Every so often you come across an artist who pushes a genre forward in a new direction. Dermot Kennedy is that artist. Equal parts rustic folk and soulful grit with a hip-hop influence, Ireland’s Dermot Kennedy offers his own blend of passionate, introspective songwriting.
I gave Dermot a call to talk about his latest EP, and find out what we can expect from his forthcoming set on the YouTube Presents stage at The Great Escape.
Dermot! How’s your day going?
Yeah, going well! I’m in the studio at the moment in London.
How are you feeling about playing The Great Escape this weekend?
I can’t wait, I’ve been looking forward to it for a while. I’ve never actually been, but I’ve got a bunch of friends – producers I work with – who have been and said it’s an amazing weekend. So i’m really excited.
What can we expect from your set on the YouTube Stage?
I think people are often surprised by how powerful it [my set] is, and how big a production it is. Because the songs started out as just being acoustic, and it was just a raw set with a guitar and a piano. But now it’s grown to the point where it’s a full band, and there’s a big sound. So that’s what to expect.
I caught you at SXSW recently. Do you feel your experience playing there has prepared you for The Great Escape?
Yeah, we played 7 shows in 5 days, so it was hectic enough. But I know other artists go to SXSW and they end up doing almost double digits in terms of gigs in just a few days. So our experience was pretty chilled out. It was just a great thing to be a part of. And it was bang in the middle of our North American tour, so it was great to be stationed in Austin for a week in-between travelling all around America. I don’t know for sure if The Great Escape is a similar vibe to SXSW, but I believe it is – and having loads of new acts play in one city is cool.
Who else on The Great Escape line up should we be checking out?
I know Grace Carter’s playing, she’s awesome. I believe Sam Fender is playing, who’s a good friend of ours. Myself, and the band, and the crew, we always try and catch him when we’re on the same line up. He’s awesome. And there’s an Irish guy called David Keenan. I’m not sure what stage he’s playing, but he’s a really special artist.
Let’s talk about the Mike Dean Presents EP. Production throughout the EP pushes a more hip hop sound, but it still feels intimate and acoustic. Was that intentional?
Yeah 100%. The reason I always stayed in the acoustic lane was because I wanted the story to get across, and I wanted people to feel something from the lyrics, and the vocal performance. But I’ve always wanted to push myself creatively, and I’ve always been a big fan of hip hop. Then I hit a point where I realised you could have both. You can have bigger production on your songs, and work with cool beats and samples, and mash the two genres together. And if you do it right, it doesn’t necessarily take away the power of the vocal or the story it started out as. And the story is always important to me, so, yeah, it was definitely intentional that I kept the intimacy.
Are all of your songs based on personal experiences?
Pretty much, I’d say 95% of them are deeply personal to me. There’s probably one or two lines here and there that are just stories. But I think that’s fun to do, and it means you can detach from it a little bit – because it can get quite heavy if you’re just writing about your own stuff all the time.
What’s the concept behind your song Couldn’t Tell?
It’s funny, because that’s the song I thought of when you asked if all of my songs are completely personal. I mean, the first verse of Couldn’t Tell is just a story to be told. I’ve always been fascinated with fairytales and poetry. I always find it a tricky one, to pin a song down to just one meaning. I never really sit down and concentrate on one subject. The best I can do is take people somewhere when I’m playing songs, and help them go on a journey. That’s what my favourite artists do for me. So the first verse of ‘Couldn’t Tell’ is just a beautiful story, the chorus is quite personal, I’ve got my things that I think about, but I’d say the concept behind the song is nostalgia.
I love your version of Drake’s Furthest Thing, what made you want to cover that song in that way?
I became obsessed with hip-hop after Drake’s Nothing Was The Same album. I never want to take it too far when I’m doing a cover in that genre, and I never want to try and do something that I’m not – so I tried to stay in the same lane. But I think, to a certain degree, there’s a lack of respect within hip-hop in terms of the level of artistry and the amount of commitment and dedication and lyrical skill involved. So it felt really good to put my own spin on something that I thought was an incredible song. It’s funny because people will tag me in little snippets of the song, not knowing it’s a Drake song, and thinking it’s me. It’s the perfect example of how genres might be different, but they can live together for sure, in my opinion.
You’ve had a lot of success with people discovering your music on YouTube and Spotify. Do you think albums are still important? Is there a big album campaign ahead for you?
I’m not sure whether they are in a marketing sense. But on a personal level, to me, I absolutely think albums are still important. All of the work I’ve put in over the last ten years has lead to this debut album. So that’s incredibly exciting for me. I think it’s cool to gather your absolute best 12, 13, 14 or 15 songs and present them as a body of work. It’s crucial as an artist to create a legacy.
What albums are you rating at the moment?
I love the new J Cole album. I think even before Post Malone came along, it seems to me J Cole’s focus is pure and on music, rather than the business side of things.
The Great Escape is a festival for new music, what advice do you have for someone just starting out or someone who wants to get into the industry?
I would say take your time, and figure out what you’re about sound wise. I’m 26 and I started music when I was 16, it’s taken me this long to get here. I think just be true to yourself along the way, do things on your terms.
YouTube returns to The Great Escape festival, taking over the festival’s new beach site on Friday 18th May. Joining Dermot Kennedy will be Grace Carter, Liv Dawson, NAO and Nifuler Yanaya.
Words by Hayley Thompson // @hayleyyt_