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‘There is no plan that you follow to be successful. You keep playing music until people listen.’
Gems in this
Starting his musical journey busking in Dublin, Irish star Dermot Kennedy has gone from open mics in the city's pubs to playing packed stadiums around the world. But despite his global success, he still draws on Dublin — and the period of his life he spent busking throughout it — for musical inspiration.
Dermot still busks from time to time, to stay in touch with that part of himself; surprising his fans with unexpected performances everywhere from São Paulo to Frankfurt. We spoke to Dermot about creativity, growing up close to nature, learning lessons the hard way, and his Travel Playbook for where to go for a wander and a gig when you're in Dublin.
On your childhood and creativity
I was born in Dublin technically, but I actually grew up far outside the city, and that was important for me. It's still Dublin County, but it's a long way from the city. As a child, that meant I spent so much time alone with my own thoughts. I wasn't spending every day hanging out with friends and had a lot of time to sit and think. As a kid I also used to read a lot — that was really important for my imagination and my songwriting later in life. Then when I did start to make music, because I didn't live in the city, a huge thing for me was that I didn't want to be part of any kind of music scene — none of my friends were musicians and played in bands or anything like that. So any song I wrote, and any sort of creative thought I had, was just an organic thing — that was a lovely way to kind of get used to being creative.
On the equal importance of luck and hard work
The first day I realized people were listening to my music was when I put on a show in London in a venue called Servant Jazz Quarters by myself, and that was huge for me. I'd just organize shows by myself purely because I loved playing to people. I wasn't trying to invite people or to make anything happen. I just wanted to play music for people and it kind of happened organically. But my advice to anyone is always just don't stop, because there is no sort of correct way to do this. There is no plan that you follow to be successful. You keep playing music until people listen. It was literally just chance after years of trying.
On what busking has taught you
It was huge for me. It kind of put me in a place where I didn't care what anybody thought about me. It meant that I just realized I could play to people and didn't care about anyone's opinion. If somebody wanted to listen to me and stand there and watch, then brilliant, but it just gives you this thick skin over time. Even to this day, I do shows all around the world, and I haven't encountered a situation that's more difficult than busking. When you have to open your case and get in everybody's way on the street while they're shopping, doing things, and going about their day, it's an awkward situation. Yeah, busking really taught me how to be kind of brave in terms of performing to people.
On continuing to busk around the world
We recently did one in São Paulo and Rio, and we had done a couple in like Toronto, Boston, Chicago, and a few around Europe as well, Frankfurt and Cologne. I talk so much about human connection in Sonder, and promoting it with busking meant a lot to me. It kind of was the easiest way to actually feel that human connection.
‘I just want people to see their own stories in my music. I write in such a way that I think people can attach their own stories to my stories, basically.’
On what helped shape your musical thinking
Early on for me, the reason I wanted to write songs, get a guitar and write lyrics, was because of artists like David Gray and Ray LaMontagne. What inspired me first was all these artists, acoustic singer-songwriters, and the lyrics were in the middle of it. They were the most important thing. It was very easy for me to be moved by that, and I was very inspired by it. That's what made me want to write music. But then, it didn't take long for me to find hip-hop and fall in love with that. And I'm inspired by hip-hop in the exact same way. It just feels very honest. And to me, it feels like very powerful storytelling. It's a very inspiring genre. To be honest, my love for hip-hop has gotten stronger than it's ever been.
On 'Sonder' and the human connection
The meaning of Sonder and the story behind it is all about human connection and realizing that everybody's on their own journey, with good days and bad days and ups and downs. It's very important to be aware of that when you bump into somebody or if you're interacting with anybody. We all have similar stories, and that's kind of at the root of this album. I just want people to see their own stories in my music. When I get in the studio, I don't necessarily sit down and do that intentionally, but I write in such a way that I think people can attach their own stories to my stories, basically.
On how travel influences your creativity
What traveling does for me, which is huge, is it shows me that I'm just a really, really small part of the world, you know what I mean? Because, in music and in this career, you can really be tricked into thinking you're incredibly important. And you can get so caught up in your own story and be so obsessed with yourself. Traveling so much shows me that, you know, we're just passing through, and you feel so small in the world in a healthy, beautiful way. That's why traveling is very important for me.
‘The Ruby Sessions [at Doyles Pub] are really amazing. Basically, you don't know who's playing every week, and sometimes Ed Sheeran shows up, and sometimes Hozier shows up.’
On your first open mic and best spots to see live music in Dublin
There are so many places in Dublin — really welcoming little open mics and acoustic nights and stuff. The first time I ever played to people in my whole life was in The Bankers Bar, and it was a really, really cool open mic down in the basement of this pub. Your guitar isn't plugged in, there are no microphones, and you just get to play music to people. There's another night called The Ruby Sessions [at Doyles Pub] — they're really amazing. Basically, you don't know who's playing every week, and sometimes Ed Sheeran shows up, and sometimes Hozier shows up. There are just surprise acts there and whoever commits to going on that night is lucky enough to see those artists. So there's always some really cool stuff happening around Dublin.
On Dublin's nature as an inspirational source
When I think about my own creativity, I do think about Dublin, but also about where I grew up, in Rathcoole, which is kind of in the middle of nowhere, and, you know, nature plays a huge part in my creativity. Nature has always inspired me. It’s been a significant part of who I am as a person and artist.
On wandering around Dublin
There are so many things to see in Dublin and great restaurants, bars, and stuff. Dublin has a lot going on, but in terms of history, I'd say the museums are really beautiful. There's Trinity College [at the University of Dublin], where they have the Book of Kells, which is this ancient manuscript that is just incredible to see. It's a really great place. So if I had a day in Dublin to just mess around and wander, I'd go to the museums.
'Dublin is welcoming. I travel all around the world, and it's very nice to come home and realize that that energy is always there. People are very open, kind, and generous.’
On favorite spots to eat and drink
There's a restaurant called The Winding Stair. That is probably my favorite and somewhere that I like going back to. There's also a pub called Kehoes Pub. These are like two really important places within Dublin City. And there are some secret places, but if it's hidden, I probably want to keep it that way. I like to keep them a secret.
On what to bring on a long-haul flight
I had a Nintendo Switch for a long time, and that was very important. Stuff like that to pass the time. I actually had a travel suitcase that I could put a whole PlayStation in. Then when I was flying to Australia, I realized I couldn't plug it in — the plug on the flight couldn't handle the power of the PlayStation, which was very disappointing.
On a window or an aisle seat
Aisle seat for sure, because I go to the bathroom about a hundred times — I'm that traveler on a plane. So if I get on and see it's a window seat, I panic.
On a song that represents Dublin to you
There's a song called ‘Raglan Road’ by Luke Kelly. It's based on a poem by a writer called Patrick Kavanagh. It's a really, really beautiful song, and that, to me, really captures Dublin.
On Dublin in a word
Because I travel all around the world, I literally have seen so many places, and it's very nice to come home and realize that that energy is always there. You can always have a conversation with somebody. People are very open, kind, and generous — I really appreciate that when I come home.