Although Dermot Kennedy is Irish, the singer-songwriter can attribute his burgeoning career to a lot more than luck. While his success appears to have happened overnight—the millions of streams on Spotify, praise from Taylor Swift as one of her pop culture obsessions, and a spot on the Coachella lineup this past spring—in reality his seemingly instant success has been a more gradual, organic process. It’s the result of years of hard work, built on busking, touring, and an abundance of creativity.
When we meet the 27-year-old Kennedy in Toronto on a freezing February afternoon, I was his last interview of the day. If he was exhausted from a full morning of press it was impossible to tell. Wearing a plaid shirt over a black long-sleeved tee and boots he looks mildly ill-equipped to handle a Canadian winter. In person, Kennedy has an air of calm, peacefully humming to himself throughout our conversation, almost inviting us to witness the musical ideas bouncing around in his head. Anyone can see he has the creative spark simply by looking at him, as he doodles random shapes and squiggles on his hands and boots with a pen as he speaks.
One would never guess from his laid-back demeanour that he possesses such a rich, spine-chillingly powerful voice, the most intriguing earmark of his atypical sound. With every song, Kennedy twists together genres like folk, rock, hip-hop—when he’s not outright eliminating them. His use of hypnotic melodies coupled with rich electronic ornamentation strikes a unique balance between soulful and atmospheric ambience. It’s landed him comparisons to Mumford and Sons and Bon Iver—artists that he’s huge fans of. But he also calls himself a lover of rap, listing Drake, Kanye and J. Cole as inspirations.
“I think one of my favourite things about the music I’m making is that it might be kind of tricky to put in a box, and to actually put one genre on it,” he says.“I like that a lot.” And while he may incorporate elements of hip-hop into his artistry, he says he is conscious of the racial dynamic and of “not taking it too far.” “Take Stormzy, he raps so much about inner city London and I can’t relate to that. But just in terms of the music, I think what inspires me most is the delivery and the honesty in it,” he explains.
Honesty is something Kennedy cares deeply about. In part, it’s because of his dedication to authenticity.
All it takes is one glimpse of his performances—his NPR Tiny Desk concert complete with a gospel choir is essential—to witness him truly absorbed in his music. “There are so many artists who close their eyes and sing lyrics and pretend it’s really affecting them,” he says. His desire to be genuine is also likely a result of his musical roots, having attended a classical music program for several years, before turning to busking in Dublin to earn money for recording. Braving the bustling streets, Kennedy found himself forced to play popular songs to grab peoples’ attention, instead of the music he wanted. It fundamentally bothered him. “The song that always got people to stop was ‘Thinking Out Loud’” he says. “It’s a beautiful song, but over time…” he trails off and shrugs.
But those days are in the past and he’s happy to leave them there. Now he’s performing his own tunes to sold-out crowds around the globe, from Brixton’s O2 Academy to The Filmore in San Francisco. Perhaps most impressive of all is that he’s managed to make the leap from belting on the sidewalk, to touring and recording all without management. Ultimately, it’s enabled him to lay the necessary groundwork to establish himself independently. Even though now he’s on Interscope, Kennedy says it means he currently has lots of freedom. It’s fitting that his name in Celtic means “free man” — He doesn’t take one moment of singing his own material for granted.
“Everyone knows every song and that’s really, really priceless to me. But I’ve worked hard to make it that way,”
he says. Singing about real-life experiences has become an essential part of the DNA of each song, magnetizing him to his fans. His single “Lost” is an emotive slow burner of a track about the people we lean on when times are tough. It opens with piano, his voice deep and gravelly, hovering as it builds. The track begins masquerading as a downcast ballad, then the smattering beats kick in, accompanied by a smooth layer of harmonies. It clings to its acoustic origins while finding room to breathe in the production. It’s this diaristic musicality steeped in introspection that resonates with Kennedy’s audiences.
“My favourite thing is when people say I’m unique,” he says. “A lot of people say what’s different from my stuff to others is when we play live, people really show up and pay attention. So many artists have one breakout hit and they ride that wave for so long.”
Not naming names, he recalls a show he attended where the crowd only cared about the hit and most people departed after it was played. “That terrifies me,” he says. His main fear is he’ll have one song grow so popular it eclipses the rest. But he feels by building up a fanbase over time, his tracks are loved equally.
“We exist in an industry now where streams are so important, and social media and all these numbers, and not everybody can just pack a room with people who just want to hear you sing your songs,” he says.
To see it all finally paying off energizes him and he’s itching to see how things will blossom further. He was named NPR Slingshot’s Best New Artist in 2018. He’s been chosen as “One to Watch” for this year by MTV UK. And he was a finalist for BBC Music’s Sound of 2019 list, which has found superstars in past winners including Sam Smith and Ellie Goulding. All those accolades and a sold-out tour on the horizon could be nerve-wracking. Yet, instead of feeling pressured to succeed, he’s fully embraced the honours.
“If I have a really good year it’s a lovely thing to be acknowledged and it’s a nice sense of validation,” he says. “[I’m] continuing on the same path regardless so it’s just a bonus.”
While pressure may not originate as a result of his newfound recognition, it often transpires from within Kennedy himself. “I can’t lie, there’s a part of me that wants to be the best at what I do,” he says. He is his own harshest critic and worst judge, striving for honesty through his art. “I put a lot of pressure on myself lyrically especially, and for a long time I think it hindered me in a way, to overthink things, and I didn’t have free-flowing thought at all. You know that sort of ‘flow state’ you can enter where things seem sort of easy and everything that comes out is something you’re proud of? I left that area for a little bit.”
When he feels stalled, reading is one thing that helps to reignite his creativity. He also feeds himself inspiration by going to museums or the movies when he has a day off, to keep his brain active. “If you’re at the stage I was at even a year ago, and you’re completely closed off and precious about everything and aggressive with your art, you probably won’t get anywhere,” he says.
“I probably show less and less people my music now. I’m probably more closed off than ever with my songs,” he explains, stating he doesn’t want to second guess himself due to people’s opinions. The same is true of the buzz surrounding the impending release of his album Without Fear.
“There’s been a big buildup, I’ve kind of postponed it for a long time ‘cause I’ve had a lot going on,” he says. “I never wanted to release it into thin air basically, so I’ve put in the work trying to build a foundation so it can actually do something when it does come out.”
He appears to not be worried; the days when he was unsigned and paying out of his own pocket to perform shows in New York and L.A. are long behind him. Though, he wouldn’t change anything if he had to do it all over again.
“Generally, I always knew that if I took my time and worked and never stopped, that something would happen,” he says.Still, he wouldn’t be upset if his breakthrough materialized a little faster. “I cherish the journey. If I could jam 10 years down to 4 that’d be nice. No regrets,” he laughs.