It isn't every singer/songwriter/performer that can say their next performance is going to be staged under the skeleton of a blue whale. Dermot Kennedy, with his loose hoodie top and baggy trousers, flanked on one side by music/recording studio gear and on the other by gym/workout equipment, is anticipating such a gig with equal parts relish and uncertainty. The former is because singing is in Kennedy's blood the way air is in his lungs. The latter is a mix of curiosities.
The next gig will be his first in several months; it will be held at London's Natural History Museum on July 30th and will feature a full-blown stage production, a full band performance, and a special guest appearance by actor Paul Mescal.
Due to Covid-19 health and safety conditions, however, there will be no audience. The only people in attendance will be the musicians, stage, sound and film crew. The only flurries of socially distanced movement will be from camera personnel, who will be filming the concert as-live and streaming out what they film to an audience that will be shelling out €15 for one pay-per-view ticket.
Which begs the question (and it’s one that many other artists of Kennedy’s stature are, no doubt, also asking to anyone that will listen): if there’s no capacity, as such, exactly how many tickets can be sold?
“I’m not certain,” says Kennedy, who for the first time in our 40-minute conversation really isn’t. “People have asked me, but I don’t know because it’s the internet. Capacity? I’d be up all night if I thought about that.”
I'm conscious of the fact that I've been doing this for about 12 years, but that it has only been viable for the past three
Of course, playing a gig in such an august venue as London’s Natural History Museum is a classic far-from-it-he-was-raised scenario. Now 28 years of age, Kennedy might have just the one album, Without Fear, to his name, but he is far removed from the “overnight sensation” tag some media folk stick to him.
“People are within their rights to say that,” he accedes. “It’s easy for someone like myself to feel that such a perception isn’t fair game because I have been doing this – busking, writing songs, constantly trying to make things happen – since I was about 17. When someone says that my first song came out a few years ago, I know that not to be true because my first song actually came out about 13 years ago. I get it, of course. I’m conscious of the fact that I’ve been doing this for about 12 years, but that it has only been viable for the past three.”
Those dozen years constitute an intriguing, singular backstory. Kennedy readily admits that – unlike other Irish songwriters who have achieved notable commercial success in the past 20 years – he has “never been part of a scene” or belonged to “a group of musicians that would hang out together in the same pub every week”. It wasn’t by choice, either, he notes, pointing to a certain level of old-fashioned social distancing by living in an area “a good bit outside Rathcoole – there was no one really around”.
Peer group pressure
Nonetheless, the unforced removal of music-centric peer group pressure and competition had an important effect on his career methodology: he was on his own, pretty much. Gradually, his teenage obsession with football was replaced with songwriting.
“It was more I had feelings that I could not keep inside,” he alludes to mental health issues he has previously spoken about, “and music was the best way I could figure to get them out.”
It's going to be just the music – when you finish a song there'll be silence, you'll be totally heard
A period of time playing open mic gigs in and around Dublin ensued. Months passed, and then years. A few songs began to click with the small audiences and so, more as an exercise in hope than a full-blown marketing strategy, in 2015 Kennedy uploaded to Spotify a piano ballad tune, An Evening I Will Not Forget.
For many musicians of a certain profile, the music streaming giant isn’t necessarily a financial friend. For Kennedy, Spotify changed his life. Whatever way the platform’s algorithms worked on that song, they did so in his favour.
“For so many years I had been making music I was proud of but that I couldn’t do much with,” Kennedy reasons. “There were friends and family, some fans, listening to the songs, but there was nothing major in terms of feedback. With the Spotify thing, it felt I was really reaching people. It didn’t feel like a glamorous thing, but more a lovely validation. I knew that I had something going on with the songs I had been working on for about eight years, I knew people liked them, but now they were actually hearing them.”
At this point, Kennedy had no management and hadn’t signed to a record label. He recalls that he went from playing songs on streets and making a pittance to making small amounts of money via the streaming revenue from Spotify.
“The money I got from the streams was enough to enable me to take a flight from Dublin to London for an important meeting or put on a showcase gig in New York. Spotify money basically put me in a position where I could ignore record labels for a long time and take my life a long way down the road before I needed music industry help.”
The solitary streak remains. A management agency (Tap Management, which also represents Lana Del Rey, Dua Lipa, Hailee Steinfeld and Ellie Goulding) and a record label (Island/Universal) are in place, but Kennedy emphasises these weren't part of any masterplan.
He agrees that luck always plays a part in any strategy, resolute or not, “but I also give myself some credit and say that I was very cautious about not jumping into anything. I took my time, and I’m glad I did because I achieved a certain level of maturity. A good handle on the industry side of things? I don’t, actually, but the bottom line is I won’t let anyone take advantage of me or my music.
“You always run the risk of sounding corny when you hear someone say this, but the music means the most. I love having any degree of success, watching the venues get bigger and bigger, the listenership increasing month on month, but I couldn’t stand the thought of compromising the music in any way.”
Of the forthcoming Natural History Museum show he hints, meaningfully, that not having a physical audience in front of him will be beneficial. “It’s going to be just the music – when you finish a song there’ll be silence, you’ll be totally heard.”
It’s a curious thing for a performer to admit to wanting, but you can appreciate the point: he just wants the music to be listened to with a degree of purity and with virtually no distractions (and yes, the people who look at the stage through their mobile phones, we mean you). It’s a stroke of authenticity that runs in parallel with his songs, which are a robust mix of piano, guitar, hip-hop production beats, and heavy-duty lyrical honesty.
Of the latter, Kennedy observes, there is so much fake sincerity.
“You know when something is for real or when someone is just ticking a box. In my genre, it’s easy to tell when a song has been written in a room with five other people. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been in those rooms, but I doggedly hold on to who I am. I’ve thrown out songs that my label wished I kept, but I couldn’t. I’m just extra determined to get to where I want without losing what and who I am. I’m thrilled by the fact that the 18-year-old me would see you can stay credible without forgoing success. You can do both.”
When purchasing a ticket, there is an opportunity to donate to the Black Lives Matter Global Network, a charity that endeavours to bring justice, healing and freedom to black people across the globe.
DERMOT KENNEDY ON PROCESSING SUCCESS
“The night my debut album, Without Fear, came out I was playing a tiny bar in Southampton, in England, and I was very much on tour, travelling, so I was more focused on the gig than anything else. Having time to allow the success of the album to sink in, however, has been very important for me. Every single milestone that has been hit in the past couple of years I’ve either been on a tour bus, staying in a hotel, playing or preparing to play a gig, so I haven’t really had a second to think about things.
“Its success didn’t feel like it was a crazy change in what I was doing, but more a thing we did, and we just continued on the path we were already on. That said, everything happened at the right time. I’m a long way off from taking it for granted. I feel that I’m really very present and that I do a good job of taking in the information.
“What you have to do is to ensure you don’t do a subpar show if you’re playing a smaller venue after you play a large one."