With over 300 million streams across platforms and global sold-out shows, Dermot Kennedy is as humble as they come.
When Dermot Kennedy was a teenager, he headed to Dublin from his rural hometown to busk on Grafton Street, one of the city centre’s busiest promenades. While serenading shoppers and bar-hoppers aren’t necessarily the glitzy and glamorous start of a musical career, he fondly looks back on his time as a street performer. “It was quite freeing,” Kennedy explains. In his mind, busking was a very lucid experience, one that involved lots of experimentation, and sometimes humiliation. In contrast, now, Kennedy’s acclaim dictates that his performances in arenas around the globe and amphitheatres require more honesty and patience. “But it took a bit of time to realize I’m not playing a random bar or the street, and there are people here to hear these songs.”
The main shift between the two, besides the lifestyle change, is that he isn’t merely providing the background noise on a city corner, but rather, he is the entertainment. People came to see him. And while some artists break under the strain of relevance, Kennedy sees his talent and prominence as a humbled exploration through art and himself. “They’re on your side,” he reminds himself. Why would they pay otherwise?
Being from Ireland, Kennedy is not alone in setting down the standards of songwriting. “I’m inspired by anyone telling a story,” he says. Voices echoed before him include giants like Van Morrison, the pivotal archetype of soul and class, and Damien Rice, who conquered the folk-rock scene with his first album O in 2002. He looks at all of them as expressive and motivating but also considers himself alongside them in the Irish canon. “To be able to look at a wealth of other artists and just want to be a part of that history is a lovely thing,” gleams Kennedy.
“I’m inspired by anyone telling a story.” – Dermot Kennedy
It would be hard to grow up in Ireland’s sprawling green landscape, without their influences playing some role in the back of your psyche. “Where I grew up was fields and forests, and even in that sense, I was constantly inspired,” he adds. That sense of home still leaves a vacant hole in Kennedy when he is gone. It can be difficult for an artist to be “known for a body of work,” as he puts it while remaining attached to their home amongst the touring and other global work that enables artists to succeed on a higher level. The good part is that he knows that while he’s gone, Ireland’s greenness won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. “Do your best to remind yourself that you’ll be home before long,” he tells himself.
One of his most significant influences and someone he often cites as instrumental to his growth is Justin Vernon, better known as Bon Iver. Vernon provides the template for Kennedy in his blending of music and personal living. “Bon Iver still lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin,” says Kennedy. “That guy can be anywhere in the world, but that’s his place to be.” The sleepy hamlet of Eau Claire, and Justin Vernon’s studio, April Base, hold admirable truths that Kennedy recognizes. Mainly, that success doesn’t always change someone. Still, Kennedy has to remind himself that this is what he wanted all along and that more work is on the horizon. “The nerves make way for excitement,” he adds. “It’s easy to get nervous. You have to remind yourself that people paid to come to see you.”
Kennedy also considers this to be his only chance at following his passion. The very act of being famous is a dying star for a lot of artists, especially now due to the music being at a digital forefront for the first time. As streaming becomes more compatible with listeners than conventional technology, more artists rise and fall quicker than ever before. “Even if someone comes out with a song that’s potentially timeless, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it becomes to become that,” he affirms. “Next week, there’s going to be a bunch of new music and, I’m just saying, everything is happening so fast, and everybody is bringing out stuff all the time because people are terrified of losing their relevance.” Not many people in the musical world speak with such honesty, and Kennedy still seems like his decision is out on whether he’s entirely comfortable with the industry.
One this is for sure though, the internet has taken the allure out of touring. “Back in the day if Thin Lizzy went on tour in America, it would be like, alright, see you in a couple of months, and no social media to keep up with where they are. It would just be playing brilliant shows,” he says. Unfortunately, that’s not the case anymore. Still, as long as artists like Kennedy are performing, a man who is bridging the gap between honesty and raw talent, then audiences know they can trust him.