Inside The Fearless Spirit, Boundless Creativity & Unfolding Legacy of Dermot Kennedy
Photography: Will Beach / Styling: Jay Hines / Interview & Words: Tom Everest
It’s the morning after the night before; Dermot’s ground-breaking, live streamed lockdown performance at the Natural History Museum that was watched by thousands of fans across the world. Despite the late finish and the early start – confessing he’s running off of less than two hours sleep – Dermot still has a big presence. He’s not an imposing figure but he has an aura, a pull, that is soaked in serenity. He gives off the feeling that he’s in control of every situation. It’s the same magnetic force that gives his voice the power and texture to tug on the ears and emotions of any room he performs in.
For someone who spends so much of his time on the stage, in the spotlight, he can be surprisingly still, composed and understated. He’s watchful yet attentive. He’s unguarded but not unfiltered. He’s confident without it feeling contagious or contrived. He’s sure footed and, right now, he is content. He knows he has found his space and standing in the world. He knows how to balance the artist on the stage with the man off of it.
“I’m in a really good place to navigate this career, I feel very well equipped to deal with stuff,” he chimes. “It’s very rare that someone in my family or my friend group checks on me and I don’t mean that in a negative way but because they know I’m good. I feel in a very solid place with it all. I feel confident in the way I can navigate this whole thing. From every point of view, from a business point of view, from a creative point of view. I feel like I know exactly what I want to do and that everything to this point has gone the way I want it to. I’m blessed to say that I’m in a good place.”
The great thing is, despite the myriad of interviews that he’s done in recent years and his impressive midfield stint at Soccer Aid last month, Dermot remains a bit of an enigma. You always want to know a little bit more about him. Of course, you know the voice, you know the songs – Power Over Me, for instance, has notched 200 million streams on Spotify alone – and, most likely, you know his story. Rising from anonymous busker on the streets of Ireland into one of the most recognisable voices in modern music. But you don’t know him.
That’s why we wanted our chat with Dermot to take a different course. To focus on what makes him tick and to investigate the unique ties to football, basketball and hip hop that continue to fuel his rise. In fact, the parallels to top level sports and music, and the thread of determination and authenticity that ties the two worlds together, interweave throughout our conversation. The levels of ambition, competition and leadership that he admires from his football hero Roy Keane are the same qualities he sees in his close friend Jimmy Butler. The Miami Heat guard who is known for not only being one of the best players on the court but one of the fiercest competitors.
Like the aforementioned icons in the world of sport, Dermot has the vision to look beyond what he’s already achieved. He’s intent on breaking boundaries with new sounds, new collaborations and to blaze a trail for just being Dermot. Unapologetically and incredibly himself. A 28-year-old musician who has the belief that he can do anything he puts his mind to without having to sacrifice his life, personal relationships and integrity. It’s a precious place to be in your life. Which is why you not only believe he’s going to do what he says – like make a more permanent crossover into the world of hip hop – but you want him to do it.
So, here’s Dermot Kennedy on his love of Roy Keane, the psychological parallels between the top levels of sport and music and his friendship with NBA star Jimmy Butler.
We know you grew up an avid football fan and player but who first introduced you to the game and what impact did it have on your life?
I just started playing for my local team when I was 6 or 7, we had a decent team at 10 or 11 and won a couple of things. The game just resonated with me so much, my love for it was so deep and still is. It’s something I carry with me in everything I do. Playing football is the most enjoyable thing in the world but my favourite things were everything but the game, it was the friendships, camaraderie and banter.
That routine was a really crucial part of my life, training twice a week and playing at the weekend. I think I underestimated how much it affects me now that I don’t have it. There was something about football that was such a beautiful thing how clear your head is when you do it.
On socials you’ve often shared snippets and stories that show your admiration for the likes of Lebron and Kobe and their win-at-all-costs mentality. Do you use the sub-human quality of top-level sports and the mentality that they share to fuel your own performance when it comes to music?
1000%. That elite mentality transverses through so many different sports because it’s the same attitude. Some of my favourite footballers like Roy Keane, they’re just people who want to win at all costs – that’s the most important thing. I remember I was obsessed with him and when Ireland beat Holland in the World Cup qualifier in 2001, Jason McAteer scored and it was a huge thing for Irish football.
Keane was so important in that game but the second the final whistle went he was gone and I thought that was the coolest thing. He didn’t stick around for praise, that isn’t why he does it. He just has a deep thing inside him that he has to win. It was like when Lionel Messi scored and held up his jersey against Madrid. I just couldn’t get over how crazy that was, that 9 out of 10 times it is always that same leading figure to make things happen. I think that is so honourable.
There’s just so many things in football and sport that is just beautiful in terms of life experience.
So, what about United. Where does that affinity with the club come from?
My main thing was Keane. I definitely carry his attitude into music. It’s hard for me sometimes when there’s things like TikTok which is so far from what I do. I have no gimmicks, I just wanna show people what I can do, so I sometimes wish things were that simple.
It’d be interesting to see how he’d get on in football nowadays as players have to be so marketable whereas when he went from Forest to United back in the day nobody cared about that. He could play and bring trophies to them, and I take that to my music – I just want there to be a simplicity to the way I do things. I don’t care about making noise or promoting myself. I just want to show people what I do.
It’s funny because in music I guess I operate in an industry and an environment where it’s not necessarily cool to be uber competitive and to be aggressive in pursuit of what you want to do.
Say in football like Roy Keane or even Jimmy Butler whose a friend in the NBA, no matter who he bumps into, whether it be other players, they don’t think less of him because of how tough and aggressive he does things. Whereas, in music, it is almost seen as a negative thing to be competitive. That’s been something that I’ve been conscious of because I’m in an industry that’s based on love collaboration and reaching out to each other. I do really love that but then there’s part of me that is really competitive.
I wanted to talk about Jimmy Butler, how did you two become such good friends? He once put that video of him singing your track on Instagram. Did you know each other before that?
No, that was the first thing. I messaged him and we spoke a bit. We had two nights in LA earlier this year and he messaged me when I came off stage on the first night saying he’d been trying to text me, but I’d changed my number. They were playing the Clippers and were in town ahead of time, so I kind of messed up as he would’ve come to the show. After the second show we went for dinner.
We also played their end of year Gala in Miami and when I went into the crowd he was there with Jay Crowder and the whole team. A couple of people in my team asked if I was super nervous but to me it’s not at all nerve-wracking. Even though it’s all these guys who are 6’ 8”, super attractive, super built, it’s just not intimidating as there’s an instant air of kindness. You can go into that environment and people will always be nice to you. I think, especially in basketball, a lot of guys came from humble beginnings so they don’t take all that success for granted. I’d be so much more intimidated by going to a school reunion than walking in amongst a room of NBA stars!
Jimmy, like Roy Keane, is known for being a fierce competitor. What have you learned from him?
Well, I don’t necessarily bring up things about performance or competition because as a musician I feel like it’s not a thing people expect of me. I don’t think he necessarily is aware how much I admire that side of him or how much I admire what he’s achieved. I think it’s cool that there’s so much money in the sport but he remains so focussed and chilled. Damian Lillard is the same. He’s amazing. These players just haven’t lost sight of why they do what they do. It’s pure desire.
With the live stream Natural History Museum gig you did last night, that’s a super ambitious thing to do. If you look around the entire music landscape right now nobody’s attempting those moves. Does that sum up your fearless attitude?
When the idea first got thrown around I thought it was impossible. I don’t even approach something like that being deliberately fearless, I feel like I’ve done my due diligence and I deserve to do things like that having put in so much work.
People think I’ve only been around for two or three years but I’ve been doing this for a long time. When an opportunity like this comes up I have a very brief conversation with myself where I think ‘you can’t be intimidated by this’. For years I’ve felt like I deserved opportunities like this so when it comes you can’t be afraid of it.
Like you say you’ve been working on your music for years. But when did you make the formal transition from the football world into music?
Honestly, if you take it back to school, I was obviously involved in music but I was more excited when we had a game to play in school. I could tell I was good at music and I could tell people were excited by the way I could play and sing. This was around 15-16 years old but, at the time, music wasn’t the primary focus in my life.
It’s not that football was either as early on I knew I’d never have a career in football but I didn’t switch straight from that to music. Music was another thing I did and enjoyed and it felt good to do but I didn’t think of it as a career.
I think that was good because any gigs I played I wasn’t nervous as there was no real pressure as I didn’t think I was going to be a musician. However, I still went to college to do classical music when I was like 17-18 and I was very reluctant to do it. I wanted to play in the street because I wanted to start building my career as a real life musician and I feel like college took away from that.
It’s even crazy for me to be doing big-ish things now and being 28 years old. Ed Sheeran had a number 1 at 21. That’s crazy to me. There’s so many things that I’ve learned now I’m this age. I was never reckless but I definitely feel better equipped to deal with things now. If I meet somebody or if I’m in any meeting and someone doesn’t respect you, I don’t really care whereas when I was 20 that stuff would’ve knocked me back.
So, today, what would you consider to be your greatest virtue?
I think I’m in a really good place to navigate this career, I feel very well equipped to deal with stuff. It’s very rare that someone in my family or my friendship group check on me – I don’t mean that in a negative way but because they know I’m good.
I feel confident in the way I can navigate this whole thing from a business point of view, from a creative point of view. So I would say my composure is a strength.
That composure and level-headedness is an incredible strength to have even as an ordinary 28 year-old trying to navigate the world as we all are…
When we have victories like the museum gig I don’t get so excited that I can’t keep it together, I get a huge sense of fulfilment and it sinks in over a few days. Also, I think it’s important not to get too far into despair if bad things happen.
Sometimes I think people think that I’m potentially a bit robotic. It’s just fulfilment rather than excitement, it’s a really deep joy. When we played the 3Arena in Dublin and I went back to the dressing room my family and girlfriend organised for everyone to be there; a really close circle of friends and family. That counted for everything. There’s no point getting super successful and things aren’t right in your life. That’s where I get my true happiness from.
What about your relationship with music now, what’s the process?
The comfort and relief mentally I get from songwriting, for some time I took it for granted especially when it comes to touring extensively. If I’m having a bad day and I go out on stage and sing the songs as loud as I can, that really does help. Sometimes, it’s super easy for me to take that for granted because it’s something I always did. For me, what I often think about is when I was at college, for example, because I never really fitted in any musical circles.
All my best friends are just normal lads who were mad about football. That was my circle. So, whenever I wrote a song from the age of 16-23 I wasn’t doing it because I was obsessed with music or determined to have a career in music. I did it because I thought it had to be done and I really needed to get those feelings out. I think that comes a long way in achieving some sort of authenticity.
I never wrote a song because I felt like I should or that I owe it to my mates but these words, phrases and lyrics would show up in my head and this needs to be a song. I think it just goes a long way in terms of honesty with my music. It was hard to get used to going to LA for 3 weeks and being in the studio everyday when you’re working with a writer and a producer and you’re like ‘I don’t know?!’ what I want to say today. Even now being more established, I still have the same answer. I’m just more confident about it. I don’t sort of hide it. I’m just like I don’t know yet, let’s work on music, let’s throw words out there and see how I feel.
Does that kind of explain your affinity to hip hop? Your love for authenticity and organic processes when it comes to music…
Yes, definitely. I think I love hip hop so much because of that and also what we were talking about in relation to sport. Ambition, drive and things like that. I saw a video yesterday of Meek Mill free-styling from years ago and all the comments are like ‘God he seems so hungry and determined and that to be is so appealing’. There’s no way someone in Philadelphia was like “oh Meek Mill, you should go to this music school” or “go play guitar” he had to say that, he was speaking on his upbringing and his environment. The craft is incredible.
I think that’s why I work so hard to do powerful things and be passionate in my music because I really want people to know I’m not just singing about love for the sake of it. I want people to know it’s true. I just really want to set myself apart from the other singer/songwriters out there. It’s blatantly obvious when you watch people like Damian Rice you can tell its authentic life experience as well as any of Dave’s work. Like these guys couldn’t be from more different places but it’s the same thing, the same feeling, it’s the same honestly and it’s the same thing in your heart that stops you from containing any of that.
So, who would you like to collaborate with in that sort of realm?
You won’t catch me bringing out a rap album because I just know I shouldn’t do that, but I know for a fact I can do special things if I get my foot in that door. In the same way that Travis Scott likes to work with James Blake.
When I was with Mike Dean, he’s an all-time great hip-hop producer, I just knew it would work – it was a lovely relationship. People often ask me if I’d like to work with Bon Iver and obviously I would but the idea of collaborating with someone way outside of my lane is far more exciting to me than meeting up with another guy to write a love song.
It is more exciting to me musically, culturally and everything. I think it’s so important in music, with anything you do is to stay excited. You want to feel like you’re out of your depth or else what’s the point?
I think with you especially the way you are, your authenticity, it’s an exciting path to explore. I can fully believe it, see it, hear it. Maybe like a Bon Iver Kanye fusion…
100%. When the Bon Iver and Kanye thing happened everyone was so surprised how good it was but it was obvious it was going to be good. They’re both the best at what they do. If I got my foot in the door I know how determined I would be. I think it’s so important in music, with anything you do is to stay excited. You want to feel like you’re out of your depth or else what’s the point?
Finally, what is your biggest motivation?
One of the big things is that I want is respect from everyone. If someone doesn’t respect J Cole generally they’re just wrong. I get it if people don’t like his music but if you think that guy isn’t incredible or impressive I think it’s fair to say that they’re just wrong.
I just want everyone to know how much I put into this. I want to go across genres, I don’t want to just be a guy with a guitar forever. I want to be in a studio with Dave and J Cole. I want to have as diverse of a musical impact as I can possibly have.
I want to experience as much as I can and I think what I’m most determined to do. I’m very conscious of the fact that you can be here today and literally people won’t care tomorrow. I think that’s a massive reason why I work so hard is because I’m so determined to not let that happen.
There’s very few artists these days who you think will be around for a decade or forever. That sort of Elton John level is extra rare these days. I’m determined to consistently add to what I’m doing to make sure I don’t fade away.