Acclaimed Irish Artist Dermot Kennedy Talks About His Songs “Better Days,” “Outnumbered” And “Power Over Me,” And His First Album, Without Fear
In the past three years, Dermot Kennedy (who is from Dublin, Ireland) has emerged as one of the most acclaimed and popular singer/songwriters in the United Kingdom and Europe, and he is building a large following in the U.S. Kennedy has a singing voice that is powerful and soulful, and he writes songs that are thoughtful, compassionate and often uplifting.
Kennedy first broke through in 2018 with his single “Power Over Me,” which was a hit throughout Europe and became a rock hit in the U.S. Then in 2019, he had a hit with his song “Outnumbered,” which has become his best-known song. Also that year, he released his excellent debut album, Without Fear (on Interscope Records in the U.S. and Island Records internationally).
In this writer’s opinion, Without Fear was one of the best albums of 2019. Not only did it contain the singles “Outnumbered” and “Power Over Me,” but it displayed a wide range of compelling, heartfelt songs that were sung with great emotion and conviction by Kennedy. Other key songs on Without Fear are “Lost,” “All My Friends,” “An Evening I Will Not Forget,” “Moments Passed” and “For Island Fires and Family.”
In early 2020, Kennedy was in the midst of a successful, headlining tour in the U.S. when the Covid pandemic hit. The remaining shows were canceled, and Kennedy returned home to Ireland. During this period, he took a break to visit with family and friends, and then he began writing & recording new songs. In June 2020, he released the single “Giants,” which became another hit, and sustained the momentum he had built from his Without Fear album and tour.
Now in 2021, Kennedy has released a new single, “Better Days.” It’s a strong new song that captures the emotion and power of his best work. It’s an anthem, with Kennedy encouraging a friend to stay positive and optimistic, amidst tough personal issues and the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Here’s the video of Dermot Kennedy’s new single, “Better Days.”
Along with this single, Kennedy has returned to touring, and he is currently back playing shows in the U.S. Notably, he is playing rescheduled dates in the cities where the shows were canceled. And impressively, last week he headlined a sold-out show at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado (seating capacity: 9,500). Following the completion of his U.S. tour, Kennedy will be touring in the UK and Europe.
Kennedy has also been working on songs for his upcoming second album, which he is planning to release in early 2022. In addition, he has been featured on the singles “Paradise” (with the production trio, Meduza) and “Don’t Cry” (with rapper Bugzy Malone).
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Dermot Kennedy. He tells how he got started as an artist, and he discusses his hit “Outnumbered” and album, Without Fear. He also talks about his recent singles, “Better Days” and “Giants.”
DK: I read that you grew up near Dublin. How did you get into music and writing songs?
Dermot Kennedy: When I was 9 years old, I think I wanted a guitar when I saw my cousin play at a family party. It was 3 in the morning, and he was playing “Dancing In The Moonlight” by Thin Lizzy. And I was like…I want to be able to do that. So I got a guitar, and as soon as I had the guitar, I started writing.
When I was growing up, I was super into Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter, The Hobbit…all these fantasy worlds. So when it came time to write a song, I ended up writing these stories. Then fast forward to when I was singing in front of people, it took me a long time to literally sing with my eyes open, because I was so into the idea of living in whatever world you create within a song. So that’s where I started, and then I fell in love with the idea of playing in the street, which I did for years. Although I went to college and studied classical music, I feel like busking was my education.
DK: I liked the movie, Once, where Glen Hansard busked on the streets of Dublin. Were you like that when you busked?
Here’s the video of Dermot Kennedy’s hit, “Giants.”
Kennedy: Totally. I looked up to Glen massively, and he said he left school to go play in the street. He said it was a good education to busk, because you’re essentially at the bottom rung of the music industry. So it was a good place to start.
DK: One of the things I like about your music, is that you have a strong, soulful singing voice. Early on, did you realize that you had a good voice?
Kennedy: Yeah I think so…I remember I would sing in the back of the car. My sister was a massive Westlife fan, and they had a song called “Flying Without Wings,” and I would always sing that in the car (laughs). I wasn’t aware of being good, but I was really loud, like there was a resonance there. And my sister played piano, so we had a few songs where she’d play and I’d sing. It was fun.
DK: In 2017, you released your first EP (Doves & Ravens) and then in 2019 you released your album, Without Fear. Can you talk about your first EP and your early songs, leading up to your album?
Kennedy: The EP was really nice, because it was the first thing I started with. I released three songs by myself, just off the money I made from playing in the street. Then the songs started getting some traction, and Spotify got in touch. Then labels and publishers started calling me, and I was fielding all these calls by myself, so then I had to get a manager. The Doves & Ravens EP was my first release where I knew there was some semblance of a career starting.
Then leading up to Without Fear, the album was a nice mixture—making sure I was happy and proud of what I was doing, but also pushing myself a bit. I would ask myself…Okay, what would 18-year-old me think creatively? Would he be proud? Then also, you’ve learned so much in the meantime, so you’re trying to further your career, but it can never be at the expense of the art. So you’re always trying to balance these things.
DK: Your album features one of your most popular songs, “Outnumbered.” What inspired you to write that song?
Here’s the video of Dermot Kennedy’s hit, “Outnumbered.”
Kennedy: Around the time when I wrote “Outnumbered,” I was getting used to touring all the time, and being away constantly. So “Outnumbered” was almost a message of comfort to the people who care about me…it was a song for them in a way. And one thing I really enjoy about my job and where I’m at as an artist, is that I can take an idea that’s personal for me, and then it can be broad enough that anyone can apply that. You know [the lyric] “Don’t tell me this is all for nothing,” like the feeling of being outnumbered. That’s not limited to me and my career…a lot of people feel that way. And then that’s another fun game—balancing things being super-personal and authentic, to being relatable as well. So with that song, I basically wanted it to be a message of comfort.
DK: Another song that I like on your album is “Lost.” It’s a powerful song, and the video is very good, too. What inspired you to write “Lost”?
Kennedy: I think with that song, the key line is the first line in the chorus: “If only you could see yourself in my eyes, you’d see you shine.” When you love somebody—be it in your family or partner, and you wish they had a higher idea of themselves, and you wish they could seem themselves the way you see them. I found myself in that situation quite a bit, where you wish they could have a higher self-esteem and to see themselves in a more complimentary way. So that’s what that song is. I find that so much of my songs are messages to the people I care about, which is obviously nothing new in art. But I wish certain people would see themselves the way I see them.
DK: I looked at your songwriting credits, and I noticed some of your key songs were written with Scott Harris and Stephen Kozmeniuk. Can you talk about your collaboration with them?
Kennedy: When you brought up the first EP, I thought of Stephen, because we did “Glory” together. That was one of my first times being in the studio with somebody. And that was kind of crazy, because “Glory” has become a staple in our setlist…it will always be one of the higher points of the gig. Koz is a super-talented and committed musician, and we started doing stuff from the very beginning of this project.
Here’s the video of Dermot Kennedy’s hit, “Power Over You.”
With Scott, the first time I met him we wrote “Outnumbered.” It was funny, because we met in London, and I had flown from Dublin at 5 in the morning, and he had flown overnight from New York. So we were both exhausted, and we thought we were useless. But then “Outnumbered” showed up, so we were very happy. So it’s testament to how being absolutely exhausted can sometimes make good things happen.
Scott and Koz are two good guys who honestly push me in right direction and know what my limits are. And it’s this lovely thing that when they tell me they think I’m wrong, it doesn’t annoy me for some reason. For example, Scott is brilliant…he never just tells you something’s wrong. He always has an alternative to hand. I find that they’re very delicate with the way they treat my music, so I think that’s great.
DK: On your album, you wrote some songs by yourself. So when you come up with a new idea, how do you know when to write it by yourself, or to call Scott and Koz and write it with them?
Kennedy: That’s a good question. I think you just know when there’s one that you want to keep for yourself. I know I have a song for the second album that I don’t want anyone to come near. I’ll do it by myself, and I want it to come out the way it comes out.
When I was 18, I was reluctant to co-write at all. But now, if an 18-year-old artist came to me and they were like, “Oh I’m worried about co-writing,” I’d be like, “Do it.” It’s hard on some days, but when you find that person you click with, it’s worth it. But on the flip side to that, you really have to hold on to who you are, and to have those songs that are purely yours, that you don’t let anybody come near. Because otherwise, your project will be full up with session songs that you wrote, trying to write a pop hit. And then you won’t make an impactful album. So I think it’s very important to keep those ones where you are the only person that touches the song.
My writing process is different every time. I’m not precious—sometimes Scott will come in with a lyrical idea and we’ll work off that. If it’s good, that’s great. And sometimes we start with music and see how that makes you feel, and see what lyrics kind of show up. But ultimately, I think if you get a song right, just on a guitar or piano, that’s what works best for me.
Here’s the video of Dermot Kennedy’s song, “Lost.”
DK: I like your new single, “Better Days,” which is a song about offering hope to someone. What inspired you to write this song?
Kennedy: I wrote that one in February, and as soon as we wrote it, we knew it had Covid ties. It felt like a message during the pandemic. But we didn’t by any means go into the studio and be like, “Today is the day we’re gonna write the Coronavirus anthem.” Honestly, for me the place the song came from, it felt like 16-year-old me, feeling frustrated and at my wits end with music, and not knowing if it would ever work out. Up until the age of 25, it felt like my parents, for example, who were reassuring me that things would work out, and to keep at it and not give up. So I’m proud of that, because I definitely didn’t go into the studio trying to design some sort of Covid song. And similarly to “Outnumbered,” I liked that it could translate to any situation. There’s any amount of people who are in scenarios where they wish things would get better. So I’m honored to be someone who can give a song to people, and if they find it and it makes them feel any way better, it’s a beautiful thing.
DK: A lot of your songs try to be positive—telling somebody to have faith or to believe in themselves. Is that a message you want to say as an artist? That wherever they are right now, they can be in a better place?
Kennedy: It’s a great question. I think I would be happy, if I came away from my career and I was like…Ah, you made a bunch of people feel better about their world and their life. I’d be proud of that for sure. And obviously, there’s more to it than that. You want to make sure you’re proud of what you do musically and what you achieve. But in terms of a message, I feel that’s a nice thing. Especially like the youth of today, where I feel like a lot of people are confused. A lot of people aren’t necessarily sure who they want to be or how they want life to go. I think that life can be quite scary, and so music…I feel heartened by how important music seems these days, and how much everybody needs it. So if I can be somebody…and it’s not what I set out to do. I mean, ultimately I make music to make myself feel better, right? That’s where I come from, and it’s cathartic for me. And luckily, I write in such a way that it can make sense for other people, too. So yeah, if the overarching message is…I’m just trying to make people feel better about themselves, and feel better about the world, then I’d be pretty happy with that.
Here’s a video of Dermot Kennedy performing his song,
“All My Friends.”
DK: Last year, you put out another good single called “Giants.” Can you talk about writing that song?
Kennedy: Yeah, that was me, Scott and Koz as well. We wrote that song in early 2019. Back then we were in New York, and Louis (Bloom), who’s the president of Island Records, came into the studio and listened to a bunch of stuff we’d been doing, and I was so excited about all of it, except “Giants.” Then (laughs) we played “Giants” and he was like, “That’s the one.” He was mad into that one. And I was like, “Nah…I’m into every other one, but not that one.” Then it took me a long time, but I got there eventually.
It’s always interesting to me when someone like that says, “I love this one,” and then four months later I’m like, “Oh yeah. Me too. This is probably a good idea.” So that’s where the song came from. Also one thing I realized, especially going into my 20s, is that I was such an imaginative child, and there was such a sense of wonder and there were stories and fairytales that were a key part of my life. And I feel as you get older, that stuff just fades inevitably, like you’re not meant to hold onto it. So I resent that to a certain extent, and I would love to carry on just being basically a grown-up kid, and so that’s where “Giants” comes from.
DK: It’s been about two years since you released your Without Fear album. Are you close to finishing your new album?
Kennedy: Yeah, I’m close. I feel like the songs exist, and from now on it’s a case of us bringing them into a sound world that makes sense. And to let them sit somewhere, in terms of their sound, that it stays true to who I am and why I love music, and pushes me forward and stays culturally relevant. This is the fun part I think, because it’s where you really test yourself and you push it and push it. Once you have the songs, and you decide what type of album it’s going to be, that to me is very exciting.
DK: During the past 18 months, we’ve all experienced the pandemic and lockdown. But now, you’re back on tour in America. So what was it like for you not being able to tour, and how does it feel to be playing for people again?
Here’s a video of Dermot Kennedy performing his song, “Glory.”
Kennedy: It’s funny right now—I’m actually in the same town and hotel that we ran home from in March 2020. We had six dates left on our U.S. tour when Covid hit, and then we went from here in Michigan to Chicago, then we flew home immediately and didn’t know what was going on. But (when things re-opened) we were like, “It’s time go go back.” And that was Friday the 13th (2020), and this is Friday the 13th (laughs), and I’m in the same hotel. So it’s kind of crazy. But being off tour…I gotta say that I didn’t hate it (laughs). It felt like I needed a break. We’d been on tour for a few years and it has come with so many highs, but a lot of obstacles and tricky times too. So I appreciated being at home for that amount of time, to reconnect with family and friends, and I was also in the studio much of the time.
With the touring, it was disheartening how it kept getting pushed back again and again. Even now, I’m in one of the few corners of the world where you actually are allowed to play a show. It doesn’t feel yet that things are fully fixed at all. So it was a long time off, and the first gig back was interesting. I think we all expected this immediate euphoria and to be, “Oh my God, music’s back and I feel incredible.” But it just wasn’t that. It’s been a really interesting time…every show does feels smoother. We’ve played seven or eight shows now…we’re back at it and we’re more in that groove. But to be honest, it’s taken time.
DK: Thank you Dermot for doing this interview. Is there anything that we haven’t talked about yet, that you’d like to mention for this article?
Kennedy: I would say that I’m so grateful to be where I’m at in my career, because I’m aware of the fact that as you move through this industry and you try to learn it…everything is your first time. I remember people with my first album being, “Oh, how’s it gonna go?” And I was like, “I don’t know. I’ve literally never made an album before.” So you’re learning constantly, and I think what I’m happiest about and proud of, is I’ve gotten to this point, and I have zero regrets creatively. There’s not one thing that I would change. And even though you see people who have those massive hits and blow up, and my road’s been a longer one, I think it’s a more valuable one. So I feel very good about that.