Dermot Kennedy on Better Days and biggest ever gigs at Belsonic this weekend

As he prepares to play his biggest ever shows this weekend at Belsonic in Belfast, David Roy quizzes Dublin busker turned chart-buster Dermot Kennedy about the success of his Number One debut album Without Fear, post-lockdown anthem Better Days and getting back on stage after over a year...

Dermot Kennedy headlines two shows at Belsonic in Belfast's Ormeau Park this weekend
Dermot Kennedy headlines two shows at Belsonic in Belfast's Ormeau Park this weekend

HAVING honed his musical skills for years as a busker on the streets of Dublin, Dermot Kennedy made the leap from rising star to pop star back in October 2019 when his highly anticipated debut album Without Fear topped the charts in Ireland and Britain.

Featuring the hit singles Giants and Outnumbered, the album showcased the Rathcoole man's ability to combine hip-hop-informed production techniques and lyrical bite with soulful, heartfelt pop songwriting, its tunes running an impressive gamut from tender piano-powered ballads and acoustic guitar laments to full-on crowd-rousing pop 'bangers'.

Without Fear's alluring combination of grit and gloss found the Irishman making serious inroads towards US success by the start of 2020 – Kennedy (29) was in the midst of a major American tour when Covid hit, forcing him back home to Ireland.

He spent last year's lockdowns working up new material as well as performing live streamed virtual gigs for his growing legion of fans, who now turning out in droves for his new run of real live dates – including two massive Irish shows in Belfast at Belsonic this weekend.

Currently enjoying yet more success with his single Better Days, which features the timely hookline "Better days are comin', if no-one told you", Kennedy took time out between shows in Glasgow to answer some questions about the album, his new tour and the past 18 months of madness.

Dermot Kennedy's debut album Without Fear went to number one in October 2019
Dermot Kennedy's debut album Without Fear went to number one in October 2019

:: You released Without Fear just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, how big a blow was it not to be able to tour the record more?

In terms of the landscape of the whole music industry, I think I was actually quite lucky, because we had got to do a massive amount of touring before it even came out. So I didn't feel too stopped in my tracks.

Other people were a bit more unfortunate. For example, we went to see Billie Eilish in Miami right before we flew home at the start of the pandemic. She only got to play two shows on her world tour before the whole thing got shut down.

:: You finally got back on the road in the US this summer, did it feel just like picking up where you'd left off?

Yeah, it was unreal. Basically, in March 2020 we flew home from a place called Grand Rapids in Michigan. We played the re-scheduled gig there last month and my name was still on the marquee of the venue from last year because they just hadn't had a show there since. So honestly, that was like a lovely full-circle thing and probably one of the best gigs of the whole tour, because the crowd just seemed so up for it.

It did take us a few nights just to get back into the swing of things, but honestly, by the time you're back into it, it just feels like you've only been off tour for about two days – the 16 months thing faded into the background so quickly, I couldn't believe it.

At this point, it's still day by day isn't it? You don't know how things are going to go so I'm just happy for every show that does go ahead at the moment.

:: Were there any positive aspects to being locked down in 2020? Was it nice to then have an enforced break from constant travelling, perhaps?

Definitely. I don't think that us as musicians see the toll touring takes on us. I think it can be very tiring in ways that you're not even necessarily aware of, like mentally. Also, you're eating all this different food which sometimes is good, sometimes it's ropey, so you just never quite know how you're going to feel on any given day.

The bottom line is that all you care about is getting the show in at the end of the day and trying to make it as good as you can – but you also have to keep an eye on yourself, I think. So I think the break wasn't a bad thing.

:: It also meant you actually had time to focus on getting new material together, right?

Whatever momentum I'd built up [prior to the pandemic] I'd built up from touring, but I was just so determined not to lose the momentum I'd gained. So the only way I could do that was to make sure I came out of the pandemic with a lot of music ready to go. So I was in my home studio the whole time.

I know it's a cliche when artists talk about second albums being difficult because they've only been in hotel rooms and on buses, but that really is the truth. So I really did value being at home and in that landscape, being around friends and family. All that stuff is fuel for songs and I really needed it.

Dermot Kennedy
Dermot Kennedy

:: Better Days has become an anthem for those currently emerging from lockdown, even though it wasn't actually written about the Covid pandemic. How does that feel?

For me, that song is not about the current times, but I'm certainly happy enough for it to grab that torch and run with it, because that's the whole idea: as a songwriter you're just trying to write music for people, so if someone has lost somebody to the virus and they want that song to be about that, then that's what it's about.

People take songs and apply them to their own lives and attach their own stories to them – that's why I'm excited to write them.

:: You were a talented central midfielder in your younger days. Did you enjoy showing off your footballing skills in the World XI's recent win against England at Soccer Aid, and what was it like meeting Roy Keane at your show in Manchester earlier this week?

Soccer Aid was class, I loved doing it. I hadn't actually played properly for about a year [before the match] but I grew up in the middle of nowhere playing football by myself from morning to night every single day, so I think that stuff doesn't leave you.

To be honest, the clarity of mind that playing football brings me is on a whole different level from music. I really do value it – my head is just empty when I'm out there and I don't get that from music, because it's such an emotional thing and my feelings and life are so wrapped up in it.

I've had a signed Roy Keane jersey hanging above my bed from when I was a kid, so for him to come to my show means the world. Any musician in the world could come to one of our gigs and it wouldn't mean as much as Roy Keane being there. He's been a massive influence on how I live my life and how I'm so passionate about everything.

:: Are you looking forward to coming back to Belfast at the weekend to headline at Belsonic?

Yes indeed, I can't wait. In terms of a headline gig, it will be the biggest crowd I've ever played to – by a mile.

The last time I played in Belfast was in The Limelight before the album came out. I loved it but I would say there were maybe a thousand people there at a stretch – so it's a big jump and I'm just buzzing. I literally can't wait to play Belsonic.

:: Dermot Kennedy headlines Belsonic on Saturday September 18 and Sunday September 19 (sold out). Tickets for Saturday night on sale now via Ticketmaster.ie