Modern day troubadour
Adrienne Murphy speaks to Damien Dempsey about his debut album, politics, Bob Marley and having Christy Moore hanging on the telephone
Adrienne Murphy, 17 Feb 2000
If your average 24-year-old singer-songwriter told you that Christy Moore called him up out of the blue, praised his work and asked him to play support at a couple of gigs, you'd think you were dealing with a fantasist. But there's no bull to Damien Dempsey.
Like many true artists, this musician from Donaghmede, northside Dublin, is humble and unassuming to the point of self-effacement. Beneath the humility, however, is a sure confidence born of raw talent and originality.
No wonder Christy called Damien having heard him play in Dublin s International Bar. He was probably flattered by the fact that this young singer/guitarist bears more than a close resemblance to the maestro himself, both in stage presence and musical style. Certainly they share a passion and integrity which, like good poetry, drives straight to the heart.
"I thought it was my brother having a joke," says Damien, remembering the day when his only living hero rang up. "I was about to say fuck off and put the phone down. I genuinely thought it was my brother messing, because he had rang up about a day before and pretended to be Christy Moore. Strange, isn't it?" laughs Damien. "And then Christy rang the next day." Not long after and Damien was sharing a stage with Christy at his Gael Force gig in The Point two years ago.
Like Christy, Damien comes from a balladeering background. Big family music sessions had an enduring influence on Damien's musical development and the singing Dublin accent that he shares with Ronnie Drew and Dustin. A shy teenager, Damien sang and played his guitar in his bedroom until emerging and surprising his family at the age of 16 with "a song about smog". They urged him to enter a 2FM song contest and he came second with a song about homelessness. "Cardboard City" revealed an early compassion for the oppressed, though Damien's songs range from the fiercely satirical and funny to the personal and poetic.
A photo of a young boy in baseball cap and baggy t-shirt outside a block of Dublin suburban flats is the fitting image on the cover of They Don't Teach This Shit In School, Damien's scintillating first album, launched by independent label Zinc Fence at the end of this month.
Damien went to Ballyfermot Rock School when he left school.There he honed his natural talent, learning about music theory, songwriting and the music business. Now he could build on the lessons that he had learned from Christy, Luke Kelly, his own family, American rappers and Bob Dylan.
Bob Marley is another major influence on Damien, and an unusually Gaelic twist on reggae is evident in many of his songs.
"He speaks the truth," observes Damien, "and I like his positivity and the way he's political. He seemed to care about what was going on in the world, and the normal people. I think the way you can use music to educate people can make a change. That's what Marley did. I see myself as a student of his. He educated me through his lyrics, said things that you wouldn t hear on the news.
"I was in my teens and I was going through a bit of a phase, drinking a lot and doing E tablets and getting into street fighting and getting depressed. Then I'd listen to Marley and it lifted me out of it. I'd like to try and do the same for kids, that my music would give them a bit of hope and strength, and they'd know that I was telling the truth and I wouldn't lie to them."
Self-love and self-respect are important themes running through Damien's work. So is pride in Irish culture, reflected in superbly moving songs like 'Colony' and 'Seanchai'.
"I was on the dole for a few years and I used to go into the library in Donaghmede," Damien recalls. "The betting office was right beside the library, and they'd all be looking at me funny. But I'd go in and read about Irish history, because I wasn't really taught much about it in school, so I felt I had to educate myself. I learnt all I could, I was fascinated by it, and that s where I learnt about the importance of the seanchai, the Gaelic storytellers."
Damien expresses his own desire to transmit knowledge by teaching as well as playing. Currently he runs songwriting workshops as part of a community employment scheme, teaching children from the travelling community and kids who've dropped out of school or are on probation.
"To see the talent there, untapped!" exclaims Damien. "I'm just hoping that for some of these kids, what I'm doing will open up another door for them, because their options are very little."
Holding his first album in his hands, Damien says he can't believe that his name is on the front of it. But They Don't Teach This Shit in School really is a classic, up there with Christy Moore's Traveller.
Damien tells the album's story. "A fella from London heard a single I had called 'Dublin Town' on Greater London Radio. He knew my manager, Ingmar Kiang, and he had redundancy money from Island which he put into the album. But I'm better off with the independents, because they don't try and change what you're doing. The big companies probably would've made me into a hip-hopper, cap an' all. So I'm lucky. Very blessed, I am."
They Don't Teach This Shit In School is released on Zinc Fence Records