Dermot Kennedy breaks his 24 hours of silence to tell me about The Hobbit. It’s his favourite book. “That’s how I started writing,” Kennedy says, slicing up a knob of ginger.
“I have certain songs that are just based off me watching The Lord of the Rings for ages because I didn’t have any real life experience yet.” This is his pre-show ritual: kicking back with a fantasy novel in a comfy set of KidSuper sweats, drinking a gingery hot toddy, and not talking.
The silence is a necessity. The Irish singer-songwriter has many talents, but his greatest gift is his voice. You’ve heard it – maybe in the car, maybe in the club. It’s powerful but weathered, a faint rasp that can alternately sound like an old soul lilting from the corner of the pub or a conqueror belting from the top of a mountain. Maintaining that voice takes discipline, especially when you’re mounting a tour like Kennedy’s. He’s currently on the road, playing back-to-back arena shows, in support of his second album Sonder, which debuted at number one. When we meet, in Brighton, he’s not long finished an 11-hour bus ride down from Aberdeen. All that performing takes a toll. “I sing in such a way that’s very taxing,” he says. A few years ago, he narrowly avoided vocal cord surgery. “As soon as I wake up, I immediately think about my voice.”
To keep up with the pace, Kennedy isn’t doing much more than singing and sleeping these days. Many people, from Hozier to members of his management, worry he’s pushing himself too hard. Kennedy is undeterred though – he’s been grinding away at his music for over a decade, since the days he was playing on the streets of Dublin and hand-delivering promo materials to local labels. “People think being on tour is a grind. Busking’s a grind,” he says. “Have you ever lugged a trolley full of gear through Temple Bar? That’s difficult.”
Kennedy’s career has a classic bent – hometown lad writes songs, works hard, makes good. “I’m told so many times that we’ve done this ‘the old-fashioned way’ in the sense that we’ve hit the road and toured until we got to this level,” he says. But it’s uniquely modern, too, a combination of intentional creativity, industry forces, and fortune that have catapulted him from street corners via your AirPods, into your nearest stadium. It’s proof that a guy with a guitar and chops can still succeed with enough focus and a few damn good songs.
“We’ve built it quietly,” he says. “Even now, it still feels like the beginning.”
Once in a while Kennedy’s phone pings with a note from a few thousand miles away, when the security cameras at his house have picked up something strange. Not a neighbourhood prowler or a particularly obsessive fan – just his dad, mowing the lawn again. Last year, Kennedy bought a house in Ireland, a few doors down from his parents’ place. “I can see their back garden from my garden, which is hilarious because it’s very Irish,” he says. So while Kennedy is performing for 10,000 people in Prague or Mexico City or Los Angeles, his father swings by to cut the grass. He gets a lot of free landscaping these days.
Whenever there’s a chance though, Kennedy slips away to the town he grew up in: Rathcoole, a little green town outside of Dublin. Global music megastardom was not an obvious future for young Dermot. He was much more serious about football. A quick look at him and you have no trouble believing he was a promising player. Kennedy’s build is as sturdy as his voice – this is not a guy you’d want tackling you on the pitch. He played centre midfield, “because of Roy Keane,” he says. His sister was the musical one, and Kennedy’s first musical memories are still of singing along with her at the piano.
At school, he insists he was an awkward kid: “I think there were people who didn’t hear me speak for six years. When I was in secondary school, you’d have your locker with all your books, and you’d take whatever you needed for the first half of the day, then go back to your locker and replace it. I used to carry two days’ worth of books in my bag just to avoid the social interaction at the lockers,” he remembers. “I’m kind of still like that, to be honest.”
Seeing performances by artists like Ray LaMontagne and David Gray inspired a change in direction. “I saw live shows and I was like, I want to do that.” Up until that point, Kennedy played guitar like countless teenagers around the world – which is to say, clunkily plucking out Green Day and AC/DC hits in his bedroom. He went to university to study classical music. After three years, though, he realized he could get a better education in the kind of music he wanted to play outside the classroom. He dropped out and became a regular in Dublin’s busking scene, covering Ben Howard and John Legend for tourists and playing in bands around town.
“Busking is funny,” says Kennedy. “It’s ultimately a financial endeavour. I wasn’t trying to be a busker. That was the best way I knew how to rent a studio to make my own music. It was always a means to an end.” When he did make enough money to record, however, the sessions didn’t go anywhere. “We’d blow all the money on studio time, friends and family would share it, and then nothing would happen. I’m driving around Dublin, dropping off press packs to different labels and just getting ignored all the time. Fucking hell, that was really deflating.”
Busking arguably led to more opportunities than studio sessions did. Those street performances were good enough to get Simon Cowell’s attention. Pop music’s veteran kingmaker saw Kennedy and invited him to try out for Britain’s Got Talent. Kennedy auditioned for the producers and was invited to appear on the show, but declined, to the dismay of his friends and family. “I had nothing going on,” he remembers. But he didn’t want to perform on TV, and more importantly, he wanted to play his own music. “It was quite clear in my head: Dermot, you don’t want to do this. Don’t be foolish!” So, he went back to playing in the street.
After turning down BGT, he waited a long time to sign a record deal. “When I brought [out] my first single, I didn’t do that for years because I was so scared of having a runaway hit,” he says. His nightmare was of an audience full of people who would come to see him for one song, then spend the rest of his set drinking and talking. To that end, Kennedy is a strikingly intentional artist, from how he plans tour dates and an album rollout to how often (or little) he speaks and the amount of ginger in his whiskey.
In this world, and the music industry especially, intention is good – but luck is better. Kennedy’s breakthrough feels especially modern because it didn’t start with a nod from Simon Cowell but a ghost in the machine. His spare piano ballad “An Evening I Will Not Forget” made its way onto Spotify’s Discover Weekly playlist. Suddenly his streams, ticket sales, and royalties spiked exponentially. The impact was so striking that Kennedy was moved to send a personal note to Daniel Ek, Spotify’s CEO. “It’s how I went from not doing to doing, literally,” he says.
Bring this up to Kennedy today, though, and he gets circumspect, perhaps even a bit exasperated. He’s aware that his story is anomalous – and that Spotify is, at best, an imperfect platform for artists. More importantly, to chalk up his success to a playlist placement takes something away from the music and the hustle that made it. “This way is fucking hard. I’ve been doing this for seven years and there’s a lot of work people don’t know about.” Arguably he’s been at it for twice that long, and the algorithm wouldn’t be worth anything if he didn’t write songs that pulled so hard on the heartstrings.
Regardless, when Kennedy’s moment came, he seized it, signing to Universal and commencing what has basically been a nonstop march to stardom. His debut album, Without Fear, reached number one. He released a series of juggernaut singles: platinum-certified “Giants”, a song he’s performed live with Paul Mescal (“Paul – he’s a good footballer!”); the inescapable club banger “Paradise”, a collaboration with Meduza; the inspirational anthem “Better Days”. Irish President Michael D. Higgins delivered an eloquent introduction to his set at Dublin’s Electric Picnic festival in 2019. His second album, Sonder, was a smash. Now he’s touring behind it, belting out love songs to 10,000 people a night.
Kennedy wrote Sonder over months and across cities, but to record it, he went to New York. “I feel ambitious while I’m there, but I also feel at home in a way. I settle in a bit.” The sessions were focused yet free-flowing. There was a tremendous amount of pressure behind his first record to capitalise on his breakthrough, and Kennedy often found himself wondering, “Is this good?” Sonder was easier. He was more comfortable in the studio, confident in his craft, and open to experimentation.
Whether he’s on tour, playing four shows in four cities in four nights, or writing and recording, Kennedy is a workhorse. For most of his time in New York, he spent long days shuttling between the studio and his flat. The exception: he would take the subway up to 110th Street and catch an Uber to Randall’s Island to play in a rec football league. “It was all these little diasporas,” he recalls. He played for an Irish team, and one week they’d go up against an Italian team, a Russian team the next. “Playing for that team was important for me because I felt like I was holding a lot of stress that I wasn’t even aware of. Football takes that away for me in a way that music can’t sometimes. It definitely made me a more balanced person.”
It was certainly humbling. “There was a guy from the team, and one time at training he was like, ‘Oh, you play music? Do you ever play in New York? Where are you playing next?’ I said, ‘Madison Square Garden.’ That’s my career in a nutshell.”
Kennedy’s approach – football, studio, sleep – worked. Sonder felt like a solid step forward for the songwriter, a record that balances Kennedy’s undeniable knack for big songs about big feelings with his more creative instincts. Songs like “Kiss Me”, a big ballad about loving someone like it’s your last night on earth, will surely crack stadium ceilings on tour. “Something to Someone” is a track more wistful but equally powerful – it’s the last song in his encore.
Then there’s “Blossom”, Kennedy’s favourite track on the record. “That was a step forward for me,” he says. “It felt like a dreamy, nostalgic sound, something worth chasing.” It’s the standout on the album, a personal song about resilience and comfort. Fans speculate that it’s inspired in part by the death of a close friend.
Kennedy had to fight for it. “Blossom” is beautiful, but a single it is not. “In terms of me and my label and management and everything, it was the least popular, but I was like, This song has to exist. This sustains me. This thing is the reason I make music.”
Ultimately, it made the cut. “Blossom” closes the record and opens Kennedy’s concerts.
Fans, however, may be more interested in what didn’t make the cut. Kennedy alludes to one track that he refused to put on the album. “I’ve never heard such a forceful, ‘We know this is a hit,’ but I was like, ‘I don’t care. That’s not good.’ It was so cut and dry for me. You can tell me it’s going to be number one all over the world, but I don’t care.”
What is this nuclear-grade single, this song too potent, too saccharine, too surefire for him to release? He says we’ll never know – the Dermot Kennedy silver bullet will stay locked on a hard drive.
It’s tempting to take Kennedy as a model for making it as a singer-songwriter in today’s pop music landscape. Reject flashy offers, play your own songs – far and wide and often – catch a tailwind from a streaming platform, and ride it as far as you can. At meet and greets, fans and aspiring songwriters frequently fish for tips, asking Kennedy how he did it.
Questions like that make him uncomfortable. “I did not get here by knowing how to do that, I just kept playing and it happened,” he says. “If you’re playing the music, and writing it, you’re doing it.” Arguably the path he followed is already a thing of the past. “I think about people playing in the street – I used to busk at a time when people had cash. No one has cash now. It’s a weird time for artists to exist.”
It’s been a weird time for Kennedy for a while now. He still experiences some disbelief, that it’s really him playing to thousands of fans every night. The title track from his first album, “Without Fear”, has a lyric: “I wonder if this’ll all work out.” “Now when I sing it, I feel the same way. I seriously hope this all works out.”
Getting back to the music quiets the doubt. Kennedy is already thinking about album three, toying with the idea of a pared-back record made at home in Rathcoole, à la Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. He might join another rec football league. “I like the idea of being posted up in my own house,” he says. “When I was 17 or 18, I didn’t give a shit who heard the songs. I just did it because it made me feel good. I want to get back to that.”
Performing live is what sustains him, though. He still loves the rare moments when a room goes quiet – “total attention.” At his shows, that moment comes during “Rome”, a gentle piano ballad from his first album. That night in Brighton, a hush covered the crowd until the final chorus, when the crowd started singing all the words back to him.
“That’s why I do free shows, busking in the streets and playing in pubs,” Kennedy says. “I did two gigs in Belfast, one for 30,000 people and [one for] 100. Really, they’re the same. Don’t get me wrong, it’s crazy when 25,000 people are shouting back at you. But sometimes you see one person in the front row of a church, crying. And, well, that’s everything.”
Story by Colin Groundwater / Source: gq.com