Dermot Kennedy, NPR Slingshot's Best New Artist

Dec 17, 2018
Originally published on December 17, 2018 2:27 pm

NPR Music's first-ever Slingshot reader poll to determine this year's fan favorite artist featured an impressive lineup of talented, rising musicians, hand-picked by public radio stations throughout the year. Choosing just one artist was a tough request, but after nearly 5,000 votes, fans worldwide have voted Dermot Kennedy Slingshot's best new artist of 2018.

Originally from Rathcoole, Ireland, Kennedy spent his summers busking in Dublin and Boston, performing covers and reserving studio time for his own music. Kennedy says the experience was formative, but not in a strictly positive sense. Although the singer has the voice to cover radio hits, he described constantly playing someone else's music to a disinterested crowd as "soul-destroying over time."

"There were plenty of days where you feel like you're just not loud enough because there's just like hundreds of people and you're just basically screaming your head off in the street," Kennedy says.

Still, those paid dues helped him in the long run. Some of the busker's shout can still be heard in Kennedy's song "Young and Free."

Kennedy's musical roots lie in the acoustic world — think David Gray and Ray LaMontagne — but in the last few years, he says he's become obsessed with hip-hop. Kennedy worked with producer Mike Dean (known for his decades of work in the hip-hop world) first the 2018 EP, Mike Dean Presents: Dermot Kennedy.

"The production has become influenced by [hip-hop], but I' always quite conscience of the fact that the music I first fell in love with was singer-songwriters," Kennedy says. "I'm trying to balance those two things the whole time."

One song that showcases this balancing act is "Moments Passed," which features a visceral, distorted voice sample that Kennedy says kick-started his creativity at a time when he felt stuck.

Pressures have changed considerably for Kennedy since his busking days. Now headlining in front of ecstatic crowds and racking up millions of Spotify streams, the singer faces the weight of success rather than the frustration of chasing it. He's working on it everyday.

"I guess it's mainly pressure I've put on myself," he says. "The very act of overthinking and that sort of thing is just counterproductive instantly and you kind of squash your own work and sort of stem that natural thought process. So I struggled with it for a bit."

In a conversation with NPR's Ailsa Chang, Kennedy talks about growing up in Ireland, his newfound fame and his dedication to the craft. To hear the full conversation, listen in the audio player.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When Irish singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy was a kid, his dad used to drive him from his boyhood home to Dublin bars to perform.

DERMOT KENNEDY: He had to bring me because basically I just wouldn't have gotten into the bars anyway without him. And...

CHANG: (Laughter) That's a good point, yeah.

KENNEDY: So he had to kind of accompany me into these places.

CHANG: Kennedy has come a long way from the bars of Dublin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CLOSENESS")

KENNEDY: (Singing) Keeping her bright eyes focused on the coastline, waiting for you. Isn't she all of us pining for that last kiss, a permanent truth, a means to get through?

CHANG: His songs have been streamed over 75 million times on Spotify. And NPR listeners recently voted him the best new artist of 2018 for our Slingshot Emerging Artists Project. While Kennedy has enjoyed his newfound fame, fans have had a hard time pinning down the kind of music he plays. It's definitely singer-songwriter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CLOSENESS")

KENNEDY: (Singing) If I had you now...

CHANG: But you can also hear a little Kanye West. That's because they both worked extensively with the same producer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CLOSENESS")

KENNEDY: (Singing) So keeping bright eyes focused on the coastline, waiting for you. Don't give me that bye-bye baby when the night moves into black from the blue, the nights you've been through.

CHANG: I talked to Dermot Kennedy earlier. And I asked him how he would define his music.

KENNEDY: Its roots lie in the acoustic world. Like, I started kind of doing open mics and writing songs because I sort of fell in love with the music of David Gray and Ray LaMontagne and artists like that. And then in the last few years, I've kind of become a little bit obsessed with, like, rappers and with hip-hop and stuff like that. And so the production has become influenced by that. But I'm always quite conscious of the fact that the music that I sort of first fell in love with was like singer-songwriters and acoustic music. So I'm trying to balance those two things the whole time.

CHANG: Is there a song that you think showcases that balance best?

KENNEDY: Probably "Moments Passed." I mean, you said the Kanye thing, and the intro to that one is like real weird.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOMENTS PASSED")

KENNEDY: (Singing) Darling one, hold on. Darling one, hold on.

It was a time where people were kind of starting to connect to my music. And I could kind of realize that people were kind of getting on board with what I was doing. And we were starting to play shows that were a little bit bigger and stuff. And so I was working on new stuff. And I was kind of having a hard time being free creatively. And I was kind of overthinking things. But then Koz, a producer I worked with, he basically sent me that intro to "Moments Passed."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOMENTS PASSED")

KENNEDY: (Singing) Only when it's, darling one - well, only when it's...

And it was just the most exciting thing in the world. And the challenge then was to build a whole song around that sample.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOMENTS PASSED")

KENNEDY: (Singing) Because I loved you - does that meaning nothing to you now? I loved you. Get me back on holy ground.

CHANG: Now that more people are listening to you and more people want to keep hearing from you, you seem to be saying that songwriting for you now - it's happening under more pressure, under more fame. Is that hard to be writing songs when more people are watching?

KENNEDY: It is sometimes. But I guess it's mainly just pressure I put on myself because an awful lot of people who have connected to my music have done so 'cause of the lyrics. And that's a really beautiful thing. And it certainly makes for, like, a really beautiful show for me, for example, 'cause I can kind of see how much the lyrics mean to people.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AN EVENING I WILL NOT FORGET")

KENNEDY: (Singing) What's important is this evening I will not forget - purple, blue, orange, red. These colors of feeling give me love. I'll put my heart in it. And I think about it all the time. The lights went out. You were fine. You kind of struggled not to shine. I still love you, though. I still love you, though.

For a while there, it was super frustrating because, I mean, your best stuff is going to come if you kind of feel comfortable and if you're at ease and if you're just kind of letting natural thoughts show up. And the very act of overthinking and that sort of thing is just counterproductive instantly. And you kind of squash your own work and sort of stem that natural sort of thought process. So I struggled with that for a bit.

CHANG: I relate. Writing on deadline is a totally different experience than just writing for utter pleasure.

KENNEDY: It's mad, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNG & FREE")

KENNEDY: (Singing) Where do we go from here? Something came in with the night. Snow came in heavy, my boys and me wandering blind.

CHANG: Dermot Kennedy is NPR's fan-voted Slingshot Artist Of The Year. Congratulations, and thank you so much for talking with us today.

KENNEDY: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNG & FREE")

KENNEDY: (Singing) We were young. We were free. Come on, now. Let it go. We were young. We were free. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.