Released November 2, 2016 by Stephanie Serna
Irish troubadour, Damien Dempsey never seems to run out of inspiration for his songwriting.
Damo (as his fans lovingly call him) writes songs that extend a wide storytelling range: songs of mighty warriors in battle to those of the downtrodden & outcast, who either lie in heroin hell or find redemption by singing all their cares away; to songs of nature and the city — musical dreamy paintings of the sea where he swims each morning and of skies full of Canadian geese, to emotional sketches of Dublin’s Factories and “Spraypaint Backalley" to his love for the The Big Apple. The message is part of what draws the listener in — it’s an exquisite balance between love & acceptance and a mighty wake-up call.
Damien’s musical genre reaches the gamut as well. It ranges from traditional Irish folk to modern-Irish fusion, reggae to rap, ballad to rock, solo guitar & voice to full studio production He uses all these hues to artfully illustrate, again — the message — which is always deeply relevant to his life experience, personal beliefs and passions. He writes songs for himself and his tribe.
The album, he released in April of this year, No Force on Earth is no exception to the Damo “no rule”. This time he has returned to his historic roots of storytelling with just voice and guitar. Like a traditional Irish Gaelic bard, he is now singing about the struggles, battles, deaths and victories of his ancestors who fought for Ireland in the 1916 Easter Rising. This album, produced by John Reynolds, commemorates the 100 year anniversary.
When I visited Ireland this summer I saw the exhibition of pride and honor of this unforgettable time in history. Museums, galleries and street displays were brimming with stories of heroes and commemorative paraphernalia . Gratitude, love and respect for all the Irish people had endured and survived was palpable — in the expression of the people — and the land — and of course, in the music.
I was hoping to hear Damien’s music and catch up with him in Ireland, since I was, after all, “in the neighborhood.” But it was even more than that… After discovering him over two years ago, seeing him twice in concert, and hearing the crowds sing along to his songs full voiced as if part of the Dempsey Tabernacle Choir, I experienced a musical — call it spiritual — “awakening”. I wanted to ask him more about this phenomenon and what inspires and drives his songwriting… I wanted to unearth the story of his magic and bring it back to “my tribe”.
Damien Dempsey and John Reynolds have agreed to meet with me briefly in Tullamore after performing a free concert at Hugh Lynch’s annual Canal Quarters Festival. They only have 20 minutes before catching their bus to the airport to fly back to England where Damien will be opening for Morrissey the next night at the Manchester Arena.
We are now seated in a small cafe where the Talent takes refuge. It’s semi-private but loud with people trying to talk above the seeping festival noise. The sound is punctuating and canceling out part of my hearing. A sign on the wall reads “Don’t Take Life Too Seriously Nobody Gets Out Alive Anyway”. This is perfect. Damo asks me if I want a beer. I have only 20 minutes. I reply, I’m good…
I’m struck by both Damien and John's comfortable “hang out and talk” demeanor. I feel like I’m meeting with friendly chums for a beer even though this is a bit more like a speed date… And at the same time, to continue the date metaphor, there is a bit of shy awkwardness we share. I remember noticing that quality in Damien the first time I saw him. He sang with dynamic force but mostly kept his eyes closed, only opening them on message points or as an invitation to join in song. I’m very familiar with that technique — it helps me with performance jitters… But it’s this seeming vulnerability that enhances his intrigue. Our conversation flows as he generously offers his story… Our eyes rarely meet at first but as Damien talks about his passion for music his gaze begins to engage.
I learned the story of their meeting from the 2003 documentary about Damien called, It’s All Good: The Damien Dempsey Story … It was after John Reynolds saw Damien Dempsey perform in 2000 as the opener for a friend who was the main act that a connection was sparked. He started offering his support to Damo right away by first helping adjust his live audio mix which was too low. He then bought Damien’s first CD They Don’t Teach This Shit in School — and loved it so much, that he gave one to everyone he knew, including his ex-wife/best friend, Sinead O’Connor.
“I just loved the truth in his voice, really. It was just that kind of thing that you’re always looking for … that kind of soul thing.” John invited Damien over to “do a couple of tunes, have some fun and see what happens” and the two have been producing albums together ever since
“It’s been sixteen years… That’s longer than most marriages,” John attests
“You wouldn’t get that from water,” Damien quips, “It’s been the best 16 years of me life,” he adds in his full-flavored northern Dublin accent.
John describes their musical journey. “When we first met, I told Damien not to worry about album #1 or #2 or #3 — we’ll make 5 or 6 albums and see what happens. Artists these days get pushed into that 1 album chance and if it doesn’t stick, they’re considered used goods. We decided to just do a slow grow — to keep our integrity and just make records one after another that we absolutely love. We didn’t think about it going into big labels. We’ve had some great experiences with our company but money is not our God.”
Damien describes the first time he heard John’s full production mixes of his songs for their first album together, Seize the Day.
“I cried… I felt like he opened them (the songs) up like a flower, you know?”
Reynolds who doubles as Damien’s drummer is a seasoned producer who has worked with some of the best in the music industry including: Sinead O’Connor, Brian Eno, Robert Plant, Lumiere, Herbie Hancock, Dido, Bjork, U2, Belinda Carlisle, The Chieftans, David Byrne, Adam Ant, Indigo Girls… to name only a few. And even though the list goes on, Reynolds shares that if he had only a week to live, Damien would be one of the main people with whom he’d spend most of that week.
Sounds like a family … but one that actually enjoys each other’s company.
“It’s a real family,” Damien describes “… with real trust and love”
John explains further. “When you make a record with someone it is like a marriage. You have to really look after the relationship and make sure you’re honest with each other. It’s kind of fragile — artists are fragile and vulnerable. So I tend to try to create an inner sanctum where we all work and do things together. It’s our family and you can’t just get in that family very easily.”
The formula must be working because the music family is currently in production on their 8th album and just completed their 7th release with No Force on Earth.
Damien describes his intention in making the album, “I wanted to acknowledge the diversity of people who fought for Ireland’s freedom. There were wealthy and poor, rural and urban, Irish travelers and English aristocrats all fighting together for equality and freedom,”
He strongly points out also that among the rebel fighters were women — about 200 of them who were sort of white washed out of history by the Catholic Church. Among those women was his great-grand Aunt Jenny about whom he only recently unearthed the truth of her heroism. The first song on the album is dedicated to her and those women who fought in the Irish Citizens Army. Here are a few poignant lines throughout the song Aunt Jenny:
Brave Jenny… they never told me… of the jails… and combat you'd seen
Sean Connolly… died in your young… strong arms… in city hall
Aunt Jenny… your galant bravery… gives me strength… in this crazy world
Thank you…oh, thank you… for your example… against the tyrants… of this world
Here it is 6 months and a week after the century mark of the 1916 Rising… And somehow it seems appropriate that I’m writing this article around a time of the year known to his Irish ancestors as “Samhain” — also known here to my Latin American/Mexican ancestors as “El Dia de Los Muertos" (Day of the Dead). It’s supposed to be a time to reflect upon and honor your ancestors. It’s a time when both cultures believe one can easily communicate with the departed because the veil between the two worlds is the thinnest. In other words, it’s never too late to say thank you — or even to ask for a little help.
As I complete this article, I’ve also noted that it’s just days before a very difficult election in this country — with both sides threatening an uprising depending upon their unfavored results. And talk of “freedom” doesn’t seem quite as clear as it did 100 years ago — the conversation defining freedom seems to have gotten quite convoluted.
So what would the ancestors — and the “Church of Damien Dempsey”— have to offer on this subject? Judging from his songs, it seems Damien’s position has been one of both warrior and empath. Perhaps it’s being the empath that has given him the distinction from a few as a “musical shaman” — and a healer — by pointing out the wrongs that were perpetuated and standing in proxy on both sides of the crime to ask for both sympathetic awareness and forgiveness. Here are a few examples from his past songs:
In his song Colony:
The empath storyteller says:
Greed is the knife and the scars run deep —
How many races, with much reason to weep
And your children cry…
Oh, you ask God why
The warrior says:
But if you've any kind of mind
You'll see that all human kind
Are the children of this earth
And your hate for them will chew you up and spit you out!
And in his song Choctaw Nation:
The empath standing in proxy says:
I am sorry for that evil man
I feel shame that he came from my country
Choctaw Nation I am in your debt
Choctaw Nation I just want to thank you
Choctaw Nation I got so upset
When I learned of your wisdom and your virtue
Thank you… Thank you.. Thank you
As Damien so artfully portrays in his music, perhaps the stories of the ancestors offer us some insight into our own behavior — to not repeat the same mistakes and atrocities… And at the same time to honor the struggles of those who have gone before us with an offering of deep gratitude.
So in taking back Damien’s story to my tribe — I’ve realized that there really is no “magic” that he conjures… Damien Dempsey just does what a true artist does — He is a clear mirror of us all reflecting back both the good and the bad in a gifted manner that helps us see. And — he is a kind mirror — reminding us to Love ourselves.
“Music is one of the few spiritual things in this physical world
Music is healing. It heals people. It heals me.” ~Damien Dempsey
All Photos by Stephanie Serna
It's All Good: The Damien Dempsey Story (2003)
by filmmaker Dara McCluskey