Hanging around Newtown, Sydney, Damien Dempsey is enjoying being back in Australia again.
His thick Irish accent cuts through the air with ease and his affable personality makes it a pleasure to talk to a man described as the greatest Irish singer of his generation.
Performing at Canberra’s burgeoning National Folk Festival, Dempsey has already frequented our shores eight times and enjoys our colonial sense of humour and that we’re ”one of the oldest and youngest countries in the world”.
He’s also enjoying the release of a best-of double album that spans his 15-year career and six Irish Top 10 albums. It’s All Good allows Dempsey to reflect on his past and captures him over the years blending rock with folk, reggae, roots and traditional Irish music.
”I feel very lucky to be doing what I am doing and very privileged,” Dempsey says. ”A lot of writers and talented musicians have to give up, as they just couldn’t afford to play music any more and I am very privileged to take it one step forward where I can make money and pay the rent.
”I am one of these people that feel the song comes through you and the good ones write themselves. I wouldn’t take credit for all of the songs and I had a lot of help – a higher power, I believe.”
People usually assume that artists making music are well-off and living a life of excess, but Dempsey knows that many wonderful musicians are obscure, not in the limelight and that sometimes it takes time for music to pay your bills.
”I went through a lot of lean years and didn’t start making money until I was around 40 years of age. And whatever money I make now kind of pays the rent and I can feed myself and then I invest by coming down to Australia and the States and UK to get my music out there,” he says.
”Only 1 per cent are rich and famous and the rest are out there working, playing music and helping people through life with music. Some of the best music in the world is out there and people don’t know about it. Some artists just do music not for money but because it is magic, it’s essential and it helps you feel alive, you know.”
Dempsey is a grounded individual who appreciates it takes hard work and a lot of luck to get where he is. His father entered him into a national Irish song contest in his youth; he came second, and suddenly a whole new world opened before him – but it wasn’t always easy.
”As soon as I got the guitar around 12, I always had dreams of being on stage and there being an audience, and I always had visions of this. I mean, it got a bit hard in my mid-20s, when things weren’t really going anywhere for me and people were saying, ‘Give up, you’ve tried your best but it’s time to get a real job.’ But music is like breathing to me. It’s like oxygen. I enjoy writing songs and it’s a form of healing for me.”
Thankfully, Dempsey got through the hard times but he’s too modest to tell me he has performed with an array of brilliant musical minds, such as Brian Eno, U2, Bob Dylan, Sinead O’Connor, Morrissey and Glen Hansard.
His influences are many but two in particular stand out.
”Sinead O’Connor is a big influence on me, ’cause she never sat on the fence and she hit out at anything she thought was wrong,” Dempsey says.
”Bruce Springsteen’s early work was important too, as he’d make working class scenes and dead-end places come alive like a movie, and paint a picture with the lyrics.”
Dempsey is similar to Springsteen and O’Connor, with songs that speak of injustice, loss and longing, of heartache, hope and despair, of suffering and healing. It’s clear that he finds inspiration from everyday life.
”I watch the news or have debates with people and conversation can be a great way of getting a song,” he says.
”I’m always walking around the city with a notebook or pen and keeping my eyes and my ears open, and always observing people and anything that annoys me that I feel strongly about, and justice. A song to me is like scratching an itch. I was never really one for writing love songs as I’ve always being more socially conscious.”
Damien Dempsey will be at the National Folk Festival, April 17-21.