The sun does funny things to Dublin; al fresco dining, 99’s and more goose pimpled skin than Tesco’s poultry section. The Iveagh Gardens is the perfect place to bask in that all too scarce sunshine, the perfect place to meet Damien Dempsey, an oasis inside the “concrete maze of Anna Livia’s domain” that serves as inspiration to so many of his songs. Dempsey’s new album SOULSUN is released this week, a powerful record at once recognisable as ‘Damo’ while still pushing forward into unchartered waters. It’s a record he’s immensely proud of, rightly so.
“I just wanted it to be different than anything I’d done before, try to evolve with every album and just do something different. That’s the main thing.”
That evolution led to ‘Big Big Love’ a beautiful soul ballad complete with chopping Curtis Mayfield guitar intro featuring Imelda May. “I was listening to a little bit of Marvin Gaye at the time. I watched him live at Montreux, I was blown away by it. I wrote that song a few weeks later.”
Collaboration is a massive part of Dempsey’s work, long-time partner John Reynolds provides the ideal sounding board for the Donaghmede native. “He’s a huge creative part of it, he’s great to work with. He’s a big fan of mine, he likes my style but he’ll tell me if something’s shit. So, it’s great to have him to bounce off. He’ll say that verse is shit but that’s a really strong line, whip that out and we’ll build a song around it. It’s very hard for me to judge ‘cos I’m so close to the stuff and then he’ll come up with stuff that I can write over too. As well as that we’re great friends, I live with him when I’m over in London. It’s a great space over there for me to work, I’d never get as much stuff done here I don’t think.”
A slight departure in the writing process for SOULSUN has resulted in his most radio friendly record to date. “Sometimes John sends me some beats or a backing track so it doesn’t just sound like it’s written on a guitar all the time. A few of the songs on this record would have started from backing tracks. With ‘Sweet Gratitude’ I think I said to him ‘Throw us up an aul reggae beat there will ya’ and then I wrote that one over it. Just to take it away from the acoustic guitar I wrote on the electric, the 12-string and the piano a lot for this record, used some beats as well.”
Dido is another who guests on the record, Dempsey met the ‘Thank You’ singer in Brian Eno’s house of all places at a party that sounds like a singers version of the ‘Stone Cutters’ lodge. “I met Dido in Brian Eno’s house in London at a sing-song he has every Tuesday night. He gets a load singers together and we sing songs and do harmonies and all. She was there and Annie Lennox was there, it was great. Annie Lennox says ‘I love your album Seize the Day’ I was like ‘Fucking Hell!?’. Then Dido was like ‘I love your song ‘Not on Your Own Tonight’ I play it every day’. It was fucking mad.”
Dido features on ‘Beside the Sea’ a track taken from Dempsey’s debut record They Don’t Teach This Shit in School a record that didn’t shift the needle too much upon its release. Over the course of his six albums of original material since he’s returned to it to rescue songs like ‘It’s All Good’ and ‘Colony’. “So few people heard the first album I didn’t want them songs to get lost. All them songs wouldn’t have been heard, they would have died.”
It was Dempsey’s second record Seize the Day that really propelled him into the country’s consciousness, marking him as the next in a long linage of great Irish songwriters. Like Phil Lynott and Shane MacGowan before him Dempsey paints pictures of the country at its best and worst. Seize the Day was the wider public’s first taste of it. “It opened the country up to me, it changed people’s opinion of me.” At a time when young people were leaving the country in their droves Seize the Day was right beside Tayto crisps and Cadbury’s chocolate in so many patriotic care packages bound for foreign fields. “Sometimes it’s not until people go abroad that they get nostalgic and they get more interested in their homeland, that’s when they get in to me. Before that it was just like ‘Ah fuck that. What’s he singing about Ireland for?’ When they go away they might have more of a gra’ for what I’m singing about.”
Those big choruses that first captured so many peoples’ attention back then are all over SOULSUN, written with live performances in mind. “I’m spacing the songs out a bit more now, leaving a bit of space in between the lines just trying to open up the voice. Big choruses, so the crowd can sing them. They don’t need me now, I could nearly send my band to one of my gigs now and the crowd would have a great time.”
Having released his first record 17 years ago Dempsey has gone from strength to strength as an artist, he’s managed to remain relevant solely through the power of his music which is saying something these days. Songs like ‘Simple Faith’, ‘Pretty Bird Tree’ and ‘Sam Jenkins’ from the excellent SOULSUN will only serve to enhance his reputation as a national treasure.