The real voice of Ireland is back. After over four years of seeing the world and grappling with a ‘dark’ bout of creative uncertainty, Damien Dempsey returns to soothe the soul of a depressed nation...
If you’re in need of a pep talk, a stirring line or two to lift your head and raise your spirits, you could do worse than track down the gentle Dublin giant, Damien Dempsey. It’s 15 years since the Donaghmede man’s debut single ‘Dublin Town’, which set out the musical manifesto he’s championed ever since, and I’m wondering what he would tell his younger self if he had the chance. What wisdom he’d impart to a singer starting out, facing naysayers and a potential lifetime struggling for his art...
His brow furrows, as it often does; his hands clasp together, eyes downcast, searching for the truth. The Dubliner can take his time getting to an answer but when it arrives it is never less than unflinchingly honest. And then, gazing into the distance, he starts to murmur.
“Stay stubborn, Damo, just stay strong.” A nod as his voice gains certainty. “Fuck them all, don’t mind what they’re saying to you. The slagging and all. The abuse? One day you’ll be fucking laughing at them. They’ll be fucking sickened then. You’ll get to sing with all of your heroes. Your voice will improve, your songwriting will improve.”
A glance and a grin. “I think I was a late bloomer, y’know?”
Indeed, it wasn’t until 2003’s Seize The Day that Dempsey captured the heart of the island and took up the folk mantle once held by the likes of Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew. Here was a singer with a voice that could both boom and simmer, a writer who knew the old standards off by heart and added his own tales of Celtic Tigers, overdoses and New York City to the canon, a man in the spotlight with real opinions on the state of the world. Shots followed in 2005, To Hell Or Barbados arrived after another two years and then... the songs seemed to stop.
During the past half a decade, there has been a covers album called The Rocky Road and even that was four years ago. As the country crumbled into the Irish Sea and the depths of recession, Damien Dempsey seemed oddly silent. The hangover after the good times, at the end of the party, didn’t seem to have a soundtrack.
“I was going in the wrong direction for a while, Craig, y’know?” he admits from his seat in the Gibson Hotel, backdropped by a panoramic view of Dublin’s Docklands. Partially complete, it now acts as a metaphor for both the renewal, confidence and wealth that the Celtic Tiger brought, and the subsequent collapse of the economy. Some of these structures didn’t even exist when Dempsey slipped out To Hell... For the longest time, as the days grew tougher on Irish shores, he just wanted to make people dance. Damo in ‘rave’ mode?
“That’s it, exactly!” he laughs. “I wanted to make an album that people were going to jump around to. A party album. It wasn’t working. My producer John Reynolds sat me down and said, ‘Listen bro, people like you for your lyrics. That’s what it’s about, that’s why they love you’. I realised that if people wanted a festival album, wanted festival songs, songs to jump around to, they have a thousand bands at the touch of a button.”
Did that revelation get him over his writer’s block?
“Well, it wasn’t really one of those ‘block’ things, I was just writing garbage. For about a year, maybe two, it was shite. Everything I was doing was terrible. I went into a dark depression. I thought the only thing I was ever good at was gone, y’know?”
That must have been a frightening period.
“It was, yeah. I’d write 20 songs, go to London, give them to John. We’d stick it on record and get them all down. Then we’d listen back to them the next day and they just weren’t... anything. I’d go back home, write another 20 songs, go back over – ‘Anything?’ And the response would be ‘No. Do it again!’ I think on the fourth time around, John went, ‘Oh yeah, that’s good, now we’re talking’.”
Almost Dylan-esque, it was a soaring song of catharsis and escape, ‘Bustin’ Outta Here’, that provided the creative breakthrough and paved the road for Almighty Love, a new collection that already stands as one of his greatest ever offerings. You can almost hear DAmien’s own relief in the lyric, in the vocal that sounds like a man clambering a prison wall.
“That was the first one. John said, ‘That’s a future Damo classic’. Jesus man, thanks, I can sprint another mile now!”
It’s clear that his relationship with Reynolds that has spanned five records is vital to his process. Reynolds is less a producer, more a collaborator and kindred spirit.
“He trusts us,” Damo reflects. “And if I’m not happy with something, he’ll change it. No hassle or whatever. If I tell him I don’t like something, he just goes, ‘I know’! He knows why my fans get me, because he’s a fan as well.”
The pair met in London a good decade ago.
“I was to tour with The Hothouse Flowers. We were doing a show in London and they’re great mates with John Reynolds. I went to a party in his gaff and he was in the kitchen cooking up stuff. I was a real shy fella. I was just standing in the kitchen minding my beer. All my beers were in the fridge so I was making sure no-one robbed them! Anyway, we got talking and he said, ‘I have a little studio upstairs’, so I had a little look at it.
“I went home and then three months later he just rang me house [affects comical Cockney accent] ‘Hello Damien, it’s John, remember me from London?’ I was thinking, ‘Who the fuck is this?!’ He mentioned the party and it clicked but I was still wondering what he wanted. ‘Does he think I robbed something out of his gaff?!’ He just says, ‘You want to come record an album in my bedroom?’ This is a bit fucking weird but... feck it, why not? I was doing nothing else at the time. That was it then: I went over and put down ‘Ghosts Of Overdoses’ and all them songs.”
At that point, Dempsey didn’t fully appreciate Reynolds’ standing in the industry. Seize The Day, with Reynolds and a little help from his friends, would transform Damien’s life forever.
“I’d left him to work on it and went back home. Then he sent me a CD. With strings on the songs, beautiful strings. Caroline Dale, the great cellist, playing on ‘Apple Of My Eye’. I just started fucking crying, y’know? Then the next song, Sinéad O’Connor singing on it and I’m going, ‘Fucking hell!’ I’d never known John had been married to Sinéad or even met her. I’d never really heard of him. Then on the next song he had Brian fucking Eno playing on it! I was just going ‘What the hell is this?’. I knew then that things were going to be a lot better.”
The album also sparked a friendship between Dempsey and O’Connor, who lends her vocals to four of his new tracks. It’s her first appearance on one of his albums since Seize The Day.
“She fucking loved the album back then, so she asked if I wanted go on a tour of Europe with her. Since then, I’ve just been buddies with her. We’ve gone to America together, toured Australia. Her latest album was deadly, wasn’t it? I was there when she was doing it. We were kinda swapping. I’d do a day with John, then she’d do a day with John. I played a bit of guitar on one of the songs and was chuffed. ‘Take Off Your Shoes’, what a fucking song!”
Dempsey sees the shaven-headed singer as that rarest of things – an outspoken, untameable pop star.
“She’s a warrior woman,” he says, glowingly. “She’s a modern day Gráinne Ní Mháille, y’know? She’s Boudicca. In 50 years time they’ll be looking back at her and saying, ‘She was fucking amazing’. When you look at her ripping up that picture of the Pope? That had an effect on her career: she was only really starting out and she jeopardised her career because she believed so much in it. She didn’t give a fuck, y’know? Highly intelligent, I mean, I’d feel thick next to her! They’re few and far between, people like Sinéad. Warriors. We could do with more like Sinéad.”
One lady who he feels ticks a lot of those boxes, and boxes, is our recent Olympic Champion. He may once have been an amateur boxer himself, but Dempsey knows that Katie Taylor’s golden success is bigger than any one sport.
“She’s brilliant, just brilliant. She has a fantastic vibe. Katie is a great spirit. An incredible boxer. She really gave the country a lift, gave us that warm feeling inside. It had that magic. John Joe Nevin and the other lads were great as well. Sport and music, y’know? We’ve a lot of things we punch above our weight in, we just don’t give ourselves much credit. We’d rather put ourselves down than give ourselves a compliment. That’s something we have to address. And it’s not being big-headed.”
Thankfully, we now have Damien Dempsey back once more to set us straight. But it would be unfair to say that he’s really been ‘away’. He may have been searching for his new sound but he still found time to enter other disciplines and contribute to other musical projects. There’s been a collaboration with Maser, with his lyrics employed as artwork all over Dublin, and charity songs with the likes of Glen Hansard. Between The Canals, Mark O’Connor’s well-received crime flick, featured Dempsey’s acting debut.
“It was great craic,” he says. “I thought I could have done better. But I enjoyed it. It was only one day of filming. We packed it all into a few hours because yer man had no money. He’s asked me to do something again, he’s doing another movie.”
Meanwhile, last year’s acclaimed Tyrannosaur saw Dempsey, somewhat surprisingly, lightening the mood.
“Paddy Considine, who was behind it, asked me about five years ago could he use my song and I said, ‘Paddy Considine? Sure!’ All that stuff he’s done with Shane Meadows is brilliant. I’d forgotten all about it and then someone said, ‘Your song’s in this great fucking movie’. So I went along myself and, jaysus, it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Fucking heavy. And the song, my song – considering the heavy, depressing stuff I have – is actually the lightest moment of the movie. So that was a great boost.”
He also continued to gig frequently. He says he’s been hounded by fans for new songs. Well, it beats people forgetting about you.
“Absolutely it does. They’ve all been screaming for the new album to come out. They’re fucking screaming for it! I’m just praying that they like it.”
Damien can rest easy. What they will no doubt have heard by now is a set of songs that expand his sonic palette substantially, each marked by a new maturity and desire to experiment. This is also the case lyrically, as he taps into his sensitive side and gets more personal than ever. He puts this new-found confidence down to his experiences over the past few years.
“I travelled a bit. After I did the ballad album, I went to Australia and spent about six months there. Then I was travelling around Thailand. I’ve lived in England for a year or so and, back here, I moved out of Donaghmede and lived on Patrick St. to be nearer town for a few years. So I suppose I’ve just been out of my comfort zone. It was eye-opening. You meet very different people. I met the Aboriginals in Australia. A friend of mine is a half-Irish, half-Aboriginal fella, so I was with him. It was a great summer, I have to admit. I noticed they say ‘deadly’ the way we say ‘deadly’. White Australians don’t say ‘deadly’ for ‘good’. The Aboriginals do, just like the Irish. They even have Irish surnames and all sorts. They might have got it off us, but I don’t know. I think maybe we got it off them (laughs)!”
It’s those small, unexpected similarities that made him realise we’re all ultimately in the same boat, struggling with this ‘human’ condition – though he found a lot of Irish behaviour during the boom turned his stomach.
“Ireland is only coming back now,” he states. “I remember seeing Irish being rude to staff in airports and various places. Unbelievable, horrible. It wasn’t nice to see that. That sense of entitlement, a sense of superiority, of something you’re not. You see in these really poor places, the only reason they’re not all half-dead is because they look after each other, y’know? The very little that’s to be had, but they share with each other. That’s the way it used to be in Ireland. That’s something that’s very important to get back to, that community spirit we lost during the Celtic Tiger.”
Was he ever tempted to not return to his homeland? The answer comes along almost instantaneously.
“Nah, I’d never leave this place, the old soil! For all its faults, I still love it. It’s a beautiful country and it has some beautiful, great people. We’ve just been led astray. We’re like the Native Americans when they got the whiskey. That’s what the Irish became when they got the money. There’s this in-built thing where we always have to own something. Because for so long, we weren’t allowed to own anything. With the Penal Laws, we couldn’t own our own land. Remember the movie The Field? It’s that mentality. You have to own your own house, whereas other countries have no problem renting – I think the moneymen kicked in on that. ‘We can make a few bob here, these lads want to own their own place!’”
He made sure not to browbeat the listeners on this outing, and was keen to steer away from topics he’s covered in the past. Nevertheless, his discontent with “the billionaires who run the world”, who he sees as “the real enemy”, bubbles up on a track or two, most noteably ‘Money Man’.
“I had a load of songs about the banking crisis, ‘the scam of all scams’ as I call it. But I was thinking that people have been hearing this every day. Every day it’s been in the news, in the papers, and I think people are just sick of thinking about the banks. Bankers... I don’t want to be singing about them. I hate them.”
From the glare in his eyes, the suits in the upper floors of the AIB building visible behind him should be glad they’re separated by the Liffey. What did he make of the Occupy Dame Street movement?
“That was a great thing. I went down and played a few songs at it. A friend of mine Dean Scully was there a lot, organising and protesting. So I went down and met all the heads. Fair balls to them, there was something about it.”
Having covered the movement for Hot Press last year, there were a lot of good intentions and nice sentiments on display but little real direction or leadership.
“Well yes, you’d need a little James Connolly down there! That’s what Ireland needs, isn’t it? Someone we can believe in. That cares. Like South America and all the left wing leaders taking back their countries and getting rid of all the multinationals. That’s what we need here!”
Some of his more ardent supporters might see him as just the man to enter that arena, though he himself doesn’t seem keen on the idea of becoming a political operator. That’s not to say he doesn’t believe totally, unwaveringly, in the positive message behind his music. In fact, it’s something he wants to spread.
“I’d like to have another album out in two years, hopefully. At the same time, I really want to travel the world. Lots of people have told me, ‘You saved my life with that song’. I tell them, ‘It wasn’t me, it just comes through me. Don’t think I saved your life’. There’s a greater good out there, a great spirit. If you get the big ego and think it’s all you... that’s what Christy Moore said, he told me that it’s never just you, it comes through you. I like to give my fans a bit of spirituality. I’ve seen things, had experiences that I can’t explain. Like something’s trying to tell me something. There’s a big vacuum out the moment because of all the scandals of the Church.”
What’s his relationship with religion like these days?
“I’ll go into a church, when there’s no-one in there, and say a prayer. Spend a few minutes in belief. It’s just common sense, like the Greeks – ‘If nothing, why something?’. The human body is an amazing piece of engineering. I don’t know: I don’t like putting a name on it. ‘Spirituality’ seems to work.”
As our conversation draws to a close – though he is clearly the kind of gentleman that would stay talking all day – I ask him about the end of it all. He once told Hot Press he didn’t want to end up an old man fading away in a nursing home. And yes, he confirms, he’d still rather go out with a bang, leaping off a cliff into the Irish Sea.
“Yep, at Howth Head. Sounds good to me! I dive off the cliffs out there anyway.”
I love the water but I’m frozen just thinking about that in winter. He chuckles and rubs his stomach.
“You need a bit of blubber on ya Craig! But it’s getting back to nature, y’know? It brings you back to the elements. It just strips away all the shite. Life is very complicated these days, we’re being bombarded with stuff all the time. Information overload in your head, you can get too cluttered. So you go and get into the sea and... it grounds you. Humans need to get back to nature whatever way they can. Hill-walking, going to the park...”
Sticking on some Damien Dempsey?
“Ha! Well hopefully, yeah! Hopefully this new album does something for them, gives them something. We all need something.”
Almighty Love is out now.
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