INTERVIEW: Dermot Kennedy

Dermot Kennedy is one of the biggest new artists on the rise at the moment. Thanks to the global breakthrough success of his singles ‘Power Over Me’ and ‘Outnumbered’, he’s been able to share his story as an artist with his highly acclaimed debut album, ’Without Fear’. 

Bringing this album to the live stage, he’s carefully constructed a show that compliments the vulnerable nature of the songs with the addition of vivid imagery, moody aesthetics and an in-sync live band who uplift the whole heart of it all. 

Following his trips down under for Falls Festival and Splendour In The Grass over the past couple of years, Kennedy will be returning to Australia in April/May for a huge Australian leg of the ‘Without Fear Tour’ which has already seen dates selling out in Sydney and Melbourne and second shows just added to meet demand. 

I recently chatted to Dermot Kennedy about designing his new live show to embody a growing energy with his growing audience, pondered on his favourite touring memories from his time down under and reflected on the creative processes behind his songs ‘What Have I Done’ and ‘Rome’ from his debut album ‘Without Fear’. Check out the chat HERE; 

TB: You’ve just kicked off your Without Fear Tour in Vancouver which you will be bringing to Australia in April/May. So from having played the first couple of shows of the tour and doing the ‘2019 Autumn Tour’ at the end of last year, how would you say the soul of this live show feels? 

DK: It just kinda feels like it’s growing all the time. For me it’s very important that the show doesn’t feel like your standard singer-songwriter thing. I don’t want people to expect it to be just me and my guitar and that’s all it is because it really is far more than that. 

There is four of us on stage, the visuals are a very big part of the tour and as we progress we’ve definitely become more ambitious with the production. It’s really exciting to me because so much of what I do is based around imagery and trying to make people see and feel certain things. So the fact that know we have production that can match that vision means a lot to me. 

TB: What was one of the biggest challenges you faced while putting the setlist, production and band arrangements together for this new show? 

DK: To be blunt about it, the biggest obstacle around the production that we want to take on the road is budgeting. It’s expensive to go across America for two months, and then to go Europe, UK and Australia especially is quite hard. 

Things just have to get to that point where the venues and promoters match your ambition, I suppose. Or things just have to get to a point where it’s a feasible idea to have a video wall behind you and to have content created for that. 

But in terms of the band, the most important thing for me around building this live show was to make sure it didn’t feel like just me on stage with some session musicians behind me. I wanted it to feel like a band.

I know it’s pretty easy for me to say that because my name is on the poster and I get all the praise, but it was really important for me that there was an actual connection between all of the musicians on stage. It breaks my heart when you see a musical playing and it just looks like they’ve hired some really capable musicians to play the songs exactly how they are meant to be played, and there’s no soul in it at all. 

TB: Yeah, you can definitely tell when that happens as the whole show ends up feeling slightly disconnected. 

DK: Yeah, and to be honest I understand why some artists have to do that because of scheduling, but that’s just not me. 

I was lucky in terms of the people I found and the people I already knew who came on board and have made it feel like an actual band. And that was something I always admired from watching Ben Howard live. It feels like a real band instead of just an artist and his employees. 

TB: With your debut album now out in the world, what has been a song that has continually surprised you with how the crowd has reacted every night by singing along so passionately? 

DK: I think what has surprised me so far on the tour is that everyone knows the song ‘Couldn’t Tell’. 

That’s fun for me because it took a while for me to fall in love with that song. I wasn’t too passionate about releasing it and I wasn’t too keen on playing it live. But since we have it’s become a real highlight in the set. 

Instrumentally it’s really exciting so I love that as it allows me to take the pressure off on my vocals a bit. But yeah, ‘Couldn’t Tell’ has become one of my favourite songs now. 

TB: This tour also sees you putting together a very cool and moody production with visuals behind you on a LED screen and a slick lighting set up, so what was your vision for how you wanted this show to look and how did you put it all together? 

DK: It was a fun process because I basically just worked alongside our production manager and chatted about what each song meant, pin-pointed some key words related to each song, discussed how I felt about certain songs and how I wanted to make people feel. So over time it ended up coming together and it was a really organic thing. 

I think a lot of the ideas already existed, but now we finally have the means to make it happen. I’ve always admired shows that are ambitious and look that way so I wanted to do my own version of that. 

TB: You’re no stranger to Australia with having previously toured here for Falls Festival, Splendour In The Grass and a headline tour. So reflecting back on your time down under, what has been one of your favourite touring memories here? 

DK: You know what, even though it was super difficult, I think one of my favourite memories was from our last trip there.

We were there for Splendour In The Grass and I almost didn’t play because I was basically going through a thing then where my voice had just stopped working. Through over exhaustion of the last three years I basically wore it out. If my vocal range had been 100% in the past then it was currently hovering around 40%. I couldn’t sing properly but I ended up going “fuck it, I’m going to go out and sing anyway”. I was dosed up to the gills and I went out there and the crowd knew every lyric to every song and it was just amazing. 

I was super worried about it and I couldn’t sing the songs properly so I desperately needed support from the crowd and I got it. It was just this really lovely thing. I came off stage and even though I knew I was in trouble vocally, it was a nice feeling that you could rely on the people that go to your gigs like that. 

TB: Your debut album ‘Without Fear’ is out now in the world and it’s a very vulnerable and soulful collection of tracks that has already touched so many people for different reasons. So what would you say is one of the most vulnerable moments on the album for you? 

DK: I would say ‘The Corner’ is the most honest and vulnerable song on the album, and it was also probably the hardest one to write. Not in the way that I found it difficult to be over emotional, but more that it was difficult to decide that I was going to say what I said. 

I had originally written one version of the song and that was basically the “careful version” where I had held back certain things. But I luckily work with some producers who really want to get the best out of me, so they pushed me to say what I was kinda hiding from and that was really refreshing. 

I’m really glad that it exists in that way now. 

TB: ’What Have I Done’ is a song that immediately stood out to me because of it’s vivid imagery and strong production. So do you mind if you explain how this song came together creatively? 

DK: This is a fun one! This one stemmed from when me and a couple of guys were in the studio. I basically never keep the original vocal on the track because I always insist on going back and re-doing it. There’s a part of me that always feels like I can do better, but whatever was happening in the room that day I just decided that I was never going to sing those words better than I had that day. So we just left it alone and it was this lovely thing where I just felt content with it which never happens. 

There was obviously a bunch of production things to be done but the song was kinda written and finished in that afternoon which was new to me and a really refreshing thing. 

TB: Then you have a song like ‘Rome’ which is quite stripped back production wise. So how did you approach this song differently to have a more pure production? 

DK: We tried a hundred different things with that song but at the end we all agreed that the best way for it to exist was with just a piano, an organ and some backing vocals. 

Every single thing that was added to it felt like it took away a certain amount of potency to the actual song. It felt like adding things didn’t necessarily benefit the song, so in the end we just left it alone. 

TB: The journey leading up to the release of ‘Without Fear’ has been quite a long one. ‘Moments Passed’ was released back in 2017, with ‘Power Over Me’ then coming in late 2018 and the rest of the tracks coming last year. So reflecting on your personal and creative growth, what is the biggest thing you’ve learnt about yourself as an artist? 

DK: It’s funny to me because ‘Moments Passed’ was released in 2017 but also the title track and final track on the album ‘Without Fear’ is from AGES ago and ‘Dancing Under Red Skies’ was written when I was nineteen which was nine years ago. So my whole life kinda exists within that album.

In terms of what I’ve learnt, I feel like I’ve showed myself just how hard I can work. I love the journey, I love the process and I love chasing this whole thing. I love the long days and nights in the studio and the long months on tour, I think it’s a beautiful thing. 

And then when you do get an extra special beautiful moment like when we played Electric Picnic Festival in Ireland and there was 50,000 people watching us, those are the moments where you get a validation that all the hard work is worth it. So it’s about always having persistence and about being actively creative. 

TB: With songs like ‘Outnumbered’ and ‘Power Over Me’ receiving huge streaming success and being played on commercial radio, where has been one of the weirdest places you’ve heard one of yours songs played?  

DK: *Laughs*, that’s a good question! I actually had a friend in a hotel in Rwanda where one of my songs played and I thought that was top of the pile of places where I didn’t expect my music to be heard. 

I remember looking at my Spotify data a few years ago and I had one listener in South Africa which I thought was so cool that there was someone in South Africa repping my music over there. 

Dermot Kennedy Australian Tour

Tuesday 28 April – Enmore Theatre, Sydney

Wednesday 29 April – Enmore Theatre, Sydney *SOLD OUT*

Friday 1 May – Fortitude Music Hall, Brisbane

Saturday 2 May – Forum, Melbourne *SOLD OUT*

Sunday 3 May – Forum, Melbourne 

Tuesday 5 May – Astor Theatre, Perth *SOLD OUT*

Wednesday 6 May – Astor Theatre, Perth