David Keenan: ‘I’d never been outside of Dundalk. I wasn’t exactly inundated with offers’

David Keenan: ‘I’d never been outside of Dundalk before, and I didn’t do the Leaving Cert, so I wasn’t exactly inundated with offers from colleges’.  Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times
If the singer-songwriter’s home town of Dundalk was the fractious birth, a move to Liverpool with a rucksack, a guitar and ‘€70 in my arse pocket’ was a rebirth. Now, with his debut album arriving in January, he talks about his troubled early days, taking risks and singing his truth 

When David Bowie was 12, his half-brother, Terry, gave him Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as an introduction, of sorts, to self-education. Kerouac’s novel, writes John O’Connell in Bowie’s Books: the Hundred Literary Heroes who Changed his Life (Bloomsbury), “transformed young David’s sense of the world and intensified his frustration with his home town of Bromley where, he felt, nothing belonged to him culturally.”

Almost 10 years ago, with just the Junior Cert to his name, some government-funded courses in his wake, living with his grandfather in a small village less than five miles outside Dundalk, Co Louth, David Keenan passed his time playing in bands that went nowhere and reading books that took him to faraway places. Some writers he diligently searched out, others he chanced upon, perhaps guided by intuition or passion for a particular subject.

One such was Liverpool band, The La’s, one of rock music’s best-known one-hit-wonders for their 1988 single, There She Goes, a song that has since chimed without fail for 30 years. Keenan’s love of that song, and the band that struck lucky with it, prompted him to leave Dundalk – “a spiritually repressed place”, he says of the town during that period of his life – for Liverpool.

There was never a choice for me to do anything other than music – it was a necessity

 “I had stumbled upon a blog, Diaries of a Rock and Dole Star,” explains Keenan, “and I was compelled by the writer’s story of a musician based in Liverpool and tied up by the mythical Mersey-Mississippi aspects of a city with such musical history. All of that appealed to me, so I got on the ferry, had my last week’s pay from FÁS, and went . . . Why? Actually, fear drove me – of remaining stagnant. I had the belief that I didn’t always want to be playing catch up when I reached the age of 50.

“I’d never been outside of Dundalk before, and I didn’t do the Leaving Cert, so I wasn’t exactly inundated with offers from colleges. Self-education was always something I could fall back on, but there was never a choice for me to do anything other than music – it was a necessity. Somehow I trusted that a kind of alchemical reaction would happen if I was brave enough to step into that situation. That sense of trust has never left me.”

David Keenan performing on the main stage at Electric Picnic this year. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times
On the main stage at Electric Picnic this year. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

 You may have heard of David Keenan. Over the past 12 months, in particular, the songwriter, singer and performer has walked on threadlike lines etched on thin ice. In performative terms, he’s the best kind of maverick; with his songwriting he strives to get to the heart of the matter via epic swoops and understated sighs. The man is a risk taker, delivering concerts that swivel on degrees of extemporisation. “I hate rehearsing,” he says. “There’s an element of improvisation that allows things that couldn’t happen if you over-rehearsed”. He has a performer’s intuition and an artist’s in-the-zone mindset. Aware that such a mixture could see him either fall or fly, Keenan is nonetheless unafraid to try. There is more endeavour than arrogance in his attempts, however, a stance that was forged in the heat and cold of his experiences in Liverpool.

Helpful incubator

On that heaving ferry to Liverpool, he had with him a rucksack, a guitar, and “€70 in my arse pocket, but that went very quickly”. On the second night in the city he met, by chance, The La’s former guitarist, Barry Sutton, spent a few days in his company and as much by fate as need, started busking on the streets. “I had never done that before, but I had to get over £20 per day in order to sleep somewhere.”

Busking, says Keenan, broke down any communicative barriers he may have had. Sutton had told him of The Lomax, a music venue (since closed) that provided the aspiring songwriter with open mic slots as well as, eventually, introducing him to a good Samaritan.

After the cost of staying in hostels had drained his finances and after the offer of nightly couches had dried up, one of The Lomax’s bouncers offered him a more permanent arrangement. “Liz offered me a chaise-lounge in her house and a room with a stripper pole in the centre of it for £20 a week, providing I babysat her cat and her dog.” Keenan’s face lights up as he remembers. “This was Kerouac for me, I ate it all up.”

 An added bonus for him was the level of the musicianship he was hearing. “It was amazing. Every scally played the best songs I’d ever heard, and they were all in tune as to why I was in their city.” It was, he recalls, a community he was welcomed into and that he eagerly embraced. “Absolutely – they shone lights on me.”

Dundalk was the making of me. It galvanised me

What Liverpool gave him that Dundalk didn’t, was “confidence, a sense of exoticism, a new and timeless environment”. And yet, lest anyone thinks that Dundalk was his undoing, in retrospect it was anything but. He didn’t acknowledge it 10 or more years ago, he agrees, but he now admits that “Dundalk was the making of me, in a sense. It galvanised me, it allowed me to stand up and play gigs in front of two men and a dog, with cigarette butts flicked at me, singing in my own accent. It gave me a sense of not feeling intimidated by situations, scenarios or people. It was the place I grew up in. I knew all the lads with the short, back and sides ‘cos I was one of them. I went off the rails, and so on, and I knew every facet of the social structure, I knew which alleyways not to walk down.”

If his home town was the fractious birth, then Liverpool was the helpful incubator. “I ended up working in a bar serving 6ft-4 transvestites from Glasgow. Things like that educated me in so many ways.”

David Keenan: ‘I’m more of a punk than anything else, a flawed individual who lays it all bare because it’s a necessity.’ Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times
 ‘I’m more of a punk than anything else’ Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

Since he returned to Ireland some years ago, he has used whatever a songwriter has to use in order to create value and worth. Combined with an assertive but not bullish approach, Keenan presents work that is high in flights of fancy yet rooted in the great leveller of truth. He is chasing romance and drama in equal measure, for sure, but he has little time for being cast as a “lyrical, poetic Byron-esque” figure. “It’s very easy to throw me into that area,” he dismisses, “but it’s rubbish.”

Real romanticism

What he wants, he says with some emphasis, is “romantic grit, the beautiful ugly. I want to get the nitty-gritty of it. You can speak in metaphor all you want, but get to the source for yourself so that people can get something else out of it, too. Don’t skim around anything. For me, that’s real romanticism. You’re being honest about your scars and flaws, direct experiences, truths. We’re all craving that in a conversation, a relationship, a poem, a song. I’m more of a punk than anything else, a flawed individual who lays it all bare because it’s a necessity. I embrace it all because it’s all part of the human experience for me.”

I want to risk tearing everything asunder for the sake of maybe discovering something new, and I’m willing to take that chance

 And those live performances, where he walks on a razor’s edge in stilettos – what drives him on? The element of danger is everything, he remarks. “I have to keep pushing myself, you have to say more, trim away all the fat.” Yet walking in such a way on such precarious ground surely can’t be successful every time, I suggest. It’s an intuitive thing, he allows, where seconds and not minutes have to be trusted.

 “For me, the song has to be interesting in the precise moment, much to the concerns of the people who play with me. I try to make shows a communal event, yet with an element of danger wherein when the balance is right, and the audience and the musicians are one moving organism. I’ve built up that intuition, that sense of connection, over the years.”

‘I’d never been outside of Dundalk before, and I didn’t do the Leaving Cert, so I wasn’t exactly inundated with offers from colleges’. David Keenan. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times
‘To sing the way I sing, I have to be physically and mentally well.’ David Keenan. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

Taking risks

“Self-discipline is very important,” Keenan says. “ I have to write every day, have to keep things sharp. It’s about cultivating a body of work that must not pander to an audience. If you do that, you’re dead, finished.

“I want to risk tearing everything asunder for the sake of maybe discovering something new, and I’m willing to take that chance. If people didn’t come to the gigs, and act as patrons to support me, then I certainly wouldn’t have the means to make records or to travel, but I’d still be doing this if nobody was there. I’d still want to grow as a person, to find out things about myself, so in order to do that I have to take risks all of the time.”

Inevitably, it hasn’t worked all of the time, he nods, but part of that was his own fault. “To play the way I play and to sing the way I sing, I have to be physically and mentally well. There are all these traps out there, and as a young man in a realm where things are thrown in front of you, it’s important to remember why you’re doing it.”

The implication being there have been occasions when he has forgotten, yet  there is a sense Keenan is one maverick that will never ignore the error of his ways and will always aim to make amends.

A sensitive soul with impetuous yet realistic ambitions, he admits that he left Dundalk all those years ago from a sense of anxiety and of being lost, culturally and every other way. “Yes, I wanted to run away from everything about it and start again. You can remove the elements of trauma and perceive them as they are. That’s what art is for me – a creative catharsis through which I can address and express facets of myself, discover more about myself while also shedding certain aspects.”

 And glancing back at those days now? “It’s like looking at memories.”

David Keenan’s debut album, The Beginner’s Guide to Bravery, is released by Rubyworks Records on January 10th. He performs at the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, January 13th.