- 20 Dec 22
As he performs chart magic once again on both sides of the Irish Sea with his new album, Sonder, Dermot Kennedy sits down with Hot Press to discuss the hard graft behind the fame, his newfound confidence, Glen Hansard, Bono, Inhaler, and loving football “as much, if not more, than music...”
It has, as Dermot Kennedy describes it himself, “been a mental couple of days.” Similar adjectives continue to crop up across our interview, as the Rathcoole star attempts to describe his current reality – clocking up dizzying air miles as he journeys back and forth across oceans, in the run-up to the release of his eagerly anticipated second album, Sonder.
But that’s all considered part of the job description for one of Irish music’s most exceptional success stories of recent memory, whose phenomenal upward trajectory has exhibited no signs of slowing in the three years since the release of his chart-topping debut album, 2019’s Without Fear. In the past 12 months alone, he’s headlined Electric Picnic; played a major run of sold-out shows across the country; performed in South America, the US, the UK, Asia and Europe; amassed millions of streams; won the Choice Music Prize for Song of the Year with ‘Better Days’; raised hundreds of thousands through his charity busks and gigs; and, of course, released a brand new album.
Clearly, as Sonder’s remarkable reception attests – hitting No.1 in both Ireland and the UK – Dermot is far from a one-album-wonder. And as his star power continues to grow, so too has his confidence – with the singer-songwriter, who hit 30 last December, carving out his own path, and remaining fiercely protective of his privacy, while still managing to stay in step with the extreme pace of the modern music industry.
Given that constant action, getting a hold of Dermot in one city for any sustained period of time proves to be a challenge, and our conversation ultimately takes place in two parts. First, over Zoom from an airport lounge, as he prepares to board yet another flight; and then in-person, at Bewley’s on Grafton Street, as he celebrates the release with a busy day of signing albums, hosting a Sonder pop-up shop, and playing a surprise show from the balcony of the iconic café – bringing the busy shopping street to a complete standstill at rush hour in the process, mere metres above where he used to busk as a young musician.
* * * * *
Our initial conversation occurs on the eve of the album release, which also happens to be the morning after the GQ Men Of The Year Awards in London, where Dermot shared a red carpet with some of the biggest names in music and entertainment.
“Those awards are always kind of funny, but it was sweet,” he says of the ceremony, sounding surprisingly fresh given his early start. “It was brilliant to see someone like Stormzy honoured in the way he was. It’s really cool to be in those rooms, with so many people who are so accomplished.
“Paul Mescal was there,” he adds. “So it was nice to see him, and just chat and catch up a little bit. It’s always nice to connect – especially for people like us who sort of travel all the time.”
It’s been a star-studded few days for Dermot, with Taylor Swift taking to Twitter to praise his cover of her Midnights track ‘Anti-Hero’ for the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. He was thrilled to see the star’s response – but still, I imagine, stopped short of feeling guilty about bringing her reign at the top of the Albums Charts to an end the following week.
“She’s reached out a couple of times, which is really cool,” he says of Taylor. “When you’re covering somebody’s song, you give it a bash, and you don’t really know how it’s going to turn out. So it’s very nice when they actually like it!”
Any suggestion that he is getting used to those kinds of interactions is modestly countered. His time in Los Angeles – where he was based the last time we spoke in 2021 – wasn’t quite as celebrity-packed as might be assumed.
“When I’m there, I’m just not in those circles. And that sounds like I avoid them intentionally – but I think I’m genuinely just not invited!” he laughs. “When I’m in LA, I’m in the studio all day. And then at night, I just kind of chill by myself. That’s my routine. I’ve got friends who I’ll see, but I’m certainly not mixing with the stars in LA!”
While the hard graft he put in at the studio has clearly paid off, welcoming Sonder into the world wasn’t without its complications. Having to push the release date back twice – for multiple reasons, including a postal strike in the UK – was “tricky,” Dermot admits.
“I didn’t like doing that,” he resumes. “But I like to believe that it will feel like a small amount of time as things go on. You do so much work in the lead-up to albums, and it all feels so stressful. But I’m excited for midnight, when I can just let the music do the work.”
Of course, complications aside, approaching the second album can be a daunting prospect for any successful artist – and you’d expect having your debut album spend a record-breaking number of weeks at No.1 would turn up the pressure more than a few notches.
“I go around with a certain amount of pressure in my head all the time, to be honest,” Dermot reflects. “It’s all internal, and it’s all self-inflicted. But musically, I actually felt less pressure than the first one. With the first one, we had already done so much. We had already played that slot at Electric Picnic, and we had already played Brixton in London – all these big milestone moments. But I didn’t have an album out yet, so there was a fair bit of pressure on the first one – because I needed to keep that momentum going.
“Whereas, now…” – he pauses – “I wouldn’t say I feel established, but I feel like I know who I am, and who I want to be. I feel like I’m less intimidated now in certain studios, and even in meetings. I felt less pressure, as a person, for this one.”
Where did that growth in confidence come from?
“Just achievements,” he posits. “I’ve realised that whatever sort of thoughts come out of my head, and go down onto the paper, have worked for me. So no one can really tell me anything. It’s at a point now where I just know.
“For example, you have labels, and so many people, being like, ‘This one’s a hit’. Or, ‘This song’s going to work’. But no one actually knows. When you’re in that situation so many times, you realise that everyone’s just guessing. So the only solution is to just follow your instinct, and trust yourself. Previously, I would have second-guessed myself. But I feel like I’m at a point now where I don’t worry so much about my instincts.”
What about reading album reviews?
“I try my best to stay away,” he tells me. “If it’s good, then great – I wouldn’t have released it if I didn’t think it was good. And if it’s bad, then it just doesn’t do me any favours anyway.
“Things like social media, and people judging your work, it’s fine – but you can make a mountain out of a molehill very easily,” he adds. “You can read one thing, and assume that’s the overall perception of you, and your work. You can really lose perspective quite quickly. So I try my best to not check too much stuff like that.”
Obviously, Sonder wasn’t created in a vacuum, and like most projects made over the last three years, the pandemic had an inevitable impact.
“It would be naive of me to say that lockdown didn’t influence the music at all,” he acknowledges. “And that’s not necessarily me writing a song about Covid – it’s just about perseverance, and feeling lonely, in ways that it affected all of us. So it’s only natural that it would find its way into the music.”
There’s also an element of nostalgia that runs through Sonder – with autobiographical references on ‘Dreamer’ to the young boy “writing stories down the back of the class…” Did hitting his late 20s have any bearing on that direction?
“I have to write from an autobiographical place, for the most part,” Dermot states. “To be able to sing these songs, and play them so many times, I need to believe it all the time. And I need to be able to actually go back, and go somewhere vividly in my head, to be able to believe it.
“There’s a few songs on this album that feel as if they do have a lot of nostalgia in them,” he adds. “Is it just a symptom, like you said, of getting to your late 20s? I think it is, to some extent. As a songwriter, you celebrate the side of yourself that feels childlike, and has an imagination, and a sense of wonder. As you get older, you have to fight for that.”
In previous interviews, Dermot has demonstrated an impressive knowledge of emerging sounds from these shores and beyond. As such, I’m not surprised to hear that Dijon – a rising alternative R&B star from Baltimore, Maryland – is one of the acts that’s been inspiring the Irish singer-songwriter lately.
“Not too long ago, I happened upon Dijon’s music,” Dermot recalls. “That was a really good time for me to find that – just a young, new, exciting artist that’s really doing his own thing. It put me in my place a bit, and it was a nice reality check.
“I was like, ‘This just has to be whatever I want it to be’. You come to that crossroads quite often. You have conversations about music, you get feedback, and you change things – but I’m the only one who has to stand behind the album. I’m the only one who has to put my name on it, and go tour it. So you have to be sure of what you’re doing.”
In terms of Irish artists, he’s previously expressed his admiration for the likes of For Those I Love and Tolü Makay. He’s also been excited to witness Inhaler’s success over the last few years.
“The gig in Malahide this summer was obviously postponed by two years, and when we were initially going to do them, Inhaler were going to open the show – which would’ve been lovely,” he remarks. “I would have loved that. I met them at a few festivals during the summer. I’m very happy to see them doing well.”
He’s also been doing his bit to give back to the Irish music community – launching his own scholarship with BIMM Dublin last year.
“This will be the second year doing it,” he says. “It’s lovely. I went to college for music, but it was a classical music degree, so there’s so much stuff that we covered in college in my degree that isn’t necessarily applicable to what I do now. It’s so good to see BIMM actually trying to set people up for the music industry itself.”
With his name now attached to that kind of legacy, it’s understandable why, on the eve of the release of Sonder, Dermot isn’t hiding his pride.
“It’s taken a lot to get it to this point,” he tells me. “There’s been a lot of obstacles, and a lot of things that tried to slow me down. I know I’ve put the work in, and I know I’m very proud of it. So – like you said about reading reviews – I feel a bit immune, in a really nice way, to anything bad anyone has to say about it. Because I’m at peace. I’m very proud of it.”
And when it comes to looking back over his career, his positive tone doesn’t falter – he’s harbouring no regrets.
“I swear to God, I don’t regret anything,” he says. “I feel very lucky to be in a position where there’s not one thing that I could pinpoint in the last five years, where I’d go, ‘Yeah, I’d change that’. Not one thing.”
* * * * *
Fast forward a few days, and Dermot’s globetrotting has finally brought him home to Dublin.
From the morning through to the darkening afternoon, there’s been a steady queue forming under Grafton Street’s Christmas lights to catch a glimpse of him – like a 30-year-old Santa Claus with a bleached buzz-cut, tucked away in his grotto inside the colourfully festive grandeur of Bewley’s.
Once again, his nights have proved just as jam-packed as his days, having been one of the privileged number in attendance at Bono’s Olympia Theatre show the evening before, as part of the major Stories Of Surrender book tour.
“The show is brilliant – it’s so good,” he enthuses, sitting at a table just out of sight of his fans. “There are moments that are really, really intense. And his voice sounds great.”
He was also impressed by the “beautiful” onstage contribution of Saint Sister’s Gemma Doherty on vocals, harp and keys. Could Dermot see himself doing something similar, and penning an autobiography, in a few years time?
“I’d like that a lot,” he admits. “I was thinking about that actually. He’s obviously 62. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of writing a book – but I think I’m a long way off having a memoir!”
With Sonder now safely out in the world, there’s a palpably more relaxed air about the singer-songwriter in conversation.
“I feel more relief than I expected,” he tells me. “I don’t think I was necessarily aware of how much tension I was holding onto, to be honest. It’s just been such a long time since I brought out new music.
“People think that artists are super-confident in their work, and they know how it’s going to go,” he adds. “But I really don’t.”
It’s an honest admission that marks a slight divergence from his excited confidence during our previous chat. But Dermot’s extraordinary drive and ambition has always been balanced with a sense of humility. Alongside his professional success, he’s ensured that the past 12 months have featured plenty of moments for giving back, too – raising hundreds of thousands for charities at home and in cities overseas, whether by busking on the street, or holding special gigs. His performance from the balcony of Bewley’s alone, just over an hour after our interview, goes on to raise €20,000 for the children’s charity Barretstown.
Was his own involvement in Glen Hansard’s annual Christmas Eve busk, which raises funds for homelessness charities, part of the inspiration behind that approach?
“Definitely,” Dermot nods. “Glen Hansard was at the Bono thing last night as well, and I was chatting to him. And the whole time I was talking to him, I was like, ‘You’re the reason I went busking in the first place’. It’s easy for me to forget that, but fully, that’s the only reason I went playing in the street – because he did it. And I was inspired by that.”
Last December, I spoke to Glen about his first encounter with Dermot at the Christmas Eve busk.
“I had no idea who he was, but he knew the Dylan song ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’ – because I could see him singing along with me,” Glen told me. “He had a nice vibe off him, so I said, ‘Go on, you finish it!’ And he sang the last verse. I remember he had a great voice, and great presence. Afterwards, I was asking everyone, ‘Who was the guy in the red hat?’”
“I was a chancer!” Dermot laughs, looking back at the memory. “The only reason I knew the song was because of the way he played it. I learned it based off him. I was obnoxious, really – I was going to be there.”
Through his fundraising, Dermot has carried on that emphasis of working with charities that are directly assisting people experiencing homelessness, including Focus Ireland, the Bowery Mission in New York, and Utopia 56 in Paris. Coming from Dublin, where homeless figures continue to reach record highs, it’s a particularly important cause for the singer-songwriter.
“Absolutely,” he states. “And then, you go around the world, and see it everywhere. Last night, Bono was talking about his charity work with Bob Geldof, and he was saying that poverty is a man-made thing, and it can be overcome. It was a nice idea, to think that I could change things even a tiny bit – especially where I’m from.
“When you’re so proud of where you come from, you have to give back in some way,” he continues. “I don’t understand how it could be any other way.”
Sonder explores that sense of empathy, taking its name from a word coined by popular website The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, describing “the realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own…”
“I think your album should be based on equal amounts of who you are, and who you aspire to be,” Dermot reflects. “I like to believe that the idea of Sonder already makes me a better person, a little bit. I’m very big on actually practising what you preach. You can’t release an album about empathy, and then just hide away, and not do anything. To be able to help in any way means a lot to me.”
While being able to carry out that kind of work is hugely important to him, pursuing a career in music hasn’t been without its major sacrifices. One of the biggest, for Dermot, was giving up football, having previously played for Crumlin United’s senior team.
Crumlin United. What a club..last game tonight to wrap up the league for the 4th year in a row. Love it 🏅🏆⚽️ pic.twitter.com/qXDu5UHRFG
— Dermot Kennedy (@DermotKennedy) June 7, 2016
“I loved it,” he smiles. “It was a very important part of my life. I was never going to do it professionally – I know a lot of people who are a lot better than me! But I do miss it. I enjoy it as much, if not more, than music. Definitely. The peace of mind it gives me is fucking massive.”
Does he get any chance to play these days?
“No – it does my head in,” he tells me. “You hear about certain performers being on stage, and being like, ‘I just feel totally free. I feel so at peace.’ But I don’t. That’s football for me. That’s the only time my head’s empty – playing football.”
As he mentioned during our previous conversation, there’s “been a lot of obstacles” on the path to stardom that may not be obvious to onlookers.
“Everything – family stuff, personal sacrifices… You don’t really know what’s going on behind the scenes,” he says now. “People don’t have a clue. They think you just rock up with your gear and play a gig. The amount of stuff that goes into it is mental. Touring the US now is the most expensive thing. It’s mental. You can play a sold-out tour of America, and make no money. That’s really not a joke. So there’s all these things you’re constantly doing, and people think you’re cleaning up. But it’s really not the case at all.
“There’s so many things that people don’t know about, that go into trying to make a career happen,” he continues. “I guess that’s similar for a lot of careers. But it definitely takes a lot, in terms of personal sacrifice, in terms of creative difficulties, and everything.
“I’ve been home today and yesterday, and I haven’t been home in ages – and I’ll be up at five tomorrow to fly off again. Not that that’s a big deal, or a huge burden – but it doesn’t stop. It really doesn’t.”
Dermot keeps a tight lid on speaking publicly about his private life and personal relationships, but that hasn’t stopped the rumour mill spinning in recent weeks – with numerous websites speculating whether or not he’s tied the knot. Despite his best efforts, I imagine, as his platform continues to grow, it will become increasingly impossible to maintain both the normality and privacy he cherishes.
“I don’t know,” he muses. “Sometimes, as quite an ambitious person, I find myself wishing, ‘Oh, I’d love for this song to do this…’ Or, ‘I’d love to be at this point by next year…’ But then, I sometimes think I have to be careful what I wish for. Because to be honest, I’m in a really nice spot. We’re playing some iconic venues all around the world, but also I can walk around that city all day, and I might bump into like two people who know who I am. I live in this lovely middle ground at the moment, where I play these massive venues – but also I don’t have to hide in my hotel room all day. That means a lot to me.
“I had a little bit of that in the Philippines – we had to have a security guard, and it was awkward,” he adds. “I was like, ‘I’d rather chill in my room and watch movies, than walk to the coffee shop with two guys beside me’. But it gave me a little insight into how sometimes people can just feel like they’re in a cage, and that’s scary to me.”
Such fears are understandable, given the velocity with which his career has taken off over a relatively short period of time. In some respects, looking back over his journey can be a source of inspiration in itself.
“If I think about myself when I was 19 or 20 writing songs, I hadn’t a care in the world,” he smiles. “And then, you have that spark that brings you into the world of having a career. Dreams come true, and all that, but it becomes so hectic. It’s almost as if you’re trying to get back to the 19-year-old self the whole time. You want to keep the career going, but also, creatively, get back to that point where you just didn’t care about anything. But you make your sacrifices, and you have these little battles with yourself – and try to figure it out.”
For Dermot, there was a purity to creating music during those early days, particularly as, growing up in Rathcoole, he didn’t necessarily feel part of the Dublin scene.
“That was important to me when I started making music, that I wasn’t part of the scene, because I wasn’t trying to be like anyone,” he points out. “My friends didn’t care if I made music or not. We never talked about music. So it was a very organic thing – I felt like I was just expressing myself. It was just me doing what felt right.”
That’s not to say that he wouldn’t like to engage more with Dublin’s exceptional music scene in the future.
“I’d love to, because it’s class,” he says. “Like Roe Byrne – who’s playing outside now! They were at the meet and greet today, and I just want them to do so well. And I see the sort of energy that I had at that age. It’s important that we all nurture each other as Irish artists.”
Although Sonder is still fresh in the world – with plenty of chart records to break over the months ahead, in the footsteps of its predecessor – Dermot’s determination, and enthusiasm, is unrelenting. He’s already looking ahead at what’s next on his musical horizons.
“I’d love to make music today,” he asserts. “I’ve lived with the album long enough that I have a fair idea of what I want to do next. I’m eager to start that process, so I’d like to get into the studio. Music has got this lovely balance, where you play shows to the point where you’re sick of them, and then you get into the studio until you’re sick of that – and you just rotate that cycle!”
And Dermot, by his own admission, has certainly “played a lot of shows…” While touring is a crucial, and financially necessary, part of the modern music industry, the Rathcoole singer-songwriter knows all about the errors of pushing himself too far – having seen numerous artists cancelling tours on mental health grounds in recent months.
“I’m conscious of it, but I feel good,” he reflects. “For me it’s all about vocal health – I try to look after my neck! It is full on, but it’s on me to look after myself, so I just have to keep an eye on it. I don’t think anyone knows myself better than me.”
• Sonder is out now. Dermot Kennedy plays Marlay Park, Dublin on June 23 & 24, and Thomond Park, Limerick on July 7, 8 & 9.