In May this year, Dermot Kennedy sold out the 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy – a landmark feat for almost any musician. What’s unusual about this is that at the time, the Irish singer-songwriter was still five months away from releasing his debut album and had never even had a single in the UK chart.
“It’s a weird thing,” the 27-year-old admits. “In a lot of ways, it’s early days. But with touring, we do things on the level of an established act.”
Last week he finally entered our top 20 for the first time with Outnumbered, a simply plucked acoustic ballad with a subtle touch of modernity in its distant, digitally processed backing vocals. That debut album, titled Without Fear, is released today. You might hear his raw, emotionally vulnerable man-rasp and think, ‘Here we go again. It’s Rag ‘n’ Clone Man. It’s Two-is Capaldi,’ but spending some time in his company, hearing about his grafting back story and plans beyond the inevitable platinum discs, it’s obvious he isn’t factory assembled.
He arrives to meet me in a central London cafe, dressed as a hip hop sensation in baggy yellow tracksuit bottoms and a voluminous black hoodie. He has recorded a cover version of Kanye West’s Heartless, did an early EP with West’s regular producer Mike Dean, and recently compiled a Spotify playlist of his favourite songs that placed Drake and 50 Cent next to Sufjan Stevens and Mumford & Sons. In contrast, he studied for a degree in classical music at Maynooth University in County Kildare, near his family home on the outskirts of the village of Rathcoole, where he sang baritone and did his dissertation on the operatic treatment of the Orpheus myth.
While he was there, he started a group called Shadows and Dust, making folky acoustic music. “The band was made up of people who were bored of college,” he says. “It was one of those things where you do a few gigs every now and again in Dublin, raise some money to put out some songs but nothing would happen. We didn’t have a following. It never became anything serious.”
So he turned to busking solo, grabbing a spot on Dublin’s pedestrianised Grafton Street – once the favoured site for future heroes including Damien Rice and Glen Hansard. That’s where his voice had to develop real power. “You have to be heard over the crowd on a street like that, and I was busking without an amp,” he tells me. I had to have a voice that could be heard above everything, and that carried into the songs I wrote. I always needed to be loud.”
The fairytale version of the story would go that he was plucked from the shop doorway to stardom, a bit like Hansard in the Oscar-winning Irish film Once, but Kennedy’s break actually came in a more modern way that even he struggles to explain.
“It was an algorithmic thing,” he says. He wrote a low-key love ballad on the piano, called it An Evening I Will Not Forget and put it on Spotify in 2015. “I put it up just by itself and thought, I can’t lose, because it’s only one song and whoever hears it hears it. I’m proud of it either way.” Somehow – and he still isn’t sure whether it was a human or a computer that did it – the song ended up a part of Discover Weekly, Spotify’s individually tailored playlist which offers a listener new songs based on the genres they’ve played a lot in the past.
He did a London gig around that time in Dalston’s tiny Servant Jazz Quarters, and a few audience members came up to him afterwards saying they’d come along because they’d heard his song on Spotify the same day. “I went online to check my plays and I’d got, like, fifty thousand that day. It had gone from there to THERE on the graph. Since then it’s just kind of kept going up.” On an album-length Spotify collection of songs he has released before his album, each of the 12 tracks is currently on well over 10 million streams, with the bombastic Power Over Me on 110 million. Taylor Swift putting his bare-boned slowie Boston on her personal playlist of songs she loves, in 2017, didn’t hurt either.
We hear a lot about how the pittance Spotify is supposed to pay to musicians, but according to Kennedy, who had no record deal or management at the time and owned his own master recordings, the streaming service was giving him enough cash to finance his early career. “Their support was priceless for me. Everything I put out after that started getting a lot of plays, and whatever money was being made was all going to me,” he says. “Obviously nothing major, but it’s not bad, don’t get me wrong. The reason I signed a record deal in the end was because touring is so expensive. But it allowed me to forego doing a deal for a long time, and when I did, I was really in charge of the negotiations because I had done so much already and built my fanbase.”
That’s why he was in such demand as a live act well before his album release. He’s played around 70 gigs so far this year and will play over 50 more, culminating in his biggest yet – two homecoming celebrations in Dublin’s 3Arena – just before Christmas. He was forced to cancel a handful of festival appearances over the summer with voice trouble, and no wonder. His schedule sounds shattering.
“When we were promoting Power Over Me, we did the Colbert show in New York, then did a couple of gigs in Australia, then went to Germany and then Finland, all in the space of a couple of weeks,” he says. “It was ridiculous. We were literally chasing this song around the world.”
It doesn’t sound like he’s completely in control of his transition to arena gigs either. As he talks, the names he drops are not the musicians who are naturally populist. He professes admiration for The National, Bon Iver, Elbow, and especially Damien Rice and Ben Howard, both of whom became very big early on and then ran away in horror. “I think my dream was to be able to play my guitar in a really beautiful theatre and for it to be dead quiet, the way my heroes did, and I did that on the last tour,” he tells me. “So now I guess I have to reassess things. Because arenas are ugly. They’re warehouses. But I also feel like I certainly shouldn’t stop it now.”
As long as he doesn’t end up with one mega-hit, he thinks he’ll cope. “If you compromise on a song to get to the next level, you’re diluting everything. It invites all these people along who only want to hear that song, then you’ll have rooms full of chatter and you’ll be sad,” he says.
He wants an audience who are as serious about his music as he is, which sounds like as good a base as any for a long career. “There’s so much bullshit these days. So much social media, so much stuff where you’re at a random radio station in Germany and they hold a phone to your face and say, ‘Just sing the chorus!’ I’m not gonna do that. If you start doing silly shit you’ll start inviting silly people who don’t care about music to your gigs. That’s why I’m grateful things kicked off at the beginning with streaming. When people come to the gigs they just want to hear all those songs, and all I have to do is get on stage and play them. I don’t have to try and be anything that I’m not. It feels like this really solid thing.”
Without Fear is released today on Island. Dermot Kennedy plays tomorrow at Rough Trade East, E1 (roughtrade.com/gb/events/rough-trade-east-dermot-kennedy) and Dec 2-3 at Eventim Apollo, W6 (eventimapollo.com)