“I feel free as a person”: Dermot Kennedy says songwriting is like “therapy”

Dermot Kennedy with our Digital Editor Bronwyn O’Neill

It’s not very often you get to sit down with Dermot Kennedy, the famously private singer is a tough one to pin down.

But when he returned to Irish shores this week following the release of his second album, Sonder, VIP Magazine were right there to sing along to the ballads. Before he took to the balcony in Bewley’s Cafe to perform a short set for his loyal fans, we chatted to the singer.

He discussed his rise to fame, his ambitions for the future and, of course, Taylor Swift.

Dermot Kennedy performing on Grafton Street

Hi Dermot. Welcome back to Dublin! What is it like to bring it home?

It’s unreal to see everyone out there but not a lot has changed. I know I play to a lot more people now and they know my music but it’s the same thing in my head. I just get the guitar and do the same thing that I did when I was 16. It is nice.

When you were out busking 15 years ago did you ever expect to be where you are today?

It’s lost on me and I never want to seem ungrateful for it either. But I could. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. Sometimes you have certain shows where people ask can you believe you got there. And honestly yes, because I have seen every step for the last 15 years. And 10 years of no one paying attention. If you’re not doing what you’re doing, it’s not because you’re not good, it’s because the world doesn’t know you yet. I had 10 years of no one paying attention. It’s just about being stubborn.

You started your career busking, what was your busking highlight?

My busking highlight is probably the Christmas busk with Glen Hansard. There’s lots of people busking in the street hoping they’re in the right spot. And I was doing that. Then the busk started to take shape, it was Glen, Damien Rice, Mundy and Bono. All the names were there. I was just obnoxious! All the energy I have now, it was that dogged energy. I ended up beside Glen who was playing a Bob Dylan cover of a song I knew from watching him play it. I just started singing the second verse and he gave me the nod to sing it. That was definitely my highlight.

Dermot Kennedy performing on Grafton Street

Your second album, Sonder, just came out, after a few delays. Do you get anxious about how people will receive it?

Definitely. I definitely am. I can’t speak for other artists but I think people have this idea that we’re so kind of confident. I feel confident and I feel very free with it when I release music. But you are nervous when you release it. So you do relax when it’s out and the feedback is positive. It’s more reassuring than people know. I think I underestimated how tense I was holding onto it. It’s been such a long time. It’s nice doing promo and all these things that feel adjacent to music. Then you release the album and it’s all about the music, so I can get back to doing what I actually know.

Your lyrics are beautiful, and of course, very personal to you. Does that add to the anxiety?

It’s fine, it’s all in there. I feel quite free as a person because I get to go to therapy all the time. I don’t know who I would be without that outlet if all those feelings were just bottled up inside me and I didn’t write them down and I didn’t sing them I don’t know how I would feel.

How does it feel now that it’s finally out there?

It’s a huge relief. People don’t see me spending six weeks in France or in London going mad over if it’s the right lyric or does it sound right. All these conversations back and forth. Then when the song finally comes out it’s very reassuring. It’s just a natural progression. Some people have said that it sounds very different. But we’re in a very different place. So there are songs that fit in small rooms and songs that fit in stadiums. I am trying to be almost two artists at the same time. I have to be ambitious and bring more people in, while staying true to the fans who have been with you since the start. But you can’t limit yourself in either direction.

Dermot Kennedy Pic: Shervin Lainez

Did you feel any pressure to measure up to the success of your first album, Without Fear?

Any pressure I have comes internally. I think people expect pressure to come from management and label but there’s no pressure there because I see us a team who all want the same thing. We want the album to be great. There’s no pressure there. I put pressure on myself, creatively. I found the first album more difficult because I was less sure of who I was. Then I started in the studio in the US which can be intimidating. But now I know what I’m doing to some degree and I know my ideas are good. You can feel like your opinions aren’t valid, but they are.

Despite your lyrics being personal, you keep your private life out of the limelight. Did you make a decision very early on that you didn’t want to be a quote, unquote celebrity?

It’s not intentional thing that I shy away from. It would be weird for me to want that and be like that. The person that I am, I don’t want that. It’s been really beautifully vindictating to find out you don’t need to be. It hasn’t scupered my touring career. We play these big venues but I don’t see it as a priority. I don’t see it.

Dermot, you have been non-stop. Are you wrecked?

I’m not exhausted. I had a lot of people checking in on me. Last week I was knackered, but it’s knackered in the way everyone else is.

Dermot Kennedy
Dermot Kennedy Pic: Supplied

You mentioned earlier that you spent 10 years working tirelessly but not being recognised. Do you find it frustrating when you’re referred to as an “over-night success”?

A little bit but I think I’ve come to the point where it becomes impossible to outline what it actually takes. What puts me in my place is that it’s the same with everyone’s job. There’s something difficult about all of them and we have no idea what people overcome. People don’t have a clue and it’s not in a good way or a bad way. If you came the same attitude towards the hard times it will reward you in the end. There’s no point holding onto it.

You covered Taylor Swift’s song Anti-Hero and you had a little interaction on Twitter. Could we see a collab in future?

Of course. Absolutely. But I think you have to wait for those things to happen naturally if they are going to happen at all. There was a point where me and Dave, the rapper, were in the studio last year. But we were going to write the song…it’s the type of thing you don’t want to force. It’s the type of thing where if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.

Were you delighted when she retweeted it?

Yes! [Laughs] The most important part is that we did a good job because if she tweeted about it and I wasn’t happy with it, I’d be a bit thick, to be honest.


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A post shared by Dermot Kennedy (@dermotkennedy)

You went to Bono’s show in the Olympia to promote his memoir, would you ever consider doing something like that 30 years down the road?

I would love that. I think about it quite a bit because I think about writing music and how important it is to me. I also just want to tell stories. That is such a potent way of doing it as well as giving some insight into who he is as a person.

Dermot Kennedy’s second album, Sonder, is out now

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