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December 19, 2017Feature

Damien Dempsey was the cover story of the very first Guide to Dublin City, with photography by George Voronov, available for free in over 200 locations around the capital. He discusses toxic masculinity, taking DMT, spirituality and depression.

“…rap has its limitations. Whereas you can go to new places with spoken word.”


It’s a freezing November morning when Damien Dempsey, or Damo as he insists, pops into the office for a chat. The Dubliner is in good spirits and we get straight down to talking about his latest record ‘Soulsun’ which came out in May this year.

Unfortunately, he was forced to postpone a number of UK dates on the album tour due to an operation he was having on his septum. “Me septum was over here from getting bet for years, so that was a bit of a nightmare because I never cancel shows, you know? About three quarters of the way through a gig I’d be killed, I wasn’t getting the oxygen in.

“I really realised how much I love singing when I couldn’t sing for three weeks. It was like a nightmare. I realised how much it was an integral part of me. It’s very important to me. It’s like praying for a holy person, that’s the way singing is for me.”

‘Soft Rain’, the last track on ‘Soulsun’, is predominately a spoken word piece. Emmet Kirwan’s ‘Heartbreak’ saw widespread acclaim at the start of the year and with more and more Irish poets and artists following in his wake, I asked Damo what he thinks about this new dawn for poetry in Ireland.

“It’s amazing. I think maybe rap started it off, rap got it going, but then rap has its limitations. Whereas you can go to new places with spoken word.

“It’s like a new wave of poetry… It’s in our blood, it’s flowing through our veins. I think we have more published poets here per capita than anywhere in the world.

“There are some great lads I know like God Creative and Paul Alwright (formerly Lethal Dialect) doing amazing stuff. And Emmet Kirwan is as well. I done a show with him in Vicar Street that was amazing.”

Damo has previously cited Elvis Presley and Bob Marley as influences, along with fellow Irish musicians Sinead O’Connor, Christy Moore and Luke Kelly to name a few. With some of his songs verging on rap he must have acts from the genre that inspire him?

“Big time. I was a huge fan of A Tribe Called Quest. I saw them in New York actually, and De La Soul. I was in LA, a long time ago as well, and I picked up an album, it was only out called ‘The Predator’ by Ice Cube. It was all about the riots.

“I was very influenced by rap, absolutely. You can hear it in songs like ‘The Colony’, ’Patience’ and ’I’ve No Alibi’. That was a bit of a tirade against the boy band culture that was really big when I was starting out. It was like a nightmare. Rap gave me a vehicle to vent my frustration against the Louis Walsh years.”

There’s a feeling of excitement around the Irish hip hop and urban scene at the moment. Look no further than 2FM’s The Story Of Irish Hip Hop gig for proof; 14,000 Electric Picnic revelers rammed into the Rankin’s Wood tent to watch Erica Cody, Jafaris, Jess Kav and Mango perform, or the current success of acts like Kojaque, Rebel Phoenix and many, many more. With that, we’re hearing an encouraging number of artists rapping and singing in their native accents, a development which Damo is undoubtedly a forefather to.

“I always remember there would be rap bands coming out and they’d be singing in an American accent but singing about things where they’re from and it doesn’t work. You have to sing in your accent, in your own voice.

“I wouldn’t call meself a rapper, but I think I was the first one to try and rap in a Dublin accent. And I remember there was a great rapper called Lunitic in Ballymun, he’s passed now god rest him, but he was a great rapper. He was using an American accent but then a youth worker up there, Dean Scurry, a great friend of mine, he played him I think my songs ‘Colony’ and ‘Patience’ and he started to use his own accent and he took off then.”

A couple of months ago Paul Alwright chatted to District’s Eric Davidson for an episode of our Conversations podcast.

On that episode Paul brought up the topic of toxic masculinity, saying, “I was depressed. I had the carapace of this alpha male bravado bullshit. On the exterior you’re angry and you’re unapproachable but on the interior you’re essentially soft…”

Paul also name checked a couple of homegrown heroes in that interview.

“Blindboy (of the Rubberbandits), what he does is, he holds up a mirror and lets you know that that’s what’s going on and lets you know that it’s ok to talk as a man and to do things because we are brought up a certain way. We’re taught not to cry, and a massive influence to that was Damien Dempsey as well. You can’t go to Vicar Street and not fucking cry. You can’t go and listen to ‘Chris and Stevie’ in Vicar Street after a few pints and not shed a good tear and you feel better after it. That’s why people go back constantly, they literally call it the Church of Damo.”

Damo’s fans are almost like followers, making the annual pilgrimage to the Thomas Street venue every Christmas and it’s hard to miss the religious similarities in his lyrics, most notably in the chorus of ‘Negative Vibes’, but it’s spirituality that Damo turns to rather than a specific dogma.

“Rap gave me a vehicle to vent my frustration against the Louis Walsh years.”

“Rap gave me a vehicle to vent my frustration against the Louis Walsh years.”

“Rap gave me a vehicle to vent my frustration against the Louis Walsh years.”

“I know there’s something there. I’ve felt it lots of times and seen things and heard things. I don’t claim to know what it is but I know it’s there. I don’t put a name on it or faces on it. I wouldn’t be that arrogant to claim that I know what it is. Organised religions put names and faces to it and I just know it’s there. I’ve felt it.

“But eh, DMT…” Damo laughs. “It’s the most spiritual thing I’ve ever done in me life. The things I saw… It’s very difficult to get. You smoke it and it’s like no other experience I’ve ever had because in five minutes you’re totally back the way you were, it’s gone out of you. I haven’t done it in about two years now. I wouldn’t mind doing again but you’ve no big want to do it again. It’s not like cocaine or heroin.

“The things I saw on that… I was flying through the universe and I saw pyramids and colours and shapes and patterns and apparently that’s only stage one. You’re meant to go through a portal at one stage and everybody says they meet a woman. Whoever this woman is cuts through all the male gods.

“It would give you a great belief in spirituality and something else. It opens up your third eye and when you open that up it’s just incredible. It really is magical. I couldn’t believe all this was inside me head.”

Damo has addressed the topic of depression in the past through the media and his lyrics. Talking about the title track from ‘Soulsun’ in an update on his website titled A Letter From Damo he says, “As you know I can tend to write very matter of fact songs, this is one I’m not getting tied down on; it’s whatever works for you. Why can’t I be a little vague now and again? If anyone is feeling that the song maybe is about depression, I’ve recently discovered something that helps with it. It’s a supplement called 5HTP. It’s a natural form of serotonin, the happy drug that occurs naturally inside us all.”

I asked him about 5HTP, which he told me you can get in Newry and we also got talking about St John’s Wort. The herb was licensed for use in Ireland for the first time in 2015.

“They work, they do. They’re very subtle. They’re just roots, just herbs but people I’ve brought them back for from London, everyone has come back and said ‘yeah I just felt better, you know?’ Much lighter. You don’t go like a zombie like on Prozac, which just deadens your emotions. This just picks you up bit.”

I wondered if Damo had any other advice for people when they’re feeling down.

“Singing is good. Join a choir or just type off a load of your favourite songs and sit on the bed and sing them. Just sing them, it’s not about singing in tune. It’s not the X Factor. There’s no Simon Cowell sitting down the end of the bed judging people. Wanker…

“Singing is an ancient spiritual thing that helps us through life. It’s always helped us through life. It was never about being rich or famous. That’s only a recent phenomenon. The Irish sing-song is still going in Ireland. I’m trying to keep it going. It’s a great link to our past.

“I know about five yoga moves that I just do in the morning. 10 minutes, you know? Not every day but whenever I have a bit of time. They’re great for breathing as well, deep breathing. If you can still your mind for five or ten minutes a day it’s really good.

“I’m practicing gratitude now and that really works. I just read a few books (he recommended ‘The Magic’ by Rhonda Byrne) about it and I write down all the things I have to be grateful about… Every night before I go to bed. It takes away ego… You’re grateful for your eyesight, your hearing, the ability to walk. I lashed into me neighbours car, I lashed out of the driveway and milled it the other day. Just a big bill I didn’t need, but then I just thought to meself, hold on a minute. They could have been getting into that car when you hit it. You could have crippled them.

“I just gave it a little ‘thanks very much’. This is a lesson, be careful when reversing, look in me mirrors. It’s given me a wakeup call and I gave thanks that I didn’t hurt or fucking kill anybody. I felt very good about that.”

With just days until Damo’s return to Vicar Street for a three-night run, the conversation turned to his upcoming gigs.

“Ah, with the amount of love in the room it’s hard to get nervous. It would be difficult for me to slip up or do something wrong at Vicar Street, but you have to have a killer set. Sometimes if you get the set wrong you can feel the dip.

“You have to really get the set honed, just lift them but it can’t all be lifting. You have to do a few songs where people are going crazy and then bring them down a bit with a song like ‘Chris and Stevie’ or something, ‘Canadian Geese’ or ‘Not On Your Own Tonight’. Thinking songs, then party songs and then sing-along songs and get the mix right. So it has to be a killer set, it has to be really thought out.

“I might try a few songs off the new album, but then you have to be aware that you pick the wrong song and you see the crowd going to the bar and you think ‘ah bollocks’ I shouldn’t have done that song’.”

Averaging about an album every two years since his debut in 2000, Damo’s momentum isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

He spoke to me about his plans for a collaboration record due out next year. It will be a mix of old and new songs with Kate Tempest, John Grant and Morrissey set to feature. Morrissey, a great admirer of Damo’s work, penned in his autobiography(rather presumptuously assuming he will outlive the Donaghmede native), “Damien captivates and enchants with all the love of one blessed and unselfish… I see myself crying at his funeral, missing him already”.

On the matter of a collaboration Damo explained, “Morrissey said he’d sing one of me songs… He’s very busy at the moment but I’ll never speak to him again if he doesn’t do it!”

Finally, how will Damo be spending Christmas Day this year? “Sing-songs around Donaghmede with family. A swim in the sea, probably Portmarnock or The Bull Wall. In and out and into an Epsom salts bath. Just throw a pint glass of Epsom salts into a bath. Sucks all the poison out of you. You’ll be a bit knackered but just drink loads of water. Great after a poisonous session.”

Perfect for that post-Vicar Street headache.

Damien Dempsey plays Vicar Street December 21-23.

Photography: George Voronov

Words: Hannah O'Connell 
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