Dermot Kennedy has had a meteoric rise to notoriety. The twenty-five year old Dubliner has amassed over two million monthly listeners on Spotify, played several sold-out shows across the United States and Europe, and all without even releasing a full length album. His debut EP Doves & Ravens has gained him hefty critical acclaim for his unique combination of revelatory songwriting and expert musicianship with a driving, hip hop influenced beat. Dermot and I have both come to Dublin via Other Voices—a prominent Irish music festival that has seen the likes of Lisa Hannigan and Amy Winehouse perform—although he performed at the festival and has spent a week in Los Angeles writing and I am effectively on holiday, wandering happily and lazily about Ireland. When we sit down in the busy bar, he remarks that until the day prior to our meeting he had been awake for over twenty-four hours. "I can't sleep on planes," he says. Despite the lack of sleep, he is friendly, patient and warm, and we fall into easy chatter about Dublin traffic, musicians we love, his inspirations and his work. His songs are immensely catchy and should definitely be on our listeners radar.
EARMILK: How did you get into music?
Dermot Kennedy: My cousin was in a band, and I was nine or ten and at a party and it was around three in the morning and he grabbed his guitar and played all night, and he was awesome. So I got a guitar the next week or something, and then I got obsessed with the likes of Glen Hansard and David Gray and Ray LaMontagne, and that's what kicked it off. It wasn't until after that moment that I said "I really want to do that."
EM: Do you have a songwriting process or is it different and new every time?
DK: It's changing all the time. I used to only write on my own and in the last year I've been collaborating a lot and writing with other people. But what often happens is I start on the music and generally the lyrics will come after. I think it's amazing that some people write lyrics and then build music around that. I've done it, but I feel like for the music and lyrics to live together in the right way, music coming first is good for me.
EM: Where and how did you write "Glory?" [with Stephen Kozmeniuk (Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj)]
DK: Oh that was in Toronto actually! The first time I went to [Kozmeniuk]…I was there or two or three days and we just wrote and recorded it in [that time]. He's a genius. He just does little magic things. I played the guitar riff for ["Glory"] super high on the frets. It was really twinkly and high register, and he just pitched it an octave down. So now when I'm playing that song live I've got to tune the guitar way down.
EM: Has anyone ever given you any important advice for starting out your career that really stuck with you?
DK: Yes. Glen Hansard invited me to play in Vicar Street a few Christmases ago. I played with The Frames and he texted me and said "it's your ten minutes, you can be with the band or without them but it's your call." So we jammed it out on stage. Afterward—he had loads of people playing, like Damien Dempsey and Declan O'Rourke and a few others—and I was talking to him afterward about how cool it was that it felt like a big celebration of music, and a bunch of friends just playing together, and he said "the moment you think it's important that it's your name on the poster, it's an issue. All that matters is the music and everyone coming together." And you could tell it was sincere.
EM: Glen Hansard's a different beast, isn't he?!
DK: Yeah. For someone to have won an Oscar, play huge shows for years and to still have those principles is really cool. My friend made a guitar for him from a church bench. But basically he snuck into Glen Hansard's gig in Zurich, gave him the guitar after he had played the show and then Glen sat backstage for another hour playing this guitar. So I think he just never stops. It's music all the time.
EM: Absolutely. What's the wildest encounter you had while on tour?
DK: A friend of mine is Zach Miller, with the Chicago Bears—we had gone back and forth on social media a bit but this was the first night I'd met him—[Miller] gave us tickets to the Bears game and he came to the show with his family and friends and at one stage we went to a bar and his car was outside, and it was a giant pickup. Me, the two lads in the band and Zach Miller and his friends—so about nine of us—were in his five-seater truck going around Chicago blaring music. So that was probably the craziest thing that happened on this tour. We actually got up and went from Chicago to Toronto at six the next morning.
EM: Do you spend a lot of time in Toronto?
DK: Yeah I've been there about four times, mostly because of Koz. It's nice to get a grip on a place and get a feel for the people. I've only really stayed in the same place each time I go, but I stayed on an area of Dundas where there were loads of bars, it was really cool.
EM: Dundas West is a fabulous area. Can you talk about the video concept for "Moments Passed" and what it was like to work with Nabil?
DK: It's a funny one, loads of people have been commenting on how it's heartbreaking, lyrically, conceptually, whatever. But it's not really! It's kind of depressing in the sense that someone has lost something, but it's also gratitude and appreciation for everything that has taken place. That's the resounding message for me anyway. That's why in the video there's this older guy who's really done in by everything he's been through, but also he's finding solace in this memory. It was crazy to get someone like Nabil for your first official video. We shot over two days in L.A. and it was a huge learning experience for me. It was so intense. You'd shoot a scene and then afterwards while you were taking a break he'd already be out the back working on the next scene. It was constant.
EM: I find that a lot of Irish art incorporates this romanticism of Ireland. Do you think that being Irish and growing up here has at all influenced your songwriting?
DK: Yeah, definitely being inspired by people like Glen Hansard has always been important. And there's a real brotherhood between songwriters. Down at Other Voices, I don't know if you saw him but David Keenan had tweeted me telling me to come to his gig—and I didn't see it until after I had come out of his gig, which was lucky— but I've been talking to him since, and he's just so class. I couldn't believe how good he was. There's that kind of community amongst Irish people. And then you always feel like the standard is high as a songwriter, so I think you push yourself. But it's a nice environment for songwriters to grow.
EM: There's a lot of hip hop in the production on Doves & Ravens. How did you find that sound?
DK: Koz, probably. Koz really brought it out in "Glory". There were all those trap hats and it's super bassy. But I guess that's not fair actually. When it was born I was working with Carey Willetts in London on a song called "A Closeness." I played the song for him on an acoustic but I wanted to do something with a driving beat, tribal and heavy. And he put it in on the third verse and we were both like "this is cool." The twanginess of the acoustic and the way that comes out versus the programmed beat felt so exciting. And it was so much fun to sing against. I just followed it from there. Songs of mine don't fit that all the time, and I've definitely found a bit of solace in the acoustic stuff lately as I've been throwing a beat on everything for the last while. I'm not a hip hop artist and don't have to do that all the time, but when I can make them live together that's my favourite.
EM: What was the first album you ever got obsessed with?
DK: Set List by The Frames. Set List was the first bit of music I ever bought. I don't know why I hadn't become hooked on someone until that point but I bought it as soon as I heard it. That's where I became obsessed with the idea of having a violinist in a band.
EM: Colm Mac Con Iomaire and Glen Hansard are such special musicians. Can you say anything at all about the new year? Debut album, perhaps?
DK: Yeah definitely! I'm going on tour again in the new year, and I was just in L.A. writing and gathering songs. We're working on it for sure, I just want it to be perfect. I want to take the stuff I put on YouTube two years ago and I want that to live with what I just did in L.A.
EM: I always find that people get hyped about something or someone and there's so much pressure for them to release material really quickly, and it's always like—let them make something you really enjoy, let them take their time.
DK: [laughs] yeah exactly. I could do it, but I really want it to be perfect.