Damien Dempsey: A folk firebrand for the modern age

Alan Owens


Alan Owens

SEVERAL minutes into a heated state of the nation debate with Damien Dempsey, the thought occurs that the singer, from Donaghmede on Dublin’s Northside, hasn’t released an album since the country went to hell in a handbasket.

SEVERAL minutes into a heated state of the nation debate with Damien Dempsey, the thought occurs that the singer, from Donaghmede on Dublin’s Northside, hasn’t released an album since the country went to hell in a handbasket.

For a man who made his name and reputation as the quintessential firebrand Irish singer songwriter by mixing traditional and folk music with contemporary lyrics and withering social commentary, this seems strange.

Dempsey’s most productive period was 2003 to 2007, when he released the superb Seize the Day, Shots and To Hell or Barbados in quick succession - all records that wore his burning opinions on their sleeves, Dempsey becoming a sort of populist ‘voice of the underclass’, as one description had it.

But he has been strangely absent since the release of the 2008 collaboration with the Dubliners, The Rocky Road, largely a collection of classic ballads.

When asked if he will resume the withering analysis that has seen him castigate Celtic Tiger Ireland and the power of the clergy on his sixth studio album, he is unsure however.

“I don’t know,” he sighs. “I was writing a lot of songs about what’s happening with the banks and all that kind of stuff, but my producer (John Reynolds) said, I don’t know if people need to hear all that because they are being bombarded every day, I don’t know if that is what they want to hear on your album, you have said that before so maybe try and do an album that is going to lift people.

“That is what I am working on at the moment, to be a bit more positive rather than just giving out and pointing fingers - people know all of this, it is stuffed down their throats every day,” he adds.

The key to analysing this statement is to return to Dempsey’s finest moments and re-discover the optimism that he has always striven for amidst the most fearsome subjects. As witnessed at his gigs, which are almost spiritual in type, Dempsey offers hope to his fans, all six foot odd of him, guitar slung across his body like a gun slinger, fans mouthing ever word.

He says he is working on songs about different topics - community, suicide, abuse, diversity, all which contain some message of hope.

“I think we have lost that sense of community,” he says. “House prices and rent were so dear that people grew up here and they couldn’t afford to live here any more. Whatever new community you are in, people are going to have to start looking after each other, because things are going to start getting harder in this country.

“I have a song (on the new album) about two friends of mine who died, suicide, it is their story, what happened to them and trying to get through to people and to young people especially, if you feel down, tell somebody. Because a lot of people say nothing and go and do it, just talk to somebody that you trust and they might be able to save you, might be able to turn you on a different path. It is a positive song even though it is about a heavy subject.

“I have another song about taking someone away from an abusive relationship, whether it be a partner or a substance or a job where you are being bullied - just breaking away from that situation, freeing yourself, having that courage.”

But he is considering, he will admit, including a song called Money Man on the album, which he hopes to release by next summer, which is a diatribe, a state of the nation rant.

“It is about these big bankers who made a gamble, made an investment on Ireland and then lost and then said to the government, we want the Irish people to pay this, to pay our debts. It is such a scam, a horrendous crime,” he says. “If it is good enough and I am hoping it is, that it sits well, I think it might be on the album.”

Dempsey returns to Limerick this Friday for a stripped-back acoustic set, with his mates Eamon deBarra and Wayne Sheehy on accompaniment, a set that will allow “a nice bit of space (so) that people can really get into the lyrics, hear them again”.

“It is more of a singalong thing as well, when there is less people on stage, it is a little bit like playing in someone’s living room, just doing an impromptu session after a pub,” he explains.

The striking singer is clearly still passionate about his trade, and itching to get his music out to people once again.

“It is like oxygen for me, music, I would pay to do what I do,” he says. “If I had to get a loan just to do what I do and never get paid again, I would do it. I love it so much. I am blessed.”

Damien Dempsey plays in Dolan’s Warehouse this Friday, December 16, tickets on sale now.