Monday 15 July 2019

Dermot Kennedy... the incredible rise of Ireland's hottest new star

Singer/songwriter Dermot Kennedy is the Irish superstar you may not be aware of, and he has achieved success without compromising his art or his principles. Currently flying high in America, this refreshing enigma — who is a nephew of national treasure Mary Kennedy — tells Chloe Brennan how Spotify catapulted him from busking on Grafton Street to performing at sold-out tours of the US, and appearing at mega-festival Coachella and on ‘Ellen’

Dermot Kennedy, the music sensation has over 500 million plays on streaming platforms. Photo: Patrick McHugh
Dermot Kennedy, the music sensation has over 500 million plays on streaming platforms. Photo: Patrick McHugh
Built like a rugby player - Dermot Kennedy. Photo: Patrick McHugh
At the artists' entrance to US chat show 'Ellen' - Dermot says appearing on such a programme is "surreal; it doesn’t necessarily sink in. The whole thing was a blur"
Dermot Kennedy performing on stage
Chloe Brennan

Chloe Brennan

Arctic Monkeys will forever be indebted to MySpace - the social-media site that peaked in the mid-noughties - because it's where they originally accumulated a fan base. The band was one of the first in the music industry to avoid the typical route through which artists are signed, promoted and marketed by record labels - and, in doing so, they changed the music industry forever.

Fifteen years later, and 27-year-old singer/songwriter Dermot Kennedy - nephew of RTE presenter and national treasure Mary Kennedy - is this decade's success story - though not through MySpace; his meteoric rise to prominence has been via the music streaming app, Spotify. To date, he has had over 500 million plays on music-streaming platforms - if you're over 30, you may not have heard of him, but to the millennial generation, he's a global phenomenon.

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In 2017, Edward Newett, the creator of the Spotify Discover Weekly algorithm, told Wired Magazine how, with it, he was trying to model the behaviour of every single user on Spotify - their tastes, based primarily on their listening habits; what features they use on Spotify, and also what artists they follow. The algorithm takes these things into consideration, and every Monday, recommends artists and music to its subscribers that Spotify thinks they would like, but might not have heard about.

"So it was an algorithm that essentially catapulted you ahead in the music scene?" I ask Dermot when we meet in Dublin during a break in his hectic schedule. He nods in agreement. "They [Spotify] had put my song, After Rain, in a Discover Weekly [playlist] which means loads of people saw it. I don't even know how it got in there, but basically that flagged it for everybody on Spotify and then they started looking at my stuff. At the time, there were only three songs [on it]."

Built like a rugby player - Dermot Kennedy. Photo: Patrick McHugh
Built like a rugby player - Dermot Kennedy. Photo: Patrick McHugh

That was three years ago, around the time when Dermot was playing gigs six months apart in small Dublin venues, such as The Workman's Club and the Unitarian Church, as well as busking and saving his money to release EPs.

Classical studies

After attending Holy Family secondary school in Rathcoole, Co Dublin, Dermot completed his degree in classical music in Maynooth. "I feel like I kind of dismissed it a little bit," he says. "Because I was trying to focus on the music I'm producing now, so I felt like [classical music] had no relevance in my life, whereas I should have really appreciated seeing how actual masters like Mozart did it, but at the time I thought I was too cool."

Dermot - who is tall, broad shouldered and built like a rugby player - admits his busking origins stand to him now: "It meant I didn't have to get a normal job and, just timewise, busking was perfect. You could do one day a week and make enough to survive, and then the rest of the week can be put towards what you actually want to do, like your writing or whatever it is. I was completely wrecking my voice because I had no amp, I was just playing acoustic in the street, but I think that's where I figured out how to throw my voice around, and that has been hugely important for me."

It wasn't long until music labels started to reach out, in the hopes of offering Dermot a deal and signing him to their label. He found he was wasting too much time writing emails and answering phone calls, so he took it upon himself to get a manager, "And then I realised things weren't slowing down in terms of plays and gigs, so I realised I could take it much further without a deal... so we delayed it for ages. It meant I wasn't in a position where I desperately wanted a deal and they could swing it in whatever way suited them. It was a situation where this project was working, so if anyone was to come on board, it was to get on board with the vision that already exists. I had established what it [the music] was going to be, creatively, and all that, so it made sense." Dermot is now signed to Universal Music Group.

Extra dates

Dermot - who is rumoured to be romantically linked to former Dublin Rose Aisling Finnegan - has spent an abundance of time over the last two years on tour. His cousin, Lucy Foster - daughter of the aforementioned Mary Kennedy - travels with him as his photographer. Originally, he had planned two nights in the Olympia Theatre in Dublin last month, but they sold out instantly, prompting his management to add an extra date. And then another.

"We were in Washington, and I was asleep, and when I woke up, our group WhatsApp chat was flying with messages coming in saying, 'It's sold out... put another one on... it's sold out'. So yeah, we ended up doing four nights."

At the artists' entrance to US chat show 'Ellen' - Dermot says appearing on such a programme is
At the artists' entrance to US chat show 'Ellen' - Dermot says appearing on such a programme is "surreal; it doesn’t necessarily sink in. The whole thing was a blur"

Is playing at home different to abroad? "It's unique. There's a nice reverence for the music. It just feels like there is a good energy, and I feel at home for sure."

At those Olympia Theatre gigs, his voice, raspy and powerful, resonated around the space, which was full of devoted fans. Both his voice and songs share similarities to artists like David Gray and Glen Hansard, whom he confesses to be a fan of. But Dermot's songs, especially his recent releases - such as Power of Me, which was included in YouTube's 'Ones to watch 2019' playlist; and Moments Passed, which he later collaborated on with Kanye West's right-hand man and producer, Mike Dean - have a mix of hip-hop and folk throughout, while still maintaining his original sound. "Songs just started happening and falling out of me over time," he says, "And I didn't give it too much thought, but it feels like the natural thing to do."

The Rathcoole native has had an interesting few months, to say the least. He was the only Irish person to perform at this year's Coachella - one of the world's largest, most popular music festivals, which hosts over 250,000 people over two weekends in April. "The amount of Irish people there was so cool," he says. "The amount of Irish flags in the crowd was awesome."

Dermot's fans didn't just gather in the Colorado Desert to see him perform. They are all over the world, thanks to his Spotify presence. He sells out theatres from Portland to Paris (which is listed on the music-streaming app as the location with the highest monthly listeners). "It feels like an organic thing," he says. "It means the music is the only thing that I have to worry about. Spotify was the thing that moved for me first; it meant that the venues were full of people who had happened upon Spotify, so they just wanted to see those songs played. It's a lovely, organic thing. I don't have to be anything that I'm not. All people are expecting is the music, and that's all I want to do."

Fan base

His fan base seems to be growing at an exponential rate. A little over a year ago, Dermot played to an audience of 300 people in Cologne in Germany; on his recent return, that audience had grown to 4,000.

In March, he performed Power Over Me on Ellen, the popular American chat show hosted by comedian Ellen DeGeneres. Had she reached out? "I believe so, yeah," he says. "Someone let me know that she had personally asked [for me to appear]. It is surreal and it doesn't necessarily sink in. It passes you by. You can't prepare yourself for the moment when she [Ellen] announces you, and the big wall opens and everyone stands up. We played a fast-paced song, too, so the whole thing feels just mad - the whole thing was a blur."

Dermot Kennedy performing on stage
Dermot Kennedy performing on stage

With plenty of festivals lined up to see him through to the end of summer, including Electric Picnic, where he will take to the main stage before Hozier; and his recent stratospheric success - Coachella; Ellen; a sold-out tour of both North America and Europe - one would assume that Dermot has released at least one album.

He hasn't, yet. His as-yet-untitled debut album is scheduled for release later this year, and will undoubtedly be another triumph. And who knows what opportunities that will bring? Perhaps a string of nights in arenas across the globe.

In a world full of self-obsessed millennials, who overshare updates of their lives on social media, it's particularly refreshing to stumble upon an enigma like Dermot.

Portraits by Patrick McHugh

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