From busking street corners and back alleys to selling out shows across the U.K. and North America, Irish singer-songwriter Dermot Kennedy has managed to stay grounded despite his growing popularity. Gone are the days when Kennedy could perform on a street corner as a nameless face whose soothingly beautiful voice stopped passersby. An impromptu busk in Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park drew hundreds, so much so that those in attendance could only hear his voice amidst the crowd.
His self-awareness as an artist extends to his listener’s experience and while he still believes in creation for enjoyment he knows that his music wields the power to uplift others as well. Dermot Kennedy enlists Grammy-nominated Canadian songwriter and producer Koz, who shares the same belief system of staying true to oneself and being authentic in the ever-changing music scene, to collaborate with on songs such as “Kiss Me”, “An Evening I Will Not Forget”, and “Power Over Me”. Together, they stay rooted in their core values and remember why they started making music in the first place, even when they are surrounded by the noise of the industry.
Below, Dermot Kennedy and Koz speak to us about their definition of success, the union of concept and sound, and what comes most naturally to them in their creative process.
Some artists express the sentiment before a song is released, it feels very personal to them and it’s their own. Whereas, once released, it kind of becomes everyone’s, shared experience. What are your thoughts on that?
Dermot Kennedy: I’ve gotten way more attached to the idea of the listener in recent years, and that comes with playing to more people. You know, I think of when I play shows now, I’m far more conscious of how it’s being received. Previously, years ago, [I’d] make these songs that make me feel better, that make my emotions feel this way. If the world enjoys it, brilliant, that’s a bonus. It’s a fun exercise for me to be aware of whoever is going to hear it. “Better Days” is a big song for me with that because I wrote this song about my own experience through music, then we played a festival and it was the first thing kind of post-COVID that we did, and it was just like a field full of people really happy to be doing that. I still enjoy the idea of doing it for me and all that. I just think it would be naive of me to ignore that potential in a way that I can kind of say stuff that will make people feel better, enjoy that.
Can you share a little bit about how “Power Over Me” came together?
DK: I think it’s a good example of the idea [coming] first. And Scott Harris came out with this idea that’s sort of the first time, at least that I can remember that it was like, ‘All right, let’s really not shoot for a single.’ It was the first time it was a recurring chorus, a solid idea, I found that quite difficult because it was a new thing for me. If I [were] left to my own devices, I would just have no choruses. Yeah, the song was just fun, right? It’s fun for us to do something like that.
You said the more successful you got, the more you want to hold on to those core values that got you there. For both of you, do you find that after a career breakthrough when you’re not in the beginning phase of being a new artist or you haven’t had that first milestone, it’s harder to get focused on what you want?
DK: We’ve talked about this 100 times.
Koz: I mean, it’s a constant reset in your brain. You know, you can have all the success in the world and then you realize it’s meaningless. When you’re together making something, the rest feels like nothing. That’s what I always say to people. But you need to always remember why you do it.
DK: Totally. I was thinking about that because we were on the U.S. tour last year, we had support acts that were local who maybe just like had a couple of thousand followers. And after the show we’d always have these conversations and they were asking, “What’s it like?” I [would say], “I swear, whatever you do now, like, that’s it.” When you write a song and you feel really good and touch on a lyric that makes you feel great, that’s the best feeling.
How do you remain grounded and stay in the mindset of blocking out the noise?
DK: I feel like [Koz] is good at that.
Koz: I mean, I don’t live in L.A. and stay in Toronto and just be a bit removed. I just think what happens so much in the world of music right now—the quality control is not there and everybody’s all just in a circle chasing their tails, doing the same thing over and over again. I think it’s good to just be a little bit outside of all that. Remember that it’s about family, life, and friends. That stuff does keep you far more grounded than, I think, being in the circus all the time. We do talk about this all the time.
DK: Well, it’s cool because you’ve seen me from my first day to what I would do now. Yeah, it’s a journey. Like [Koz], going home is really important for me, and I think I can feel it when I’m distant from home and lose that sense of myself a little bit. But I think as well, as you gain more experience, you see stuff for what it is. Just really try to stay true to who you’re trying to be. You could play to a million people and be miserable. It’s far more valuable if you can do it in a way that feels organic and true to you.
It must be harder to tap into, of course, when you become bigger and becomes harder for you to have a day-to-day normal life.
DK: Totally. But I think, for me, touring has been a huge thing for me. And so in the last, say six, seven years we’ve just been on the road a lot and you see artists around you like just going from 0 to 100 and having these moments. I have to reassure myself. I get told I do it the old-fashioned way, which apparently is just playing shows.
On the topic of success. Can you both remember the first moment you were “successful”? How has your definition of success evolved?
DK: [Koz] feels like the music is just the thing, right?
Koz: I mean, there’s just nothing better. To me, you can win Grammys, you can do all that. And it’s like it doesn’t really feel like anything, you know? I know it sounds cheesy. It just doesn’t get better, I can assure anybody out there.
DK: What’s important is trying to find contentment and joy, a family, and just who I am as a person, and then move through music with that solid [foundation]. That doesn’t mean I’m playing on stage and I’m not absolutely blown away by the feeling, it’s the coolest thing in the world. But I can’t expect it to sort of make me feel fully happy.
You have over 15 released songs together and I’m sure more. Is there one that stands out as the most memorable or meaningful to you?
DK: I feel like a very nice memory is making “An Evening I Will Not Forget.”
Koz: It was just a weird night. Where we were in Wales, it was up in the mountains. In the Elan Valley, all the rocks were black, the whole mood was pretty wild. The night was so windy and kept blowing the windows open.
DK: Yeah, I feel like the song reflects that a bit.
Koz: Sounds like the night.
DK: That song just went from being this piano ballad to being this kind of, swelling monster thing. Yeah, that’s probably one that stands out for me.
Speaking about your song “Kiss Me”, you said when you’re making a song that’s more upbeat and pop-centric, you touch on an idea that carries a lot of weight. How does the concept of balance, for both of you, inform the union of lyrics and sound?
DK: “Kiss Me” is fun for me. I was thinking if I’m going to have a song that sounds upbeat, driven, and pop that I wanted to be able to, on a certain night sing it on stage and live within this intense idea. I was reading a book called Tender Is The Night, and there’s this bit in it where the psychologist is falling in love with one of his patients. And so they have these days where it’s so beautiful and so perfect and then other days where it’s really disastrous and awful. And on one of the good days, [the patient] says to [the psychologist], to just be aware of the fact that even when it’s really bad, this perfect version of us does exist. And so the lyric in the chorus is “Whatever may come somewhere deep inside / There’s always this version of you and I,” and I just wanted an idea that strong to kind of live within this song. Musically, they have to line up, I think to some degree.
What part of making music feels most natural to you? Is it songwriting? Is it being in the studio producing? Is it performing?
DK: Despite the extra emotion that goes with performing, it does feel natural and it’s the type of thing where I can get to the point where I’m nervous about it and anxious, but ultimately, when I’m doing it, it feels very comfortable. But I like the studio a lot because you don’t have to care about what you wear. You don’t have to care about what you’re saying. And again, talking about how the music is the most fulfilling, that’s all that matters on that day. I’ve been asked a lot about like was it weird making an album during the pandemic, and in a way it was kind of quite cool in the sense that it sort of put me in my place. Because you don’t know if touring is coming back, you don’t know what environment you’re going to be releasing an album into. And so it put me in a place where I was making music just to make music and that was quite kind of a sobering, good thing.
Koz lives in Toronto, and Dermot has been here several times. Is there anything that stands out to you both as unique or you enjoy about specifically being in Toronto?
Koz: I just love Canada and Toronto in general. I like the fact that you’re quite removed from the rest of everybody. It makes you sound a bit different. And there is a great community here. I think it’s awesome that you can do music from Toronto, you know, because, it just felt like you always were just forced to leave. It’s a great city, you know, it’s multicultural, I mean, so many influences coming together and you don’t get it elsewhere.
DK: Yeah. I feel like there are very few places I’ve encountered where I feel like I could spend a long time because I compare everything to home. I feel like people care about each other here, you know, in the sense that, if you go into a coffee shop, it feels like you’re actually having an interaction rather than just being one of the millions. I’d like Dublin to have a sort of cultural thing like it does here.
Does the environment generally play an important role in your work? Could you create music if you didn’t feel as fulfilled by the environment around you?
Koz: You can make music anywhere. You just always adapt. But I definitely like working here. When you get off the airplane coming back to Canada, there’s nothing like it. As opposed to other places.
DK: As an artist, you need to, not fight for it, but make sure you get it enough. When I go home, it’s not just in my head, it’s a physical feeling of relaxation and joy.
Koz: In places like L.A., I find, you can really feel the tension with the way work happens. I call it the Pop Industrial Complex. It’s this cycle and treadmill that is turning out shit. It doesn’t feel like that here and I think why a lot of great music has come from here in the last few years. I think about my neighborhood and ten studios just in this block, just lowkey, doing awesome stuff.
DK: Also, if you get in the room with someone in L.A. or London, let’s say, it’s hard to gauge where their creative values.
Koz: That’s one of the problems. Like, it’s also been an issue of the way songwriters have been treated for the last, you know, ever since streamings come in where, it’s basically if you don’t have a single, you don’t make any money. You know, it’s just made everybody really desperate.
DK: Sure. And over time it’s like writing songs out of, sort of—
DL: Right. It kind of devalues like, say, if you are writing a song about a family member that passed away and it’s 6 minutes long. Ultimately, over time, that’s very harmful, right? Because the industry might tell you that that’s not that important.
Koz: It’s been a huge part of why I think like the quality control and the parameters have shrunken what you can do, what people think you could do in music. I don’t think that’s the truth. You can do anything you want in music and constantly prove that you can.
DK: Do you think it might flip again at some point? And become the most wholesome thing?
Koz: I think it has to because it’s just become so bleak. I also think one of the things that nobody’s ready for is AI is going to come in and it’s just going to upend the whole thing. It’s just going to cut the expenses down on a lot of these projects, it’s already happening, I’ve seen it. You saw it already happen in the art world. I think because of that, you have to be reactionary and have to do stuff that is special and only you can do. Do you know what I mean? If you’re chasing this thing that a computer can emulate—a computer will not be able to emulate Dermot, that’s just so specific. There really has to be some personal element. I think you’ll see some really cool stuff come out of it too.
Do you think about when you’re making an album, having a single, or perhaps a song that is more upbeat?
DK: You can’t be ignorant, you know. To some degree, it’s a balance, right? You’re trying to always stay true to yourself, and be the artist you dreamed of being, alongside adapting to everything you’ve learned and just not being close-minded.
Koz: And also, I don’t know what a single is anymore. You’ve seen, with the way Spotify is, a track that you’d never even thought of as a single all of a sudden becomes a single. You have to do stuff that you think is good and hope that it catches on.
DK: As I said earlier, it constantly brings me back to just doing whatever feels good. If it works out, great. If it doesn’t, at least you’re happy with it. Because the flipside is doing something that you’re disgusted by and then it goes crazy and that’s the person you are and that sucks.
Has there ever been a song that you were surprised by getting bigger a reaction than you anticipated?
DK: Not surprised, but just reassured, in the sense that, people still really want to hear “Glory” in our setlist six years later. That’s huge to me, and especially in this age of people just turning out music and stuff being important for a week and then it doesn’t exist anymore. From the kind of artist’s point of view, that’s potentially the biggest challenge, trying to do something that lasts as opposed to just having a moment.
For both of you, would you say that when you first started making music, way back when, did you do that because it fed your soul and felt meaningful?
DK: I think we have that in common. Similar to Toronto, I grew up in the middle of nowhere—not that this is a middle of nowhere at all—but I mean, my environment, like I wasn’t in the Irish music scene, I didn’t have friends that were in bands. Like all my friends just played sport and stuff. If I were to get my guitar and write something, I didn’t have any sort of idea of what a career could be. It was purely to make myself feel better.
Koz: I’m from the Yukon, so the thought of having a career in music as, wasn’t even an idea. So it was. I think I relate a lot to artists who maybe feel that way and are almost like outsiders. I still feel like I’m not even in the music business, it’s a foreign concept to me.
DK: Right? And you almost feel like you’re determined to keep it that way. I think your identity is what can set you apart these days. For example, Florence + The Machine, from the U.K., the energy is there, you can see she is unique. What I mean is where I’m from, I like to sing about birds and trees. You have to have who you are blaze through the whole time. And for me, I wrote music for no real purpose, it was just because I knew it made me feel good.
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