Coming off the back of a huge 2013 in which he sold out Sydney Opera House while headlining several major gigs in Australia before touring the US for the first time in 5 years and returning to sell out Vicar Street twice this Christmas, I spoke to Damien Dempsey ahead of the release of It's All Good: The Best Of, and two shows in the Button Factory next week on the 12th and 13th February.
Words: Andrew Lambert
So how are things, Damo?
Not too bad, a bit of a media circus going on at the moment! The album's coming out in the UK and Australia so I'm doing a load of interviews at the moment. Happy days though, now I can get interviews, I remember a time when people didn't want to talk to me.
How was the tour in Australia last year?
Ah, it was great. I was there twice last year and I'm heading back in March. It's brilliant out there- the Metro in Sydney is quite like Vicar Street.
And what about America?
Well I sold out the Bowery Ballroom, an incredible venue, so things are after building for me over there even though I hadn't been there in 5 years. Everything is building gradually, so while you wouldn't want to be impatient, it's all going in the right direction. Things are getting bigger.
It doesn't come much bigger than playing with The Boss, Bruce Springsteen (Damien supported Springsteen in Kilkenny Stadium last summer). What was that experience like, and the man himself?
A defining moment. He shook my hand, thanked me for being with him and we passed the guitar around. I sang and he sang, it was a great privilege to be asked and to meet him, let alone have a sing song with him. To see how he is and the love he has for his music... it gave me great inspiration.
Absolutely. So obviously at the moment you've got The Best Of coming out, a major acheivment at this point in your career, but I'm presuming that this doesn't mean the beginning of the end.
(Laughs) No, no, we're a long way away from the end. What we had was a 5 album deal with Sony and in the contract they had the option for a Best Of so that's it.
And what about the selection process for an album like this- did you pick personal favourites, greatest hits or crowd-pleasers?
Me and John Reynolds sat down and we basically tried to make a setlist. We wanted songs that work blend together, work well and flow. We had to leave a few out like 'Born Without Hate', 'Cursed With A Brain' and 'To Hell Or Barbados' but sure we can always do another Best Of in a few years when I've written more albums.
Is there a track on the album that means the most to you personally?
I suppose 'Chris And Stevie' (a ballad about suicide on Almighty Love) because it's saving peoples lives I hope. People are talking to other people because of it now I believe, and some have talked to me and said it saved their life. That's the best buzz you can get from any song. It's my highlight of all these years.
Obviously you've had highlights all over the world now on tour in different countries, but you're more experienced than most around the city, so if you were picking, what would be the best venue in Dublin?
It has to be Vicar Street. The way it's laid out makes you feel close to everybody there, and the when you're walking down to stage at the side it just feels like you're about to take flight. The buzz of the place is magical. When the whole place sings together it's great, because it's a room to sing together in. There are other places you can feel cut off, but in there the voices all come together in the middle. It's like one big living room.
Damien Dempsey performs at the 2013 Meteor Choice Music Prize. Photo: Wenn
And your favourite venue outside Ireland?
Ah, Sydney Opera House. Played two great gigs there and the location is amazing, you've seen it on postcards since you were a kid. Coming down the plane I looked at it and thought ''Jaysus, I'm playing there tonight'', but when I got in I was strangely relaxed and it was just two cracking shows.
With the most prominent themes of your music revolving around Irish history and social inequality, I have to ask where that originally came from; home, school? Family or friends?
I suppose it was the Grandmother. She would have sang a lot of Irish rebel songs. She saw the Rising, she was involved as a kid. Hiding under the bed from Black and Tans and everything. Obviously there was a lot of action at her time growing up.
And when you got into music was it with the intention of singing about these issues, or did this come naturally to you later?
All throughout my youth all I was hearing on the news every night was someone else being killed, and I couldn't have just seen all that going on and not wondered what the story was, you know? I felt the news was so one way and biased with us being portrayed as Irish scum. It made me go and learn our history then. It seems that so many kids these days don't know their history, don't know where they're coming from.
So do you find it's a good medium to communicate these messages through music for a younger generation? And is this why you have such a strong hometown support?
It's hard to know. I try to write songs with hope in them, and to use the positivity that I learned from Bob Marley. When I mix a bit of a lesson in history with a positive message and make a modern day story about what's going on, there's a lot for people to get their teeth into. It's gives me a buzz more so than just a pop song about falling in love or something like that.
Tell us your plans for 2014.
Well, I'm back over to Australia and then the States again before coming back for festivals in the summer and then hopefully recording a new album after that.
So you'll be getting stuck into a lot of festivals?
Big time! I used to just do Oxegen and then I couldn't do another one for the rest of the summer but now I can do all the smaller country ones. Westport is great, I've done that two years in a row. But I'll be everywhere- Cork, Longford, Tullamore, Dingle, Galway. The more the merrier. I'd always rather do small towns rather than just one big one. It's a great buzz and it's a bit more lawless, the pub stays open later and it gets a bit wild.
Will you be constantly on the go writing new material for an album or do you sit down with yourself and get it all done in go?
I had a few weeks off in January so I was writing a good bit every day. I've May, September and October put aside now for getting stuck in. I want to write a song about bullying on social media and through texting- it must be awful for those involved. It's the worst thing in the world. So I want to give them a message in a song. I hope people relate to it and it's relevant.
For the moment though, enjoy the tour. Thanks for talking to us, Damo.
Damien will be touring throughout February and March in the following locations:
12/2 Dublin, Button Factory
13/2 Dublin, Button Factory
14/2 Cork, Opera House
23/2 Belfast, Mandela Hall
27/2 Galway, Roisin Dubh
28/2 Limerick, Dolan's
1/3 Waterford, The Forum