Atwood Magazine spoke with Dermot Kennedy, an authentic powerhouse that leaves the souls and hearts of those who listen completely full, about the history behind his debut album “Without Fear.”
I feel like there is so much ahead of me that I’m so far from taking that moment to pause.
Dermot Kennedy is as humble, thoughtful and kind as his songs would lead you to believe. His intense appreciation for those who came before him matched with his focused ambition is what has led him to where he is today; a purely authentic powerhouse, leaving the souls and hearts of those who listen, completely full.
Dermot is hyper-aware of the work he is putting out into the universe. Musically, lyrically, and in tone, he is chasing what it is that makes people feel. It is easy to tell that Kennedy is grateful for all that he has in front of him, and while he absolutely appreciates the moments that sometimes feel like a dream, the allure of fame and success do not influence his choices in the least. He is completely, entirely and undoubtedly about only music. It is why his songs resonate so deeply with so many around the world, and it is why he is a genuine artist who is just getting started. The impact Kennedy will have on the music industry for this generation and the ones to follow is inevitable.
Atwood Magazine had the chance to speak with Kennedy about his first full-length album, Without Fear, what went into it, and why this is only the beginning. Get all of the info in our exclusive interview!
Listen: ‘Without Fear’ – Dermot Kennedy
A CONVERSATION WITH DERMOT KENNEDY
Atwood Magazine: In terms of your songwriting in general, your lyrics are so poetic and so beautiful. I think that you take care in your craft for them on sort of a whole other level. How have you honed that craft so well?
Dermot Kennedy: Right, yeah, thank you. That’s always been kind of the most important thing to me. Especially as somebody who started writing songs because of artists like David Gray and Foy Vance. Their lyrics were what affected me most in their music. They constantly inspired me. So, It was a combination of that and the way they delivered it – their tone of voice and just the fact that what they were talking about was all very believable.
When it came to poetry, I was almost jealous of poets because while there are verse and structure to what they do, they’re not necessarily bound by bars and music, and the way you have to fit around music. They can move more freely. Also, a part of it is that I started out by myself – playing in the street by myself. I didn’t have a bunch of music to hide behind. My goal was always to affect people and make people feel intense emotions. I think the best way for me to do that is just through my words. That’s what I set out to do instead of becoming obsessed with the music side of things first. It was lyrics first I suppose.
That is so interesting, and you absolutely make people feel through your voice and your lyrics. So, it seems like you focus on lyrics first, but I did want to ask how about your process for songwriting today. Do you still always start with lyrics? Does music ever happen at the same time?
Dermot Kennedy: I have yet to figure out a set way that works for me. It’s different every time. Sometimes I’m in the studio working on a musical idea and there’s a certain musical passage that I’ll find inspiring – and to me, that’s kind of maybe the most exciting way to do it. I think it’s fascinating that there are certain notes and movements musically that can make you think of certain times in your life – that can trigger specific memories. That is a really beautiful thing. So, if you chase that feeling and find lyrics that you instinctively know match that music then I think you’re onto a winner. A while back for me it was more about writing the lyrics and then essentially just matching the lyrics with a guitar part, but these days I’m really fleshing things out from a production point of view. I think it’s very important for the music and the lyrics to live alongside each other.
Definitely. Well, let’s get into Without Fear, because it is such an epic body of work. There has been some good anticipation for this one as you’ve sprinkled out a few of these songs over the past year or so - how does it feel to finally have it all out there? It has to feel great.
Dermot Kennedy: For sure yeah, you’re right. It’s a funny thing – for certain songs on this album, this is their first release, which is the potential downside of touring because a lot of people already kind of knew them. We play different versions of them live, but I always wanted them to have their day as a studio release. So, I’ve kind of just been waiting for this moment. I’ve had a couple of years of bringing out singles and EP’s, but I’ve always known that I wanted to be an album artist. I always knew that I wanted to be an artist that had significant bodies of work instead of just trying to bring out singles every now and again. I feel like I’ve been very patient and waited a long time to get that opportunity, so I’m just glad I actually have actually been able to do that now. It’s very important to me that when everything is over I can look back at a legacy and hopefully an impact I made on culture.
“Rome” is one that I’m seeing popping up a lot after the album release. It’s really resonating with people. Tell me a bit about this one?
Dermot Kennedy: Right, yes. That song was very important to me musically. Things have stepped up quite a bit for me in terms of the production, which has been a very fun thing to do. But like I said, my favorite artists are Bon Iver, Foy Vance, and David Gray so the singer/songwriter side of things is still very important to me. With “Rome” we went back and forth on the production an awful lot. Over time it became very clear that it should be a stripped back ballad. I really wanted the album to have at least one of them.
It’s interesting too, I was very curious to see what people latched onto and what was their favorite when the album came out. I think people are enjoying “Rome” a lot which is great, because like I said, there haven’t been that many moments in a bit where it has been just me and the piano or me and the guitar, so it has been a fun moment too live. That song is crucial to me especially from a sound point of view.
Another song, kind of on the other end of things is “What Have I Done.” This is such a great song and there’s almost kind of a cool juxtaposition between the lyrics and the music. It’s like you were happy to feel the way you felt, but then the lyrics bring it back down. I love how you’re able to do that, so I’d love to hear about that one as well?
Dermot Kennedy: I definitely don’t want that song to be interpreted as a negative thing, but I do want there to be a small sense of foreboding especially considering its place in the album. It’s a transitionary phase within the story and it’s not necessarily all positive, but I did want it to seem hopeful. I wanted to tell the story of someone falling in love in the desperate sort of way when they realize they need somebody.
My goal was always to affect people and make people feel intense emotions. I think the best way for me to do that is just through my words.
Yes, and it definitely does have that hopeful feeling especially in the powerful bridge.
Dermot Kennedy: Musically, that one was a lot of fun, again we were going to leave it stripped back and just have a piano and vocal, but then it turned into this old school sing-along sounding thing. I didn’t shut it down for whatever reason; I just enjoyed it.
“Without Fear” is such a beautiful closer, not only because it’s the album title, but just the song itself. Was that one that you always knew would have a big impact on the album?
Dermot Kennedy: Yeah, I definitely knew it was very important on the tracklist and I knew it was very important in my career. The only way that song has ever existed before this was as guitar and vocal. It’s a song that I had written years and years ago. The only recording of it that existed was a YouTube video that I did in my house. Before anything, before I was ever on tour I had this little notebook where I kept production ideas for every song, and with that one I wanted it to build and hit a crescendo. The version that’s on the album is essentially the first time I’ve ever tried anything but guitar and vocal. I was with Carrey Willetts in London – working with him in his studio is my favorite place to make music. It felt like a really fitting way to close the album. He’s actually the first person I ever wrote a song with – I was very precious about my stuff. He’s the first person I ever showed lyrics to and agreed to let in and that was three years ago now. So the fact that we spent a week in the studio putting “Without Fear” together and the fact that it’s the final song on the album feels really almost serendipitous to me.
It’s funny, when you move through this industry you are constantly confronted by “Ok, we need a single” and I’m always kind of thinking like “Ok, well I want to have an epic six-minute song.” It’s a give and take – you find the balance hopefully, but it can be quite challenging. So, the fact that we got to lean into that song and do what we wanted felt great. It made it one of the most important songs on the album to me.
That’s really great. I’ll start wrapping it up. I’m wondering if you’ve had a moment yet where you felt like you really made it. You’re able to do what you love every day. I mean you’re about to start this enormous tour – just wondering how it all hits you.
Dermot Kennedy: Yeah, we landed in Minneapolis just 2 hours ago. Tomorrow is night one of the tours, which will take me up to Christmas eve and then we’ll start it all over again after Christmas. I find it hard to let things sink in for whatever reason. I find it quite hard to check myself – I certainly don’t let things pass me by and it’s not as if I live in a blur. We played a festival in Ireland last month that had probably 50,000 people and they were all singing along. In moments like that I definitely do take a step back, take it all in and absolutely appreciate it. And I’m not saying this in a cheesy motivational way at all, but I just feel like I’ve got so much left to do. I feel like there is so much ahead of me that I’m so far from taking that moment to pause.
To be honest, there are little things that make me appreciate all of this – even a few hours ago when we landed in Minneapolis. I’m here in a place I’ve only been in once in my life before and I’m playing a gig tomorrow for 3,000 people – these are the things that make me pinch myself. It just seems like something we get to do now. The fact that we’re playing an arena twice in Dublin on Christmas, of course, blows me away, but some of my favorite things are the fact that I get to come to places like this and just play relatively big shows. Also, taking into account the fact that we’re only getting started – it’s just crazy.
Watch: “Power Over Me” – Dermot Kennedy
Yes, well thank you for everything. I’m going to let you go, but you’re absolutely just getting started and keep doing the six-minute ballads you want to do because clearly it is what so many people are already connecting with?
Dermot Kennedy: Brilliant, thank you. And yeah, all those songs where I was able to take some time and do what I wanted are my favorite on the album.
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📸 © Dermot Kennedy
an album by Dermot Kennedy