- Dermot wears Farah
Ireland’s new troubadour, Dermot Kennedy, is conquering the charts with his heartfelt anthems and is winning over our hearts with his cover feature from Notion 86!
Somewhat unsurprisingly, Dermot Kennedy manages to make horse wrangling look easy. It’s mid-winter and you can feel the cold on your teeth when you inhale. The sky’s a shock of blue and anything even slightly reflective is humming under the sun. The set up is almost comically perfect, with Kennedy sat atop a statuesque horse called something like Billy, against a backdrop of nature turned up to 11. Not quite a knight in shining armour, but a windbreaker.
Though the west London riding school where Billy has been commandeered from, has been located for aesthetic purposes (not just a day out), the juxtaposition of a paddock next to an A-road suits the 28-year-old Irish singer-songwriter’s style. Hemming folkish storytelling to hip hop informed beats, Kennedy’s well versed in interweaving worlds. Romantic with a capital ‘R’ and poetic with a small ‘p’, he pens epic ballads about love, life and loss through vivid songwriting. Comparisons to Ed Sheeran and Lewis Capaldi are rife, but along with them, Kennedy epitomises the sound of the moment; his brand in a handsome Irish lilt.
Once we’ve retreated to a typically clinical hotel bar for a chat, it’s a similar feeling of collision when he begins to describe home. Having grown up 40 minutes outside of Dublin, in the “super remote” countryside, “with a forest on one side and fields as far as you could see on the other”, Kennedy didn’t realise his upbringing had inspired him until listeners started to point out his habit of writing about nature. “When I was a kid, I spent an awful lot of time in the middle of nowhere, thinking and working on stuff,” he explains. “It gave me time when I did become obsessed with music, I had nothing but time to put my head down.”
Though he’s being listed as a newcomer, it’s been a decade of obsession that has culminated in Kennedy’s debut album, Without Fear. Recorded in New York and released in October 2019, it shot straight to number in the UK charts. The album has an urgency, owed to its ever-changing tempo, and is gemmed with symbolism, traversing between lakesides and gravesides, through “swollen” red sunrises and moonlit scenes.
Lead single “Outnumbered” is a thunderous, unshakeable love song, about being there for someone without question, that’s ruled the 2019 radio waves since its official release in June. Elsewhere songs like “Moments Passed” deal with the stinging memory of love lost and “Power Over Me” is absolute adulation, the experience of being completely, hopelessly bewitched. So many wholehearted emotions in one tight space might fall danger to a sweet quaintness if it weren’t for the pull of Kennedy’s innate rasp. He harnesses silence and crescendos as instruments of their own, meandering through the brutal and the beautiful. There’s a vulnerable masculinity to his writing, as he sings like he has the weight of the world on his lofty six-foot shoulders.
“It’s something inside of me,” he reasons. “Even when I first went to an English lesson in secondary school and we did poetry, I was like, ‘Oh I’m really into this!’” From a tight-knit family, a combination of nature and nurture invoked an appreciation for the transformative potential of words — his sister loved art, his dad loved music, and his mum, language. “I was in an atmosphere where that stuff was really appreciated and revered,” he says, explaining that his openly creative self-expression was never questioned. “My mum definitely loved that stuff, but it wasn’t like she was reading me Yeats at night, you know?” he laughs. “It’s not that kind of family. I’m sure that does exist, but it was very normal. Whatever reaction I have is just the way I feel.”
Kennedy’s aware his music leans towards the melancholic — with almost gothic references to ruined palaces, demons, heroes and all. “I had a pretty positive upbringing,” he’s quick to reassure me, though on Without Fear, a record that’s “extreme in both directions”, he explores heartbreak and mortality as much as he encompasses hope and love. “I don’t know where this love for sadness comes from!” he laughs. “I guess there’s just something in my makeup. I’ve always resonated with truth and courage.”
Spending his younger years in a band and studying for a degree in classical music, he ventured to the very limits of vulnerability, offering himself and his words up to the unfiltered general public while busking on Dublin’s Grafton Street. A mixture of undeniable graft and almost unbelievable luck, Kennedy uploaded what is now raw piano-led album opener “An Evening I Will Not Forget” onto Spotify in 2015 and consequently ended up on a Discover Weekly playlist. His success escalated at a gallop and Kennedy began to translate the skills he’d learnt singing on the street for more established stages.
“It definitely gives you a certain amount of confidence, or a certain strength and resilience in terms of not worrying too much about what people think, or if people are judging you, but it’s just levels the whole time,” he says. The stress that came with busking was hoping no-one stole his earnings; now, when he’s selling out venues like Hammersmith’s Apollo two nights in a row, Kennedy’s trying to make sure everyone’s experience is special.
“You do this ridiculous thing, where you try and judge people’s expressions on their faces,” he tells me. “I thought last night, while I was playing, on social media you can scroll through 100 comments and they’re all really lovely stuff and then there’s one bad one and you fixate on that one. I realised I do the same thing when I’m scanning around the room… It’s just a new version of trying to win people over.”
It’s not only his power as a performer, but the kind of crowd he’s cultivated that gifts him such close concentration. “Every decision I’ve made determines the type of listener that’s in that room,” he says. “So if everything I’ve done to this point gets me a room full of people who will pay attention at that point, that means a lot to me. It’s not an accident. It’s because of the music I release and because of the decisions I make… I love when you’re in a place like [the Apollo] and you can get to the point where it’s an instrumental bit, and you can stop playing the guitar completely, and just sit in the silence of the room.”
Kennedy can command that kind of control during a show thanks to his insistence on authenticity. “I don’t think I’m a super heart on my sleeve person,” he admits, “but I have no time for like — I was going to say bullshit, but it’s too vague — I have no time for veiled emotions. I think things should be entirely honest all the time and I don’t have time for anything else.” Is it a worry, I ask, that with recognition finally finding him, the melancholic material might dry up? Does great art have to come from times of turbulence?
“I don’t think so,” he says. “Things are quite good in my life right now, not just my career, my family’s good, my friends are good, there’s no real drama, but I still get good ideas… I certainly don’t think just because your life is good it’s just this stream of ‘happy happy happy’. You do get darker moments, if you’ve experienced difficulties, which I have, that doesn’t just fade away when you’ve written 10 songs about it, it stays with you. So I don’t think so. Don’t get me wrong, I think despite how difficult it might be, it’s probably a good thing creatively, it’ll give you a few tunes, but it’s not fun.”
“People are kind of surprised when I can have a laugh,” he smiles, “because I don’t live my life like the songs and I don’t walk around sad all day, I don’t speak like a poet.” Artists are required to say so much, he says, but why can’t it be communicated solely through the music? “Like, what about Leonard Cohen?” he offers. “His fans get everything from the music, it’s all in there… I like things to be quite simple, I get every emotion into the songs and so I feel quite free when I’m off stage and when I’m out of the studio, I get to be a different person a little bit. It’s still me but there’s a separation.”
As Kennedy’s hitting the milestones, one album down and with a swarming fanbase, being a musician so preoccupied with integrity is a challenge, no matter how endearing. He admits he’s thrown out countless songs over the years that his label have loved. His own high standards have served him well though, sending Without Fear went straight to UK number one upon release.
“I got this at a point where I could honestly sit with myself and be like, I haven’t compromised on anything…” he says. “I am totally happy with everything that has gone into the songwriting process, so I love the idea of a 16-year-old songwriter being like, ‘oh you can be successful and an actual artist too’, and that drives me an awful lot. It’s the thought I have most frequently, that this is going fast, so I need to stay proud of it, really proud of it, not just like, ‘This song could take you to XYZ.’ That’s a step towards bullshit — I can’t do that.”
The point where Kennedy can no longer see the faces in the crowd might not be so far in the future. Between having already played Coachella, selling out Brixton Academy before Without Fear was even released, and with 50,000 tickets for his upcoming string of 2020 dates disappearing in under 10 minutes, the demand for his live shows is hard to meet as the kind of artist he wants to remain being. The day before we speak, he shares a clip on Instagram from the crowd of his first Hammersmith show where the entire 5000 capacity audience is silent, totally captivated.
“If I had released an album full of stuff that I wasn’t totally sure about,” he says, “You would have a room of people who were disengaged, and a bunch of people who’d heard it on the radio and thought, ‘I’ll buy tickets to hear that song.’ That’s what I take most pride in, that everybody knows every song… That’s been important to me from day one, I want rooms packed full of people who care about all of them.” Now all there is to do is continue finding venues big enough to hold Kennedy’s legions of fans, as well as the voice that brought them there.