Damien Dempsey is a straight-up national treasure. A salty Dub direct from the casting agency, he embodies many virtues: he's plain spoken and takes a pint, yet has a soulful side and can knuckle down too.
Of all his achievements, surely one of the most impressive was his cameo in the recent autobiography by Smiths singer and icon to lonely men everywhere, Morrissey. Not only did Dempsey receive a prominent hat-tip in the tome – he was practically the only party in Moz's screed not to stagger away doused in vitriol. Instead of twisting the knife, Morrissey praised Damo as endlessly decent – and a fantastic singer to boot. "Damien captivates and enchants with all the love of one blessed and unselfish," writes Morrissey. "I see myself crying at his funeral."
Naturally Dempsey was chuffed – but surprised too. Prior to publication he had no idea he'd merited inclusion in the memoir.
"I remember the night he talks about in the book. I'd finished performing in the Workman's Club [Dublin]. Morrissey asked me to come into the Clarence Hotel and do a song. I sang an old traditional tune, Morrissey and the Russian Sailor, which he loved.
"We ended up back at the Four Seasons. Morrissey had a gig that weekend so his crew called an early night. Nobody was manning the bar – myself and my brothers, helped ourselves. It turns out they keep a tally of all the pints poured and, the following morning, Morrissey, was presented with the bill! His PA remembered – the next time we met, she said 'you enjoyed yourself that night, didn't you?'"
Dempsey has just put out his first 'greatest hits' collection. A two disc affair, It's All Good traces his evolution from shy troubadour (in his early 20s he was too terrified to give interviews) to songwriting institution, an artist who makes rootsy Dublin folk feel contemporary.
His whole career is chronicled, including struggles with writer's block leading up to 2012's Almighty Love LP.
"That was tough," says Dempsey. "What happened, I think, is that I lost sight of why people like me. It's for my lyrics – not so much my instrumentation or my voice or such. It's what I write about. When you're not engaged by your own music, it's no surprise that other people won't be either."
He's already started on his next album (while still in negotiations with Sony Records, with whom his present contract is now over). Among the topics he plans on addressing are Facebook bullying and the negative influence of social media on young people. Like most, he was shocked by recent reports of internet-fuelled drinking games such as 'Neknomination'.
"It's crazy – crazy," he says. "When I was a young fella we'd drink cans, never spirits. Maybe the girls would drink vodka. Not the guys. Now you have all these young men drinking all sorts and going mad."
Dempsey has, for his part, avoided Twitter and abandoned Facebook. It just made him lonely.
"I felt completely alone," he says. "You put something up on Facebook and nobody replies. You start to feel isolated. How it must be for kids I don't know. You're better off with your own thoughts."
Dempsey admits to an overactive mind. If he's not careful, he can brood. To keep his dark side at bay, he exercises a lot, recently cultivating a penchant for yoga.
"It clears your head. I tend to over-analyse and I need a way of coping. I had yoga lessons – it's fantastic. You take a few minutes, breathe deeply – it clears your head. It's a wonderful feeling."
A person who likes to keep to himself, the singer nonetheless has a curious habit of striking up celebrity friendships. He's close to Morrissey. He's also chummy with Glen Hansard and Sinead O'Connor, with whom he dueted on the 2002 single Negative Vibes. Last summer he struck up an acquaintance with Bruce Springsteen, who skipped a flight out of Ireland so that he could stay up jamming with Dempsey.
"Springsteen was a big influence on me," says Dempsey. "Seeing him in full flight, taking into consideration his age, was incredible. That was the best live show I've seen. And he's just such a nice guy – so humble and down to earth. Springsteen makes you feel about music the way you did when you were a teenager. He bottles the essence of rock 'n' roll and then opens it and pours it all over the crowd."
As his antics at the Four Seasons attest, Dempsey is partial to the occasional pint. However, he minds how he goes, having seen too many promising musicians lose their way in a sea of booze.
"I don't mind a drink – but you don't want to overdo it. I've watched it happen to people. Drink is a distraction for them and they forget why they got into music. I'd prefer to go for a swim or a cycle. You want to clear your head, not sit around letting your thoughts get on top of you."
It's All Good is out now
Singing in tongues
Damien Dempsey is a rare example of an artist who sings in his native accent – in his case a Dublin burr. Here are some of his fellow travellers.
The BBC Sound Of nominee has attracted comparisons to Lily Allen by dint of the rich cockney tones in which she warbles.
These Snow Patrol/Coldplay acolytes have achieved medium-scale success with singer Scott Hutchison continuing to sound like a real-life Scottish person.
No matter what you think of their low-brow 'comedy' – mystifyingly the duo are being embraced in the UK as we speak – it's clear that Rubberbandits are standing proudly by their Limerick accents.
Singing in an Estuary UK lilt verging on the self-parodying, Nash seems deeply adverse to the letter 'r' – by her reckoning 'ever' sounds much better when sang as 'evah'.