Taking the rocky road to stardom
Ahead of his Belfast Festival gig next week, Irish singer Damien Dempsey tells Jamie McDowell how Christy Moore helped him go from labourer to chart success
Damien Dempsey doesn't fit the mould of your average singer/songwriter. He doesn't wear skinny jeans and boating shoes, nor does he have a meticulously-styled perm.
The burly north Dubliner is more likely to bring you for a singsong and a pint or two than entertain modern pop culture rhetoric. Damien (36), who's performing at The Irish Sea Sessions next Saturday as part of this year’s Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s, will once again bring his trademark mix of politically conscious folk-rock and reggae to the city.
“Growing up, my parents didn't exactly play any instruments,” says the Donaghmede man.
“But they loved to get a good sing song going after they came back from the pub. Everybody would stay up late, including me, and give a song for everyone else.
“I still love a singsong. Everybody has a song that they like and I always manage to get one out of someone wherever I go.”
He adds: “I first picked up a guitar at the age of 12. It was a time in Dublin when everyone was in a band or playing. I was self-taught, and I grew up listening to guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Phil Lynott and Bob Marley.
“I learned about songs through those guys. I used to learn a Bob Marley song and put my own lyrics to the music. I had a knack of being a fan of musicians who all died young as well. Lynott, Marley and John Lennon all died when I was young, I couldn't believe it.”
While some singers face the momentous task of trying to make it on their own, Damien luckily had a mentor in none other than Christy Moore.
“When I played at The Point in Dublin before Christy Moore came on, that was the biggest thing I'd ever experienced,” he says.
The friendship soon burgeoned as the young Dempsey’s obvious talent was noticed by the iconic Irish singer-songwriter.
“He asked me if I'd like to meet him for lunch one day. We got on well. He's some man. After that he mentored me. Before then, I'd been working as a labourer on a building site and people had been telling me to quit music and focus on a ‘proper job'.”
Damien’s first single, Dublin Town, came out in 1997, reaching number 18 in the Irish music charts and garnering critical acclaim.
It was another three years before his first full-length album, They Don't Teach This S**t In School, was released.
Further endorsement for Dempsey came when he was spotted by the iconic indie pop star Morrissey, who invited Damien to support him on a number of his UK and Irish dates as well as his autumn 2004 US tour, even signing him to his label, Attack.
Damien’s most recent album was 2008’s The Rocky Road, which featured covers of hits like Foggy Dew as well as The Pogues’ A Rainy Night in Soho.
“Things started picking up for me when I was around 29-years-old,” says Damien. “I'd been playing little gigs for years, so my success didn't come overnight.
“From there I went on to become a guest singer with Willie Nelson and I backed up Bob Dylan as well.”
While that might conjure up images of sharing a bit of backstage time with the greats, the reality was sometimes a little more sobering, as Dempsey was to find.
“You don't really see much of these stars when you're performing with such big names,” he says. “I suppose they're just fed up getting their heads wrecked by fans, so they appreciate their private time. Willie spent most of his time in his caravan. He seemed to be quite a shy character when I finally met him.”
On the modern music scene, Damien isn't enthused by much of what's on the radio today, but he does make a few exceptions.
“These days I prefer to listen to older music, myself,” he says. “I love old ballads and that sort of thing, but I also like acts such as Arcade Fire. I saw them at Electric Picnic last year. They have a really big sound.”
While many musicians and bands today tend to tip-toe around the socio-political issues that affect people, Damien prefers to tackle these subjects head on.
“The situation in Ireland at the moment is annoying,” he laments. “In my singing I protest about the austerity cuts. It's the handicapped, the elderly and young people who are mostly going to be affected by these cuts. It's money we don't really owe, you know? It was the banks that lost the money, not the people.
“The whole thing is like one big scam. I don't understand why we're dealing with the IMF. Argentina threw them out so why can't we? I'd like to see the youth out marching in protest.”
Damien Dempsey will be playing as part of the Irish Sea Sessions on Saturday, October 22, 8pm at the Ulster Hall. Go to www.belfastfestival.com for details