Monday 16 July 2018

Meet Spotify's Irish star who is already selling out shows despite not having released an album

Dermot Kennedy hasn't released an album yet but he's playing sold-out shows from Cologne to Chicago. Here, the Dublin singer tells our reporter how he owes his global fan base to the support of the music streaming service - with a little help from Taylor Swift

Singer Dermot Kennedy
Singer Dermot Kennedy
Youthful ambition: Dermot Kennedy wrote his first song at the age of 15
Áine Cahill pictured on stage at Cruinniú na Cásca event at Smithfield Square. Picture: Kinlan Photography.
John Meagher

John Meagher

The concert has finished at the Olympia and two young female attendees can be heard talking about the show they've just witnessed as they make their way to the exits. "In years to come we'll be able to say we saw him play here," one says. "Somewhere as intimate as this."

The 1,200-capacity venerable Dublin venue may be intimate to the U2s of this world, but to few others - and yet the excitable chatter does not seem outlandish. Twenty-six-year-old Dermot Kennedy commanded the stage tonight as if he's been doing this for years and his rise has been so vertiginous that it's not outside the bounds of possibility to think that this Dubliner could become Ed Sheeran-big. The Olympia now - but Croke Park in three years' time?

Kennedy hasn't yet released an album. That may not happen until next year. But he has released a slew of singles and they have done very well, especially on streaming sites like Spotify. And although he may not be a household name in Ireland, he's able to sell out shows in both Cologne and Chicago.

If Kennedy is nervous about his maiden appearance at the Olympia, you'd never know it. For just over an hour he and his white T-shirt-garbed bandmates do a fine line in epic balladry that's as much influenced by hip-hop as it is by conventional singer-songwriters.

Youthful ambition: Dermot Kennedy wrote his first song at the age of 15
Youthful ambition: Dermot Kennedy wrote his first song at the age of 15

There's a buzz in the room that's unique to rising stars in the first flush of success and it's intriguing to sense the high proportion of young women present. Every single person standing in the front row is female and each pair of eyes is trained on Kennedy, following his every move. He meets Weekend in his spartan dressing room three hours before show-time. He's excited about playing his hometown after more than a month on the road in places like Hamburg and Zurich. "Stockholm was particularly special," he says, "it was 700 people and they were super respectful for the quiet bits and going bananas for the rest." The Olympia, he notes, was a venue he dreamed about playing when taking those first tentative steps at open mic nights. "It was definitely on the bucket list and it feels a bit surreal to be here right now. One of my favourite gigs was the Swell Season, with Glen Hansard, here. So special."

Kennedy is tall and broad and has the look of a sportsman about him. Get him on a heavy weights programme and he could be a rugby player. Being easy on the eye certainly won't impede his progress.

And the progress has been of breakneck speed over the past 24 months. Kennedy attributes Spotify to his rise from just another young man with a guitar to one who has spent most of this month on tour in the US.

"I did a gig in London two years ago and there were 70 people there and a couple came up to me afterwards and mentioned that the reason they were there is because they had heard me on Spotify that day. I went home and checked that I'd had 50,000 plays on Spotify that day alone - having gone from about 40 plays a day."

It was a was a huge jump and the streaming giant soon became intrigued by the Irishman. "I had no management at the time and I went in to meet them [Spotify] and they said the song had been picked due to an algorithm. Then they did a bit of a mini campaign on one of my songs, After Rain, and that was the point it really started turning. I stopped sending 100 emails a day to record companies, because people were finally listening now."

Kennedy had written several strong songs up to that point but is gracious to admit that luck has played its part. "Oh, for sure. There are a lot of talented people out there and they don't get that sort of opportunity. And the great thing for me is that I owned 100pc of the master [of the songs] and I was my own boss so any revenue coming in was going to me directly."

And the revenue was not to be sniffed at. Soon, Kennedy's music was enjoying in the region of four million streams a month which, in monetary terms, is about €20,000 in Spotify royalties.

That's quite a leap from someone who had busked on the streets.

"The income I was getting meant I could take everything to the next level and completely finance shows in New York and Los Angeles. When they sell out that puts you in a very favourable position with record companies." He's now signed to Universal Ireland and you get the sense that he has a very clear vision about where he wants to go.

He adores the American musician Bon Iver, aka Justin Vernon. "Glen Hansard talks about Bob Dylan being God for him, but to me it's Justin Vernon. Everything he does excites me so much and it would be a dream to collaborate with him one day but I'd be very, very nervous."

Vernon may have started out as a lo-fi, acoustic troubadour but his sound has evolved considerably. And there was a much vaunted collaboration with Kanye West. "I was talking to a friend of a friend of a friend who was in the car with Kanye when he first heard Bon Iver on the radio and he was so into it immediately."

Kennedy's own music is heavily inspired by hip-hop and he has done quite a lot of work with Mike Dean, the producer who's worked extensively with West and Travis Scott (one of the headliners of the rap-oriented Longitude festival in Dublin this summer). "The hip-hop elements have happened naturally," he says. "I haven't forced it on my music and I started writing songs because of my love of Glen and Conor O'Brien [of Villagers fame] and David Gray. There's much more cross-fertilisation in music now and audiences are much more receptive to different influences."

Last year, he woke up to a whole new audience when he was included on a Spotify playlist hand-picked by Taylor Swift. "That song Boston was barely out of the Spotify top five as a result," he says. "It was a huge boost and when I looked at the other artists she picked I saw that I liked a lot of them, too.

"I wasn't listening to her before," he says, somewhat sheepishly. "Her music isn't really my thing but I listened to her 1989 album and there were really good pop songs there. I mean, it's impossible not to appreciate how good a pop song Style is."

Kennedy grew up in the far reaches of Co Dublin, where it meets the borders of Kildare and Wicklow. "It's way out," he quips. "Dublin 26 and a half."

He says he "wasn't led down a path towards music" when growing up but his sister Claire - now a doctor - was an excellent pianist. "There's a great piano at my parents' place for me to practise on."

His aunt is the veteran RTÉ broadcaster Mary Kennedy. "Yeah, she's cool," he says. "She's my dad's sister." No doubt, she has been following his career with some interest.

Kennedy says he wrote his first song at 15 and got to perform it at a singer-songwriter night at Bruxelles bar in Dublin city centre. It gave him the bug to really go for it and after his Leaving Cert he studied for a degree in music at NUI Maynooth.

"It was a classical course and very intense," he says. "Sometimes it felt as though it was taking the magic of music away because we were having to analyse it to death."

He met his drummer there. "Micheal did the course with me and we formed a bond in adversity," he says with a laugh. "I think we knew early on that we wanted to do a very different type of music."

Now he says that those years in university may help when it comes to the arrangement of a string section for one of his songs, but he admits it hasn't been of much service to his songwriting.

He has been working on songs with Carey Willetts of the English band Athlete, and hopes to record an album between festival dates this summer; last week saw him announced as part of the Electric Picnic line-up. "I definitely want the recording to happen in Ireland," he says. "I've been away from home an awful lot and I need to remind myself that I'm an Irish artist and am very proud of it. I certainly feel like an Irish musician when I'm in the States and now that the music has taken a turn in what's largely an American genre (hip-hop), I don't want to shed the Irish thing at all, and I always try to have stripped back acoustic stuff in the set so I'm connecting with what I grew up loving."

Kennedy's route towards the top had not followed the traditional path of first breaking Ireland, then building up a fanbase in the UK or America.

"The route would be so difficult," he says. "I think the internet has meant that it's possible to bypass that but, as I've said, luck certainly plays its part."

He says he has never been part of a music scene in the capital. "I was never one to hang around scenes and even in college when everyone would go out after, I'd head home. Living in the outskirts of Dublin meant I wasn't in town that much."

Being something of a loner helped with the business of writing songs and he says he has been enjoying something of a productive phase of late. "I'm excited about the album, about which of the new songs will work and not forgetting some of the stuff that I wrote four years ago that really should be in the conversation about which will make the final cut.

"I usually write the music first and then the lyrics. But there are times where you'd be sitting on a train, maybe, and you write a song's worth of lyrics and then try to jam them into a song. I love the way Bon Iver writes phonetically and chooses words that sound best, but then I feel in love with music and with the stories they were telling."

Tonight in the Olympia local musician David Keenan is playing support. "He's such a brilliant musician and when you go to a gig in Dublin now you're struck by how high the standard is," he says. "I saw Ye Vagabonds live a while back and they just blew me away."

He says that as a rising musician himself, he is keen to give a leg up to others. "Glen Hansard did that with me a few years ago. He invited myself and Declan O'Rourke and Damien Dempsey on stage at different times to do our thing and it was incredible exposure.

"Afterwards, I said to him that I'd really appreciated the opportunity and he told me that the moment you start to think it's very important to see yourself on the poster was the moment you've lost it. I've never forgotten that."

There's no stopping Dermot Kennedy for now. As soon as the US tour has finished, he's on a plane to Australia.

"All I've ever wanted was to be able to play songs and for people to come and hear them. I feel very fortunate to be able to do that and I'm not the sort of person to take that for granted. I take every day as it comes and hopefully become better and better at what I'm doing."

dermotkennedymusic.com

Three more to watch out for…

EDEN

Jonathon Ng spent his first few years in Hong Kong, his father's home, but grew up in Dublin. He released his debut album Vertigo to considerable critical acclaim at the beginning of the year and, like Dermot Kennedy, much of his success is self-made online. His songs have attracted millions of views on his YouTube channel and he is now managed by Scooter Braun, whose stable includes Justin Bieber, Kanye West and Usher.

REJJIE SNOW

Nigerian-Irish Dubliner Alex Anyaegbunam was a football prodigy who got a scholarship to a US university, but a greater love of music dictated his future direction. The leading light in the fast-growing field of Irish rap, he has won major acclaim in the US and has worked with some of hip-hop's leading lights. His debut album, Dear Annie, was released last month and was The Guardian's album of the week.

ÁINE CAHILL

2018-03-24_ent_39296689_I3.JPG
Áine Cahill pictured on stage at Cruinniú na Cásca event at Smithfield Square. Picture: Kinlan Photography.
 

The Cavan native has already played Glastonbury and been named as one-to-watch by the BBC. She has won plaudits for her sophisticated pop songs, including Plastic. There have been comparisons to Adele and Lorde and the intensity of her singing has ensured she has hoovered up fans. There was a much-praised show in the Olympia in Dublin last year and a debut album is likely to land in late 2018.

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