On a more positive note
He’ll probably never be Mr Happy the Magical Man from Happy Land, but Damien Dempsey has found new sounds, new perspectives and a new confidence, he tells BRIAN BOYD
HOW DOES Damien Dempsey describe his new album? Simply thus: “It’s another light-hearted offering from Mr Happy the Magical Man from Happy Land who lives in a marshmallow house at the bottom of Gumdrop Lane.”
The irony here is that this is the type of album he did indeed want to make. “I wanted a bunch of upbeat festival songs that people could jump around to,” he says. For someone who gets the same old tired references thrown at him at most every turn, it’s clear that Dempsey wanted to break some new ground – but Mr Happy from Happy Land fell at the first hurdle.
“When it actually came down to trying to write that type of song, I just couldnt put my heart into it,” he says. “I realised I could never be a festival act with big, jump-around songs,” he says. “I can only write about things that I feel strongly about, subjects and stories that move me. I feel I do have a connection with audiences thanks to the lyrics and what they say and trying to sacrifice that for a new sound just wouldnt be possible for me as a songwriter.”
With lyrical references to Marie Colvin, Tony Benn and Rosa Parks, Almighty Love (the 37-year-old’s sixth album) has a wider scope than anything he has done before. Yes, Dublin and Donaghmede are still here, but it’s been four years since the last album, and during that time Dempsey has had spells living in London and Australia.
“When I first heard this album back, what struck me by how much my accent was much clearer this time,” he says. “I’m singing in a different way now and I think that’s because living abroad you just have to speak in a clearer accent to be understood and that translated into my singing.”
Not that he’s gone for a smooth crossover international sound. There are still scabrous attacks on economic and emotional injustices, it’s just that now he is looking at the bigger picture.
The title track (a real stand-out) channels the spirit of George Orwell and John Pilger, and the mention of murdered Sunday Times war reporter Marie Colvin gives an immediacy to the work. “What you find when you travel is that you learn more about different lands and cultures,” he says. “For example, in Australia, I was hanging out with a lot of Aboriginal people. These experiences are going to broaden you out as a songwriter. Also, I didn’t feel like repeating myself. I said a lot about how I feel about Ireland and how it’s run on previous albums. That’s been added to here, but in a different way. If anything, the anger has been re-focused.”
The collaboration with the London poet and rapper Kate Tempest on Born Without Hate is probably something he wouldn’t have considered previously, but their voices blend beautifully. Sinéad O’Connor (a long-time Dempsey fan and vocal supporter) also puts in an appearance and Dempsey responds with some of his sweetest singing.
“I don’t feel like Im lecturing to people on these songs – which is a first for me!” he says. “Banks, government, corruption – I didn’t want to sound like I was reading the news. People tire of that. I’ve pointed the finger in the past and will do again, but there are bigger questions on this and wiser reflections – I hope.”