St Patrick’s: it’s a big day for Damo!
As he prepares for 'Damofleadh' at the Roundhouse on St Patrick’s Day, contemporary Irish folk singer Damien Dempsey talks Brexit, Morrissey and Highgate ponds
15 March, 2018 — By Róisín Gadelrab
Damien Dempsey is set to celebrate St Patrick’s Day at the Roundhouse
“I COME over here for sanctuary. I come to London for some peace, you know, because I just know so many people in Dublin, it can get a bit hectic. So I come here to this massive metropolis to get away from things, for a spiritual retreat.”
Contemporary Irish folk singer Damien Dempsey isn’t joking.
Dempsey, who is starting his own “Damofleadh” at the Roundhouse this year on St Patrick’s Day (March 17) in the hope of making it an annual event, now that the Finsbury Park Fleadh is no more, has taken a more spiritual turn in recent years.
“I have a place where I swim where you’d never know you were in London,” he said.
“It’s the Highgate ponds. It’s surrounded by trees and there’s all sorts of birdlife, kingfishers and swans and moorhens and all sorts of birds swimming past you. It’s just getting back to nature, it kind of grounds you. If you get into the air, into the elements… I’ve been watching documentaries about grounding, getting your shoes and socks off and standing on grass. If you can do that in the morning, it’s the best time with the dew, it’s meant to really help your body.”
Dempsey is taking his Great Irish Songbook tour around the UK playing his own interpretations of other Irish songs, before he hits Camden.
“The Roundhouse will be mostly my own songs and a Pogues or Dubliners song thrown in for my pleasure,” he said.
Dempsey has rounded up a bunch of Irish musicians – and Jerry Dammers – for his mini Fleadh.
“We played Finsbury park Fleadh a long time ago and really thought that was great, you know. We just sort of felt, that’s gone now and there’s no real day for the Irish in London, there’s no real Feis festival day or Fleadh day, so there’s a few different bands on in a big setting so we thought we’d try and get something going that we’d do every year on the Saturday that’s nearest to Paddy’s day, and see if it kicks off.
“I think it could be a good event because I think it’s the Sunday that they always do the Trafalgar Square thing, isn’t it?”
He added: “I think we’ve got a great line-up. Beoga, we saw them down at the Slaughtered Lamb before Christmas and they were exceptional, really good, great band.
“They’re a sort of traditional Irish band but write their own tunes and songs and they’re just great singers and amazing players and they’ll have the place kicking, rocking, you know, one of the best traditional Irish bands I’ve ever seen. And Wildwood Kin are incredible harmony singers, amazing singers, they’re singing a song of mine. And Morrissey and Marshall are just two great singers, great songwriters.
“Then there’s Jerry Dammers as well, from The Specials, so he’s going to do a ska DJ set at the end of the night and get everybody jumping.”
As Ireland are playing England at Twickenham on the same day, Dempsey hopes to make a weekend of it, ending with the annual Trafalgar Square St Patrick’s Day celebrations. His earliest St Patrick’s Day memory came when his dad took him to the parade in Dublin.
He said: “I was only small but he put me up on some sort of pillar on O’Connell Street, some sort of ledge, about six feet up the ledge and there were lots of real rough kids up on the ledge, real street kids from inner-city Dublin and he said, ‘can I put this young lad up here?’ and they said ‘ah yeah, bring him up here’, and they sort of pulled me up and I sat up there with them watching the parade and they kind of looked after me, you know.”
In later years, the parade took on more meaning to Dempsey.
“I suppose it’s the only day the Irish have around the world for them and I realised the reason is, the history of the parade was because the Irish were getting so much discrimination in New York by the people who lived there. They just wanted to show how many Irish were there, and how strong they were, that’s when they started marching.
“So it was downtrodden Irish people in America who started it off to show that they weren’t alone, that there was a lot of them, trying to mobilise and try and get some rights for themselves.
“When I found out that, I was even more interested in the day. It’s a day to be proud of that we’re still here, we survived all the hard years, all the hard centuries, you know, all the tough places that the Irish had to go to survive around the world. It’s a day to celebrate that, the struggle of our people.”
Dempsey also warned against the potential consequences of Brexit on Ireland.
“I think it’d be very bad if they put a border up again, very bad,” he said.
“If it’s a hard border it could start up trouble again, that would be just a disaster, it really would be a disaster. I don’t know what they’re gonna do but it’s a real step back in the bad old days if they put up a border up there, it’s such a different island now without the border, it really has changed, it’s much different, it just has more peace and togetherness and it’s grown, it’s just becoming a more multicultural, less divisive place to live.”
His next album will be a compilation of collaborations with the likes of Kate Tempest.
He said: “It’s an old song with Kate that we’ve reworked. We’ve put a new beat and new lyrics to it so it sounds tough. I’ve just done a song with John Grant. He sang beautiful harmonies and lyrics on a song of mine, Soulsun, and Christy Moore said he’d do a song with us and Finbar Fury and Imelda May has done a song with us last year and Dido has done a song and Moya Brennan from Clannad. So we’re just going through all the old collaborations and doing some new ones and we’re going to stick them on an album.”
Morrissey has also apparently expressed an interest to contribute but “he’s on tour at the moment so I’m going to leave the ball in his court, I’m not going to hound him,” says Dempsey. The former Smiths singer has also reportedly suggested he’d like to sing at Dempsey’s funeral – a thought that brings a wry laugh from the Irish singer, saying: “Very nice of him! I suppose we’ll have to wait that one out and see who’s going to sing at whose funeral.”
In the meantime, Dempsey is seeking inspiration for his next originals album. He said: “I’m not actually writing at the moment, we’ve done an album last year called Soulsun so at the moment I’m percolating, reading books, listening to music, restocking the pond.
“I sort of have to go away and do that before I’m able to write more, you have to live a little and then come back to writing so I’m sort of taking a little sojourn at the moment. I might go to Berlin for a while, I’ve some friends over there so I might go over there for a couple of months. I went to Sydney before an album and then travelled Australia. I went to New York before an album and just tried to let a new place inspire me and new people inspire me for new songs.”
Although he often includes social commentary in his songs, Dempsey is not necessarily looking to be topical. He tries not to watch too much news, particularly after he saw the treatment of one significant story.
“There was a scientist and I saw him on telly, he was giving an interview. There was tears in his eyes, when they banned…the gas from aerosol cans, they’d shrunk the ozone hole in the ozone layer, I think it was the size of 17 UKs, I think they’d shrunk it that much and he was saying it was incredible news that we can repair the Earth if we just stop using damaging things, and I thought this should have been the biggest news in the world for about two or three weeks, I really thought this should have been huge news, but there was so little coverage given to this, so small, tiny coverage and I sort of said then they don’t want us to hear good news….they want us to be bombarded with bad news, to keep us in fear.”
Still, his song 2015, which will be out on his next original album, recalls a significant time in Ireland’s recent history.
“I just wrote a song about 2015 in Ireland because in that year there was a referendum about same-sex marriage and the Catholic church told the people to vote No but the people went against them and they voted Yes, so that was a great thing.
“Traditionally the people have always gone with the Catholic church in Ireland on nearly everything. In the same year the government tried to push through these water charges against the will of most of the people in Ireland. They were trying to privatise the water and the Irish people had had enough with all the scandals and crazy taxes so the Irish people refused to pay their bills, about 2/3 people refused to pay, so they had to back down. So in that year we sort of stood up to the church and the state, which is kind of unheard of since the formation of the Irish state, so it was a great year for people standing up. So I wrote a song about 2015 – don’t forget if we all come together and stand up we can make a change.”
In more recent years, Dempsey has changed his approach to his live performances.
“I used to have a few drinks to calm myself down a bit but I’m trying not to do that anymore,” he said.
“I’m sort of enjoying the nervous tension before the show, I just have a bit more confidence in myself and what I do so I’m not as nervous now. So before the show I have a few techniques: I steam my voice with a steam inhaler, it’s really good for singing, any singers out there, there’s a thing called a Vicks personal steam inhaler you can get off Amazon and it’s really good for five minutes before you go onstage.
“And I do some stretches. I know a few yoga moves so I do a few of them – very good just to clear the head – and just five minutes of warm-up exercises on the voice, just scales and maybe have a lemon ginger honey drink or something for the voice, instead of drinking four or five pints and getting a hangover by the end of the show. Or dehydrating by the end of the show.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean he won’t drink on St Patrick’s Day. He said: “I’ll probably have one onstage and I might have a nip before I go on, just a glass of something or other, a brandy or port or something, then have one onstage maybe halfway through the show, then after the show I’ll probably have a couple but I have to play the next day in Warrington, then Birmingham the next night, so you have to think of the people coming to your show the next night. Sometimes I used to disregard them and just get hammered. You just wouldn’t think of them when you’re in your 20s but now you’re a bit more thoughtful with people coming to your show, you just want to give them the best night of their lives. It probably comes with age a bit. You’re just a bit that more wild in your 20s.”
As well as his singing, Dempsey has branched out into acting, although he is currently seeking more diverse roles.
He added: “I keep getting offered gangster roles so I might try and stop taking them because I’m not a gangster and I never was – just because I have an accent that many gangsters might have and I look a bit big and have big shoulders and I’ve done a bit of boxing, so I might have the look but it’s not me so I might have to get something that’s more me. Maybe a role that has a bit more empathy or something, you know.”