Damien Dempsey: ‘Injustice drives me when I write... anger can fire you up creatively’
Damien Dempsey has always been a politicised songwriter, and shows no signs of mellowing on his newly released album. He talks to our music critic about the Apollo House occupation, the Famine and why he's not a big fan of our new Taoiseach
It is a question that encourages Damien Dempsey to break out into the widest grin. Is he happy, I venture, with how his career has panned out?
"You bet I am," he says, and you believe him. "I've been able to do something I love, to follow my dream and to be able to keep my head above water. Even my house... I can thank music for that. So, yeah, if you'd shown me a picture of where I'd be at in 2017 when I first started to make music, I would have been really happy."
It wasn't always as clear-cut, though. For the first couple of years, Dempsey could barely scrape by.
"I didn't have a penny to my name," he says, "and there's nothing romantic about the struggling musician, I can tell you. It was really tough and there were so many times early on - even after the release of the first couple of albums - when I thought I was going to pack it all in."
It was something singer-songwriter and good friend Imelda May experienced around the same time. "We used to talk about it, about how difficult it is to try to start off and really commit yourself to your music and to try your best to do it full-time.
"People don't really talk about it," he adds, "but who knows how many really good musicians and artists had to give up because they couldn't make ends meet?"
Happily for Dempsey - and May - they never had to abandon their artistic dreams. They're still close: they duet together on 'Big Big Love', one of the standouts on his latest album, Soulsun. "Sometimes we think back to those days when we were starting out and we're glad we've come through it."
Dempsey first came to our attention in 2000 with the robust and frank single 'Dublin Town', and a thrillingly plain-speaking debut album, They Don't Teach this Shit at School. I remember seeing him play Whelan's, Dublin, that year - I've forgotten who he was supporting - but will never forget the way his singing stilled all chatter.
He talks about how his sound has evolved and how he doesn't want to repeat himself, but the forthrightness of his vocals remains constant - and that's certainly the case on Soulsun. "I don't know any other way," he says, simply. "I grew up in the ballad tradition. That was the sort of music that really moved me, and everything was about the power of your voice and what you wanted to say."
Dempsey has always had a politicised approach to his songwriting, something that really became apparent on second album Seize the Day, back in 2003. It was his major label debut (with Sony) and it's continued through all his albums, right up to Soulsun.
An arresting new song, 'Sam Jenkins', asks the listener to rethink the horrors of the Great Famine. It examines the blackest period of our history through the eyes of a young, working-class English soldier who is part of a battalion sent to Ireland and charged with helping to ship tonnes of food from this country to Britain.
Sam Jenkins was not a real soldier, but rather an amalgamation of young men that Dempsey had read about. But the seizure of large quantities of food, essentially taken from the mouths of the starving population, really did happen.
"Soldiers like Sam had more in common with the poor Irish than with those who were over them," he says. "What happened in the 1840s had a huge impact on the country from then on, yet it's a period that isn't talked about nearly often enough. It bothers me that it's known as a 'famine', when, in fact there was a huge amount of food produced that was stolen from us and shipped to England. It mightn't have saved everybody who died, but it would have ensured that the death toll wasn't quite as bad."
It's not the first time that Dempsey has railed against the injustices of the British Empire. One of his earliest and most emblematic songs, 'Colony', tackles the civil-rights abuses perpetrated not just by the British, but also by colonising overlords from France, Germany, Belgium and Portugal.
"Injustice is something that drives me when I write songs," he says. "It makes me angry and anger can really fire you up creatively."
While the Irish ballad tradition is full of singers who tackled such themes in song, few of Dempsey's songwriting peers seem similarly engaged. He's at a loss to why.
"Maybe they weren't listening to the same kind of songs that I was listening to when I was growing up," he says. "I'm not talking about rebel songs, but more about songs that took on the pressing issues of the time. People like Christy Moore took a look at the society they lived in and they captured much of what was wrong with it."
Dempsey, along with Glen Hansard, was among the musicians who occupied the Nama-owned Apollo House in the centre of Dublin at Christmas time. In a much publicised move, scores of homeless people were housed there during the festive season, helping to throw into depressingly sharp relief the huge numbers of people forced to live on the streets.
"There are so many people living in real hardship today," he says, "and not just the homeless, although that is one of the great scandals of today. There are tens of thousands of households behind on their mortgage payments - not because they just decided they weren't going to pay it, but because they got into difficulties financially. Maybe they lost their jobs or had to take big pay cuts, and there are still plenty of parts of this country that hasn't seen an economic recovery.
"But while the bankers got every assistance, the ordinary people have been thrown to the mercy of vulture funds whose only priority is to make money quick. The Government needs to take a long, hard look at itself."
Dempsey is not over enamoured with our new Taoiseach. "Leo Varadkar has talked about banning strikes," he says. "How right-wing does that sound? Having the right to strike should be a fundamental part of any democracy."
It's fair to say Dempsey is on the opposite end of the political spectrum to Varadkar. Were he a TD in the Dáil, he would surely be swelling the ranks of People Before Profits rather than any of the conventional parties - he was, after all, an enthusiastic supporter of the demonstrations against water taxes. "I was proud of how the people stood up to that - we're taxed enough."
Despite his trenchant political views, he says he has no interest in going into politics. "That's never interested me," he says. "I want to keep making music. That's my job."
Soulsun was conceived comparatively painlessly. Dempsey wrote a large batch of songs - "some of them shite," he deadpans - and recorded them with regular producer John Reynolds. "We've worked together a long time," he says of a producer most famous for his studio collaborations with Sinéad O'Connor. "He knows my strengths and some of the weaknesses. He's a straight-talker and if he doesn't like something, he'll tell you straight away. It's the way I like to work, too - direct, to the point, no messing."
Dempsey is built like a boxer - he showed promise as a teen - and you'd think long and hard before stepping into the ring with him. But there's a gentleness, too, and it's the combination of both that helps to make the best of his work so compelling.
When he was starting off, he says, his family had reservations about his chosen career.
"They were worried about how I'd support myself," he says, "and I don't blame them, but when you feel utterly compelled to write songs and perform them, you have to follow your heart."
His description of the hard physical labour common to members of the Dempsey family reminds me of Seamus Heaney's celebrated poem, 'Digging', in which the future Nobel laureate eschewed the spade in favour of the pen. He relishes the comparison.
"There's no doubt about it, it's easier to pursue a creative path when you're from a well-off background, when you feel you can fail and there'll be a safety net. But there's also something thrilling about following your dreams when there's no safety net. It makes you even more determined to succeed."
Soulsun is out now. Damien Dempsey plays Dublin's Iveagh Gardens on July 21