Ireland has a long history of participatory musical expression. Do you play an instrument? Bring it to the pub and you could end up playing that night with the band. For the last several years, this has culminated each Christmas Eve with a superstar busk on Dublin’s Grafton Street, where the likes of Bono and Hozier will show up and perform for massive crowds to raise money for the homeless. Alongside Bono, one of the longtime performers has been Glen Hansard of the Frames (and Once fame).
“Then, also, there’s a bunch of people with guitars who just show up to hopefully join in; so I was one of them,” said singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy, who at the time was a street busker in Dublin. But on that night, several years ago, Kennedy had set out to meet his hero, Hansard, and perform with him. “I was ignorant and stubborn about it, and I just kind of shoved my way up to the front, and I was beside him playing all day.”
Kennedy impressed Hansard, and the two kept in touch afterward. Although Hansard was not available to help Dermot Kennedy a few years later, when Kennedy was working on his first recordings, the Dublin music statesman invited Kennedy to open another Christmas show for him, this time in a theater with 1,500 capacity. Despite not having rehearsed, Kennedy took Hansard’s band, the Frames, and jammed for 10 minutes at the sold-out show. His short set included one of his now-best-known songs, “After Rain.” That’s when his music career took its first major step up.
Kennedy, who turns 26 in December, has been writing songs since he was 16, and playing at bars, open mics and busking in Dublin about as long. After high school, he had no plans to go to college, but his mother had different ideas.
“In Ireland, there’s a thing called the CAO, so when you come out of high school, you put down all your ideal courses and degrees and colleges you’d like to go to; as in first, second, third, fourth, fifth choice, and you apply for all of them. If you don’t get the first one, you hope you get the second one.”
There were spaces for 10 options, and Kennedy’s mother listed just one, a classical music program. He wasn’t interested, but he passed a thorough vetting process to be admitted in 2009. Kennedy stuck with the program for three years. He and a classmate ended up starting a band together with two other musicians, which became his primary interest until around 2015, when the band split.
“It felt really good to me [to be in a band] because I was falling in love with Bon Iver at the time, so we got to kind of be really gratuitous musically and do whatever we wanted,” Kennedy said. “It felt really nice to be part of a group instead of a solo thing. I really liked that. I love doing what I’m doing now, but I also liked to fade behind a name. … When you’re doing the solo thing … you busk by yourself, record by yourself, write by yourself. To do it as a collective really helped me as a musician, for sure.”
In 2016, Kennedy released the folky, stripped “After Rain,” and it became a hit on Spotify (currently nearly 46 million streams and counting). But by then, his songwriting was already shifting away from traditional singer-songwriter fare.
“Hip-hop [is] my go-to when I’m just listening to music,” he said.
At the time, he was working with producer Carey Willetts (bassist of the band Athlete) in London on his song “A Closeness.” The song had already been written and recorded as an acoustic number, but the two decided to try some embellishments just for fun.
“We put this really heavy beat underneath it and started messing with it more electronically,” he said. “It just felt so good, so I continued to chase that feeling. It felt like my musical scope went from being quite narrow and acoustic to opening way up into that world. It changed completely, so I’ve been trying to balance the two since then.”
Those hip-hop production elements are ever-present on his 2017 EP, Doves & Ravens, on which he worked with producers Stephen Kozmeniuk and Charlie Hugall (Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj). Stuttered percussion and the sound of a gun being cocked propel the urgent “Glory.” A rolling piano and brassy synths on “To All My Friends” gives way to a chorus on which a big pop hook is implied but doesn’t hit listeners over the head.
And “Boston,” a song Dermot Kennedy wrote about a summer spent busking in the U.S. city while on a student work visa, combines folk with spacey R&B synths and jazzy percussion. The songs equally recall fellow Irish songwriter James Vincent McMorrow, English alt-rock band Alt-J and Dublin indie rock band Bell-X1. All of those artists blend poetic songwriting and storytelling with untraditional organic and electronic instrumentation.
“Bell X1 are awesome; we played a charity thing in Dublin recently, and Paul Noonan, the lead singer, emailed me afterwards and said he had been watching my stuff … and thought it was unique, which is exactly what they are, right?” Kennedy said. “I went to see them at the national concert hall in Dublin a few years ago, and it was the most beautiful show. It was them playing their older stuff in a more chilled-out setting. Everyone loves Bell X1 in Dublin.”
On Doves & Ravens, like on 2018 follow-up EP Mike Dean Presents: Dermot Kennedy, the songwriter was inspired by the work of modern poets. He first got hooked on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, which aired between 2002 and 2007; especially the work of black poets like Amir Sulaiman.
“I’m trying to fit these lyrics into songs, and fit the meter of the verse and the structure of the song and everything,” he said. “So it can be hard to get that message across, you know? Whereas [poets] have this open space to do whatever. It’s rhythmic, of course, but if it continues on, they basically get to say everything. … It’s just inspiring to me, and it’s basically what I’d like to bring to my music.”
Poetry was Dermot Kennedy’s bridge to hip-hop, and Mike Dean, who’s worked with the likes of Kanye West, 2Pac and Jay Z, was again able to bring the world of hip-hop and folk together naturally, he said.
Kennedy is now working on his next collection of songs, which he expects to release before the year is up. Drawn away from his life in Dublin and on the road, he has instead relied on poetry and books for inspiration. At the time of the interview in late summer, he was partway into reading Bruce Springsteen’s new autobiography.
He has also started pulling from his past personal experiences, some as old as eight years ago, for his songs. This once again has him balancing the two contrasting styles of folk and hip-hop.
“My stuff from back then is totally acoustic, so I’m trying to make the two worlds live together,” he said.