Dermot Kennedy is rarely back in Ireland these days. He estimates that he has spent no more than two or three weeks here this year. For much of the time, the Dubliner is based in New York and, when we speak over the phone, he is in Los Angeles, taking a morning stroll in a city choked with cars.
e has only been in California a few days and is acclimatising. The previous evening, he played a festival in Orange County and, after our interview, he will go on to perform a short set at the Grammy Museum. It’s all in a day’s work for a singer whose rise can legitimately be described as meteoric.
The initial plan was for us to do a video call, but he says he is jet-laggy and restless and would prefer to walk and talk, camera off. “I feel like I’d say better things if I’m not worried about how I look,” he says. “If that makes sense?”
The 30-year-old is a thoughtful interviewee. He has little interest in rote answers, and if the questions are sufficiently interesting, he will give them time. He is a serious conversationalist too, one who appears to have scant interest in small talk. And he has little time for people prying into his private life. Prior to the interview, there was a request from his record company that no questions be asked about his relationship status.
His second album, Sonder, is about to be released and it’s among the most eagerly awaited records by an Irish artist in years. It has a lot to live up to. His debut, Without Fear, is one of the bestselling Irish albums of the 21st century, up there with the U2s and Hoziers of the world. It was a UK number one, a slow-burn success on the US album chart and it enjoyed a longer stay in the Top 40 in this country than any other home-grown debut album this millennium.
Kennedy says he did not feel anxious about recording album number two. Others might not have been as level-headed, though. “I think I’ve experienced the other side of the coin to a lot of artists,” he says. “You know the way everyone expects the second album to be the disastrous one, where you have an awful time of it, and it’s very difficult to get it done because of pressure, or whatever? I felt more of that for the first one. And I don’t know if that’s because we were already feeling a certain amount of hype because of what we were doing from a live point of view, but to me your first album is your first flag in the sand and you really are saying, ‘this is what I’m about’.
“I put an awful lot of pressure on that in my head, whereas nowadays I feel more established and I feel more confident and set in terms of who I am. I feel like I’m in a much better place to think, well, if someone likes the music, then great, and if they don’t, that’s great — we can still get on.”
Sonder is a curious choice of album title. It is not a word one encounters every day. In fact, it appears to only have been coined within the decade. The online reference Wiktionary defines it as ‘the profound feeling of realising that everyone, including strangers passing in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it’.
For Kennedy, its meaning is simple. “It’s just about being more aware of people’s lives in general, and being a bit more open to the fact that your life isn’t the only one. For me, it feels like this little loophole I can find in this career where, so often, you’re encouraged to think of yourself as a celebrity and as the centre of attention. It feels like this little cheat code I have to put the focus on everybody else and I really love that.”
The songs on the album came together comparatively quickly. He hasn’t been sitting on them for years. “To be honest, if I had music that I thought was good enough for an album around the time of the first one, it just would have been on it. I struggle these days with the idea of holding certain tracks back for deluxe versions or the idea of, oh, maybe we’ll release that in a while. That’s all quite strange to me because I think if something is good, surely it has to exist? And, similarly, if something doesn’t feel right, right now, I just don’t see a place for it at all.
“In terms of the recording itself,” he adds, “I probably found it easier [than the first album] because I’m used to being in studios now. It felt like a smoother process.”
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A great deal of contemporary pop is the work of a committee. A large battalion of writers and producers help many big-name artists bring their vision to reality. For instance, Kiss Me, the album’s ‘focus track’, which was released last month, was co-written and co-produced with three others.
Kennedy is keen to stress, however, that he’s the one driving his music. “I think people generally have a skewed idea of what [collaboration] means — maybe that you’re in studio and you’re handed pages of lyrics.” He sounds a little horrified by the prospect. “It just couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I’ve a song called An Evening I Will Not Forget [from his first album] which is like the most me song I have. It starts off slow, picks up pace and sort of crescendos at the end. There’s no chorus and for me, when I work with someone in the studio, it’s pretty much purely based on song structure. It’s having the ‘ears’ of somebody else in the room so we can talk about melody. But the ideas and the lyrics? That’s all coming from me.”
Long before Without Fear became a sensation, Kennedy had made his name as a live artist who seemingly arrived one day fully formed. And, comfortable as he says he is in studio, it’s on stage that he is happiest as an artist.
It’s something he thinks about when the germ of a song idea comes to him. “It’s very rare that I make a song and don’t think about how it will translate live. Sometimes, I kind of wish I could shut that part of my brain off, but I always, always end up thinking: how is it going to feel live? Is it going to be big? Is it going to be small? Is it going to be intimate?”
He played several songs from Sonder at his headline show at Electric Picnic in September. He says he was heartened by the enthusiastic reaction from the crowd. “It’s a very reassuring thing. I did say to you that I feel a bit more confident, but your insecurities never leave you and self-doubt never leaves either. It’s always there, especially when a certain project has taken you so far and it’s time to push on to the next thing, to the next chapter.
“You want it to be received as healthily as the first one has and it’s kind of different now because you’re not new any more. There’s no novelty. People just want the album to be great and that’s it.”
He has been playing several shows of late, including The Sonder Street Sessions — a series of impromptu busking gigs — in the cities where he has played official shows. He also spent some time this year on the road in the US supporting the Canadian pop star Shawn Mendes.
It was a rewarding experience. “I would have been broken-hearted looking out into the crowd if people were just streaming in and they didn’t care about what you were doing. I couldn’t have been more wrong — it was unreal.” People were there to listen to music and it was a welcoming crowd.“Every night I was playing to 18,000, 20,000-capacity stadiums,” he adds. “While I love playing to huge crowds, I also love standing on a park bench in Toronto and singing to people.”
Next year, the crowds will get even bigger. On the day of our interview he announced a pair of shows in Dublin’s Marlay Park next June. “I can’t wait for those. And the ones I’ve had this summer have been special.”
Intriguingly, and unlike many of his peers, Kennedy doesn’t play new material to friends or family in advance of release. While others rely on sounding boards, he prefers to trust his own instincts. “To me, it’s all about that moment in the room, in the studio, where you decide if something feels good or it doesn’t. No-one’s with me when I make that decision.
“If I lean into a song and I think, ‘this is good, I want to follow this’, and if I played it to my family or friends or whoever and they tell me it’s great, I’d be like, ‘I thought you were going to say that because I’m happy with it too’. But, similarly, if they said, ‘Oh, Dermot, I don’t think this is right’, I’d pull my hair out! I’d go mad — not in an angry way, but I’d freak out. I think all of the people closest to me know that this is my journey to go down so, no, I have yet to see any benefit in road-testing.”
He has got better at letting go of songs, of not tinkering in a hopeless pursuit of perfection. “I guarantee you, if you put me into studio today in LA with the whole album back to front and we had a load of instruments and synths, I would find something to take it to another place. That’s a fact. I know this is a cliched thing to say, and I don’t know who first said it, but art is never finished. It is only abandoned. At some point you have to say, ‘that’s a song’ and that’s the way it is and you move on to the next one. You just make sure it’s the best it can be.”
He seems to have an ambivalent attitude to fame, an acceptance that it’s a by-product of the sort of commercial success he has enjoyed over the past three or four years. And yet, you sense that he is happiest away from the glare.
His happy place is writing songs. “My very favourite way to make music these days is to sit at a piano and play and see what comes out. I’m not a good enough guitarist to enjoy writing on that. OK, I have written a bunch of songs on the guitar, but I feel like I’m way more limited on it compared to the piano.” The latter, he points out, is so open and allows you to do so much.
Two of the songs on the new album, Blossom and Innocence And Sadness, began life in Dublin. “I wrote them,” he says, proudly, “on the piano in my mom and dad’s house.”
The spark of a good song is elusive, but he feels he can grab hold of it when it arrives. “You just genuinely never know. It could be when you play a certain chord on the piano — it could build a whole story in your head and then, similarly, it could be in studio when somebody plays you a loop, and images that are in my head get informed by the music.”
His new songs are more inspired by aspects of his own life than some of the older ones were. “It used to be the thing where you’d almost feel like a writer and you’d must be making up stories. I don’t mean that I’d done that across the board, but I’d one or two songs where I’d tried that. There’s a song I love called Boy With A Coin from the artist Iron & Wine and it sounds like a fairy tale, a fantasy, and I’d wanted to try that.
“But the point I’m at now in music and in my own life, I think it’s important to write about something I’ve actually experienced because we’ll be on tour for the next two, three years and I need to believe [in the songs]. Despite the toll it takes, mentally, to live in those memories, it is important because, if there’s anything I know I’m good at, it’s giving a sincere performance. And that’s because I do go back and relive those moments.”
Sonder is out on November 18 Dermot Kennedy plays Marlay Park, Dublin, on June 23 and 24, 2023, see ticketmaster.ie
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/music/dermot-kennedy-on-fame-confidence-and-new-album-sonder-theres-no-novelty-people-just-want-the-album-to-be-great-42110932.html Dermot Kennedy on fame, confidence and new album Sonder: ‘There’s no novelty. People just want the album to be great’