- 11 Sep 23
Ahead of his National Concert Hall headliner, David Keenan talks about being back home in Dundalk, his upcoming album and the prevalence of political apathy.
“I’m back in Ireland for the foreseeable. I’m back in Dundalk and I’m really enjoying being off the road and seeing family and living in my hometown. It’s good to be alive.”
David Keenan has become one of the country’s best loved songwriters and live artists in recent years. His latest single ‘An Irish Song’ is an uplifting belter and an exciting precursor to his upcoming album release. It’s full of striking lyrics and a certain nostalgia. While it’s musically uplifting, the message behind this song is about how societal and personal traumas can blind us.
“Most recently, I’m talking about the collective trauma that we’ve suffered in the last three years,” he explains. “People dying on their own during lockdowns and people suffering psychologically from isolation, a lack of connection and physical touch. I don’t want to suffer from that amnesia because it’s so easy to bury things and move on.
“We’re inclined to do that, but if you look back at our history and what happened to us, colonisation and the genocide they called a famine… We haven’t even processed that. The real ins and outs of what happened us and how that affects us in terms of addiction and alcoholism and male suicide. It’s all linked. It’s only when we actually deny it, that we bury our heads.”
There’s a more personal side to the song too.
“When you look at younger photos of yourself and remember how you saw yourself at that time and realise, ah, I was actually messed up back then. I was blind to my own goodness, my own beauty. Trauma that did that to me. It’s very personal but it’s universal as well.”
The song is full of evocative lyrics like, “The government advised her to upskill, so she became a murder.” I ask David what his frustrations are with our government.
“Political apathy is a tool that they use,” he says. “I’m frustrated with the inequality and corruption. The amount of landlords in that government... The housing crisis, homelessness – something has to click in you. If you walk through the streets of Dublin, the door has to close internally for it to be ok to walk past somebody on the street who’s homeless and we do it, every, single day.
“We’re apathetic to the pain. Beyond that, it’s just the lack of guts, the lack of character and the lack of leadership in government. If you watch the Oireachtas, they’re just like dead people – dead energy, nobody is inspired. They all seem to be careerists looking for a job in Europe. That’s my frustration with it.”
You couldn’t find an artist more full of guts and character than David Keenan. Raised in his grandparents’ home, it’s easy to see why the singer is such an old soul – full of empathy and wise beyond his years.
“It’s a different pace when people are older, it’s more laidback,” he says. “Me and my parents are relatively close in age, because they were teenagers when I was born, so we grew up together. There was a lot of frustration and learning on the job. I’m blessed that I had my grandparents. I’ve been back in Dundalk the past couple of months, back from touring. I’m back with my grandfather and I’m reconnecting with parts of myself that I had missed.
“It doesn’t matter who it is as long as you have some significant elder in your life. These days we don’t really do the right of passage anymore. There’s a lack of guidance, especially in young men. I think it is a failing of our culture and our society. Guidance is important and I’m grateful that I had that, but then you have to go out and forge your own path and captain your own ship. I feel like I’ve been trying to do that in my life in the last few years, going independent and that.”
Having reunited with Gavin Glass who produced his debut album, it will be four for four as Keenan releases his fourth studio album in 2024. The first single from the album, ‘An Irish Song’, has been issued through his own label Barrack Street Records – Keenan is operating as a wholly independent artist.
“Whatever resources I have to my name have gone into this album!”
While his debut album A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery reached number one in the Independent Charts, the world went into lockdown a few weeks after its release. He released an album each year since, but this one feels different.
“I feel like this is the first album that I’ll actually be able to tour and give it a chance to breathe,” he says. “I’ve become more comfortable in my own skin the last few years and less terrorised by the opinions of people outside of me, who don’t really understand what I’m saying anyway. When you’re young, you think you have to say yes, yes, yes to everything and that can be terror for young people trying to find their voice.
“I didn’t really have a support network around me at the time, where I could sustain that drive where I was really pushing myself, running myself into the ground for nearly four or five years. You need help if you’re going to sustain.”
While a pandemic may have slightly stunted his trajectory, Keenan has built a hugely loyal following over the last few years.
“I think because I’ve not repeated myself. I’ve tried to make records that are consciously and unconsciously varied, and that push the boundaries,” he says. “I’m not pandering and playing it safe – people appreciate that. I think people who listen to my music connect with how I interpret the world. I’m a storyteller. To me music is a really powerful, life-giving thing. It’s a channel for goodness – the pain and joy of living life. I feel lucky that people have stayed with me over the last few years, people who are really into it. I can build where I left off.”
Keenan has built a committed live audience over the last few years. As a performer, he’s a natural. If you’ve seen him live, you’re going to go see him again. So much so, that you’d think he’d be a household name at this point.
“I’m not someone who embraced live streaming, or was on Tik Tok everyday,” he says. “People have to come looking, and that’s okay. Playing the National Concert Hall is testament to that. I don’t walk around thinking, why isn’t there a statue of me on the main street of Dundalk? I’m making a living doing what I love and it’s not easy
“People know I’m not bullshitting when they listen to my music, it’s raw and it’s real. There’s a real joy in it as well – for living, surviving and seeking a deeper meaning of life. I think people dig it and it’s a great live show. I sing like it’s my last gig. It really means that to me and I think people can see that.”
Calling from a busy Irish Rail train, David Keenan is teeming with passion and creativity. 2024 is shaping up to be an exciting year for him – not only will he release his fourth album, he is set to release a film on TG4 with director Paddy Hayes.
“It’s an experimental film about my story. It’ll be as Gaeilge,” he says. “I met Paddy last year, and we said let’s try to do something unique. It’s less of a traditional, interview-based documentary, it’s more abstract. We’re aiming for the film festivals! It was a privilege to do, so that will be a bit of a journey for me. It’s a great gift.”
Still in his twenties releasing his fourth album, you can’t help but think the sky’s the limit for Keenan.
“I didn’t go to college, I didn’t go to music college,” he says. “I didn’t get picked up at 19 and get signed to a major label. I’ve done it my own way and to get to the National Concert Hall having kept my integrity? That’s pretty great. I’m looking forward to singing in that space and letting the voice soar. I’m in a good place mentally and physically so I can’t wait.”
• David Keenan plays the National Concert Hall, Dublin on September 13.