By David Hennessy
The revered Dublin folk singer Damien Dempsey is ready to release his 29 track, double CD best of compilation, It’s All Good with two new songs, Happy Days and St Patrick’s Brave Brigade. Happy Days seems to show a new side to Damien as it is more upbeat than most of his material.
Damien tells The Irish World that he thinks a more light hearted anthem is now what Ireland needs: “During the Celtic Tiger years, people were saying: ‘Why are you writing these songs about the Celtic Tiger, being about greed and the downside? Why can’t you just be happy that we’re doing well and all?’
“I was trying to take people down off their pedestals, their high horses. Lots of people were going around thinking they were kings of the earth and all this and going mad.
“That’s not us, that’s not the Irish. Look at our hospitals: Ruined. Look at our national schools: In freezing cold prefabs. Where’s all this money going? And now people are saying: Why aren’t you writing them songs now for recession? People need a lift in a recession, ya know. If you go to third world countries, they’re not listening to Radiohead,” Damien breaks into a laugh at the end and the image does the same for The Irish World.
“Not that Radiohead aren’t a great band, they are an amazing band. People, particularly in dark times, need music that’s gonna lift them.”
Damien sees both the positive and negative effects the harsh times are having in Ireland with government cuts targeting the vulnerable: “There’s a lot of creativity going on, I think. That’s what recessions do: People just take it on themselves to be a bit entrepreneurial.
“It’s just a shame that our government keep punishing poor people, disasdvantaged people, disabled people and old people and keep tightening the screw on them to send their money to these billionaires in Europe. That’s just such a shame. Until we get some leaders with back bone, it’s gonna continue.”
The other fresh song, St Patrick’s Brave Brigade recounts the tale of a unit of expatriates, primarily Irish, who had defected from the American army and fought as part of the Mexican army against the United States in the Mexican-American war of 1846-8. Most of the battalion’s members had deserted or defected from the US army.
“I thought the story was an interesting one,” Damien explains. “I have lots of Irish-American friends who were a bit gung-ho about what was going on, going into Iraq and all. I wanted to show them that at one stage, they weren’t accepted in American society and they were treated like dogs, they were spat on.. So I just wanted to show them that they were the underdog, they were hated, they were like Muslims are now.
“I thought it was an interesting story how they went down and fought for the Mexicans and there’s still a place for them down there. These kind of things should be but people never put them in the history books.”
St Patrick’s Brave Brigade is sung from the perspective of Francis O’Connor who was hung for desertion from the US Army when the US forces prevailed. He was offered no leniency despite the fact that he had already had his legs amputated. “I think it was to make an example,” Damien says of this.
Damien has always taken inspiration from history, with his fourth album To Hell or Barbados taking its name from Sean O’Callaghan’s account of the tens of thousands of Irish people sent as slaves to Barbados during the Cromwellian campaign in Ireland.
The unit written about in St Patrick’s Brave Brigade, although mainly Irish, also included German, Canadian, English, French, Italians, Poles, Scots, Spanish, Swiss as well as disenfranchised Americans such as escaped slaves.
“One in every three cowboys was black, ya know? But you never see it in the wild west, they’re just written out of history. It’s like in Australia, the aboriginals fought very, very hard against the white colonisers, they had big battles and the guerrilla warfare but that was written out of history. When white people came to write the history, they said ‘they just gave in happily, let us take the place’. You have to look a bit deeper in history because a lot of it’s not written. I just try to look deeper into it and get these stories and then write a song about them, just to educate people.”
Slavery is a historical topic very much in the news at the minute, has Damien had time to check out 12 Years a Slave? “I did. It was horrendous. I think every racist should be made to watch that. It’s a bit of a slap in the face for people who think America’s the greatest country in the world because this was going on there and these are the foundations of the United States. That’s how some people got so rich, that’s how a lot of people got very rich. The sadism of the slave trade is just shown very well and we need to think about that more.”
Colony, described as an anti-racism song, came out of Damien’s research into Ireland’s time under British rule and the conditions his grandparents grew up in and in the new records sleeve notes, he describes it as coming “like the ancestors penned it for me”. It is often that often provokes a reaction and it is not always a fair one from people from countries who are mentioned in it: “That’s the one that really gets them and some people feel a bit hurt like I’m attacking them. I just say ‘listen to the song, I’m not attacking you’. I’m saying ‘if you feel hate for anybody, it’s gonna chew you up and spit you out’. They say: ‘Do you hate English people or something? Do you hate Belgian people?’ I say ‘listen to the lyrics of the song, will ya?’ Just because I mention those countries in the song, they think I’m attacking everybody from that land but I tell them to ‘go back and listen to the song and come back to me.’”
Colony came from Damien’s 2000 debut, They Don’t Teach this Shit in School. It’s 2003 follow-up Seize the Day earned Damien two Meteor Awards. His third album, Shots, spawned Sing All Our Cares Away, one of his best known numbers and earned Damien another Meteor for Best Male. Another Best Male award came his way in 2007, the year of Damien’s To Hell or Barbados album debuted at number 2 in the Irish charts. This was followed the very next year by his The Rocky Road album. Damien’s most recent studio album Almighty Love went straight in at number 3 in the Irish charts in 2012 and cemented his position as one of the most important Irish singers of his generation.
Damien is known for marrying traditional sound to modern themes and lyrics. Coming from Donaghmede on Dublin’s tough Northside, he has seen drugs and violence claim many friends. Has music and song writing been his saviour? “Yeah, it saved my life. I’m really lucky I found song writing to express how I was feeling. Otherwise, I don’t know how I would have gotten it out, released it.
It was around 2001 that Damien met the producer John Reynolds at a party in Notting Hill. Famed for his work with Sinead O’Connor and U2, John would produce much of Damien’s work from then on in what has proved a solid working relationship since. Damien counts him as the biggest influence on his career.
But Damien couldn’t have dreamed this was what the in demand producer was calling him for when John called him on the phone after the party. In fact, in the sleeve notes for It’s All Good, the singer reveals he thought something had gone missing from John’s flat and ‘the Donaghmedian was getting the blame’: “Where I’m from, if you have a house party, there’s people walking out the door with the fecking television.”
It was while staying with John Reynolds that Damien wrote Kilburn Stroll: “I was just going through a bit of a bad time with depression and I couldn’t sleep. I was in John Reynolds’ house there just by Queen’s Park tube. Four in the morning, I was lying there, I just got up and got this dog, the mastiff Marley, God rest him and walked up to Kilburn High Road, walking up and down. There were a few scary characters hanging around but I had the big mastiff with me so I was okay. This tune just popped into my head and I just started feeling better, the clouds started to shift for some reason. This tune came in and it was like the spirits were saying: ‘It’s going to be okay, don’t worry about it, this will pass and it’s all going to be good, keep writing your music’. It’s like they gave me a little tune to say ‘here ya go, keep the faith, brother’. So I went back and put down this tune and the next day, John shouted at me ‘that’s a great tune’. I just wrote lyrics for it and then we got into the studio and the very next day it was finished.”
In 2011, Damien played to Trafalgar Square for the St Patrick’s day celebrations with none other than Andrea Corr as special guest and this remains a special memory for him. “Singing Colony in Trafalgar Square,” he laughs. “That was a great moment and there was a great picture I’m going to get blown up: Just me with the camera behind me pointing out on to the square and all the people, you can see all the red heads,. There’s a big black man standing there, very serious, and you can tell he’s listening to the lyrics. I’m nearly sure I’m singing Colony. It’s a great buzz with people in the fountain and all.”
For the full interview, see the February 15 Irish World.
It’s All Good, the best of Damien Dempsey is out on February 17. Damien plays Thekla in Bristol on February 18, Gorilllas in Manchester on February 20 and London’s Shepherds Bush Empire on February 21. For more information, go to: www.damiendempsey.com.