He’s paid his dues, received compliments from Travis Scott and been streamed over 300 million times across music platforms – yet Dermot Kennedy is as humble as they come.
When Dermot Kennedy was a teenager, he used to head into Dublin from his rural hometown to busk on Grafton Street, one of the city centre’s busiest promenades. While serenading shoppers and bar-hoppers isn’t necessarily the most glitzy and glamorous start to a musical career, he looks back fondly 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, whereas now, Kennedy’s acclaim dictates that his performances, which are splayed across global arenas and amphitheaters, 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 obvious lifestyle change that comes with being an internationally touring artist, is that he isn’t simply providing the background noise to a seamless walk down a city street or a crowded bar’s nightly entertainment. 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?
Dermot Kennedy is currently in the midst of a global tour to promote his debut album, Without Fear, but still comes off as the giddy and fresh musician. His success is tantamount to most childhood daydreams, and still what’s most noticing in his Irish brogue is his ability to contribute to a point made or to add a heightened level of laughter to the conversation. He’s incredibly unique, both in a musical sense and a personal one.
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 the Man Morrison, the pivotal archetype of soul and class swilled into one voice, 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 landscape, a sprawling green pasture spotted with valleys, without it playing some kind of 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 and it can be difficult for an artist to be “known for a body of work,” as he puts it, while still 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 constantly tells himself.
One of his greatest influences and someone he cites often as instrumental to his growth is Justin Vernon, better known as Bon Iver. Vernon provides a necessary template for Kennedy in his blending of music and personal living. “Bon Iver still lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin,” says Kennedy. “That guy can really be anywhere in the whole 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 and talent don’t have to correlate with a change in your person. Still, Kennedy has to remind himself that this is what he wanted all along and that more work needs to be done. “The nerves make way for excitement,” he adds. “It’s easy to get nervous. You have to remind yourself that people paid to come see you.”
Kennedy also observes relevance on a global scale but also existing on a limited timeframe. The very act of being famous is a dying star to a lot of artists especially now due to the music being at a digital forefront for the first time ever. As streaming becomes more compatible with listeners than conventional technology, more artists rise up and fall down than ever before. “Even if someone comes out with a song that’s potentially timeless, it doesn’t necessarily mean that gets 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 candor, and Kennedy still seems like his decision is out on whether he’s comfortable with the modern push.
One this is for sure though, Apple Music and Spotify have taken the allure out of touring. “Back in the day if Thin Lizzy went on tour in America it would really be a case of like, alright, see you in a couple 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, but as long artists like Kennedy are performing, a man who is re-gluing the gap between honesty and talent that used to exist in older times, then audiences know they can trust him.