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.”
What’s a revelation here is the song Chris And Stevie, an elegy to two Donaghmede friends who came to a tragic end. Riddled with the musical DNA of a Ewan MacColl, this is Dempsey the lyrical poet pouring out the heartache and the bittersweet memory of a childhood friendship.
“It was a difficult song to write,” he says. “I don’t think I would have been capable of expressing that in that song when I was younger. Again, I think it was getting the distance from where I grew up that made me look at it all in a different way. There’s also a song on the album called Canadian Geese, which is about these birds that used to fly past our house, and just about that time in my life and what it now means to me.”
Featuring the same sort of chugging acoustic rhythm as a Crowded House track, Canadian Geese is testimony to the distance he has travelled creatively of late. Softening out his voice, singing at times in a higher register and not trying to wrestle the song into submission (as he has been guilty of in the past), it’s an evocative treatment of a Dublin locale which is all the richer for the sepia-tinted glow it receives.
As he sits on the balcony of Dublin’s Morgan hotel, he flinches somewhat from any form of praise. On the herbal tea (he has a show the following night), he’s an imposing yet charismatic presence who uses selfdeprecation as his default mode.
But this is the same man who musical genius Brian Eno (godfather of ambient music, producer of U2’s and Coldplay’s greatest hits) got to headline the Sydney Opera House as part of a festival he was curating. Eno says of Dempsey: “He’s interesting because he sings in a way you wouldn’t expect from his physique, it’s actually quite a high voice. He is extraordinary. He is the best of Irish music. He has passion, political awareness and a great joie de vivre.”
“That was quite a moment, playing the Sydney Opera House,” he says. “I don’t think they had ever quite seen the likes of anyone like me before. It’s one of those moments where you think ‘Yes! – the Sydney Opera House’, but at the same time, I can’t get a mortgage. Ive been trying – but for a musician these days, it’s difficult. People think you’re loaded if they see you on TV but only about 1 per cent of people with record deals make any real money. But as I’ve said before, if doing what you love makes you rich, then I certainly am very rich in that respect.”
With a celebrity following that includes Eno and Sinéad O’Connor, Morrissey, Robert Plant and U2, there is obviously something fellow musicians respond to in his music. But that’s nothing to the connection Dempsey shares with his audiences. His shows are communal affairs, charged-up joyous occasions where the performer often doesn’t quite know what to do (or make of) the adulation of the crowd.
“It’s when a song connects with somebody – when somebody tells you how much a certain track means to them that you get that real sense of achievement,” he says.
But for Dempsey, there is the sense that he gets more out of the music than even his most ardent fan. There is, you feel, a real shyness there behind the affable persona, someone who is perhaps more comfortable in the recording studio than on the live stage.
“Writing songs got me through some terrible times,” he says. “It can be a therapy all right, it can help you make sense of things. There was an unease there before with me, about who I was and how I was viewed, and I did come on quite strong in the early releases but growing up and seeing some more of that world changes your perspective. I still have that anger about what they [politicians, bankers] have done to this country but for me now it’s more about solutions.”
Given is political views, it’s no surprise when he mentions that he has been approached by political parties – he doesn’t exactly say he has been asked to run as a TD – but being a musician means more to him, and his is not a voice that could be easily constrained by the demands of a party political ideology.
For now, he is excited about bringing Almighty Love out on the road. The US and Australia feature big in his touring plans and there is a real sense that this is the album to do it for him internationally. “It can seem to people that I’ve been away for ages with the four-year gap between albums but that really hasnt been the case,” he says. “There was also the fact that I must have written somewhere around 90 songs for this album – I really did push myself.”
For the longest time, Dempsey was shoved into a box with mentions of Luke Kelly, his amateur boxing days and his strong Dublin accent dominating proceedings. On Almighty Love, he has scaled new heights and flexed some new musical muscles. He has found room to roam.
Almighty Love is released today. Listen at http://www.irishtimes.com/theticket/damien-dempsey/
“THIS CITY IS YOURS, BE GOOD WITH IT”
IF YOU’VE BEEN anywhere in Dublin over the past two years, chances are you’ve encountered an over-sized Damien Dempsey lyric. In a collaboration with the local graffiti artist Maser, a series of artworks with a punchy verbal message reflecting these recessionary,post-Tiger times have brightened up many a Dublin vista. From Fairwell To Your Stairwell Forever on the side of a Ballymun block of flats to the much-commented upon Greed is the Knife; The Scars Run Deep which is down near the 02. For both Maser and Dempsey, the art project is an attempt “to cheer our fellow Dubliners up”. Sales of the prints of their work go directly to the Simon Community. From Your Back Streets are My Pride Joy to Ancient Poetry Echoes in Soft Rain Down the Lanes, these urban artworks are an attempt to inject some life and humour into the traditional graffiti world. To avoid getting the works whitewashed the next day, they chose privately owned locations and got the requisite permission for the work. Dempsey’s favourite is I’d Rather Trust A Dealer on a Badly Lit Street Corner than a Criminal in a Three Piece Suit.
“If there is a message there” says Dempsey, “it’s that this city is yours, be good with it.”