There’s a sign on the house Dermot Kennedy has called home for 25 years. “Cois Coille,” it reads: Irish for “beside the forest,” a nod to the vast mountains and huge sprawl of trees not far from his front door. “Whenever I’ve been away, eventually I need to come back and reset,” admits the fast-rising star, who grew up here in Rathcoole, a village nestled between the wilderness of County Kildare and the frantic bustle of Dublin. It’s a contrast that also exists at the heart of his music: rustic, tender singer-songwriter laments full of scenic beauty, set to urban, electronic beats. “I really like that clash,” he explains of his acclaimed mix of intimate, guitar-led storytelling and hip-hop-inspired production. “Making those two worlds collide is really exciting to me.”
He’s not the only one who’s excited. Since the release of his stunning April 2017 EP, Doves and Ravens, and follow-up single ‘Moments Passed’, Kennedy has shot to over 80m plays on streaming platforms, been hailed as a “big, beautiful and bold” new voice by Beats 1’s Zane Lowe, won praise from everyone from TIME Magazine to Wonderland. He’s also supported Lana Del Rey and worked his way on the radar of rap super producer Mike Dean, best known for his work with Kanye West and Travis Scott, with whom he’s currently cooking up a mixtape.
Regularly compared to Bon Iver – whose For Emma Forever Ago album was a turning point in Kennedy’s musical adolescence (“he just blew my mind”) – the 25-year-old describes his songs as struggles between two extremes: light and dark, love and loss, life and death, happiness and sorrow. “All my tracks sort of toggle between two themes, even within the same song: it can go back and forth from line to line,” he says. The deeply personal ‘Moments Passed’, for example, was dragged from the rubble of a time of simultaneous pain and blossoming romance for the young Irishman, who was both mourning the death of a friend and falling in love when he wrote it. “Sometimes it’s hard to pin a song down. More often it’s a battle between two opposites like that.”
Kennedy got his first guitar aged 11, and “got serious” aged six years later, before a chance encounter with another of his musical heroes gave him his first big break. Beloved Irish songwriter Glen Hansard had been walking through Dublin when Kennedy spotted him one day in the street, around the time of his first recordings. “I invited him to the studio,” Kennedy recalls. “He couldn’t make it, but he called back and offered me ten minutes onstage at his sold-out Christmas show.” The youngster performed his 2016 single ‘After Rain’ and the response was immediate: the track went on to rack up a staggering 33m million streams on Spotify. ‘Moments Passed’ – now with a spectacular video directed by Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar collaborator Nabil – won’t be far behind.
With new music set for release in early 2018 and bigger, better live shows around the corner, momentum is building quickly behind Kennedy. Not that he’s really noticed: the 25-year-old is too focused on pushing his artistic boundaries on his upcoming debut album to pay attention to any hype. “Having spent a lot of time in the acoustic world, it felt really good to do something new and push myself out of my comfort zone on these recent tracks,” he says of his increasing electronic experimentation. “I’d be letting myself down if I didn’t chase that, if I just did what came easy to me.”
Just don’t expect him to abandon his roots entirely. “I don’t want to go too far. The trick is to be able to strip a song of all its production and for it to still tell a good story that makes you feel something. Certain things run through all sorts of music that appeal to me, whether that’s a hip-hop artist or a singer-songwriter: honesty and a good story.” Dermot Kennedy’s story, you get the feeling, is just beginning.
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