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photography by bob dixon

Opposite page and right: the boy from Donaghmede, Damien Dempsey, who cites Jimi Hendrix, Thin Lizzy and The Dubliners amongst his musical influences and has Bob Dylan as a fan

a modern minstrel

Pure impassioned songs, a rousing delivery and a simple strength of guitar playing; Damien Dempsey is the new breed of Dublin storyteller

by amar patel

Over the course of three Irish number one albums, Damien Dempsey, the boy from Donaghmede, has developed a reputation as one of the country’s great singer songwriters. The Meteor Award winner’s second album, Seize The Day, released in 2003, is widely considered as one of the best Irish albums of all time and he has drawn ardent praise from the likes of Bob Dylan and Morrissey, both of whom he has supported on tour. But his life could have followed another route, growing up as he did around an altogether different sound. ‘My father was a panel beater,’ he says, in his thick Dubliner’s drawl. ‘It was a pretty hard trade with all the fumes and dirt. My friends and family eventually developed some interest in cars but that never really happened to me. I just wanted to learn how to play a solo.’ Communal post-pub sing-alongs first turned the young Dempsey onto music. After completing his secondary education he went to Ballyfermot School for two years where he studied musical performance, but this didn’t satisfy his precocious curiosity. ‘School was good for the basics but I needed to read around for myself,’ he explains. From his formative music years Dempsey would tread his own path, soaking up seemingly disparate elements like rock n’ roll and reggae while immersing himself in the history books to fill his time while he was unemployed. He needed to better himself. ‘I began to teach myself guitar playing along to the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Thin Lizzy, Elvis Presley, all the obvious ones, but also artists like Bob Marley, The Specials, Christy Moore and The Dubliners. Music with a more easy-going vibe – that Irish vibe.’ Dempsey’s songs deliver a compelling combination of hard-nosed social commentary, timeless melodies and that all-

‘I’m always working on lyrics, pushing myself to write better. i let the words come to me’

important emerald twinkle. He shrugs: ‘I just try to tell a good story, paint pictures about street life and give people a positive message. It doesn’t have to be well conceived though.’ That is not to say that Dempsey isn’t a craftsman when it comes to the songwriting process. ‘I’m always working on lyrics,’ he insists, ‘always pushing myself to write better. I sit down and let the words come to me, writing verse after verse like Bob Dylan. Then I’ll pick and choose. There’s usually something worthwhile in there.’ His lyrics meld simplicity with precision to deliver uncompromising accounts of everyday life. ‘I usually draw inspiration from conversations I have with people, whatever the topic, although it’s getting harder these days to have a good talk in the pub. That culture is being erased by the likes of DVDs and computer games.’ Dempsey’s celebration of Irish heritage has struck a major chord with audiences both domestic and international, particularly at a time when Irish national identity is reportedly under threat. ‘Whatever I do, I try to remember everything that’s good about Ireland,’ he says. ‘Our sense of humour, our friendliness, our

spirituality, the music. We seem to be losing our spirituality these days following the recent economic boom. During the nineties, the private sector prospered but money did not trickle down to schools and hospitals.’ It is this sense of social responsibility that shines through on Dempsey’s new album, To Hell Or Barbados, a commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Parliament’s abolition of the slave trade in the former British Empire and an illuminating account of the Irish Diaspora. ‘The new album is named after a book by Sean O’Callaghan,’ explains Dempsey. ‘It talks about the ethnic cleansing of Ireland around 1650 at the hands of Cromwell’s government, who used Caribbean islands like Barbados as a dumping ground and penal colony.’ In fact, Barbados’s population comprised primarily Irish slaves throughout much of the 17th and 18th centuries. ‘Believe it or not, even today in Barbados there are people with Irish accents and vice versa,’ adds Dempsey. Although they weren’t the only exiles, the Irish endured horrific treatment – so through the new album he hopes to bring the issue of slavery around the world to the forefront. For now, Dempsey is readying himself for the ‘media circus’ surrounding his fourth album but, despite wooing audiences worldwide, ‘Damo’ remains a local lad. ‘Living right by the sea I can wake up to fresh air and a swim every day,’ he says. ‘Dublin is my home. I love it.’

To Hell Or Barbados was released in Ireland on 1 June 2007 LEXUS MAGAZINE 11

Lexus magazine – Damian Dempsey interview  

An interview with Irish singer and Lexus driver Damian Dempsey to coincide with the release of his album 'To Hell or Barbados'.

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