- 27 Apr 21
For Those I Love responded to the tragic death of his best friend by locking himself away in his bedroom and making a record that articulates the grief, loss and anger he was feeling. The Artist Also Known As David Balfe talks to Stuart Clark about the making of a hip-hop masterpiece.
Hot Press interviews don’t normally come with instructions but on this occasion before reading you need to:
1. Type ‘For Those I Love/Live on Later’ into YouTube search.
2. Marvel as the Artist Also Known as David Balfe performs a
version of ‘I Have A Love’ that floored (among many others)
Dermot Kennedy and includes the first British TV unfurling
of a Shelbourne Coolock Reds flag.
3. Pick your jaw up off the floor.
4. Hit ‘repeat’.
5. Text all your mates to tell them you’ve just heard the Choice Music Prize Song of 2021.
Right, now we can begin. ‘I Have A Love’ is the breakout track from an album that mourns and celebrates David Balfe’s friend since childhood, Paul Curran, who died by suicide in 2018.
Grief-stricken, David holed up in his room and channeled the pain and hurt he was feeling into penning a massive 76 songs. Whittling them down to the nine tracks that were finally selected to appear on For Those I Love was a tough task but Balfe’s self-editing skills turned out to be as finely honed as his songwriting ones.
By now he’d landed a deal with September, the same management company that looks after Adele, who set their own label up just for Balfe.
A talented musician himself, Paul Curran features on the album courtesy of some retrieved WhatsApp voice messages and, yes, it’s as poignant and affecting as that sounds.
“The Coolock Reds flag I had with me on Jools Holland was Paul’s,” David tells me when we hook up on Zoom. “They didn’t want me doing it, but I was adamant. I’m glad that I got to carry a part of him with me, because when we were making music together as Burnt Out, a monumental goal of ours was appearing on Later… We fell in love with the show when we saw At The Drive-In doing this insane version of ‘One Armed Scissor’ on it. Their Relationship Of Command album was a huge, huge breakthrough moment for me. At the end, the camera pans onto Robbie Williams looking completely fucking terrified! That performance has lived with me ever since.
“Whether the Shelbourne flag was for Paul, for my friends, Paul’s family, the club, me or all of them I haven’t logically been able to decide. It just felt right, though. I watched it totally alone in the house and Zoomed my family – my Ma, my Nanny, that sort of stuff – afterwards. I’m grateful that I was by myself because there’s something really disconcerting about watching somebody watching you watch yourself. If that makes sense!”
It does. Asked to paint a picture of Paul Curran, David closes his eyes, tilts his head back and carefully says: “He was endless and somebody I learned about and fell in love with more every day for thirteen years. I met him the first week of secondary school. We just clicked and it didn’t stop. He helped me to access that way of loving my friends. I’ve always had the idea that the love I have for my friends is not just platonic, it’s very much a romantic love. It’s something I find to be… mesmerising. I find my friends intoxicating; beautiful people that give me the drive to go on. I got that from Paul.”
There isn’t any better epitaph. It’s one thing writing a soul-baring song in your bedroom, and quite another it being on Spotify for the world to listen to. Does David have a few butterflies in his stomach about sharing his innermost personal feelings?
“I have a lot more than butterflies,” he responds with a grimace. “I have guilt that I’m benefitting from a tragedy that occurred to my best friend. That’s a very difficult burden to carry. I feel that guilt in my soul, yeah? I’m able to see the net benefit, the greater good, when I look at it logically but I can’t really separate the logic from the feelings just yet. I’ve spoken to my therapist about the good that can come from publicly acknowledging it.
“The label,” he continues, “will probably give me a bollocking for saying this, but fuck it. I don’t think I’ve benefitted financially from the record because I’ve spent the entire budget and publishing on clearing the samples. There was a fair few quid on the table, but I spent all of it clearing the samples to make sure that the record I wrote about Paul and my friends, and which I gave them before there was a label involved, wasn’t in any way diluted. I would carry a permanent guilt if I’d made compromises and changed the make-up of the album.”
Artists are often irked when you compare them to somebody from yesteryear, but David’s face lights up when I tell him For Those I Love reminds me of The Streets’ Original Pirate Material.
“Hearing Mike Skinner totally opened me up to the idea of telling my own stories. I was talking to my old English teacher recently – we’re very close – and he said, ‘Even at an early secondary school age you were always writing about the minutiae of stuff. It was never the big picture’. That’s probably something I picked up from Original Pirate Material, which is about the smaller moments in somebody’s day and the ripple effect it can have. I don’t think I’d have got to The Streets without The Bitter Lie by Séan ‘Dr.’ Millar who’s one of the most underrated of Irish songwriters. It brought me into part of the world that I hadn’t been in. I was mesmerised when I was ten by Metallica but they haven’t stuck with me like Séan and Mike Skinner have.
“Incidentally, a lot of the other teachers didn’t take my English teacher seriously because he wore a track suit, was from Ferrycarrig and spoke the way we spoke. My secondary school at the time had a 15% access rate to third-level college, which I believe was one of the lowest in the country, but he’d get like five A’s a year for his students, which was absolutely monumental. I think it says so much about how we respond to authority figures and how much we need to see ourselves in the people that communicate with us. He also opened up his room every Thursday for people to bring guitars in and play tunes together. Credit too to my uncle, who introduced me to all sorts of great music.”
Sticking with matters educational for a moment, David says, “I’m probably going to start doing stuff with my old school; lunchtime production and things like that. That’ll give me a bit more of a gauge on what’s happening locally. Jambo’s from round here and really good, but there’s not as much of an obvious scene as there’d be in Ballymun/Finglas. Hopefully we can change that.”
The rapidly growing For Those I Love fan club includes Dermot Kennedy who in our last issue described David’s Jools Holland performance as “powerful; it just seems honest, like it comes from a real place. Music needs a lot more of that.” Asked whether he’d like to spend quality studio time with Balfe, Dermot said, “Oh, for sure!”
“He messaged me on Instagram one night and I was very flattered by his incredibly kind words. I believe he was shown it by his drummer who’s also sent me some incredibly beautiful feedback on the project so far. The collaboration is news to me but, yeah, bring it on!”
We’re holding both of them to it. While For Those I Love’s themes are universal, its heart firmly belongs in Dublin 5.
“My Ma is from Coolock. She lived there and then moved to Donaghmede, a stone’s throw away. It’s connected by the Tonglegee Road. The first twenty years of my life was spent on that two-mile strip, which crosses from working class communities directly into upper class gated ones. How much variation there is in accent and vernacular is a fascinating thing.
“My part of Coolock has always been quite socially and economically deprived,” he continues. “Although we’ve seen what appears to be some sort of progression over the past few years, in many ways things have become more desperate. It’s certainly become a lot more violent. There have been some traumatic fall-outs, which have touched some of my closest friends and their families’ lives. Although we’re speaking a lot more about our mental health and the suicide epidemic, there hasn’t been much tangible progress made. We have yet to tackle a lot of the primary catalysts for some of that. What I’ll also say about Coolock is that it’s so rich with beauty, culture and a sense of empathy that I’ve many times felt a lack of in other places.”
David is particularly upset by the failure of successive Irish governments to reduce a drug overdose rate, which is one of the highest in Europe.
“It kind of haunts me,” he admits. “Addiction has been studied in various ways for over a hundred years at this point, but our grasp on it is still so fickle. We understand that something like 30% of people who have an exposure to opiates will develop an addiction to them, but we don’t really understand why that is. I know that for many of us it’s very much to do with the necessity to self-medicate because there’s little to no access to traditional forms of therapy or counseling without a significant and unjustifiable upfront cost. People looking for immediate treatment, but who don’t have the financial wherewithal, are put on waiting lists that may be eight months long. Not really ideal when you need help now. You’re forced into more volatile methods of coping.
“I wasn’t able to break the hunt for oblivion until I had excellent treatment and was able to get access to the right medication and weekly therapy. That comes with a massive financial cost that I’ve only been lucky enough to be able to afford within the past few years. Many of my peers and their families don’t have that luxury.”
What makes our mishandling of the drug crisis even more galling is that they’ve had a wildly successful system in place in Portugal for the past twenty years, which as Hot Press discovered on a fact-finding mission to Lisbon, they’re eager to share with us. A lot of it is down to the optics of a party being seen to be ‘soft on drugs’. They’re playing politics with people’s lives.
“The Portuguese model is so well documented,” David agrees. “We should be able to look at their statistics and make informed choices on that but, yeah, the parties are all scared to be the ones to do it. We need a change in public consciousness around what a drug dependent person – let’s bin ‘addict’ – is. We need to reframe and look at it as a health issue.”
Amen to that. One of For Those I Love’s numerous standouts, ‘Birthday/The Pain’, reflects on how when David was six, a dead body was dumped at the end of his road. Thankfully when things got too intense, him and his friends had the shed in his Ma’s garden to seek refuge in.
“It would have been the lads from Burnt Out – Paul, Robbie and Peter – and some of our closest friends like Gav and Sam and Pam from Pillow Queens, who’s one of my closest friends on the whole planet and referenced many times on the album. I was in a metalcore band for a while with the drummer from Otherkin, Rob, who was also one of the gang. I don’t live there anymore but my sister and her girlfriend use it. They’re after doing it up and it’s deadly.”
I suspect that particular shed has now earned a place in Dublin hip-hop folklore. Some of Balfe’s other musical loves are namechecked on ‘You Live/No One Like You’, which proclaims: “You live in A Lazarus Soul/ In The Dubliners’ songs of old and The Pogues/ The art that never grows old.” Does he feel like he’s now part of a scene?
“No, I don’t,” he states baldly. “I’m quite an insular person. I don’t have a lot of contact outside of my immediate friends group. I’m not great in crowds, so I don’t go to a lot of things – and certainly not now with Covid! When I was younger and involved with the punk scene, there was the constant engagement and nourishment of the collective. Not having that now is entirely my own fault, though.”
Looking at hip-hop message boards it’s clear that fans are buying wholesale into Balfe’s music and what he’s conveying through it.
“I’m appreciative of people DM-ing and Instagram-ing me, but it can be quite overwhelming seeing twenty incredibly detailed and harrowing messages from strangers in response to a song I made in my Mam’s shed,” he admits. “I’ve left isolation only once this year to go to the post office where a woman came up and said, ‘Are you David Balfe?’ I thought she was going to serve me with a notice or something and was like, ‘Yeah, why?’ and she goes, ‘I saw you on Other Voices.’ The conversation that followed was one of the most touching ones I’ve ever had. It takes a bit of getting used to, but people connecting with your music like that is a beautiful thing.”
• For Those I Love is out now on September Recordings. Listen to Paul Curran at soundcloud.com/paulcurranspokenword