Photo: Recording Academy
Dermot Kennedy On 'Without Fear,' Bon Iver & Coachella | Up Close & Personal
Dublin-born folksy singer/songwriter Dermot Kennedy has had a great run recently, and he's just getting started. This year alone, he's shared his smoldering vocals and uplifting lyrics with major performances at Coachella, Glastonbury and on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, to name a few. Later this month, on Sept. 27, he'll drop his debut full-length album, Without Fear.
The "Power Over Me" singer recently stopped by the Recording Academy headquarters for our latest episode of Up Close & Personal to share what fans can expect on the new album, as well as insight into the story behind one of its lead singles, "Outnumbered." He also spoke to his biggest influences, which include David Gray and Bon Iver, and how he stays fresh while on tour. You can watch a portion of the conversation above and read the full interview below. You can also visit on our YouTube page for a longer version of the video, as well as for other recent episodes.
You're releasing your debut album, Without Fear, soon. How are you feeling about it?
Excited. These are a bunch of songs I've known for a long time, for the most part. I've struggled with that for a while, the patience you need to have if you've got a certain song that you are super proud of but need to wait because it will exist on a project. So this is that moment where all of the things I'm most excited about get to come out. And up until now, there's been so much singles and EPs and stuff, and I'm excited to have a body of work out in the world.
What was your favorite part about working on this project in terms of that it was a full album?
I think that's always been really, really important to me. I think it would be very easy to just work away and find the songs that click and then put them all together and have a project of these songs, but any time I think about artists that I'm inspired by, like Kendrick [Lamar] or Hozier and stuff like that, I think about these bodies of work that are cohesive projects and every song works with the next and all that kind of thing, so that was really important to me to do that. I think it's like another thing where you put a bit more pressure on yourself, but it's worth it, for sure.
One of your most recent singles is "Outnumbered," which, to me, feels very powerful and empowering. Can you talk a little bit more about the backstory on that song and then the video that came with it?
They line up in a way. I wrote the song quite a while ago, and it was one of those lovely things that kind of came together in a day, almost. It was this really organic thing where—my favorite days in studios are when you don't second guess everything. I didn't know it was going to be a single, and I didn't know what the plan was for it, so I guess it was a good thing I was just there to make music. If it worked, happy days, and if not, then it was fine.
It was a different stage in my life, I guess, and a different set of circumstances. What it meant for me was just I wanted to almost send a message of comfort to somebody and to just remind someone that despite how difficult things might be and how. You know that feeling of being in a rough patch, and realistic-you knows there's the next chapter, and that will end and you'll be on the other side of that. But when you're in it, it's not very easy to see that. It was me trying to remind somebody that there is that next part where that bad patch has just gone away.
Then, I guess it was written by me for someone in particular, but on a bigger scale that message could translate to anybody.
It feels like that for sure, especially with the music video specifically, as there are different people in the video.
For sure, yeah. I thought that was important. We did that with the video for "Lost" too, because, again, it was like, be aware of everybody because everybody's got their own thing going on. You might think you've got the worst set of circumstances out of anybody, but everybody's got their own struggle. You know what I mean? I think that's a big part of my songwriting, to try and just provide comfort to people.
I think if even one person can relate, you know?
Oh, exactly. I'm sure, through the ages, so many artists are thinking of one specific person when they do that, but you end up writing a song that can work for a lot of people, hopefully.
Once the album comes out, then you'll be touring in the U.S., and then Europe and U.K. this fall and winter. What are you most looking forward to with this tour?
The venues. The venues are getting better and better all the time. It's this really lovely way of gauging how your career is going, too. It's really cool. I try not to take it for granted because I know some people can come and tour the U.S. and play to 10, 15, 20 people, and so I've been so lucky that gigs sell out. It's that lovely thing of you play to, say, three hundred people and then come back in a few months and you play to a thousand people. It's this beautiful way to watch the rooms grow.
This tour, I'm just excited. I feel like there's certain things on the journey that you figure out. Currently I'm fixing the way I sing to have proper technique locked in, things like that. I can't wait to not be exhausted after a gig. And I can't wait to play all the new songs. It's constantly evolving, yeah. It's this lovely thing of always, when you finish a tour, you're like, maybe this could have been better, so you address that next time. But then you are on to a new set of things that you think you could improve, so it's this cool thing to chase.
Speaking of big shows, you did Coachella and Glastonbury, which are both epic in their own right. How did those two experiences feel for you when you were in them?
Coachella was awesome because I was shocked by the amount of Irish people there. Obviously, you do the two weekends, and the second weekend I was quite sick. I was like that guy before I went on stage with my face in the steam, trying to melt everything here, so that was a tricky one. But I went out and it was just a lot of Irish flags. So many Irish people go to things like New York and Boston, but I didn't know if people went to Coachella from Ireland so it was this really lovely boost to get when I walked out onstage.
Then, Glastonbury was amazing because leading up to it you just realize it's a really important thing to be a part of. Even if you never do it again, you've had your little moment of Glastonbury history where you play your part and do your best. It was just fun.
I think one of the things that touring a lot does for you is it means I don't necessarily—I'm sure this is case-by-case—but I don't get nervous before I go onstage. I get excited. Obviously, there's a certain amount of nerves, because if it goes wrong, that's a bad thing. But it's mostly just excitement.
Also, things are so fast-paced, so I like that you play Glastonbury and then literally you're back on a bus and you go play a different festival. I think that's something that is quite difficult. Sometimes you don't get to let things sink in and you just move on very quickly. To play Glastonbury, if you told me that eight years ago, not in a cheesy way, you would not believe it. To do those things now week in, week out and then move on so fast, you've got to check yourself and take a moment.
When you are on tour, is there anything that you do to keep yourself grounded?
I think two things that are really important when you're on tour is obviously to stay in touch with home. I think that would keep me grounded, for sure. And then I think it's also important to try and stay active creatively because it's very easy to fall into a routine of bus, venue, gig, bus, sleep and just be like, "Perfect. This is what I do for a month," and not necessarily feed yourself any art.
If you have a day off, to go to a museum or go to the cinema or something. I feel like that stuff is really important, if you don't, when you come off tour and go to the studio its like, oh, I haven't used this part of my brain for a long time.
It's a very strange bubble to live in. We're really lucky because everybody's close in our crew. It's not this thing where I show up to the venue and then we do a show and then we all split up. Everybody spends all day, every day together, so it's this lovely thing. That's really important in terms of if you're down, just knowing there's people to lift you up and talk to and that kind of thing, so I am really lucky with the crew I've got too. There's a lot of things that have fallen into place in a really nice way.
There's a few, for sure. There's an act from Ireland, it's not traditional Irish music, that's where its roots are, but it's this really interesting, sort of a step on from that, and they're called The Gloaming. I won't even try and describe it, but it's just this super ethereal music. It's just really magic. They play the National Concert Hall in Dublin. I've seen them like five, six times, and it's just the best. The [Irish] President always goes to see them. They are the best at that.
And then in terms of people who, say, influence me, I would love to ever be in the same room as Justin Vernon or anybody from Bon Iver and just be involved in that. When I watch interviews with him and when I watch things about Bon Iver, I just realize they've been so successful but just maintained the same values the whole time. It's always only been about music, and that really appeals to me.
Speaking of musical influences, who would you say are your biggest influences to this day?
I started off wanting to do the acoustic thing, like to play in theaters with just a guitar and a piano. When I started out it was like David Gray and Glen Hansard were the people I wanted to be, basically. Then, obviously, that evolved. Again, Bon Iver were instrumental for me. The reason I wanted to do that [acoustic performance] was because lyrics were what impacted me most, and when I saw someone telling a story through a song, it just hit me. It was this really potent thing. That's why I love hip-hop so much, because to me it's the same type of thing.
I figured if you put too much music around that or if you had these big arrangements, you'd lose that intensity or that intimacy and the power of the lyrics getting across. Bon Iver were huge for me in terms of realizing the amount of people on stage can grow, the arrangement can grow, and you can still keep that closeness between you and whoever's listening. That helped me get out of my own way and start working with musicians and wanting it to grow. I was lucky enough in the last few years to start working with producers who could bring that to life.
I would say it started off like acoustic, lyrics; folk music, basically. Then the Bon Iver thing happened, and then hip-hop started influencing what I do, in a way, so it's just this big mess of things.
What was the first CD you every bought and first concert you attended?
The first CD I ever bought, it was a live album by an Irish band called The Frames. Do you know them? It's Glen Hansard's band from when he was like 19 to this day. Every now and then they'll play a show in Dublin, they're the best. Couldn't tell you what age I was, maybe 11, 12, I saw them on TV. I barely even owned a guitar yet, so I hadn't awakened that part of my brain where I would judge music, but just whatever Glen Hansard was doing, I was locked in to him expressing himself. I was so drawn to that, so I bought the album the next day. Just incredible.
It's so funny because even when you tour, and every night you're like, oh, my vocals were okay but not on it. But if you listen to that album, it's like every single thing is perfect. It's super demanding music vocally and he just nails it. And the first concert I went to, which I won't talk about much at all, was Westlife. It was because of my sister, I had to go.