“I’m not here to be liked” laughs Sabrina Kennedy, “at least, not by everyone.”
While it’s certainly true that Kennedy’s big, bold sound has mass appeal written all over it, she also knows that - from Joan of Arc and Emmeline Pankhurst to Courtney Love and Meghan Markle - you don’t get to be a woman who knows her own mind and has opinions to share without upsetting a few people.
“It’s a modern-day witch hunt,” says Kennedy of the tabloid hatred oh-so predictably whipped up over Meghan. “When you’ve got newspaper columnists saying they want to see her stripped naked and people throwing shit at her in the streets, that’s what they did to witches in medieval times. It’s dark. It’s very dark.”
Kennedy’s identification with the character of the witch, let’s be clear from the outset, has little to do with casting spells and issuing curses. It’s more to do with realising - and facing off - the controversy that being a strong woman continues to engender. Before colonialisation, as she points out, most civilisations revered women as the creators of life and gatherers of wisdom. What’s sprung up in its place is an irrational fear of the feminine. “You can see it with what’s happening to women Afghanistan under the Taliban and the situation in Iran,” she says.
Growing up in Boston on the US East Coast with adoptive Irish-Italian parents, she’s always looked beyond the obvious to embrace the role of outsider. She was later to meet her birth-mother - live on tv no less - and learn that her grandfather was Bajan.
Childhood trips to nearby Salem, the location of the famous witch trials immortalised in Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’, exposed her to all manner of alternative belief systems, as well as being “a place with a very peculiar energy” that she picked up on from an early age. Paganism, with its close connection to the power of mother nature, also held an attraction, as did tarot cards which stretch back to 14th century Italy.
Mind you, in conservative Boston, it wasn’t hard to kick against conformity. “Most people there want to be a doctor or a lawyer,” she says, “so even wanting to be a singer was seen as quite a weird thing. I did try to go against it, but as soon as I embraced it and accepted ‘this is what I am’, good things started to happen.”
Tracing her love of singing and performing back to being aged three, when her father would take her along to the local bar. She’d sit at the piano and pick out simple tunes or sing nursery rhymes, catching the performance bug early. She grew up being exposed to an eclectic array of music via her parents, who loved everything from Loretta Lynn to hard driving soul music and AC/DC.
Then, once she was at university at Boston’s U Mass, life threw her another curveball in the shape of Real World, the huge MTV reality television show that filmed a group of young people living together in an apartment in a major American city (in Kennedy’s case, Las Vegas), facing all the usual problems that young people face. “My mother advised me ‘don’t get drunk, don’t sleep with anyone and remember you’re a singer’. I can’t say I stuck to that one hundred percent but I did pretty well.”
It was certainly a baptism of fire in terms of fame – she was back in university by the time it screened, and she got used to being approached by strangers who felt they knew her, or would share their opinions, positive and negative alike, to her face brazenly, often forgetting the show had been filmed months before.
An early illustration of both sides of the fame coin, yes, but by no means enough to put Kennedy off her mission to find fame as a singer. She moved out to Nashville, the American music industry’s home, but realised after a while that her views put her directly at odds with some of the macho posturing still lurking in that music scene.
It was another change of location, this time to London, that paid dividends. Kennedy was much more at home in the city’s more multi- genre tastes and began building a band around her. The gang mentality totally appealed: “Before this I’d guested on other people’s tracks but having your own band is completely different. They totally get me and I feel like I’ve found my people.”
From two inaugural shows at Balham’s Bedford pub - a venue frequented by Ed Sheeran among others during his formative years - she started working on conquering all four corners of the capital’s live circuit, from Paper Dress in Hackney to Laylow in Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill Arts Club and Off The Cuff, south of Brixton.
At the same time, she’s been crafting her songwriting and refining a trademark sound that takes everything from raw rock and catchy punk to country, soul and pop. Her first release ‘Hold Tight’ - a tumultuous anthem about dealing with the trauma of her father’s death - ended up surfacing on both the ‘Love Island’ and ‘Made In Chelsea’ soundtracks.
But her debut EP Wheel Of The Year is set to cement her reputation as a talent packing as much versatility as sheer impact. The EP is a glimpse of Kennedy’s life living through “the wheel of the year”- the Wiccan calendar that pre-dates our own, Roman-imposed one, a glimpse into the beginning of her journey through the different seasons of her life.
The four-song package begins with ‘Puritan’, evoking spring equinox and the ritual sacrifices that pre-dated Easter, Kennedy declaring “you can burn me at the stake like a Puritan,” a powerful statement about the lengths she’s willing to go to defend her right to be herself.
“This song is an anthem and answer to my ancestors’ prayers,” Kennedy says, “It is honouring those that came before me who were burnt at the stake and crucified for being powerful and different. It is the sacred rage that has been under the surface for centuries. It is about rising from the ashes and using that power for radical change.”
‘Magic & Mayhem’ continues the set with all the exuberance and energy of summer solstice, although lines about “Marylebone dolls / bohemian walls”, referring to the time Kennedy spent at London celeb hangout Chiltern Firehouse “reading tarot for film stars”, see it served with a side order of realism.
“This song came from trying to fit in with an elite crowd that was intrigued by the witch and the magic but it couldn’t hold space for it or handle it. I quickly realized that in the confines of their tiny world was loneliness and distraction. There is magic and mayhem running through my blood and I decided I could no longer repress it - it’s about fully embracing the wild woman that lives within me and the magic that runs through my veins.”
‘Red Wine’ is the EP’s most reflective and sultry moment, representing autumn equinox and Halloween. “Other than my love for red wine, this song was bred from the confides of my flat during the dark time the world was facing in lockdown. I delved into the darkest parts of my soul channelling the divine feminine energy that is Mary Magdalene, the misunderstood whore. Red Wine is the direct relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus - two lost souls just trying to get by.”
‘Overflow’ representing the winter solstice, completes the set. “Overflow is feeling everything so deeply and profoundly that you completely lose control in the process. Accessing the deepest parts of yourself and allowing everything to burn to the ground to build a new,” she says.
Calling on a lifetime of assimilated influences - she namechecks Yungblud, Machine Gun Kelly, Bring Me The Horizon, Post Malone, Avril Lavigne, Janis Joplin, PJ Harvey, Johnny Cash, Lana del Rey, Halsey, Stevie Nicks, First Aid Kit, Sam Fender and Florence and the Machine as specific inspiration - and a lifetime of character building, Wheel Of The Year is quite the introduction to Kennedy’s unique world, both musically and philosophically. A baptism of fire, you might even say, full of a very human fire that you’ll want to embrace.