Don O’Mahony talks to singer songwriter Damien Dempsey about 1916, a new album and his appeal to fans
WHETHER in song or conversation, Damien Dempsey usually has something worthwhile to say. Unfortunately for this writer, an hour before I’m due to chat with him during Holy Week, Damo posts a mighty 3,200-word piece on his Facebook page covering some significant events in his life in the past two years or so. Among the many topics he covers are well-known events such as his rescuing of a swimmer in distress in the Slaney River in Enniscorthy in 2014 and the operation on his nose to correct a deviated septum which separates the left and right airways.
He also discusses his work with the PREDA charity in the Philippines. People’s Recovery, Empowerment and Development Assistance Foundation is run by Fr Shay Cullen and highlights the issue of child prostitution and the part American military bases play in this.
Dempsey laughs when I tell him how redundant his post makes me feel — he answered everything!
“Well, hopefully I can tell you something that won’t be in the post,” he chuckles.
His online missive provides an account of family members who were involved in the 1916 Rising. As someone whose great-aunt was a member of the Irish Citizen Army and great-uncle fought with the Irish Volunteers in the Four Courts, Dempsey would have been expected to be looking ahead to last Sunday’s day of commemoration. Instead, he was scheduled to attend an event commemorating the role of the Irish Citizen Army and James Connolly at Liberty Hall.
After that, Dempsey’s focus is on April 24, the date on which the Rising began and the Proclamation of the Republic was declared. He will attend an alternative event to the State’s commemoration led by artist Robert Ballagh. “We’re going to try to discuss what they would have wanted. How they would have liked to see Ireland, their visions for Ireland,” says Dempsey.
“We’re going to get together and talk about where we went wrong I suppose with Ireland and what the signatories would have wanted and how they foresaw and envisioned Ireland. I think we need to think about that now. Put that into action somehow.”
Closer to home, Dempsey is still working on the follow-up to 2012’s Almighty Love. Given that that album came four years after The Rocky Road, Dempsey is not going to panic. He even has a title for it — Soulsun. “The kind of sun that shines from within,” he explains.
“If it takes longer, it takes longer,” he continues. “We’ve no record deal but the longer it takes maybe I’ll just keep writing and maybe the album will get stronger and stronger. That’s what I’m hoping. You have to take the good from the bad and turn any situation, if you can, around.”
Neither Dempsey nor his fanbase are affected by the vagaries of fashion and changing trends.
“With me, I’ve seen other people and they’ve taken years and years to put something out and they kind of lose their audience. But with me, that doesn’t seem to happen for some reason. In America, it’s grown over there and we haven’t been there in three years or something. The audiences are getting bigger and bigger, and it’s not Irish. Well there’s always a few Irish there, of course. Anywhere you go you’ll always get a few Paddies and Biddies coming out. But it’s mostly people from them places just by word of mouth. It’s spreading organically.”
Dempsey appears to be well aware of his appeal. He offers something more grounded. But what is it he has that audiences connect with?
“It’s always the lyrics, I think,” he offers. “They always seem to say the lyrics just hook them. The imagery and the positivity and the spirituality in them. The stories, I suppose, you know. I think they say that the lyrics give them a lift and just give them hope and that. And stuff like that. Which they wouldn’t get, they were saying, from a lot of music. So that’s what people say. And then they get to see the live show and it’s a spiritual experience. That’s my intent to get the crowd walking out the door and just buzzing. Totally, like they’re on drugs. But they’re not on drugs — it’s a natural high. It’s the natural high you get from singing.
“If you sit down and you sing for just half an hour or an hour, if you get all your favourite songs, put them out on a list, and sit on a chair and just sing them, to yourself, you always feel better after it. You always feel lifted up. When you do that with say 500 like-minded people all together in unison at a gig and the electricity there and the vibe and the energy, it’s an incredible experience, I think.”
Damien Dempsey performs at Cork Opera House tonight, Friday, April 1