Music

10 things you need to know about Dermot Kennedy - in his own words

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The Dubliner is set to go stratospheric with his debut album 'Without Fear'. We chat to him about its release.
Written by Lauren MurphyPublished on
He began his career as a busker on Grafton Street, inspired by musicians like Glen Hansard. Now, Dermot Kennedy is on the verge of becoming Ireland's next big musical superstar.
As he releases his debut album 'Without Fear', we caught up with the twentysomething from Rathcoole to find out what he's all about, and what he makes of his impending global fame...

1. HE DOESN'T LIKE TO THINK ABOUT FAME

“I'd drive myself mad if I think about that stuff too much. It's so easy to get caught up in comparing yourself to other people. And there's so many things that take you away from the fact that you literally just wanna make music. It's so easy to get caught up in 'Oh god, that person is doing this and they sold out that venue, and they've sold that many albums...' It's nice to just stay in your lane. It's refreshing to just see people doing their own thing. But in terms of trying to stay away from what everyone else is doing and comparing yourself? Yeah, just staying away from social media a bit. Don't get caught up in it; your job is to make music. If you live in that world and operate in that way, it'll all just come down to numbers – and that's not why I make music in the first place. So you just have to remind yourself of that regularly, I think.”

2. HE NEVER WANTED TO BE A MUSICIAN AS A KID

“There was always music playing in my house, but I wasn't steered towards learning anything. My sister played piano all the time, and my auntie is a beautiful singer and so is my cousin – but it wasn't necessarily that type of house, where 'Oh, music is just a thing that we all do.' I grew up just being obsessed with football and wanting to do that. I got a guitar because my cousin played and he was at a family party and he started playing some songs; it was only then that I realised it was what I wanted to do. But for the first few years of playing music, I was still very much mad into football – so I was very chilled out about the music, because I didn't realise that that's what I was going to be.”

3. HE LEARNED A LOT ABOUT PERFORMING WHILE BUSKING ON GRAFTON STREET

“I feel like your enthusiasm correlates to how well you do. There's two stages to me busking; I used to do it with just me and a guitar, sitting in a chair and sell crappy CDs. That was not good. Then I met this Australian guy called Malachy who busked all summer, and he gave me all these pointers: get a new amp, take up as much space as you can. I got a big, beautiful rug, and basically made a shop. You're basically making it as noticeable as possible. So I did that, and the first day I was really excited and I did so well, blew out all the CDs, it was class. But then I slowly got less and less enthusiastic, and then less and less successful because I was gradually getting grumpier. So I feel like whatever energy you put out genuinely does come back at you.”

4. HE STUDIED CLASSICAL MUSIC AT MAYNOOTH

“I'd love to go back, because it was this amazing degree with top-class musicians and teachers, and just the most beautiful musical environment to be in – so I kind of wish I took it a bit more seriously. Because I wasn't a good student. You have access to all of these incredible musical minds, and I just found myself being a bit lazy and disinterested. Because I was always thinking about doing this. I did well, in the end, but I did a dissertation in third year on the opera of Orpheus, and if you're doing a dissertation you're assigned to a lecturer as your touchstone. And for example, at the beginning of the year I was like 'Look, I'll do this – but I'm not gonna do the back-and-forth'. And she was like 'I definitely don't care. Cool, go ahead' [laughs]. So that was the type of student I was; I thought I had it all sorted, but I definitely didn't.”

5. HE'S MADE NUMEROUS PERSONAL COMPROMISES FOR HIS CAREER

“I'm lucky in a sense that everything I have was so solid before this kicked off, and it still is. And now it's reached this point where I feel like I've figured it out to some extent, so it's calmed down a bit. But yeah, it's hard. I would say as a note to anybody who plays music and is getting into it, when that 'kick off' moment happens and you're only home for two weeks in a year, it's very easy to panic and almost compromise on your music. You maybe think 'No, I should be home for that', or 'I shouldn't play that show because it keeps me away for another week'. But you may never get that chance again. And in two years, you don't wanna be thinking 'Awww, shite. I'm not where I want to be because I bailed on that thing that day.' Don't get me wrong, it's hard – but you can work for years and years and if you bail on that one thing, you might regret it.”

6. THE CONSTANT ED SHEERAN COMPARISONS DON'T BOTHER HIM

“I dunno. It doesn't bother me at all. Of course I wanna be my own thing, but I feel like if you're insecure, then a thing like that will make you flare up. So if they wanna say that, happy days. I definitely don't think I am in any way Ed Sheeran-y, but it doesn't bug me. People love Ed Sheeran. I'll do my own thing regardless, so they can just say whatever they want. He messaged me the other day, he seems like the nicest guy. I met him once in New York, at a label thing; they wheeled him out as bait, I think." [laughs]

7. 'WITHOUT FEAR' HAS BEEN YEARS IN THE MAKING

“There's one song on it from when I was 18, which is almost ten years ago; and there's a song on it from a few months ago. So it's this thing that's been developed over that space of time, and I'm really proud and pleased at the fact that those two songs can live alongside each other on the same project. I can imagine if you were in a scenario where you'd made some strange decisions, or risky ones, and been led down the wrong path, then things could change so much that you'd look back on this thing when you were like, truly yourself and think 'Oh, shit, I'm not that anymore. I've been changed.' You want to develop, of course, but the fact that they can exist together is really just cool to me. So it's been in the works for a long time.”

8. THE ALBUM BLENDS HIS LOVE OF FOLK AND HIP-HOP

“We're always trying to balance things musically, in that my favourite type of music is David Gray and Foy Vance and Ray Lamontagne and all that, and that's why I started – but it's coupled with how inspired I am by hip-hop and spoken word. So we're constantly balancing that in a songwriting sense, but maybe more importantly in a musical sense. Generally, if you write a great song – and this isn't like a blanket rule – but if you write a great song, you can strip it back and it could live by itself on guitar or piano. But if you're adding elements to it and you build it up and produce it up, everything needs to be thought-out and deserving of being on the song. I stayed out of studios for a long time when I was younger because I had experiences where I didn't necessarily know what I wanted, in terms of a drum part, or guitar part; and then producers build it up and it just ends up sounding washy and not like your idea. So I think that's the thing; start small, and then put things on it that definitely benefit the song.”

9. HE SAYS MEEK MILL IS ONE OF HIS BIGGEST INFLUENCES

“I like him so much because there's so much passion in what he does, and obviously what he's been through is mad and something he's only getting out of now, in terms of his parole being taken away. To be through so much hardship... because there's so much music nowadays, right? There's a bajillion artists releasing everything every Friday, and there's so much stuff coming out. So what I think is that there are certain songs that potentially could be classics, but they get overlooked because someone brings out something the next day – and a hundred other artists do, too. So it's easy for great things to be overlooked, so I think it's more and more rare that someone says something powerful. And Meek Mill is definitely at the forefront of that.”

10. HE'S NOT AFRAID TO GET EMOTIONAL OR PERSONAL WITH HIS LYRICS

“I'm very comfortable doing it, it's always been my outlet and it's always been a nice way for me to get rid of whatever I'm feeling. But there's been maybe one of two moments where I've thought 'Should I say that thing' and then I always do... because you should. I mean, jeez. It's the same thing – you can't have regrets. You see somebody like Sufjan Stevens and the lyrics he writes, and you think 'That's the bar', in terms of saying things. Things are so saturated and there's so much going on with social media and just current culture; there's so much bullshit. If you look back at great artists, like Hemingway and all that, they just did it, and let it consume them, and said the thing. So you have to. In terms of being vulnerable? No, I never thought about it. And I don't mean that in a 'No, it just comes naturally to me' kind of way; I generally never thought about doing it any other way. And it's not generally who I am day-to-day, either... I feel like it is a thing that exists within my music. But I like it.”
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