From enchanting Morrissey to moving Imelda May, Damien Dempsey’s music often provokes an emotional response, writes Ed Power.
Damien Dempsey has a big heart and a heavy soul. As a songwriter, these are invaluable traits and the Dublin musician has won some powerful admirers — Morrissey, Annie Lennox, Bono, and Sinead O’Connor.
The latest to declare herself a fan is Dido, the English singer best known for her Eminem-sampled hit ‘Thank You’. When crossing Dempsey’s path in London last year, she made a point of telling him how much she adored his 2005 ballad ‘Not On Your Own Tonight’.
“We met at a party thrown by Brian Eno,” says Dempsey, referring to the iconic producer who has worked with David Bowie, U2 and others. “He loves to have singalongs and he knows my producer John Reynolds. John and I actually bumped into him walking through a park in London. He invited us to his house in Notting Hill that evening. Annie Lennox was there, as was Dido. We talked about working together.”
Dido jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with Dempsey on Soulsun his first collection in five years (in the interim there has been a greatest hits and a self-released LP marking the centenary of 1916). Their voices intertwine perfectly on the stand-out track ‘Beside The Sea’, Dido’s dulcet lilt contrasting beautiful with Dempsey’s cautious yelp.
“I wanted a new buzz with this album. It was great to get the feminine aspect in there,” says Dempsey (42). “I’ve done other new things like play a bit of piano. There’s a lot of me on electric guitar. I wanted it to be anthemic — bigger and more epic,”
Another outstanding collaboration is that between Dempsey and Imelda May, who bonded over the break-up dirge ‘Big, Big Love’. It spoke to May, whose marriage was at that moment falling apart.
“The song is about an old flame,” says Dempsey. “We’re still great friends — but it was intense. Imelda was separating from her guy at the time. When I played it to her, she started crying. You can hear it on the album: she sang it like she meant it.”
Lifting people out of the dark is part of Damien’s mission statement. His music is a salve as much as a distraction. “The gigs are like big counselling sessions,” he says. “They’re full of passion and love. Everyone ends up singing their heads off. It helps me and it helps them. You have to remember that, for most of history, music was about getting people through the bad times. It’s only recently that it became about money and fame.”
Dempsey is an international cult figure. He recently packed the 1,200 capacity Koko venue in London and has toured to sell-out crowds across the United States and Australia.
Perhaps the biggest tribute was paid by Morrissey who, in his 2013 autobiography, gushed about the Dubliner. “Damien captivates and enchants with all the love of one blessed and unselfish,” Moz wrote. “I see myself crying at his funeral, missing him already.”
However, Dempsey does not take success for granted. He tours constantly and throws himself into his albums.
Creating new music is never easy and for Dempsey the process is especially fraught.
“It’s very hard to judge your own output. Working with John Reynolds makes a big difference. He hears my songs totally fresh — he can judge a lot better than I. Something I’ll think is brilliant. he’ll say, ‘it’s not really working’. I’ll go back later and see how right he was. It’s the same with stuff I think is terrible. He’ll come to me and say it’s great. That’s the hard part with writing songs — you just can’t tell how it’s going to work out. I have to write 20 songs to get one good one.”
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