Arts Interview Music Singapore

Music Is: An Interview with Irish Singer-Songwriter Dermot Kennedy

A little over a decade ago, you might have found Dermot Kennedy somewhere on a street in Dublin, playing and singing his heart out for passers-by who wouldn’t have batted an eyelid at the teenage busker.

Today, the Irish singer-songwriter has amassed nearly 4 billion streams across music platforms, was nominated for best international male solo artist at the BRITS Awards, and toured the world. Treated almost like a ‘national treasure’ by his fans in Ireland, Dermot found success after years of hard work after Spotify’s Discover Weekly algorithm put his song ‘An Evening I Will Not Forget’ on listeners’ playlists, and as was the intent of the algorithm, got him discovered.

“When I was playing in the street, there was something very freeing about it, because I had nothing to lose, and no one can take anything away from me, and that was a beautiful way to get started.”

“It’s a lovely thing to be considered a ‘national treasure’,” says Dermot, in an interview conducted over Zoom. “But it’s not something that happens overnight, it’s a lot of hard work that goes into it and takes a long time for anyone to make it in the music industry. When I was playing in the street, there was something very freeing about it, because I had nothing to lose, and no one can take anything away from me, and that was a beautiful way to get started.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dermot had released his debut album in 2019, and before lockdowns were imposed, had already been on tour for about three years. For most people, the idea that such an upward swing would suddenly come to a grinding halt might be jarring, but Dermot instead managed to see the good in it, and took what comfort he could during that time. “Yes, COVID was an awful thing, and it was scary because we didn’t know if live music was coming back in what, 5 or even 10 years, but the first few months I spent in Ireland at home brought an unexpected period of rest after working so much, and I see it as a blessing in disguise,” he says.

“When I get onstage, I’m lucky because I feel like I don’t have to pretend to be anyone else, and when I play my songs, I’m always 100% myself.”

Now, with the world re-opening and on a steady resumption towards normalcy, Dermot is back on the road again, going from South America to Asia, and lands in Singapore tonight to perform his debut show here, with an intimate set at the Esplanade Annexe Studio. “Usually, I’m playing big crowds with a full band to up to 50,000 people, so I’m actually really glad that this will be an intimate, acoustic show, because I don’t get to do that very often,” he says. “I still love these small venues, which carry a lot of meaning for me, and I hope that it elevates my music and evokes emotions in the audience.”

While Dermot’s life has changed unimaginably since he’s found fame, he hopes that fundamentally, it never really changes him as a person. “For me, it’s always about the music,” he says. “It’s impossible to prepare for a life like this, but I believe my creative values are very strong, and even when the ‘celebrity’ aspect comes out, I want to remain authentically me, and honest in my music. Especially when I get onstage, I’m lucky because I feel like I don’t have to pretend to be anyone else, and when I play my songs, I’m always 100% myself.”

Going back in time a little, Dermot recalls his childhood and his enthusiasm for football, and like so many other kids, had dreams of going pro. He quickly realised that while he was decent, he didn’t think that he he was really going to find success on the pitch, and made a detour instead to music, even pursuing classical music at Maynooth University in County Kildare. “It’s an unreliable world we live in, and no matter how good you are, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be a successful musician, and I thought, if I didn’t make it, I could fall back on becoming a music teacher or something,” he says.

“Sometimes, it’s weird how competitive the music world gets, since music is an art, and I think so much of it is based off love and sensitivity and collaboration and inclusivity, rather than aggression and competition.”

Yet somehow, despite all the obstacles, Dermot has managed to become what is perhaps the most authentic version of himself, something that can be seen not just from the way he speaks, but also in his lyrics, and even in the dreaded space of social media, where so many users have fallen prey to the temptations of fame and end up more forced than real. “There’s a lot I want to be, and I know that there’s a lot of competition with ‘similar’ musicians to me,” he says. “But sometimes, it’s weird how competitive the music world gets, since music is an art, and I think so much of it is based off love and sensitivity and collaboration and inclusivity, rather than aggression and competition.”

“I want to be universally appealing but also unique, and most of all, I want the sincerity to come across,” he adds. “That is so important in my field, because you can copy what someone else seems to be doing well, but if it’s not truthful to you, then it’ll come across that way. I really appreciate musicians like LaRussell, this artist from California, whose videos always seem to show that he’s having a genuinely good time. But whether or not you post many times in one day, or twice a year, it’s really dependent on you, and you have to be authentic and want to do it to be real with your followers.”

Speaking about being true to himself, Dermot takes some time to talk about the tattoos he’s gotten over the years. “I don’t get a tattoo unless they hold some kind of meaning for me, and one of the most special ones to me is this tattoo I have that’s meant to be a frame of the view of the fields from my parents’ home,” he says,. “Because I’m travelling so often, it’s a reminder to me about where I came from and reminds me to go back from time to time. It’s extremely significant and meaningful to my own life, and while I would like to get more tattoos from so many artists I’ve met, because I’m usually in a single place for all of 20 minutes at a time, that can be hard to arrange.”

Going forward, Dermot is also preparing for the release of his upcoming sophomore album. Titled Sonder, which refers to the realisation that everyone has a life as complex as one’s own, the album rollout has been slow but steady, starting with the single ‘Better Days’ last July, to the more recent ‘Kiss Me’ released about a month ago. While his sound has changed somewhat, going from a huskier, folk rock composition from his debut album Without Fear to a more pop sound for Sonder, lyrically, Dermot has remained sincere and real, his words and emotion always coming through his voice.

“Some of the songs do sound sad, but there is always a lot of hope within, and about perseverance, holding on, and staying strong.”

“The title for this album was an easy choice, because I thought about how in music, it’s often seen as such a self-centred pursuit, where you spend so much time thinking of your own music and life and photos and social media, and I started to think, I’m seeing my own face too much to be considered normal,” he explains. “And I’m not the kind of person that enjoys thinking about myself that often, so to think about how ‘sonder’ means this awareness of everyone living a life as vivid and complex as your own, I thought that the album would represent a world I can share with people, and bring everyone together when they step into it. Lyrically, there are still both parts – the light and the dark. Some of the songs do sound sad, but there is always a lot of hope within, and about perseverance, holding on, and staying strong.”

“I’m at a point where I think I’ve done almost everything I started out wanting to do, and this year especially, I haven’t said no to anything, and the work has been relentlessly busy every day,” he says. “The pace is wild but manageable, and as an artist, I do feel impatient sometimes wanting things to move along, especially thinking about how long my journey has been to get here. But I try not to spend too much time thinking about how others feel about me and my music; I’ve reached a point where I’m quite sure about who I am as a person and musician, and I’m confident about the next step of my journey going forward.”

Dermot Kennedy plays at the Esplanade Annexe Studio on 19th October 2022, 730pm. Tickets available from SISTIC

Dermot’s new album Sonder will be released on 4th November 2022 on all music streaming platforms. Listen to Dermot Kennedy on Spotify here

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