Dermot Kennedy, Irish Singer/Songwriter With A Powerful Voice, Talks About His Excellent New Album, Sonder, And Writing His Songs

Dermot Kennedy
Dermot Kennedy
(photo credit: Shervin Lainez)

Since the release of his debut album, Without Fear, in 2019, acclaimed singer/songwriter Dermot Kennedy has steadily built a worldwide audience with his powerful lead vocals, his heartfelt, thoughful songwriting and his compelling live shows. He became known in 2019 and 2020 for his hit songs “Outnumbered,” “Power Over Me” and “Giants.”

Then last year (2021), Kennedy began releasing several new singles a few months apart, leading up to this week’s release of his long-awaited second album, called Sonder. His strong singles “Better Days,” “Something to Someone,” “Dreamer” and “Kiss Me” set the stage for the release of his excellent new album.

Sonder is a unique and unusual title for the album. In The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, it’s summarized as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” Since Kennedy is known for being empathetic when writing about the people in his songs, this title fits his personal vision and outlook.

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Dermot Kennedy, who tells how he wrote his new songs ‘Kiss Me” and “Something to Someone.”

Sonder contains 11 songs (including the singles “Better Days,” “Something to Someone,” “Dreamer,” “Kiss Me”) plus seven new songs. Other key songs include the dramatic, introspective “Innocence and Sadness,” the more pop “Divide,” the opening cut “Any Love,” plus “Already Gone” and “Homeward.” For his album, Kennedy collaborated with several top songwriters and producers, including Scott Harris (who’s written hits with Shawn Mendes and the Chainsmokers), Dan Nigro (writer/producer for Olivia Rodrigo) and Steve Mac (Ed Sheeran, Anne-Marie).

Although all the songs are well-written and interesting, at the heart of Kennedy’s music is his outstanding lead vocals. He has a deep, soulful voice that truly conveys the emotion and feeling of his songs. His passionate singing creates a strong impact, both in his recordings and when he performs live.
Another important dimension of Kennedy’s music is his live shows. Although his touring was interrupted by the pandemic, he was still able to perform to larger audiences in the U.S. and internationally. Last year, he impressively sold out a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. And on his upcoming tour, he’ll be headlining shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden and the new YouTube Theatre in Los Angeles. Notably, he has also opened arena and stadium shows for Shawn Mendes.

Here’s the video of Dermot Kennedy’s single, “Kiss Me.”

Dermot Kennedy Interview

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Dermot Kennedy. He discusses the making of his new album, Sonder, and how he wrote his singles “Better Days,” “Kiss Me,” “Something to Someone” and others. He also tells what it’s like to gradually build his audience worldwide, even in the midst of the pandemic.

DK: 1. You’re about to release your new album, Sonder, your first album in three years. Can you talk about what the past three years have been like for you, leading up to your new album?

Dermot Kennedy: It’s been so crazy. There’s been so many milestone moments, and many important live moments. There’s been many times where I felt sort of tested, and I persevered through a lot, and now I feel really happy with where things are at.

One thing I was proud of, at the end of the first album, was I felt like sonically I could go anywhere. I felt like I didn’t put myself in any kind of box. I could make any choice I wanted. So I think this new album feels much broader in terms of its sound, and it’s an exciting world to be stepping into.

DK: About a year ago you put out your song, “Better Days,” and then you released other singles a few months apart. So was that how you recorded your album—a few songs last year and most of the songs this year?

Kennedy: Yeah, a little bit. “Better Days” was probably the first one to show up, and we did that in L.A. Over the course of the past two years, we touched on certain songs that I knew I wanted to be stepping stones at crucial moments leading into the next album. It was funny, because some of the singles on the album are the ones that came at the very beginning. And then for the last six months, until we delivered the album, it was all about me finding moments that were potentially more stripped-back and more like the younger me that played open mics and bussed on the streets. And I think that’s an important part of who I am as an artist and a person. So I had to make sure I honored that side of myself.

Here’s the video of Dermot Kennedy’s single, “Better Days.”

DK: When you put out “Better Days,” it was in the middle of the pandemic. Looking back, do you think the song was partly inspired by what everybody was going through with Covid?

Kennedy: I think it’s a bit naïve of me to pretend it didn’t influence me at all. But it certainly wasn’t my intention. With that song, my intention was to talk about my own story and how the people around me helped me persevere…they encouraged me so much. It felt like an important message for the time. Then when we got to play that song to people at festivals and headline shows, whatever it meant to me became very unimportant. Because it was about the fact that we all had been starved of that human experience. So it became quite meaningful as part of the live show.

DK: Besides “Better Days,” it seems that most of the songs on your album are about love, relationships and connecting with people. Is that the main theme of your album?

Kennedy: It is that. It is ultimately human connection, and I think that’s why the title of Sonder was so meaningful to me when I found it, because I’d spent so much time scrambling around trying to find the right lyric or the right title or the right song that would give me the title for the album. But I was having a hard time coming across anything that matched my ambition for the project and was meaningful enough.

Then with Sonder, it touched an idea that I really cared about. It gave me the opportunity to share this album with people, without just saying it. It means that I can highlight other people’s stories and highlight the fact their stories are just as important as mine. It might be my album, but it’s an album full of experiences that we can all relate to. So ultimately it’s about human connections, and I always do my best to write from an autobiographical point of view. So that’s how it is for me, and when I’m on tour I will draw on those memories and that’s how I sing passionately. I think a lot of my music is about perseverance.

DK: What is the meaning of Sonder?

Here’s the video of Dermot Kennedy’s song, “Something
to Someone.”

Kennedy: Sonder means the awareness and the realization that everybody is living a life as vivid as complex as your own. And for me, that’s always been something that resonates deeply. You know, I’ve never been someone who seeks attention or the spotlight. I’m very proud to sing these songs—I want to do it as much as I can. I want to reach as many people, and move as many people as I can. But I’ve never felt like a born performer or a star in any way. And so this gives me the opportunity to keep moving with my career, but also do something that feels very organic to me.

DK: I like your song “Kiss Me,” which is more pop, upbeat and romantic. Can you talk about writing this song?

Kennedy: Sure. For me, if the song is going to be as upbeat as it is, and as poppy as it is, I think one of the main things I always need to do is touch on an idea that carries a lot of weight. For me at that time, I was reading a book called Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Long story short, it’s two people in a relationship that have some really good days that are beautiful and completely perfect, and then some really awful days that are horrific and almost tear everything apart. But on one of the good days, she says to him, “Just be aware of the fact that even when things are so bad, that this beautiful version of us still exists.” And so that gave me this song, and certainly in the chorus, there’s a lyric that says “Whatever may come, somewhere deep inside there’s always this version of you and I.” And this idea of whatever happens, however bad it gets, this perfect version of this relationship is always there. If it happens once, it’s still there, undeneath any mess or difficulty. It will always be there.

DK: Another song I like is “Something To Someone.” Can you tell the story behind writing this song?

Kennedy: My favorite thing about that song is how it has become a special live moment for us. For years, we were ending the set with a song called “After Rain” that felt very powerful, and it was this refrain that we could all sing together. But recently, it’s been replaced by “Something To Someone,” and it’s that lyric at the end—“I was something to someone.” I get the crowd to sing along, and it’s a beautiful feeling because I can see people in the crowd that are close to tears, and I can see people that are close to tears of joy. It feels like there’s so many different situations playing out. There’s a wide range of emotions in the room at that moment, and it’s nice to take that out of people. But I knew it was a tricky one in terms of production, because that song can live by itself just acoustically. But it felt like it definitely needed that momentum.

Here’s the video of Dermot Kennedy’s song, “Dreamer.”

DK: I want to ask you about your songwritng process. You’ve written songs with (hit songwriter) Scott Harris, and you also collaborated with (hit writer/producer) Dan Nigro and others. Can you talk about your co-writing?

Kennedy: That’s a long process in terms of me getting to that moment, where it’s like me, Scott, Dan, with Jonah (Shy) producing. It’s this little dream team I’ve assembled. But what people don’t see are the 500 writing sessions I’ve done where I was miserable leaving, because I thought [the songs weren’t good]. There’s so much trial and error in that world. But I think it’s worth it because firstly, it’s another set of ears in the room, and it’s a set of ears that you trust. And for me, I know that my strong points are lyrics and a delivery of a song. But I also know that if I was left to my own devices, I would potentially never write a chorus (laughs). I would write poems to music, which is a lovely thing to do, but I also want to play these big shows. So I need to give people moments that they want to genuinely hear more than once. So the Scotts and the Dans of the world, they’re experts who can take the essence of me and know when to challenge me and know when to leave me alone. And know when to trust me. To be honest, it’s nice to collaborate, and if I were to get to this point in my career and ignore that or block myself to it, I think that would be a bad idea.

DK: One of my favorite songs on your new album is “Divide.” Can you tell me about writing this song?

Kennedy: I wrote that in L.A. with with Scott Harris and Amy Allen, and it was a very painless song to write. The drums feel bouncy, which is something I’ve never gone near in my life, which was kind of weird for ne. And then I enjoyed how that song felt nostalgic but in a retro way, and I didn’t expect that. So it was new for me…I just trusted it. It feels like a very fun song—the verses have this lovely momentum without being forced. So it was a fun day of writing.

DK: I want to ask you about your live shows. You’re playing bigger venues in the U.S. as a headliner, and you opened up arena and stadium shows for Shawn Mendes. Can you talk about your live shows?

Here’s a video of Dermot Kennedy performing his song,
“Innocence and Sadness.”

Kennedy: Totally. It feels like the sky’s the limit on that front. You know, because when we’re all decked out onstage, there’s seven of us now. And I have yet to encounter a venue or a crowd capacity that I don’t love. With the Shawn shows, I was a bit wary that I wouldn’t love it because with my shows, I would say intimacy is a key part of that, and closeness is very important. So I was nervous about these stadiums, because I thought maybe that will be lost and it will just feel like a huge pop event and these lyrics won’t carry. But it feels better than anything (laughs). I really loved it. And in those arenas it’s these big bowls, so every seat is facing the stage. So it’s actually easy to hold people’s attention, or at least feel like you’re in an attentive environment. I was surprised that I loved it.

DK: How does it feel to gradually building your audience in the U.S. and playing larger venues?

Kennedy: It’s been growing little by little for sure. I think there’s people who will find my music today and tomorrow, and think I just showed up in the last couple weeks (laughs). I think it’s true for any artist, but I’ve been around for a while.

The day we announced our show at Madison Square Garden, I posted a thing on Instagram, and it was a brief history of our seven shows in New York. The first one had 300 people, then 800 and 1,200, and it’s funny how it’s strangely simple. If you go back and give everything for people and put on a show the best you can, you’ll find support in each city. I really do believe that. Obviously, the songs have to be good and the show has to be good, but I believe if you keep going back with the right attitude, that people will support you.

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: No I’m good…I’m just excited. I feel good about everything. I’m very excited for people to hear this new album and I’m excited to play these songs live next year.

Here’s the link to Dermot Kennedy’s site:

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima