Question first: What do household names such as U2, Sinead O’Connor and The Cranberries as well as more esoteric acts such as Villagers, Gavin Friday, James Vincent McMorrow and Fionn Regan share in common?
They are all from Ireland, boasting a modest population of about 4.8 million (smaller than Singapore’s 5.6 million).
Here’s another rising star from the Emerald Isle touted to make it big this year: Dermot Kennedy who has clocked up 300 million streams so far on Spotify.
This 25-year-old Dubliner has paid his dues, busking in Grafton Street (where his heroes Damien Rice and Glen Hansard used to ply their trade) and putting his songs up on Spotify before one track Boston was handpicked by American pop princess Taylor Swift for her playlist in 2017 – and the rest is history.
That track is among 12 songs individually released earlier, as singles or part of EPs, and now put together as an introductory folio for newcomers before he unleashes his debut album on Interscope this year.
The song is a heartfelt, stripped-down ode to his days busking in the streets of Boston, near the Public Garden, Harvard Square and Newbury Street. “Take me back to places I feel loved in/Maybe failing that, take me back to Boston,” he sings over gentle strums and a sprinkling of subtle electronic keys. “Pretty intimate so far, so I lit a holy fire,” he adds.
So far, so typically folkish – that is until you hear him coming into his own on more arresting anthems where his roots are melded with tougher, rockier inspiration.
All My Friends is a love letter to the early days and friendships forged, even as he realises that he has to leave home to pursue his dream. His distinct Gaelic lilt comes to the fore as it rasps and frays over the mix of gentle riffs and electronic thumps. “Looking up lately/The moon doesn’t chase me no more/Before it was childlike/Lost in the soft light,” he bids farewell to innocence.
The spirit of hard work and keeping it real also infuses Young And Free. “We were young, we were free,” he hollers, laying on each word and switching between vulnerability and bold, heart-on-sleeve pronouncement, not unlike American indie folk group Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on the cusp of a technological makeover.
Vernon’s influence is espied on For Island Fires And Family, particularly in the way the surreal layering of wordless vocals, natural and digital, comes at the end of the first verse. “Roamin’ lonely over sea air/How it must feel to be a bird/London, Paris, underneath/And I’ll wait on my own,” Kennedy sings, before launching into a series of airborne “oohs”.
When he just sits at the piano and bares his soul on the break-up dirge An Evening I Will Not Forget, he is nonpareil.
How he builds up the torrent of emotions – love, hurt, denial, frustration, acceptance – is an admirable feat. “Confessions should be better planned/Alone that night, I’m surely damned,” he spits out and you can almost hear a pin drop.
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