Damien Dempsey’s debut album in 2000, They Don’t Teach This Shit in School, set him apart as a unique and important voice, championed from an early stage in his career by Sinéad O’Connor. The follow-up, Seize the Day, marked the beginning of his relationship with producer John Reynolds, picking up many awards and leading to extensive international tours. Commercial and critical success continued with the release of the No. 1 album, Shots (2005), backed by Brian Eno, and To Hell or Barbados (2007), which debuted at No.2 in the Irish charts.
An award-winning artist in his home country of Ireland – he has several prestigious Irish Meteor Awards to his name including Best Irish Male and Best Traditional Folk Award – and seventeen years into an astonishing career, Damien Dempsey released his seventh studio album, Soulsun in 2017, possibly his most exciting work to date.
Damien played a thrilling headline Belfast show at The Limelight 1 on Thursday 01st February 2018. Mark Millar caught up with Damien before the gig for a chat.
You are playing Belfast Limelight tonight are you glad to be back on the road?
Yes, it's nice we had to cancel the last gig in Belfast because I was getting a nose operation.
So is everything fine now?
Yes, it seems to be a lot better it was a sinus problem I had. I can breathe through my nose now and I can close my mouth which is great. I couldn’t for a long time. With a bit of luck, I will be firing on all cylinders tonight and blow the roof off the Limelight.
Has your singing improved since you had the operation?
Yes, I can get more air now. I couldn't breathe through my nose and after about three quarters through the gig; I would be struggling for air. I seem to have more energy towards the end of the show now which is excellent.
Do you enjoy playing in Belfast?
Yeah, I've always had a great time in Belfast. There is a great passion for spirit and energy there. The crowd just go mental. It's a very similar vibe to playing Vicar Street in Dublin. The crowd is just out to have the night of their lives and sing like there's no tomorrow and it's great to be back playing there.
You recently played at Shane Magowns 60th birthday celebration. Did you enjoy the night?
It was some buzz it was terrific! There was so much love in the room for Shane Magown and his music and for what he’s done. The crowd sang everything. His lyrics are so intricate, and there are so many. But the crowd knew every word and stood up for the whole show. To hear different interpretations of his songs performed by various artists was amazing. He wrote a lot of the songs in his twenties. It made me realize the genius that he is. You forget how many great songs he wrote.
Did his music inspire you growing up?
Yeah, I suppose the visual aspect of his music is like watching a movie similar to an artist like Bruce Springsteen. It's like watching a movie that you can put your own faces to them with your own characters in it. I always loved that and tried that with my music to make it very visual where you are transported into a scenario with the lyrics and taken out of your own life.
Does songwriting come easily to you? And what's your writing process?
I always have a notebook and come out and try and meet people and talk. Conversations are great and reading books. My notebook is always with me when I'm walking around with my ears open taking everything in like a sponge. After every album, I like to travel and go away and submerge myself into something and restock. I have all these ideas in my notebook, and when I wake up in the morning I have the guitar by my bed, and I start writing melodies. The melodies come easily lying in my bed with the guitar, and I have a Dictaphone there to record them. I can come up with some stuff just walking around. That's how I usually go about writing songs.
You recently released your seventh studio album Soulsun. It’s a great album and has been getting a fantastic reception. Did you go into the recording with any preconceived ideas how it should sound and what you wanted to write about?
I always try to make each album a bit different from the last one just to shake things up a bit. I'm getting more into the spirit world as I'm getting a bit older. I go into the sea and I'm getting into nature and all that and a bit of yoga so I suppose there is an element of that in the music. I have been reading a lot of books about that kind of thing. There are a lot of young people doing spoken word, and that influenced the last track on the album Soft Rain. Its a bit introspective I suppose it's about the importance of family in my life and being grateful for everything good in my life. I have a new guitar player on the album who brought a new sound to it, just to shake things up a bit.
You recorded Soulsun with long-term producer and collaborator, John Reynolds in North London why do you think you work together so well?
We are like brothers I suppose. I'm like one of the family. I spend an awful lot of time of the year in his house – I'm part of the furniture there, and we are great mates. The studio was in his house which is amazing because it's such a different way to work it's different from going into a commercial studio because you can work whenever you feel like it, and you're not under a clock. We play together and do shows and write songs together, so there is a real bond between us. Its a partnership that works for me and he'll always take on board with what I say and vice versa. It's a very trusting musical relationship which is a lovely thing to have.
On Soulsun you collaborate with Dido, Imelda May, and Pauline Scanlon or as they are called in the album sleeve as Celtic Warrior High Queens. What was it like working with such talented women?
With today's technology, you don't always need to be in the room with them. I wasn't there when Pauline Scanlon or Dido was there. Dido stayed in her house and recorded in her studio. I was there when Imelda May was recording, and it was amazing to see how she worked and I was able to see how much passion she put into each take. Imelda sang so many takes, but my God she sang from the bottom of her soul. It was pretty emotional to see. She was crying at one stage singing the song. It was nice to get the feminine touch onto the album because some of my songs can be a bit gruff, and hard I suppose sometimes, so it was nice to have beautiful female singers to soften the album out a bit.
Was it an enjoyable experience recording the new album?
Absolutely, yes it's a magical thing recording an album. If I didn't have a record deal, I would work so I could make albums and play the songs on stage. It's an amazing thing. When you get into the studio, things come, and magic happens when people come up with stuff. It can be arduous work sometimes but some of the tracks really flow, and then you get a sprinkle of fairy dust on them which elevate them into something beautiful. It’s a very special thing making an album. Long may it continue I feel very charmed and lucky to be making records, I'm very grateful.
Morrissey is a big fan of yours you were on his label, and he invited you to tour with him. Did he give you any advice?
No, he usually would just rip the piss out of me to be fair. (Laughs) I’m doing a collaboration album at the moment, so he said he was going to sing one of our songs on it, so I'm waiting with bated breath to see what one he’s going to do. He only agreed at Christmas. We had John Grant in the studio where we record in Kilburn at John Reynolds house, so that nice to have him singing on the album. And I believe he did a great job. We are hoping that the Moz fella doesn’t renege or he better be careful when he comes to Dublin. (Laughs)
You have done a bit of acting. You were in The Irish crime film Between the Canals And Cardboard Gangsters. Do you have any plans to do some more acting?
I did a bit of an acting course last month – it was only a Tuesday and Thursday so maybe. We have done a few videos of monologues and stuff, so I wouldn't mind getting into a bit, yeah. It gives me such confidence on the stage because I'm a very shy fella, naturally. Being on stage and doing TV can be a bit of an arduous task for me but when I do acting I have to stand up there in front of people, it gives me more confidence. I might do some more, but I don't want to do any more gangster movies to tell you the truth – I need a nice romcom, you know what I mean? (Laughs) And it's great writing for movies as well. I have written a few songs for films. There is a song on the album called Family I wrote that for one of John Connors films called King of the Travelers it didn’t make it so thankfully it went on the album. It's good to write when you see a film because you can come up with a song that you would never have written without seeing the piece of film so it can be inspiring sometimes.
The big show at the moment is Peaky Blinders, and there is a lot of great songs used on the soundtrack. Your songs would fit in very well on that show.
Absolutely, that’s not a bad idea because I know Cillian Murphy. Ill put the hammer on him to try and get a song on. (Laughs) I will have to put that to him. Nice one I never thought of that.
Do you have a favourite record that you always return to?
The one that always picks me up and gives me a lift would be Babylon by Bus the live album by Bob Marley. It's such a positive album. The first few songs lift me, and it makes me feel good. They recorded the album during a tour. The vibe coming out of the speakers is incredible.
What do you do when you’re not making music?
A big thing for me is going into the sea every day. I was in today. I suppose its a variation of the Nordic thing that they do with a sauna. I swim in the Irish sea and then go into a steam room – that gives me a great buzz. Apart from that ill be reading books and watching documentaries. I might go into the city for a few pints of Guinness and bring my notebook to get the juices flowing, but after four or five pints I start writing gobbledygook (laughs), so ill put the notebook away at that stage and get some good conversation going.
Following three sold-out Christmas shows at Vicar St last December, Damien has announced he will return to Dublin’s Iveagh Gardens on Saturday 14th July 2018, where he'll be joined by special guests Beoga and Paul Alwright. Tickets on sale now.
More info on Damien Dempsey and live dates - https://damiendempsey.com/