Damien Dempsey: ‘It was inevitable I’d get pigeonholed’
The Donaghmede man talks about the working-class Dubliner stereotype and his ambivalence about being seen as an ‘issues’ songwriter
Damien Dempsey: ‘You cringe a bit sometimes at some of the early songs, but there are other early songs I still play’
Dempsey in 2003
There was something beautiful happening on Sandymount beach the other day, as a glorious if cold sun shone. Out of the glare came a shimmering figure you couldn’t really make out properly until it eclipsed the blinding sun. Mirroring that famous scene in Lawrence of Arabia , the figure got closer and closer until it unveiled itself to be Damien Dempsey.
Dempsey bucks the trend among Irish singer-songwriters, and by virtue of more than just his 6ft-plus stature. The 38-year-old from Donaghmede, north Dublin, is a former boxer who, influenced by family sing-alongs, Bob Marley, Luke Kelly, Phil Lynott and Christy Moore, went 10 rounds with a guitar and won. He’s been a fixture of the Irish gig circuit from the early 2000s, initially alienating people with his guttural Dublin singing voice and his songs of socialistic values.
“I was very interested in rap lyrics, and how much the hip-hop guys – people like Biggie Smalls and Ice Cube – could put into one song so many lyrics about what was going on socially and politically,” he says.
Over the years, he has slightly softened the vowels, the accent and the depiction of his beloved Dublin locale to encompass wider themes of love and positivity. Many of these songs are to be found on the recently released It’s All Good : The Best of Damien Dempsey . “It’s only in the past few years that I’ve had the courage to call myself an artist,” he says, almost apologetically.
Dempsey can sometimes come across as unsure, but there’s nothing weak about his lyrics. It’s as a political and social songwriter that he has made his name over the past 10 years. Early sightings highlighted a demeanour similar to a rabbit frozen in the glare of a torchlight, but with the assistance of people such as Christy Moore (an early champion) and Sinéad O’Connor, Dempsey has evolved from an acquired taste into something more palatable, without watering down his message. He is weary of the way the middle-class media harp on about his working-class background, but is smart enough to suppress anything other than a standard shrug.
“I suppose it’s what the songs are about: growing up on a housing estate in north Dublin,” he says. “It’s inevitable that someone like me would get pigeonholed. The accent? It was more a defence mechanism than anything else. The more people told me I couldn’t sing like that, the more I laid it on. Singing in New York or London, I realised that I could have been singing in Swahili for all they understood.”