Sunday 20 October 2019

Lunch with Damien Dempsey: Ronnie Drew never watered down his accent – why should I?

Folk singer talks about stage fright, supporting The Boss, and his new album

Folk food: Damien Dempsey and Deirdre at lunch in the Exchequer Gastropub.
Folk food: Damien Dempsey and Deirdre at lunch in the Exchequer Gastropub.

Deirdre Reynolds

There's a yarn that Damien Dempsey tells about how pal Shane MacGowan once warned him to switch from brown spirits to clear ones that are easier on the liver. As we catch up ahead of his headline gig at The Iveagh Gardens tomorrow night, however, hard man Damo is hitting the camomile tea to settle his nerves instead.

More than 10 years after hitting the big time with his second album Seize the Day, the Donaghmede singer admits he still suffers from crippling stage fright.

"It's a challenge, you know," says Damien. "You're sitting there and just terrified.

"Then when you have to get up and do it, you feel great afterwards. It's a great release; the tension is gone, the nerves are gone. You conquered your fear, getting up there in front of people. Maybe I need the affirmation – someone to tell you you're good or clap or something."

Twenty-thousand thunderous fans should do the trick when the 38-year-old supports the ultimate working-class hero later this month.

Both Damien and Glen Hansard are set to steel the crowd for Bruce Springsteen at The Wrecking Ball Weekender in Kilkenny.

"I've never met him, but I'm a huge fan," says Damien, folding his six-foot-something frame on to one of the low sofas at The Exchequer for lunch.

"Bruce has plenty of Irish blood. Glen is going to ask him to learn a verse of 'The Auld Triangle', so hopefully we'll get to sing a song with him."

On opening for The Boss, he adds: "There's not that much pressure. The pressure's on him really. You just have to make a good account of yourself. I try to do the same gig for whoever's there, [whether it's] 20 people or 20,000."

Currently riding high with his sixth album Almighty Love, Damien admits he's come a long way from the wannabe folk star who retreated to the local library while on the dole, and even further from the angry teen listening to Bob Marley in his bedroom, too shy to sing in front of others.

"I feel very lucky," he says. "When my first album [They Don't Teach This Shit in School] came out, it disappeared. It went nowhere.

"But I'm stubborn – I didn't give up. When I was 28, my luck sort of changed."

Damien, who credits music with stopping him from going down the wrong track, adds: "When you're unemployed, you've got lots of time on your hands to be writing.

"I went to the library and educated myself. If you have something artistic to do, the dole can be good."

Winning celeb fans like Sinéad O'Connor and Morrissey didn't hurt either: "Sinéad is on the last album doing backing vocals.

"She rocks up to Vicar Street the odd time and just jumps up and sings backing vocals [without] an introduction or anything, just for the love of the music.

"Going for walks with Christy Moore, singing with Shane MacGowan, being on an album with [The Dubliners'] John Sheahan and Barney McKenna – meeting all these heroes of mine, growing up, that's something I could only dream about."

Shooting to fame with songs like 'Celtic Tiger' and 'Ghosts of Overdoses', Dempsey has long been pigeon-holed as the voice of Ireland's Jilted Generation.

With Almighty Love, however, his latest album, the former amateur boxer finally reveals his softer side.

"People thought the last album was going to be all about how the government screwed us and all about the banks," says Damien.

"But people know that [already] – it's being rammed down their throat every day.

"To write an album on top of that . . . I wouldn't do it. I went more personal with it – keep them guessing."

On that note, Damien has just two years left to make good on a vow he made in this paper 10 years ago to settle down in his 30s.

"I said that, yeah?" he laughs. "That's mad!

"I don't see myself settling down anytime soon. When you get the road in the blood, it's very hard to see yourself not doing it.

"When you're playing music, coming in late at night, it'd be very hard on somebody [who has] a normal routine. Maybe in my 40s!"

Unlike some Northside stars who've famously relocated south of the river, down-to-earth Damo still lives at home in Donaghmede.

Although not with his ma, he jokes: "Not at my age! I have a house out there.

"I had a flat in town for a while, but there are too many pubs all around you.

"It's so hard to get out to the sea for a swim because I don't drive; whereas when you live in Donaghmede, you can cycle to the cliffs.

"Anyway, I couldn't afford anything in Killiney – a caravan is the only thing I could afford out there!"

Although Damien has spoken openly about battling drink, drugs and depression in the past, these days it seems like he's taken Shane MacGowan's advice to heart.

"In this game, if you drink whenever the opportunity is there, you'd be dead," he says.

"I don't drink during the week [to] give the body a break. It's good for your head and good for your soul.

"I swim every day in the sea, if I can. It's my fix, my elixir. And I still do a bit of boxing."

The built balladeer is just back from touring Australia, but reckons nothing beats sleeping in his own bed.

"I was in 15 different hotel rooms in six weeks over there," tells Damien, tucking into a pork chop and mash.

"When people hear you saying it, they go, 'Jesus, I'd love that'. After the 10th flight and 10th hotel room see how much you love it. I couldn't wait to get home."

As his distinctly Dublin sound continues to go global though, it's something he'd better get used to.

"With the internet now, your music gets to much more people," says Damien, who's set to tour the States this September. "You see people in their 70s and kids 10 years of age [in the audience].

"People you wouldn't expect to be there. It crosses over to a lot of people."

But he has no intention of developing a mid-Atlantic twang to suit: "Filipinos, Malaysians, New Zealanders, they get what I'm talking about.

"They don't see it as 'That's a working class Dublin accent'; they just see a fella singing songs.

"Anyway, Ronnie Drew never watered his [accent] down, so I don't see why I should."

He adds: "Some people are ashamed of their own accents. Other people despise people who speak like that, think they're all into criminality and stuff.

"If people don't like the accent, they don't have to listen to me, you know. There are a thousand other bands out there."

After our chat, in-demand Damien is off to rehearsals for upcoming Irish movie Cardboard Gangsters. "I play a hitman who gets shot," he laughs. "It's just a small scene. I haven't done a full film yet.

"I can do five minutes as a hard man, alright, but a lot of people can do that."

For Damien though, music will always be his almighty love: "Folk will always be in the houses and pubs, at weddings and funerals, even if it's not on the radio or TV.

"I don't think it's my job [to carry the torch], it will be carried on by the people.

"I just do what I'm doing."

Damien Dempsey with special guests Gavin James & Wallis Bird are live at The Iveagh Gardens, Sunday, July 14. Gates: 6.30pm.

Tickets €33.50 from and outlets nationwide.

Irish Independent

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