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20 Questions With Dermot Kennedy: Performance Art, Songwriting Evolution & A Childhood Goose Attack

Dermot Kennedy has been keeping busy during the pandemic: along with the recent single “Giants,” the Irish singer-songwriter gave a special performance at London’s Natural History Museum in July, with a portion of funds from the virtual concert donated to the Black Lives Matter Global Network. The performance and single followed last year’s debut album, Without Fear, which hit No. 1 on the U.K. albums chart.

Below, Kennedy discusses the performance, his musical influences and how his songwriting has evolved in 2020.

1. What’s the first piece of music that you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?

A CD of 50 Cent’s first album Get Rich or Die Tryin’. I first heard 50’s music at a friend’s house, and I was instantly in love with it. The storytelling, the delivery of his vocals, I loved it straight away and I still do.

2. What was the first concert you saw?

Westlife in Dublin. My sister was a giant fan, so I was dragged along!

3. How did your parents influence your musical taste as a kid?

My dad has a lot of love for a well-written song, and my mother has a great command of English. Any time I didn’t know the meaning of a word when I was growing up, if I asked her, she would always know it! I think that helped me massively with my appreciation for lyrics.

4. Who made you realize you could be an artist full-time?

That would be me. I had support from everybody around me, to do whatever made me happy, but I knew from the start I could have a career in music if I kept at it and had patience.

5. What’s at the top of your professional bucket list?

Curating a show with a crazy eclectic lineup. Like me, Dave, Jay-Z, Bon Iver, Hans Zimmer, Billie Eilish, loads of others. All playing a couple of songs on one night in a beautiful old theatre.

That, and lasting. Having a career that doesn’t just fade away like so many others. I want to leave a legacy.

6. How did your hometown/city shape who you are?

Being Irish means so much to me. I’m so proud to be an Irish artist and songwriter, following in the footsteps of incredible people like Phil Lynott, Sinead O’Connor, Hozier, Van Morrison. I think being Irish helps me to stay grounded too. There’s no room for big egos and self-centredness when you’re dealing with Irish people, so I’m very glad my friends and family help me stay grounded.

7. What’s the last song you listened to?

“Shake the Room” – Pop Smoke feat. Quavo.

8. If you could see any artist in concert, dead or alive, who would it be?

Probably Bon Iver again. I’ve seen them a lot of times, but they’re top of the list for me.

9. What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen happen in the crowd of one of your shows?

The first time we played in Seattle, I saw a guy take his glasses off his face and just crush them in his hand. Which might not seem that crazy at all, but I was really surprised that my music would make someone that angry! It was a really bizarre thing to see from stage.

10. How has the pandemic affected the way you’ve created music in 2020?

It’s forced me to adapt. Going to Toronto or New York or even London to get into a studio just wasn’t an option. So I had to buy a bunch of gear to get a studio set up at home. And I was basically starting from scratch in terms of production, so I had to learn quickly! It’s forced me to simplify things though, and remind myself that if a song can excite you when it’s just you and your guitar or piano, then it’s probably a winner!

11. With so many in-person performance options shuttered for the time being — some of which helped you gain a following as an artist — what’s your advice for artists trying to break through during this year?

Don’t panic. Work on your music. Work on your voice, your lyrics, your musicianship. Make sure you come out the other side of this as a better artist. Your time will come if you want it bad enough.

12. What inspired your recent single, “Giants”?

The idea of letting go of the past and looking towards the future with a feeling of optimism and hope, instead of dread and fear. I applied that idea to my own life with this song when I wrote it, and then it just felt like a good message to put out into the world this year.

13. How would you describe the evolution of your songwriting, especially since your first album release?

I think I’ve gotten way better at taking an idea and making it as potent as possible. I used to never stop and think about why I might write certain lyrics, whereas now I always try to make it as direct and powerful as possible. It can be harder and slower that way, but it’s always worth it.

14. You recently performed in London’s Natural History Museum with a full band and no audience; was the experience stranger, or less strange, than you expected?

It didn’t feel strange at all, and I didn’t really expect it to. With the spoken-word parts in between sections, and musical interludes, it never felt awkward or tense. It felt like an actual performance piece, instead of just a gig, and it was so, so exciting! I’ve always wanted to do something like that. I felt like it gave a deeper sense of meaning to the music and the lyrics, something you can’t always capture with a live show.

15. How much have you considered the presentation of your new songs on the road, even as touring is indefinitely delayed?

I think about that all the time, whether I’m on the road or not. I just always get excited thinking about playing songs live for the first time, and hearing crowds everywhere sing new lyrics and new melodies back to me. That will happen, whenever the time is right, and that’s very exciting!

16. What’s your karaoke go-to?

“I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston. The only time I’ve ever done karaoke, this is what I sang. On a pub crawl in Ljubljana with my best friends and a lot of Australians. It was a great time.

17. What movie, or song, always makes you cry?

Interstellar. That scene where Matthew McConaughey comes back from the planet where time passes at a much faster rate, and his daughter has grown up on Earth, even though he was there for only 15 minutes. And he has loads of video messages from her that she sent throughout the years. That’s so heartbreaking to me. Life is so short, and the idea of missing a big chunk of it like that is so sad and has made me cry on multiple aeroplanes.

18. What’s one thing that even the band’s most devoted fans don’t know about you?

I got pecked in the eye by a goose when I was a child.

19. If you were not a musician, what would you be?

I’d love to work in sports in some capacity. Sport is a massive part of my life. The camaraderie and the power of people having your back like that is a beautiful thing.

20. What’s one piece of advice you would give to your younger self?

Be patient. It’ll all be worth it. Remember, a career of substance built over time is the goal. Not fame, not a quick rise and fall, not a random hit song. You want to be special. You want to be different.

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