Though only in his late 20s, Irish singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy has been quietly honing his craft for years. It was only recently, however – with the success of his 2018 single Power Over Me – that the young artist became a household name outside of Ireland and the U.K.
Released across several streaming platforms, Power Over Me was accompanied by a powerful and poignant video that captivated audiences with the touching tale of a young woman – living in an impoverished area with her alcoholic father and kind younger sister – who finds strength through boxing. Squeezed between scenes, Kennedy takes center stage, singing passionately amidst the environs of an aging warehouse or apartment complex.
While Power Over Me was not Kennedy’s first single – both Moment Passed and Young and Free were released earlier in 2018 – it was the song that “broke” him in North America. Quickly, listeners began poring over his back catalogue, asking, “How did I not know about this guy sooner?”
Now, amongst millennials – and those in the know – Kennedy’s name is brought up in the same breath as English pop star Ed Sheeran. And, with the recent release of his debut album, Without Fear – a 13-track powerhouse of pure emotion – he could go even higher.
Kennedy was born and raised in Rathcoole, a small, suburban area in southwest Dublin. Growing up along the lush Irish coasts and landscapes – his family home is literally called Cois Coille, which is Irish for “beside the forest” – the young artist found much of his musical inspiration in his environs.
“I never really thought about it consciously, and I didn’t do it intentionally, but there are all sorts of nature references in my music,” Kennedy tells Celtic Life International over the phone. “I notice it more now as people keep analyzing my lyrics. They will mention it to me, and I will be like, ‘Oh yeah, that is probably because I grew up where I did.’”
Despite its beauty, Rathcoole was not entirely conducive to a career in music. Kennedy didn’t live near any groups or choirs and, although his family was generally musical, he was never pushed in that direction by his parents. He believes his interests in music “developed quite naturally.”
“I remember watching a concert on TV that The Frames did, which was Glen Hansard’s old band,” he recalls. “I was completely taken by him as a performer. I was in awe of this sort of passion he had and how he delivered his music. I thought it was the most incredible thing. That was the first time that music really affected me. I bought the album the next day, and quickly realized that music was something I wanted to be a part of. As soon as I went down that path my parents and everyone around me were super supportive and never asked me to do anything else. I know that is not always the case, so I understand and appreciate how lucky I am in that regard. That was just sort of how it took shape.
“I started to write my own songs, and it just felt very natural.”
In time, Kennedy began busking on busy Grafton Street in downtown Dublin, later joining a band, Shadow and Dust, in his early 20s. Inspired by singer-songwriters, including Glen Hansard, David Gray and Ray Lamontagne, he dreamed of being “an acoustic act, travelling the world and playing beautiful theatres.”
With greater exposure to an array of musical styles, those dreams were soon redefined.
“I kind of happened upon hip hop many years ago, and it became a really important part of my life and a key source of inspiration – musicians like Drake, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar. Artists who are at the top of that game, but still have massive amounts of credibility and integrity. That music influenced how I produce my music, how it sounds, and even how I write my songs. It was quite subtle, though, and I have never tried to be something I am not.
“I wrote a song called ‘A Closeness,’ where we put this heavy program beat on. That was really my musical crossroads. I was like, ‘I could sort of panic at the fact that I am kind of nervous about the way this sounds and sort of retreat into my safe space of just playing a guitar and singing over it, or I could chase this really exciting thing that feels quite unique.’ So, I did that. And I am still doing that.”
Chaos & Art
Things have moved quickly since Power Over Me took flight; Kennedy is currently selling out major venues, has racked up over 9 million monthly listeners on Spotify, and has gained over 300k followers on Instagram. In March of 2019, he performed on the Ellen show, and has since received several ‘call-outs’ from international pop sensation Taylor Swift.
He admits that the rush to celebrity has him rethinking his career.
“If you look at the different parameters, like in terms of the actual size of the venues and stuff like that, the reasons I play music has evolved. I have had to reassess because, as I said, my dream was to play in pretty rooms with my guitar, and I can do that now. This Christmas in Dublin I will performing be at the 3Arena, which is 25,000 people over two nights. It is basically like a giant warehouse; there are no chandeliers, no beautiful architecture – just a giant room to put thousands of people into.
“My job is to make it feel like a small show, to make it feel intimate and beautiful within that environment…”
“I know it is doable, and I certainly never want to lose sight of why I do this.”
“And then there is social media,” he continues, “which scares me because it has absolutely nothing to do with the music – nothing to do with the thing that excites me the most. But I would be shooting myself in the foot if I was off social media, because it is where I promote my gigs and merchandise. It is definitely important, but I need to be careful, too, on how I conduct myself on there. One of my favorite things to do is to share the work of an amazing photographer that I love. It is like this tiny little nudge to people that that is what I care about. I am not just posting silly stuff. You can get a million views on a video somehow – like if you wanted to do something really silly – but then people think that is what you are and so you corner yourself. You have a whole career to think about. If you are doing a show and you have a room full of people at your show who expect you to do that silly thing you did on social media, then they couldn’t care less about your songs.”
He hopes that, though his music might be boxed into the “boy with guitar” category, his growing fan base can see beyond the genre.
“It is on me to be unique, and I hope that I have done that with how the music is produced, how I write, how the lyrics come across and how I perform. I want to get into my own little world. Being put into a box is boring.”
Being Irish, the songsmith might very well be predisposed to lyricism. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who rely heavily on catchy earworms and easy-to-remember choruses and hooks, Kennedy’s songs are a series of perfectly polished poems set to music. His work often explores duality, and how we can experience, and navigate, a myriad of emotions – often contradictory – at the same time; light and dark, love and fear, joy and sorrow.
“I write about my life and experiences. There were times in my life that were difficult and there were times that were super beautiful. That beauty and despair found its way into what I was doing.”
“I am glad that the darkness is there, because that is important – for me, anyway. Sometimes I find myself recording in studios and people will ask me what the song is about, and I am like, ‘Well, it is about a bunch of different things that couldn’t be more different from one another, but are actually quite connected in the end.’ I can find it difficult to focus on one exact thing, and I think I am better suited to write about things that are contradictory and in opposition.”
Kennedy – who recently performed at both Coachella and Glastonbury, two of the world’s biggest music festivals – loves every aspect of his career, but none more so than touring.
“It is my favorite part. I get to connect with a lot of people around the world. It is intense, yes, but it is where I feel most comfortable. I’ve got an hour and a half where I need to be at my best, but it is also this lovely thing where I get to wake up whenever I want, go to the venue, work out. It is the closest thing to some sort of routine I can have on the road.”
While the rewards are many, he admits that the vocation is not without its challenges.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say I struggle with this, but something that bothers me is that sometimes it is hard to always be present on the journey. We played the Danforth in Toronto and it was in this incredibly beautiful room and it was packed. It was one of my favorite gigs, but it was hard to let that sink in, because I had a gig somewhere else the next day. I am essentially realizing my dream every night. Obviously, another piece of my dream is for my music to reach a lot of people, and I am getting to do that now, so it is difficult to justvstop sometimes and realize that I am doing what I always wanted to do. That is not to say I should rest on my laurels and think that I have ‘made it’ – but rather to feel it in a solid way, enjoy it in the moment, and be like, ‘Hey, this is awesome.’”
Recently, Kennedy released his debut album Without Fear. The 13-track recording showcases some of his biggest hits – including Power Over Me and his newest single Outnumbered – as well as a handful of beautifully reproduced older gems and a few newer tunes.
The project, he notes, was years in the making.
“It’s a funny thing to put a first album together because I was drawing on every song I had ever written. I have a tune on the album that I wrote when I was 17 or 18-years-old. I’m happy it’s on there, because it ties in well with the songs that I wrote earlier this year.
“I am proud to see that I have evolved as a person and as a performer, but also that I am still the same person, and that I still know myself.
“It was also kind of weird at times, though,” he adds, referring to revisiting his older work. “Especially if the way I was feeling at that time has since changed. There were certain pieces that I had to let go of because the feelings that live in them just weren’t appropriate to my life anymore. However, there are several songs that I still stand behind.”
Kennedy was very deliberate in how he constructed the new recording.
“I don’t want to open up too much about the album’s meaning, because I don’t want to narrow it down for people, or for people to feel like that have to feel a certain way when they hear it. But I do want people to understand that the track list has been put together very carefully and consciously, and it is not that the 13 songs just happened to fall into place haphazardly. It is all quite intentional, and they are in that particular order for a very specific reason. I do hope that listeners will feel a certain way as they pass through each phase of the album, and that they will have felt as if the have been on a journey – one that is filled with a wide range of emotions.”
Without Fear has already received outstanding reviews; the Irish Times called it “deeply emotional” and Her describes the album as “a powerful listen.” And, just a week after its release, the recording reached the top of the charts in the U.K. – the first to do so by an Irish artist in 20 years.
“I have found a bit of peace. I am quite a perfectionist, and in this industry – especially these days – everything is about momentum and relevance, which is kind of scary. It was a really big deal for me to do the album, and for it to be the best it could be. Now that it is done, I can leave it behind me and look back with absolutely zero regrets.”
Kennedy recently finished up an intimate, pre-album release tour through Ireland and the U.K., and is now taking the full-sized show on the road to major venues across Europe and North America.
While he is enjoying every moment of life on the road, he can’t wait to put pen to paper again soon.
“I got home yesterday, and I was playing the piano and realized that I hadn’t actually sat down with a blank page in a long time, just waiting to see if something shows up. I think that, as a songwriter, that is the most exciting thing; to just sit and to create, and to start writing new material. It’s a little scary, to be sure, but I simply have to move forward without fear.”