dublin, so there are no dancers anymore either. Dublin’s very boring in comparison with what it used to be.”
For now, however, Kav’s focus is fixed firmly on Keywest. And although Ordinary Superhero has yet to be unleashed on the world, his mind’s already on the next step.
“‘C’est La Vie’ is the next single off the album, and for me this one shows the real Keywest sound,” he enthuses. “We’ve been writing more than ever on the road, so I’m excited to get the album out, and then record the new one. We’re taking every chance we get when we’re home to work on it, so we can try to get everything recorded by December. There’s a bit of apprehension, sure – but a lot of excitement too.”
Ordinary Superhero is out on October 11. Keywest’s upcoming tour includes dates at The Limelight 2 in Belfast (October 17) and The Academy in Dublin (18).