”With the release of his new album, Damien Dempsey chats to Conor Luke Barry about his “shite” songs and getting back into the swing of things
The most striking thing about meeting Damien Dempsey is that for such a tank of a man and such a confident singer, he’s extremely soft-spoken and gentle. Wearing a constant concerned expression on his face, it’s as if he never stops reassessing his own feelings on the world. “I’m a shy person and introverted naturally, and I have lack of self esteem and confidence. Maybe I’ve learnt to hide that, you know?
It was a refreshingly blunt and honest response, something that not all Irish people can be so open about. “The sort of fellas I hang about with now, they’d be youth workers and all, I could talk about things with them. It’s easier with some friends than others. Other guys would be going ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ They’d close up; they’d clam up when you start getting into your feelings.” Having said that these same guys reacted positively to his music, songs steeped in feelings and emotion. “What I was singing about probably touched them, you know? They felt I had a lot of courage to be singing about what I was singing about.”
This is exactly the niche Dempsey fills, using his music to deal with issues that have a resonance with a huge audience. Dempsey’s new album, Almighty Love, has been in the works for four years. What took him so long? “I was trying to go in a different direction and it wasn’t working. Just write something upbeat to jump around to, sort of festival songs.” What type of upbeat music? “Just about girls and dance floors”.
For anyone who knows Dempsey this is an odd direction to take. His sound is guttural and passionate, singing about issues close to his heart. This is something he realised while aiming for a more pop style. “The songs I was writing were shite. Well, they weren’t shite. I was just trying to get good beats over traditional music. But I realised then that people don’t want a festival album. They like it for the lyrics, that’s why they’re into my stuff really. I realised about two years in that I was on the wrong road, I had to come right back and start writing songs that meant something to me”.
Back in classic form, Dempsey returns with a slew of tracks dealing with issues that mean something to him. For instance, a track called ‘Community’ describes a longing for a sense of community he feels Ireland has lost. “Where I come from, people couldn’t afford to live up there any more. People who wanted to buy their first house there couldn’t afford to. So they had to move out to Cavan and Meath and the community was getting torn apart. As well as that, people got the big loans of money. It turned into competition. Who had the most houses, who had the biggest holiday home abroad, or who had the biggest SUV and all. People started competing against each other. Other people who couldn’t afford to live here went down the country, these new estates, people didn’t know each other or their neighbours.” This is particularly important to Dempsey as he still lives on the estate where he was raised. “I prefer a bit of community. I still have that where I live. If I lived in a big house on a hill I might get a bit detached. It’d be lonely too.”
Another of his tracks is a cover of ‘Fire in the Glen’, a more traditional, nationalistic song about standing up for your country. As the only cover in the album what was the significance of its inclusion? “It’s kind of relevant for today. Just what’s going on, how we’re being ripped off. People giving out about it in the pub, and nothing happened. A few marches, but the people who were giving out fuck about it in the pub didn’t come out and march about it. I suppose, with ‘The Fire in the Glen’, we’re being burnt here, but there’s no fire in the eyes of our Irishmen, I’d just like to see the people get back into that spirit. We should be like France, or something, where the people just strike. Not put up with the shit. The government is just totally disconnected from the people. They don’t give a fuck.”
This disconnection of the government is one of the overall themes of Dempsey’s new album. He sings about an Ireland that is losing its sense of self but he clings to the hope that we can recover that identity. He explains his feelings about what he considers to be a general divide in this country: “There’s bad feeling against travellers in this country. Because there’s a few bad travellers that go around in criminal gangs, the rest of the traveller community is tarred with the same brush. It’s kind of the same as people, say, with my accent, you know? Cause there’s a few bad eggs, a whole class in Dublin could be tarred with the same brush, call them knackers and that. And then there are people in Dáil Eireann, getting away with robbery. That’s what I tell people. It’s not the travellers; it’s the ones in Dáil Eireann that’s robbing you.”
Damien Dempsey is a necessary singer, a vent for a lot of the pent up frustration of modern Ireland. But the overall message of his album is summed up by his choice of title, that whatever struggles this country faces perhaps it will bring us closer together as a nation. A message he probably wouldn’t have gotten across if he’d stuck to his plan of a festival album. It’s good to have him back.
Damien Dempsey plays the Button Factory on October 4th. Tickets are priced €28. Almighty Love is out now.