When an artist is on stage in front of a crowd of fans who paid to be there, it’s a given that everyone in the room will be paying attention. For Irish singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy, who got his start busking on the streets of his native Dublin, stepping on stage during his recent sold-out North American tour felt “really surreal.” He began writing songs at 16, and after playing open mics and bars around town, he took to busking because “it felt way better than having to get a job in Dublin.” Trying to catch the attention of passersby was “a little bit heartbreaking,” and while his persistence certainly paid off (he’s now signed to Interscope Records), he assures that, “It’s the same deal every time. If you want people to respect what you’re doing, you just have to really believe in whatever you’re singing about.”
Though his roots are in acoustic music, Kennedy is drawn to the artistry and powerful storytelling in hip-hop and is confident that the two genres have more in common than most might think. With the music video for his latest single “Moments Passed,” he’s able “to live between those two worlds,” as director Nabil has done videos for everyone from Bon Iver to Kendrick Lamar. The resulting clip didn’t fit the initial narrative Kennedy had in mind, but Nabil was able to add a creative interpretation of his own. “The theme was the same and I guess whatever he got from the lyrics that I had put in the song, he pretty much nailed it,” Kennedy says.
For Kennedy’s second North American tour this coming spring, he’ll be playing bigger rooms in the cities he’s been to before, as well as hitting several cities he has yet to visit. There’s a hint of excitement in his voice as he talks about playing to almost a thousand people in Chicago this time around, but he reflects warmly on playing to 200 people in Philadelphia recently, saying, “It was just this tiny room, but the atmosphere was amazing and everybody was just so up for it. Sometimes those smaller ones are even a bit more intense.” Following the tour, he headed to Wales, where he spent a few weeks “hidden away in the middle of nowhere to make music.” He’s planning on releasing new music early this year, but don’t expect an album just yet. While the songs are there, he stresses that “it’s just about finding the right time and getting the perfect thing together.”
Musing over what listeners will take from his music, Kennedy is conscious that many are drawn to his lyrical content, but adds that he hopes to move people with the music itself. “If you can go to a Sigur Rós show and he’s singing in Icelandic, but you’re just affected by the music in some way—I think that’s kinda extra hard to achieve,” he explains.
That being said, there’s no denying the power of reaching people through lyrics. “I do think about whatever it means to me and I know they’re thinking about whatever those words mean to them,” he says. “And to have that kind of experience is a really beautiful thing. I want to progress musically but not lose the connection with everybody with the lyrics.”
*A version of this interview first ran in the current print issue of Substream Magazine, on stands now and available through our online store!