Dermot Kennedy returns to Montreal on Monday, March 2 for a concert at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts. The young Dubliner has mastered the craft of songwriting. Paired with his powerhouse of a voice, he pens lyrics that could be poems and delivers them with a fire in his soul.
After years of sold-out shows across the world and hundreds of millions of streams on Spotify, Kennedy built his own success as an artist before signing with a label or having a management. He did it on his own terms and truly epitomizes what it means to find your own voice – all before releasing an album.
The doors are wide open for the busker from a tiny village in Ireland. With an incredibly loyal fanbase and business backing him up, he has not forgotten where he came from.
Before the start of his 2020 tour, we spoke about his debut album, lyric tattoos, half-assing it, annoying punters at gigs, his take on the music industry, and finding his place in this new world of fame.
Montreal Rocks: Mr. Kennedy – how’s it going? I’m glad we could do this before the craziness of your new tour begins.
Dermot Kennedy: (laughs) Tour, tour, tour. That’s my life.
MR: You’re about to embark on the North American Without Fear tour. How are you feeling about it all?
Dermot Kennedy: Brilliant, I’m excited. I feel good vocally. I feel good in terms of my energy. These are the biggest shows we’ve ever done so yeah, I can’t complain.
MR: From busking in the streets, to selling out iconic venues all over the world, how do you think this tour will be different from the rest?
Dermot Kennedy: It’s definitely different in terms of the production we’re bringing and how the show itself has escalated and gone up a gear. Me and Micheál [the drummer] talk about this quite a bit. There are certain venues where you’re like, “Wow everybody knows this venue in the whole world, and we’re headlining it now.” And that’s a crazy thing.
It’s this lovely thing where we’ve gone from playing to 200 people to 50,000 at a festival in Ireland. What’s beautiful about it is that we’ve done it in steps and it wasn’t overnight so we’re now well equipped to play to bigger crowds. I’m learning how to make it feel more intimate and we’re all figuring it out together.
It feels different because it’s growing all the time. I guess things feel a little bit more “pro.” Today for example, I got up, had a vocal lesson, then I’ll go to the gym, then I’ll warm up, then I’ll do a meet-and-greet and then I’ll do the gig. Whereas sometimes on tour you’ll find yourself twiddling your thumbs all day, so a packed day is quite a good thing.
MR: So you’ve definitely gotten used to the tour lifestyle over the past couple years.
Dermot Kennedy: Yeah, for sure. It’s funny because these days you can’t party and go wild on tour because you’ll end up cancelling shows.
We did a crazy thing on the last tour where I had to sing intensely for 20 days straight or something, so that’s not a situation which you can take the piss out of. The novelty hasn’t worn off, but I’m more aware of looking after myself.
MR: How do you find that balance?
Dermot Kennedy: It might seem uncool to look after yourself on tour, but you can’t go to the next town and sound like shit because you had a good time the night before. We always have a good time, but I’m conscious of not burning out.
MR: Of course, of course. I’m sure I speak for a lot of people when I say that the lyrical content in your music is what touches people the most. It’s so poetic as you tell these beautiful stories and I’d love to know more about your songwriting process.
Dermot Kennedy: I don’t have it figured out yet. I get in the studio and see what feels good.
People in the studio will ask me, “Do you have any lyrical ideas?” or “Is there anything you’re thinking about?” And I never do. We just start playing music and figure it out from there.
MR: Are there any instances in your life when you think, “Oh I should write a song about this?”
Dermot Kennedy: No, and that’s not to say I’m not always thinking about it. I’ll just write about it naturally. I’m not the type that thinks in that way. When I’m in the studio and the music is good, then that will provoke certain emotions and it will remind me of certain things and trigger certain memories and a song will come from that.
I’m sure there will be a day when I’ll try and sit down and come up with clever phrases but right now, I’m okay with it.
MR: My favourite lyric of all time is in For Island Fires and Family when you say, ‘Now when I’m face to face with death I’ll grab his throat and ask him, ‘How does it hurt?”’ What’s the meaning behind that one?
Dermot Kennedy: I think the meaning is that no matter how perfect your life is, no matter how beautiful things are, your relationships, all of that – you will eventually lose people. Losing people is inevitable: losing friends, family, loved ones. The time when I wrote that song I was feeling hard done by with that stuff so I liked that image of turning the tables and having control over death. Death controls everything. Nothing gets past it and that’s just a fact. I like the idea of having control over it.
MR: I love that. Do you have a favourite lyric you’ve ever written?
Dermot Kennedy: Ahhh it comes and goes. It definitely changes. I’ve actually toyed with the idea of tattooing a lyric that means the most to me but then I know my mind would change.
MR: It’s so crazy to think that people have tattooed your lyrics on their bodies too. Dermot Kennedy fans are a passionate bunch.
Dermot Kennedy: Oh man, I know. It’s one of those things that I know that happens and I still can’t get my head around it.
MR: I can’t even imagine how that must feel. You do such a good job of allowing your music to relate to people in any way they choose to connect with it. It’s just the right amount of sharing your personal feelings within your songs that’s not too overbearing, yet at the same time universally relatable. Is that intentional in your music making?
Dermot Kennedy: I think about that quite a bit. I think about the fact that I make music that touch on love and loss – things that everyone experiences. I’m really glad it wasn’t an intentional Machiavellian choice. I try to hone in on a topic and think about how someone might feel. I try to write for someone, whoever it is, as an exercise and that can be fun but nah, it’s not an intentional thing.
I think it’s very important how much you share. It’s a weird world and industry currently. It is so saturated to the point that everybody is sharing absolutely everything about themselves. I’m not trying to pretend to be old fashioned, but I’m just not into that.
MR: That’s what I admire so much about you as an artist. In today’s day and age, there’s a loss of artistry in the industry with things like social media and creating these false images for publicity. How do you manage not to get caught up in all of that?
Dermot Kennedy: Thank you. I was actually listening to a podcast yesterday with Matt Damon and he was talking about how cinema has changed. He was saying that you get spoon fed all this information and you don’t have to work hard to get it. He was saying there is a lack of nuance in film these days he thinks it’s sad.
So it’s sad to me that I can feel that way about music, and he feels that way about movies. I’m sure authors feel a certain way as well. It’s just sad, yeah.
MR: It really is. Although, you can almost see the truth and authenticity behind an artist in a live show and the way they deliver their music. Your show is this out of body experience to the point where people are bawling their eyes out in the crowd. How does that make you feel knowing you have that much of an impact?
Dermot Kennedy: The show is everything. My whole thing is being able to show up live and do it properly. There are so many ways for artists to have careers these days that you don’t necessarily have to go and slug it out on the road. There’s no mystery anymore when everybody is sharing all of themselves. You see people make huge leaps in terms of social media and different gimmicks and I don’t do any of that.
MR: Which is rare these days, yet also hard not to get sucked into.
Dermot Kennedy: Yeah, it can be frustrating. You gotta be patient and know that the right audience will form around you. You don’t want to do something wrong that will harm the long run just for short term gain. So my thing is touring and I’m happy to do it.
MR: You’ve been touring for ages now too. Do you have a favourite song to play live? Or a moment in your set that you’re always excited to play?
Dermot Kennedy: We have a song called, Couldn’t Tell and it’s funny because it took me a long time to like that song and put it in the set. And now it’s my favourite part. Maybe that’s why: because I’m not super attached to it. So often I’m trying to convey those emotions as intensely as I can and I get caught up in it.
This happens to me in the studio as well. I spend my whole life thinking about lyrics and feelings and topics, so when I get to take a step away from it, it feels quite liberating.
MR: I’d love to talk more about your debut album Without Fear you released a few months ago. In the album inscription you wrote, “I don’t have anytime for negative thoughts. I don’t have time for art that doesn’t affect me deeply. I don’t have time for halfway.” What does that ‘halfway’ mean to you?
Dermot Kennedy: Yeah… it’s that thing of half-ass attempts that just don’t feel good. I’ve been like this my whole life in music and in sport. When I played football, I was carrying an injury and I was out for 6 weeks. Then the first game back, my coach told me to take it easy and get back into it slowly. Then one of the very first things that happened was the ball was 50/50 between me and this guy and I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t not go and lay into that tackle.
That’s the way I am in music too. The performances now benefit from the fact that for a long time I didn’t get a break. I didn’t get any recognition. I was doing all this work that I was proud of and no one noticed. That was very frustrating for a long time. So now that I have it, I’m very determined to take advantage of it.
MR: That’s huge, and it definitely shows. With that mindset, how did this album all come together with its title Without Fear?
Dermot Kennedy: When you know, you know. It’s the last song on the album and it felt like a big, powerful closing track. I made it with a guy called Carey Willets [a producer in London] and he’s the first person I ever wrote with 3 1/2 years ago. It was the most beautiful way to be introduced to writing with other people. I’ve heard horror stories of people going in to write with a rap producer with 10 guys there and it’s the most intimidating room in the world. So when I went to Carey, he was so sensitive in terms of handling lyrics and he was very aware of how precious that was to me. It was a beautiful thing getting to make the closing track with him. It felt like it should close off the album.
In terms of it being the title, I wrote that song well before I had any sort of career. Before managers or Spotify or any of that. The only place that song existed until it was on the album was on YouTube because I paid a guy a couple hundred euros to come over to my house and film me playing it because I just wanted the song to be in the world.
To me that song represents who I truly am and who I was before all of this.
MR: Who were you before all of this?
Dermot Kennedy: As you take this journey, you find yourself trying to hold on to who you are – and that’s not to say I can feel myself losing my way – but you become very aware of how you could change, so I’m determined not to change. The song represents that.
MR: I love that. So you had these songs written for years before and worked on this album for even longer.. how did you know you were finally ready to share it with the world?
Dermot Kennedy: You gotta trust the people around you. It’s very easy when you’re young and talented and so many people tell you the industry is bad and not to sign anything ever. But also, being anti-industry can work against you too. So when I found the right label, right managers, it was a collaborative thing and we figured out the right time.
I was lucky because the venues we were playing weren’t getting smaller. The time comes when you try enough things creatively and get out of your comfort zone and you get to a certain point when it feels like you got the right album. It felt time too. It felt like fans of my music might have become impatient if I didn’t hurry up.
MR: I can attest to that. Have you had that moment in your career thus far that you’ve thought, “Wow, I made it” Fame is an interesting concept.
Dermot Kennedy: Oh no, not at all. Nothing yet. I got too much left to do. Don’t get me wrong, there are certain shows when I think this is a big deal now. And there are also certain things, like I’m nominated for a BRIT award in February.
MR: Unreal. Congrats.
Dermot Kennedy: Thank you. The other people in the category are Bruce Springsteen, Post Malone, Tyler the Creator and Burna Boy: these massive international artists. When the BRITs put a post up on their Instagram, no one commented saying, “Who’s that guy?” I love the fact that I can be part of those conversations now.
MR: That’s a huge feat for sure. You started your music journey busking and now you’re here. Do you remember the last time you busked and then realized you didn’t have to anymore? We never really realize when we do something for the last time, which is always weird to think about.
Dermot Kennedy: I don’t remember the last time I played in the street. I wasn’t in love with it. Although it is a great thing to do. You figure out how to sing (kind of) and how to project your voice, or ruin your voice. You figure out how to be heard and how to play a set and how to hold people’s attention. It’s super valuable, but I was also happy to leave it behind.
MR: You’re a pretty unique artist in the sense that your live shows are the perfect example of holding the audience’s attention, where the entire room is in a trance and you’ve totally captured everyone.
Dermot Kennedy: Yeah, I think it’s equal parts luck and not. Whatever you bring out into the world will determine who comes to your shows. If you bring out thoughtless and transparent work, people who come to your shows won’t pay attention.
For that reason, I was very careful with what I was releasing. I knew the type of listener that I hoped would latch onto it. In my shows, people pay attention to every song. Because man, if you bring out a song and it’s a hit on the radio, people will go to the show because of that one song they know. And for the other 70 minutes they’re just talking to their friends. That breaks my heart.
MR: Oh totally. As a frequent concert go-er, I get so frustrated when there are people around me talking and in their own world, and I’m like, “Just let him sing!”
Dermot Kennedy: Right! There is a balance. When I’m at a gig, there’s a part of me that understands people are there with their friends and not going to be mute for the whole gig. But you can tell when someone appreciates what’s happening and when they don’t.
I went to watch Elbow at The Welters in L.A. which was incredible. There was this guy and girl sitting at the bar talking loudly the whole time. The only time they would stop talking was to take a video of the gig that they weren’t even paying attention to. That’s a shame, but the other part of me knows it happens regardless.
MR: Has there been a time when you felt that way at one of your own gigs?
Dermot Kennedy: In all the hundreds of gigs that we’ve done, there’s been maybe twice that I had said something to somebody. Even then, it’s only because I can see that it’s bothering the people around them. I mean, have a chat if you want to have a chat. But when I see it affecting people who really do want to pay attention, that bugs me.
MR: How is it playing headline shows vs. festivals with those different crowds and all types of people that are either listening or not?
Dermot Kennedy: It’s very different. We play festivals every summer, and it’s less and less people willing to take a punt on you and it’s more about actual fans coming to see us and that’s really cool. Also in a busking sort of way, it feels a little bit like an audition and trying to win people over. That gives me an extra 10%. Festivals are so much fun anyway – just going to play for an hour or so and playing as loud as you can.
MR: A lot of people attend festivals to discover new artists and hear new music so that’s interesting to hear it from your point of view.
Dermot Kennedy: Yeah, I put a lot of pressure on my headline gigs. I think that’s because people have paid to be there, whereas festivals you feel a bit free from that. And if there is a tiny mistake, it doesn’t matter so much.
MR: The first time I saw you live was actually at a festival over a year ago. It’s been amazing to witness the artist that you’ve grown to be so quickly just this past year.
Dermot Kennedy: It’s crazy. I was saying to the lads in the band, “Imagine how much better we’ve gotten without us noticing.” Like we played The Troubadour in L.A. over 2 years ago and I would love to see a video from that gig, compared to what we’re doing now.
MR: Have you had time to sit back and reflect on everything?
Dermot Kennedy: I try. It’s hard to do though. I’m deep into it, so it’s hard to step out and reflect. The biggest shows we’ve ever done were right before Christmas in Dublin where everybody knew every single word. That was a really big deal, but I’m trying to keep going. I’m not trying to be that guy that played an arena in his hometown then just went back to playing clubs in New York.
MR: Growing up in a small town in Ireland, how is it coming home after touring all over the world?
Dermot Kennedy: I love it. I think it’s one of the most important parts of what I do. So much of my music comes from home and my love for this place of nostalgia and memories. It would be very silly of me to forget about it and leave it behind.
MR: Definitely. That’s so important. Okay, before you go, I’ve been dying to know: do you have a favourite song to play at home on an instrument that you just keep to yourself? One that you play for yourself, and no one else.
Dermot Kennedy: (laughs) Yeah actually as of a couple weeks ago, I made a New Years resolution to get better at playing music – like actually playing. I’ve always viewed the guitar and the piano as a vehicle to write a song, but sometimes I’m hit by it in the studio. I know I would have better ideas if my hands could actually execute them. I’m a decent guitarist and I can write a song on the piano, but I just want to be good. So I started learning random hip hop and rap songs on the piano. That’s my favourite thing to do these days.
I’m just so lucky. I love what I do.
Get tickets for Dermot’s Montreal show HERE
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