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.”
He acknowledges that he started out as a singer who was seen as a novelty. His first song to receive extensive coverage was Dublin Town , which, he recalls with a grimace, was given a more pop-oriented feel. “It picked up a lot of radio play, and a lot of people liked it, but many thought it was a bit of a gimmick. And it was, I suppose, until people saw me doing live shows.”
An ‘issues’ songwriter?
The pressure to be an
“issues” songwriter has occasionally been too much for Dempsey, yet he is compelled to write about topics that are important to him, irrespective of expectations. He seems in two minds as to whether being regarded as a sociopolitical songwriter is good or bad.
“I’m fairly sure some people expected there to be some songs about the banks financial issues, the politicians, the recession on my last stud io album [ Almighty Love ], but I didn’t want to write about that. It was in the news often enough, being pushed down people’s throats every day. I was sick of hearing about it, so I certainly wasn’t going to be writing songs about it.”
What has he observed about Dublin over the past several years? “We’ve got some of the soul back. There was a certain level of arrogance and loss of friendliness some years ago, but I sense the hospitality is returning. I have a newish song called Happy Days on the Best Of , and people were asking me why would I be singing a song like that during the recession, but what they forgot, maybe, is that during the Celtic Tiger I was singing about the Celtic Tiger, and trying to bring people down off their high horses or pedestals. All I’m saying with Happy Days is that it’s important to have hope.”
The city apartment years
Dempsey looks out across the sea towards Howth; it is there, in a small inlet, that he swims as often as he can. A few years ago, he had wanted to join the apartment dwellers in Dublin’s city centre. He says the apartment – and its associated lifestyle – wasn’t all he thought it would be. He has been back in Donaghmede for a year or so, and will shortly buy his own house there.
“I moved back to Donaghmede because there’s a better community spirit there. The city centre place I was living in, there were people from all over the world, and they wouldn’t really say hello, so there wasn’t much of a neighbourly feeling about the place. It’s difficult when you return to Dublin from touring – all the band go back to their homes and families, and it got a bit lonely being on my own.
“I have lots of good neighbours in Donaghmede, and I can call into any of them if I need anything. Community, that’s what it’s all about.”
For some, Dempsey is an unlikely songwriter to have had enough of a back catalogue by which to harness a Best Of collection. He knows that his work is on the Marmite side, but also that it’s different from anything else out there.
“You cringe a bit sometimes at some of the early songs, but there are other early songs I still play. I suppose there was a bit of naivety there at the start. I was a very shy fellow, hanging around with hard heads; you wouldn’t be going around with a book of poetry, that’s for sure.”
He pulls himself up to his full height, and jokingly puffs out his chest. “No problem now, of course. But I used to envy fellas going around the neighbourhood with long hair; I thought they were the hardest blokes in the place, having the nerve to do that. I had long hair for about six months and I was getting clattered for it. I shaved it and the clatterings stopped. That made me think – do anything different and you’re nabbed for it. I don’t think like that any more.”
Dempsey is mulling over new songs. Some are issues-based: bullying (“I’ve written about five songs on the subject it, so hopefully one of those will be good enough”); and fluoride (“I’m not going to pay the water charges unless they take the fluoride out, because it’s poisoning us, I believe”).
“I think we should protest more,” he says by way of conclusion. The sun on Sandymount beach is still strong, still cold. Dog walkers, joggers, strollers, mothers, fathers and babies continue to pass by. “But then some people say that the fluoride in the water makes you passive, so is that the reason why we’re not out there so much?”
It’s All Good: The Best of Damien Dempsey is o ut on Sony Music Ireland