The Power and Glory of
Dermot Kennedy

In conversation with Ireland's newest superstar...

Dermot Kennedy sits, comfortably, clad in black leisurewear including baseball cap, working his way through a necessary lozenge.

It's the morning after the night before; the first of four consecutive shows at Dublin's Olympia Theatre, all of which sold out in a matter of seconds.

Home appointments are recurrent without being excessive, drawing packed houses and yielding fevered Instagram highlight reels. Internationally, it's much the same.

Lounging in a reliably peaceful city centre bar, the 27-year-old resembles any other ordinary bloke you might encounter in such a spot, though his life is far from typical.

Cutting his teeth at open mics and singing other people's songs on the streets, the Rathcoole native would carve out his own path, powered by empathetic singer-songwriter bruises and a cannon in his throat.

He strikes you as a regular enough dude, the anchor to the hustle that diligently whirls around him. He can still walk down the street without bother, but it may not always be like that.

His explosion is hard to pinpoint. There's no obvious 'Take Me to Church' signpost, nor is he a distinctly Irish phenomenon in the mould of Picture This.

Kennedy's rise just kind of happened naturally. There are signatures, strong ones; the likes of 'Glory', 'After Rain' and 'An Evening I Will Not Forget' offering up an alternatively wracked and defiant soul in microcosm.

His songs are legitimate anthems for many, underscoring personal pain and heartbreak, affording closure and resilience, reaching out a hand.

You can catch the whites of awestruck eyes at a Dermot Kennedy gig, alongside the unyielding belief that the words belong to that one individual and nobody else, that the author, unlike the others, just knows, just understands.

His CV, if you care about that sort of thing, is gilded with household names and increasingly outstretching numbers. A bidding war sought his autograph, affording Kennedy the opportunity to choose a home where he's allowed to be himself.

Though there is undeniably a mainstream appeal to the material, this is an artist who is arguably more comfortable on the fringes of songwriting, exploring the unvarnished, finding tiny broken details, inviting flaws into the conversation.

The campaign, if you will, is very much moving forward to create a global superstar. Kennedy may well be the guy, the next whomever, but there's going to be an interesting trade-off.

Released in October, 'Power Over Me', a more get-to-the-point playlist-friendly number, would open significant doors. The track straddles the line between the sensitive composer that Dermot Kennedy sees in the mirror, and a more spreadsheet-focused version that he likely doesn't wish to inhabit.

'For Island Fires and Family', a contrasting deep cut that stands as a pin-drop live favourite, was subject to a beautiful, Aran Islands-set video in January. Not a traditional single by any means, but one of deep personal significance, and worth fighting for.

'Power Over Me' works, certainly, but an entire collection in this vein might be pushing it. Leaving behind a legacy in the form of a cogent body of work is not lost on Kennedy, nor is the intriguing duality of his present position.

Taking a breath, he agrees that he hasn't stopped at all in the last couple of years, always touring, constantly gigging, forever moving forward.

"It's a funny one, because you have to deal with people like your mam being like, 'Would you not take a break now?'," he smiles.

"I feel like you get kind of reconditioned to feel guilty when you take more than two days, too, you know?"

He's been busy. 'Power Over Me' provoked a whirlwind of press engagements and performances, with Stephen Colbert and Ellen DeGeneres among the hosts as Kennedy and band made haste from Australia to Germany to New York in the space of a week.

"It just kind of struck me - this is mad," he nods.

"We literally cannot get around the planet quick enough trying to promote this fecking song. You're just chasing it, constantly."

He's gotten used to the pace, the demands, popping up at events like the Brit Awards just to be seen, the need to be everywhere at once, all the time - as much as someone in his position can get used to such a lifestyle, at least.

You learn as you go. Hours removed from that first Dublin headliner, Kennedy reflects on the varying degrees of audience feedback he's encountered thus far.

"America is amazing and everybody is so into it with you," he says. "When you get to Belgium and Germany and places like that, everybody is so super-polite.

"It brings you back to this place where you feel obliged to be a bit more on it, musically, because it’s not San Diego in a pub with 600 people and you just blast through it and there’s great energy; you feel like you have to be perfect.

"These people are not drinking, they’re watching and they’re trying to be impressed. It’s different everywhere, but hometown is special, of course."

These days, Kennedy often finds himself a long way from home. At times, it can feel a touch otherworldly, like when you're invited to perform on those aforementioned titanic talk shows.

"The Colbert one was awesome," he begins.

"It’s an old theatre in New York and they really don’t give you a second. They’re like, ‘Okay, so, five, four…’ and then you start playing and that’s it. So it was this lovely thing where you don’t get a chance. Also, because it’s a theatre it feels like a gig, so you can put yourself in that headspace.

"The Ellen one was quite intimidating," he recalls.

"She was running the dialogue during an ad break, but we’re behind a big wall, so I didn’t know she was doing that, and she was like, ‘Coming up next we’ve got Dermot Kennedy…’ and I was like, ‘Oh god, this is it!’, which is fine, but she just sounded so crazy disinterested - ‘Dermot Kennedy coming up, he’s from Ireland, blah blah blah…’ and I just thought, ‘Oh no, this is that thing’, but I then realised she was just practicing.

"I didn’t put myself in the right headspace during the rehearsals. You play to the open studio and all the seats are empty, but then later, the doors open up and everybody in the crowd stands up - they’ve been dancing for the whole show because that’s her thing, and so they’re now forced to not dance for four minutes. I freaked out a little bit, but it was okay."

He agrees that it's quite strange to go from watching those shows to physically appearing on them.

"It’s funny, because in the grand scheme of things you’re supposed to do those things at the right time, but you’re exactly right; it is surreal, and not in the cheesy sense. You go and do it, but it doesn’t really sink in that you’re on Ellen."

Downtime is rare enough, but what does an average Dermot Kennedy day off look like? He paints a picture of scauldy hotels in Amarillo where he's glad of his bandmates' - friends rather than assigned session players, crucially - company.

Speaking of, a couple of them may have opted to consume edibles during an indoor skydiving adventure. Kennedy himself has yet to skydive, inside or out, under the influence or otherwise.

"They kicked in the second your man started explaining the safety thing and so they were just staring at him, just completely confused," he laughs.

"It's always something like that. We try and find the stupidest thing; go-karting, indoor skydiving… we’re actually lucky, we’ve got a tour manager now who schedules it so that we pass through places that are interesting, but on the last tours it would be that, it would be a stop-off town that has a shopping centre. Cinema, always. Every time.

"People are always at me; ‘Have you seen A Star Is Born? Have you seen Bohemian Rhapsody?’ I haven’t seen any of them. I go to the cinema to not think about music, you know what I mean? Anything that isn’t that is ideal!"

He muses that the film of his life wouldn't be very interesting, and he wouldn't line up to see it. That said, his day-to-day is disparate to many. There's a lot of waiting around, a lot of staying inside your own head, and plenty of pressure to contend with.

How is he holding up, mental health-wise?

"Good, but yeah, it does wear you out, obviously. Again, I guess it comes down to everything. Having such a solid group within our touring crew is massively important, I think. It would be so easy to feel lonely during this.

"Especially because hypothetically, in another scenario, it could just be me and the guitar doing this. In which case, I would be just alone all the time and that would be weird. You need that group.

"Having a gig every night in order to release is massively important, but also, it takes its toll. It’s not necessarily the most healthy thing to go out and scream about everything and think about some of the worst things that have ever happened in your life for an hour and a half, and then you get on a bus.

"It’s quite draining, and there are times when it really does take a toll on you."

He notes that he's been more conscious of his feelings in this regard lately.

"There are certain days where I won’t feel great and you don’t necessarily recognise it," he begins.

"You have to address it. ‘Hang on, this life is really weird’, and the way that this is set up is probably just making me feel this way today and it’s all good because it’ll be such and such tomorrow, and that kind of thing. Certain feelings you might not recognise, and just feeling down and not being able to explain it - you have to remind yourself that it’s definitely not a normal way of life. 

"If you’ve got a week left on tour and you’re not feeling good, you’re like, ‘I’ll be home in a week, it’ll be all good’, but yeah, the gigs are a great way to get everything out, and they certainly are cathartic at times, but you have to be conscious of the fact that you’re spending all day by yourself and then going to the most potent places in your mind, hopefully, for a gig. It’s a lot, yeah."

As noted, a Dermot Kennedy gig can make for a fascinating experience, not just for the leading light pouring his heart out, the vivid dexterity of drummer Micheál Quinn, or the raw intimacy that can be realised inside an hour and change.

The crowd plays its part, for better, and for worse. I've seen Kennedy live four times now, the venues a little bigger each time, the audience that bit more restless.

Etiquette, or a crippling lack thereof, at live outings feels a very modern problem, one exacerbated by the ubiquity of smartphones and allure of social media.

This issue has been present at every Dermot Kennedy show I've seen, presenting a genuinely odd disconnect in the process. There can be no doubt that the vast majority of attendees at his shows are devoted. I've witnessed tears, embraces, catharsis, worship.

And I've heard the noise, the chatter, the ill-timed shoutouts, the brief yet brutal cacophony of apathy that permeates the room when Kennedy strays from the script, opting to tell, at his own pace, an anecdote or two between songs.

I've seen backs turn and attention drift by apparent disciples, like they only wish for one version of their hero, the one that plays their rehearsed notes and no impromptu ones of his own.

Moments like these create unbearable tension, and I've seen people exit because of them. For a man who takes his work seriously, how do such scenes resonate?

"Oh, who knows?" he shrugs.

"There’s nights like last night where people will be with you and will listen to everything. We’ve got the in-ears in, too, so thankfully I’m not exposed to too much of that. But yeah, I don’t know. It varies wildly from night to night.

"We have Luca Fogale supporting us on this tour. He’s so good. I had the speaker on in the dressing room in the Olympia last night and I was listening to him play, but yeah, there was a lot of chat.

"I mean… what do you do? I’m also mega grateful that this run of gigs is Monday to Thursday instead of Friday and Saturday. There’s a noticeable difference. People will be more on it and less focused.

"It happens. It just does. I totally get what you’re saying. I think it’s less and less that you’ll go to a show and it will be like the way that it should be. Always."

It's one thing for such disruption to happen at a Billie Eilish show like the one that this writer saw in London earlier this year. Eilish bounded onstage that night to be met with phones raised in unison ala a choreographed tifo at a Borussia Dortmund match.

It made sense there, the exuberance of nascent adulthood bouncing off the walls. In the hushed tones of the Olympia Theatre as Kennedy does his thing, notably less so.

"I see people in the front row who now do this thing where they’re filming you the whole time but they’re also watching it, because they want to watch it I guess, but they also want to document it," he considers.

"I think about this a lot and how it’s so important to try your best to kind of make it be that type of show. That’s why I look up to people like Hozier and Bon Iver. You can see that they give a shit about that kind of stuff, and that it’s important to them.

"It comes down to absolutely every decision you make. If you’re writing lyrics and you’re like, ‘Ah, that works and that’s probably catchy’ - you take a tiny step towards that room of people who don’t care."

"It’s grand, I get it, but… no."

- On being described as Ireland's answer to Ed Sheeran

That space is one that Kennedy has taken careful steps to avoid so far. Earlier, he met the mention of a profile that asked if he was Ireland's answer to Ed Sheeran with a wry chuckle.

"That was GQ. Come on! I saw it, briefly. It’s grand, I get it, geez, but… no, no."

It's tempting to view Kennedy as a tempestuous figure in terrific conflict with creative integrity and commercial interests. He seems to have his head together on that score, and while the songs closest to him aren't wildly abstract enough to be inaccessible to a mass audience, there's an unavoidable push-pull effect in play for any major label project.

"I didn’t want it to be a situation where people would be kind of paying attention and then that song comes on and they all go bananas and then leave," he says, referring to 'Power Over Me' and its potential position as 'The Song' for casual fans to tune into on their big night out.

"I know of gigs where people wait for the hit and then it happens and then they’re gone. It’s awful. It must be terrible."

A breath later, he continues the thread.

"As the artist - I’m not sure if other people do this - you go back and forth a hundred times. I’ve binned songs that might have been a great idea because I’m nervous of doing the wrong thing and I don’t want to discredit myself and all of that.

"I built up to releasing that song and was like, ‘I hope that’s okay, I hope that’s all good’. If you had all these other songs that were your passion projects and then you bring out that one, and everyone is only on that one, it must be heartbreaking."

The contract between musician and punter is a strange one, you feel.

"Yeah, for sure. It comes down to everything. Like, if you take your time and eventually build a fan base off the music you love, you’ll have rooms full of people. You see Sigur Rós in 3Arena and it’s dead quiet and everybody is into it, but if you try and take that shortcut and try and bring out songs to just like a lowest common denominator, trying to latch onto people who are kind of halfway music fans and just love going to gigs, then over time as things grow you’ll kind of send yourself down the wrong path.

"When I used to busk, I played covers of songs that I wasn’t necessarily into. I could see things like Facebook and Instagram growing like crazy with people being like, ‘Oh I love this cover’ and ‘Will you cover this?’

"For me it was, ‘This isn’t what I want to be’. Everybody that I’m gathering from busking won’t be into my stuff when I bring it out, because it’s so different. I figured I would be doing myself a disservice by building that fan base, and it would make no sense.

"And then two years down the line I could be in a room with people who only love when I do Ed Sheeran covers. You could build this thing that’ll break your heart in the end. You’ve got to be so careful."

Back to that room.

"Generally, I’m content if people are quiet throughout the songs and then I get that they turn and chat to each other during the break," he offers.

"If you’re trying to tell a story and you hear them chatting - what can you do? I’ve made my peace with it."

But what brings Dermot Kennedy peace? What inspires him? Hozier and Bon Iver are part of the DNA, as are Ben Howard and Damien Rice. You'll find his real heroes in an entirely different arena, though.

"I was watching a thing recently about when Kobe Bryant tore his achilles," he starts.

"He took two or three free throws with a torn achilles. That kind of drive is crazy important to me. The Lakers had signed a new guy one time and he showed up at 7am for practice that was at 9am, but Kobe Bryant had already been there for two hours.

"Things like Coach Carter give me that feeling. I think it’s the coolest thing ever. The whole deal in Coach Carter is to be champions but also to carry yourself properly. He hated whenever they scored and then celebrated in front of the team. Scoring is enough, and you gotta have class with the way you do it."

Smiling big now, Kennedy posits that he always finds this aspect of his character a little hard to explain.

"In meetings with labels, they’d ask, ‘Who inspires you?’ and I’m like, [throws hands up] LeBron James! That’s really difficult, what they do. Obviously it’s two separate worlds, but it kind of is and it isn’t.

"Musicians get the kudos because you lay your whole being on the line and you give everything, but the way someone like LeBron James can handle that pressure, when there’s 10 seconds left and the confidence to be, ‘I’m still the guy, give me the ball’, and to know that he’ll be condemned across America if he makes a mistake, by the whole fan base and by everyone that ever looked up to him.

"Everything is constantly on the line for people like that. That’s really impressive."

There's a drug in that, the storytelling, the superhuman nature of it all.

"Don’t get me started on the whole Conor McGregor thing but I remember when he was flying and he was winning things, I can’t remember what poem it was, but there was a voiceover to a video of his. One of the lines was like, ‘Who are you to decide about how incredible life should be?’ and so I’m amazed by people like that who don’t stop and who have that ambition.

"I think that’s why I love and idolise hip hop artists so much," he continues.

"I saw a JAY-Z interview last week. He said his uncle was always at him, saying, ‘You could never sell a million records’, and he had this thing where he was like, ‘No, you could never do it. Of course I could do it’.

"I don’t think it’s any surprise that hip hop artists hang out with basketball players; it’s a similar drive, a similar ambition, a similar desire to take it to the next level. And it’s not a success thing. You want to be great. That’s incredible."

That attitude seems to be ingrained within Dermot Kennedy, I suggest. He shoots me down a little, staying humble, admitting that it does mess with him as he wonders how far one man with a guitar can really go.

He brings up Asif Kapadia's documentary on Ayrton Senna, transfixed by the relentless ambition and determination of the tragic Formula 1 icon.

"That thing in the Monaco race where he was way ahead of everybody, and even after that he drove the fastest laps that he had ever driven. He was way ahead. The race was done. He had won it.

"But he pushed harder than he had ever pushed to get this ridiculous margin and all the other drivers were scared of him because he would try things that they wouldn’t try and he was essentially just a liability, because he was so focused to try and get there. I just think it’s crazy."

Life has its limits, of course. Kennedy's lane is rapid in its own unique sense, and though it's a long way away, the finish line of a legacy is on his mind.

"What’s massively important to me is when I’m done, to be able to look back and see these moments in time.

"I don’t want it to be, ‘Oh there’s my Spotify with 600 singles’, I want it to be, ‘There’s my bunch of albums’.

"Hozier is cool for that. Kendrick Lamar, too. It’s this lovely thing of when he looks back and sees the impact he made culturally and on music, he’ll be able to pick out those moments in time."

Live imagery via Lucy Foster

Portraits from the 'For Island Fires and Family' shoot on Inis Mór:

Black and White: Christian Tierney

Colour: Brendan Canty