'It was very, very hard in 80s Dublin' – Damien Dempsey on childhood bullying, writer's block, the scourge of cocaine and sage advice from Christy Moore
What were you like as a kid?
“I was extremely shy,” says The Donaghmede Druid himself Damien Dempsey over coffee in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin. “Just extremely shy. I have that sometimes still, but I am a million times better than I was.”
Why were you so shy growing up?
“I am not so sure. I reckon people are just born with a certain personality. You are just born a certain way. You see some people and it is off the top of their heads — the quips, and stuff like that. I think you are born with that. I think even when you see dogs, they are born with a certain personality. I think humans are.”
Do you have a dog?
“No. I had a dog growing up.”
What was the dog’s name?
“Lady. Half Jack Russell, half something else. He was like a sheep, with skinny legs and a black patch on his arse! [Laughing] But my god, was Lady aggressive. Lady bit everybody! [Laughing] The dogs back then looked different, didn’t they? I think there was more mongrels around.
“There was a pack of dogs on my street in Donaghmeade. They’d be after a ball and there would be dust coming out of them! They were always killing each other. They’d be thrown out in the morning, and they’d roam the street.”
What was your childhood like in Donaghmede?
“It was good. Plenty of action going on, you know! [Laughing]. Ah, plenty of action. There was lots of kids. You’d get a black eye going over to the shops [Laughing] or a burst lip or something!”
And what did you say to your parents when you got home?
“Ah, that I fell playing football or something.”
What was going on?
“I’d be bullied a lot when I was younger. I used to be very skinny and tall. So older kids, who would be a lot older than me but smaller, would bully me.”
What names would they call you?
“They’d just slap the head off you and that.”
“Ah, yeah. A few smacks.”
How did that make you feel?
“It was just what happened. It’s just the way it was in those days. You just hit them back. It depends on how many of them there were. Luckily, I had a good puck on me. I’d hit them.
“This was before I ever boxed, you know? When they pushed me far enough I was like — ‘Boom!’ They’d be on the deck [Laughing] I used to hit a few of them. There would be a gang of them. You’d hit one of them. It was all through growing up. The brother said I was quick with me fists.”
How many brothers did you have?
“Two older fellas. It might be the red hair. I had red hair when I was younger. It would take a lot of me to lash out but when I did I realised that I had a bit of power.”
What age were you when you picked up a guitar for the first time and wrote something and realised you had a bit of power to communicate?
“Twelve. I wrote a song called Smog. There was people dying of it in Dublin. It was killing people. It was that bad in 1987.”
That was on the mind when you were twelve years of age?
“Yeah. ‘I remember Dublin when the air was fresh and clean. I remember Dublin when the air was quite obscene.’ Something like that! [Laughing] It was fairly bad! ‘And when you’re on the mountain-tops the smoke hangs there suspended and the people they do choke.’ Something like that! I remember being in Wicklow one time as a kid and I looked back and I could see the smog over Dublin. I think I showed it to my mother. My dad said to my mother, ‘He didn’t write that.’ Because they had never seen anyone in the family write anything before.”
Were you reading poetry as a kid?
“No. Not that I can remember, no.”
You didn’t need to read poetry. The poetry was born in you.
“Yeah. I could write decent enough lyrics. I was a good observer. I was quite shy, keeping it in, but I was always watching, you know? Watching. I was a born observer. Last year, I was in the Bull Ring in Birmingham just watching. I think I sat there for six, seven hours. The Bull Ring would be like Henry Street. I was just looking at the faces going past. From all over the planet. People passing.
“The Kilburn High Road in London is like that as well. Multicultural. I would try to imagine where they were from and their stories. I’d have a couple bottles of wine in me!”
No matter whether someone is rich or poor, wherever they come from on the planet, they all have a story or something to give us, don’t they?
“Yeah, you can learn something from anybody. Even a person who you think wouldn’t have anything to teach. Everyone has something to teach you; if you listen.”
You have a positive philosophy on the world. Where did that come from?
“It might have been the mother. She’s very positive. She would have taught me that there’s more than the western way. She got me into yoga and mediation. It was great.”
How did that change you?
“It was like a weight off my shoulders.”
What was the weight like before it was lifted?
“I was just over-analysing too much. Thinking too much, you know. Dwelling on things. Negative thoughts all the time.”
And the negative thoughts would gang up on you?
“Yeah. They were the worst bullies of them all, the ones you create in your own head.”
What were the negative thoughts?
“Ah, they were dark. They weren’t good.”
That you weren’t good enough?
“I don’t know. I don’t know what it was. It was a load of b******s anyway, whatever it was! [Laughing]. A load of s***e! I just done a bit of meditation. It was actually just clearing the mind of thought, and when that happened in the meditation class, it was like the clouds parted and the sun shone into me head. It was magical.
“That gave me hope and that turned me, you know? I was 16. I got into the final of the 2FM Yoplait Song Contest with Cardboard City when I was 16. It was another happy song, about the homeless I had seen around town at the time. We don’t see the homeless as much now because they are in hostels and hotels. That wasn’t the case then.”
How did meditation change your songwriting?
“I got more positivity into the lyrics. Love Yourself Today, I wrote in my early twenties. I’m 43 now.”
Was there a plan from a very early age of what you wanted to do with your life?
“As soon I got the guitar, that was it. That’s all I was ever going to do. Even when I was 12 and 13, I used to see myself onstage with big audiences.”
Who did you want to be?
“I just wanted to be a bigger, stronger, confident version of me.”
And have you achieved that?
“To a certain degree, definitely. I’d say if I saw myself now when I was that age I’d have went : ‘Yeah, that’s what I want to be.’”
That’s pretty cool, then, isn’t it?
“Yeah, it is. I was real skinny, and I had terrible acne.”
Was that stress, from being bullied?
“I couldn’t tell you. Some kids just get it bad, don’t they? Hormones.”
What kind of music were you listening to when you were 12 and 13?
“A lot of Thin Lizzy. I was mad into Philo. His music was just coming out of all the stereos in Dublin. After he died, people were mourning him. I was going around and hearing it all and it seeped in. I loved the way he embraced his Celtic past, Celtic mythology. The way he embraced his inner Celt and was proud of it. I was into the history. My mum was more spiritual; my father would have had an Irish historic head on him, into history.”
Do you have part time jobs in your teens to get a few bob?
“There was very little work in the 1980s. It was very, very hard. I tried to get jobs in the summer. I used to walk the industrial estates trying to get work. I tried to get paper rounds and milk rounds. I had no money. I was smashed. It was a bit of a pain in the hole.
“I tried to get into a big supermarket in Donaghmede but I couldn’t get in there either. I remember in school they asked us to write an essay. I wrote that you have more chance of seeing a tiger on O’Connell Street than getting a job in Dublin. I think I was about 15. It was 1989. Then the Celtic Tiger came and there was plenty of tigers on the streets of Dublin.”
What was school like for you?
“In primary, I wasn’t getting it. I used to read the atlas all day. Then I would be watching the TV and seeing movies about different places, like South America or Russia or Australia, or China, or America. I would be thinking about these places in school when I looked at the map. I’d played a good few of these places now.”
Was it a philosophy that if you dreamed it you could make it happen?
“I was just mental into the atlas. I just wasn’t into what they were doing in school. The teacher, I think, just gave up on me. He made me do lines every break.
“The kids used to say , ‘We’re doing Maths — Dempsey is doing Geography! We’re doing Irish — Dempsey is still doing Geography!’ [Laughing] The teacher did a test on the capitals of the world one day. I got every f***ing one of them. [Laughing] Every one of them! All the kids were going, ‘We all thought he was brain-dead.’ I even knew the smallest city in the world.”
And what’s the smallest city in the world?
“The Vatican City. The teacher went: ‘F***!’ [Laughing]”
I test him now. What’s the capital of Uruguay?
“Montevideo? Or is that Paraguay?” [Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay.]
Cut to the capital of England last month, London.
“Damien’s courage and vision comes directly from his passion. And from that he inspires passion in the people that come and see him play,” says his long-term producer John Reynolds when I met him in his North London studio.
“As a band member to play a show with Damien is the most rewarding experience. He creates the feeling in everyone that we are all in this together. Musicians and crowd all equal. I’ve produced ten albums for Damien, we record about a hundred songs for each album then pick the best ten and develop them. It keeps our standards high and that is our responsibility.
“On Union, the latest album of collaborations he sings a song called Gaelic Ireland which sounds like it was written 100 years ago. I have the feeling it will be sung in 100 years from now.
“In 2001 we recorded the Seize the Day album and he wrote a song called Ghosts Of Overdoses, a song about the difficult subject of heroin. I’ll never forget the first time he sang that song and I still have that same emotion every time he sings it,” continues John, who also drums in Damo’s legendary band.
“With music being manufactured in so many different ways now it’s so important to have an authentic artist out there, someone who holds onto their integrity and beliefs and doesn’t compromise his work. That is the passion of Damien Dempsey, a true gentleman and the greatest friend a man could have. After nearly 20 years with Damien I can say it’s been the privilege of my life to work with him and watch him be accepted as the great artist that he is.”
When was the first time you performed songs?
“That’s a good question,” says Damo. “I would have played house gigs, sing-songs at house parties, in Donaghmede and Cabra and down in Irishtown. It was in my granny’s in Cabra and my granny’s in Irishtown, both grandmothers’ houses. I’d be asked to back the adults! A f***ing nightmare! They’d be doing all sorts.”
“You know the sing-songs? Someone sings a Sinatra song and ask you to back them and you only know three chords, and there’s twelve chords in the song. So I quickly learned who not to back and who to back! [Laughing]. I’d back someone singing an old ballad, with three or four chords. And not a Tony Bennett song! I played a gig with two lads off me road, a drummer and a bass-player in a school. I think that was the first proper time onstage. I was about fourteen.
“I was playing lots of solos. I was into Jimi Hendrix. I was bending the notes. And all the girls screaming in the crowd. [Laughing] Jesus, did they scream. I loved Jimi Hendrix. I don’t know how I got into him, but I went mad into him for a while. I still think he’s just f***ing genius.”
How did it become more serious for you?
“I was in my bedroom for hours on end trying to get the solos. Putting the needle on the records on, to listen to Thin Lizzy solos and that, and writing little songs as well. Alright Tonight – that was something I recorded in Ballyfermot Rock School. It was on the Contender EP in 1995. That was the first thing I ever released. There was a song called Rollercoaster as well. There was a song called Bottletalk about alcohol, and Cardboard City. That was the four songs on it. We did the single Dublin Town in 1997 after Ballyfermot Rock School. That kind of held me back.”
Why was that?
“Ah, they wanted to make it all gimmicky, a bit of craic, but the song wasn’t like that. The producer took it in and made it a certain way and I was too shy and didn’t know anything about studios so…I just play it acoustically live now how it was written.”
How do you look back on the first album, They Don’t Teach This Shit In School?
“It didn’t do much. It kind of disappeared. There was no money for promotion. There is a few songs that we still play now live, like All Good and Colony, Beside The Sea, Dublin Town. I took that one back and do my own version.”
What kind of place were you in your life what that album came out in 2000? You were 25?
“It was a struggle, a financial struggle at the time.”
Your youth seemed to be a financial struggle?
“Having no money, yeah. I was getting the dole for a few years. That was great. Then I went to New York. I was there for a couple of years. That was great. It opened me up. Opened up the mind. In the bar [Rocky Sullivan’s in Manhattan] I worked, there was a lot of interesting people, all sorts, politicians, journalists, cops, fire-fighters, teachers, musicians.”
How did it open your mind?
“We used to have great late night debates in the place, about all sorts of stuff. You could walk around the East Village back then. It was still full of artists. They are all getting pushed out now because Manhattan has gone very corporate. It’s a shame. It was still fairly free back then. People would be just going down the road in the f***ing nude with a monkey on their back! It was much freer. I realised it was very constricted back here, you know? If you walk around Donaghmede with a flat cap on, people think you have notions if you look different. You’d be alright with a baseball cap on. So New York opened me up.”
And you had been opened up before that by meditation?
“Yeah, in my mid teens.”
So, is your life a process of being opened up? Meditation? New York etc?
[Nodding] “I had another one in London, living in Sydney. I lived in London for a year fifteen years ago. Sydney was about seven years ago. I had writer’s block, so I f***ed off to Sydney.”
What was blocking your creativity?
“I don’t know. I’m not too sure.”
How did you unblock the creativity?
“I had to restock the pond. Just live. I met Luka Bloom out there. He said that sometimes you just have to stop writing for a while and live and listen and have chats and read.”
Were you worried that you wouldn’t be able to restock the pond?
“Yeah. I was terrified. Then I got a flat in town, in Patrick’s Street in Dublin when I came back. I still had the writer’s block. I got a flat and I hoped for the best. I couldn’t write anything that meant anything. I was trying to write for festivals. I was trying to write big songs, to get festival crowds going. But it is not why people are into me, you know?”
And why are people into you?
“Because I write songs that make them feel a certain way, that move them, I think. You know? Make them cry. A friend of mine, his mother calls me the crying man. The crying man!” [Laughing]
Does she say to her son, ‘I hope you haven’t invited that Damien Dempsey over to sing. We’ll all be in tears!’
[Laughing] “Tears are good! We don’t cry enough.”
What makes you cry?
“Ah, a lot of things, a lot of things. When I see proper love.”
What is that?
“Selfless love, I suppose. Empathy in people.”
“Imelda burst into tears, I believe, singing Big Big Love on the album [Damien’s latest release, Union]. She was going through a break-up and the song is about a break-up. And John Grant was bawling crying as well singing Soulsun. John had to go over and give him a hug. My music seems to touch some emotion in people.”
How does that make you feel?
“It just is what it is.”
Do you know where it comes from, that ability to touch emotions in people?
“No. You have to just leave some things to mystery, don’t you? We should realise that there is a massive mystery out there, and not be always trying to know everything, understand everything.”
You connect with the audience like a new Christy Moore sometimes.
“I’ll never be another Christy. But I suppose I’d be a little bit similar. My gigs are a bit of a different buzz to Christy’s. I just love the oul’ singing vibration.”
How would you explain the oul’ singing vibration to a layman?
“It just puts people in a good frequency. There is oxytocin released in people when they sing that squashes the depression and the anxiety and the stress and all. So there is a lot of benefits. And communal singing is even better; rather than just singing to yourself. It would really make you high. I always wanted to make people high with music. So I found that getting them all to sing is the way.”
What do you think people think of you?
“If you are worried what people think of you then you are in f***ing trouble, aren’t you? At some stage you have to go, ‘Ah, f*** them.’”
How do you feel when you go back to Donaghmede?
“Go back? I live there. I live in the posh part. I have a detached house in a part of Donaghmede. I’m from the terraced part, where there was eight houses in a row. It was very difficult for music. There is a good community in Donaghmede. They are all very friendly people.”
You live on your own. Is your life almost solitary?
“Yeah, solitary. I was always the loner. Always the loner. Me mother was out of work and me father and me two brothers were off doing their own thing. So I was alone an awful lot and I learned to love my own company. Now I’m either in the park with me shoes and socks off and my feet in the earth, or I’d be out for a swim in the sea. I walk a lot now.”
“I used to jog a lot. But it’s tough. I think it is a bit unnatural for human beings to jog. A fast walk is better. I have found a part with woods. So I walk through the woods in the morning, then into the sea. I find that really helps. I swim in the sea every day if I can.”
Do you have a record player at home?
“Yeah. At the moment I’m building up my vinyl collection. Marvin Gaye ‘What’s Going On’. Bob Marley etc.”
What’s your biggest fear in life?
“Losing loved ones. I’d rather go before them. But that’s a bit selfish.”
What did you inherit from your mother?
“She was a very positive influence on my life. She was way ahead of her time with meditation and yoga and all. She encouraged me, absolutely, to do this. She was my biggest fan.”
And if this hadn’t worked out for you?
“I could always do a bit of labouring. You always get labouring – or door work – if you are big. Manual labour or door work to fall back on. But I never even thought about it. I always knew I could do something with music. Like seeing audiences in my head as a kid.
“That’s the secret, isn’t it? Visualisation. It works. It comes true. I imagined myself as a kid with a crowd in front of me at a gig, and it came true. I remember some kids saying to me, ‘That’s never going to happen.’ I just didn’t listen when people were saying those kinds of things.”
What did you inherit from your father?
“I had to be cute, you know?”
As in cute hoor?
“No, cute on the streets. If you see what you think is trouble up ahead, cross the road. Like the lions do when they see the elephants. He said that to me. Or if you go to a party, read the room.”
Your dad sounds like Eric Cantona. Did he tell you when the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think that sardines will be thrown into the sea?
Did you follow your father’s advice when you were younger?
“No, and I don’t think he followed his own f***ing advice either!” [Laughing]
What kind of man is your dad?
“He’d be hardy, I suppose.”
“Ah, I don’t know.”
What gigs stand out that you went to as a kid?
“I saw Christy Moore when I was very young. I saw The Dubliners when I was very young. I saw them at the Grand Hotel in Malahide. Barney McKenna was a legend. I did an album The Rocky Road with him and John Sheahan, up there in the Cauldron in Blessington Street.”
How do you feel about Ireland politically?
“We just need some social housing, some public housing because in any society you have to build public housing because not everyone has the ability to earn the same wage. Not everybody gets the same chances and that, you know? In my mother and father’s time, they came from two hard-working families, but they wouldn’t have been able to afford a house.
“My parents would have been f***ing homeless, like, if they hadn’t built the public housing estates that they built. The government were building loads of them, huge ones, when they had no money. There is much more money now. I think houses were built for corporation tenants who couldn’t afford a deposit on a house, but wanted to own their own house. Do you know what I mean? So my parents were in Ballymun flats. They were able to get that house in Donaghmede without a deposit and owning it. My two brothers we born in Ballymun and then they moved. So I was born in Donaghmede . So I am the posh one! [Laughing.] I’m the posh one! I never lived in the flats.”
I ask the Posh One aka The Donaghmede Druid is there a plan for the future?
“I know I am going to have to look at other sources of income to survive. You make money from the gigs but it is just about enough to be able to pay your bills, you know ? I don’t make that much from music publishing. I don’t get that much radio play. So it’s either writing a book or… I’m thinking of getting a musical together. “
What are you working on next?
“I’m writing away. There is a song about phones. We are on them too much. I need to get more time to write. So I am going to have to change the number of this phone. Too many people have it. To think I held off on getting a f***ing phone for years. It takes the focus off your creativity.”
“And I might write a song about cocaine. The cocaine use has gone mental, mental. It has flooded into the city. I have never seen so much of it around. It fuels violence. There is a lot of violence. People are doing it in the pubs. It is only ould cheap s***e. I don’t know what the f*** it is. It is probably head shop stuff as well. It’s just when people get into cocaine now they can’t have a drink and not have it. So it ruins drinking for them.”
“We were always known as a nation of drinkers, a conversation and a few pints, but when they get into cocaine they can’t do that any more. That’s out the door. I have to approach the song the right way. I can’t be brow-beating people. People hate being told what to do because I hate being told what to do. Also the skunk that the kids are smoking is poisoning them, poisoning them. It is not marijuana they are smoking. It is a hybrid form that has all the high and the f***ing anxiety and paranoia but none of the medical benefits, you know? So it is giving them psychosis. There is a lot of poison out there.”
And the next album?
“I don’t know how the next album is going to go. I’d like a few sing along songs, songs that people could sing at the shows. That would be great.”
What songs of your own are you most proud of?
“I suppose Colony and Chris And Stevie, Not On Your Own Tonight. Ones that really move people. Ones that help them, through their dark times.”
People often tell you that?
“Loads of people, yeah. ‘You don’t know what you done for me.’ I get that all the time. I say to them, ‘It wasn’t me.'”
If not you, who was it?
“I don’t know. It came through me, from somewhere good; a very good place. Christy Moore told me that. ‘Don’t be thinking it’s your talent or it’s you. You will get a big ego and the ego can destroy you. You have to realise it comes through you.’ “
What does it feel like when a song comes through you?
“You just feel like a river, in between the lake and the sea,” says Damo going off to take a swim in the sea.
Damien Dempsey plays this Saturday night at the Iveagh Gardens in Dublin with support A Lazarus Soul. Tickets on sale now and available from: All Ticketmaster Outlets Nationwide, Credit Card Bookings 0818 719 300 (ROI) / 0844 277 4455 (NI), Online at www.ticketmaster.ie
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