The bravest thing I could say is, 'I need more time for this' – David Keenan on why he's not ready to release his debut album just yet

The fast-rising star of Irish music, Dermot Kennedy, sat down for an interview with this reporter last year, but he didn’t seem to want to talk about Dermot Kennedy. Instead, he spent a considerable amount of time rhapsodising about the support act who was set to play with him in Dublin’s Olympia that night – David Keenan.

It wasn’t the first time that an Irish musician sweetly sung Keenan’s praises and it certainly won’t be the last. In recent weeks, both Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody and Hozier have gushed about the talents of the 25-year-old Dundalk-raised, Dublin-based singer-songwriter and those who have seen Keenan’s rousing shows tend not to forget the experience. In a world of hype, he really does seem to be something special.

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It’s fair to say that Keenan has made quite an impression since first posting online his embryonic songs four years ago.

“It’s really humbling when those sort of artists speak well of me,” he tells me. “I’m learning my craft as best I can and if people like what I’m doing, it means so much to me. It’s that bit of encouragement that can help when you’re trying to write and the words mightn’t be coming out.”

As well as stadium supports with the aforementioned Hozier and Snow Patrol, Keenan also earned rave reviews for his Glastonbury show a few weeks back.

“It was funny being at Glastonbury this year, because the previous time I went, I tried to sneak in and got caught,” he says. “I still have the eviction papers, and if I get to play a big stage there in a few years, I’ll blow up the papers big and use it as the backdrop.”

Considering his trajectory in the music business to date, few would bet against him fulfilling that dream before he turns 30. And the acclaim is all the more profound when one remembers that he has yet to release a debut album.

In May, he put the finishing touches to what sounds like a highly ambitious double album, A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery. The intention was to release it this summer – August 16 was slated as the day it would come out – but Keenan himself has held it back.

“Considering its title, the bravest thing I could do is say, ‘I need more time for this’. It all happened in such a flurry of creativity and we put that deadline on ourselves. It would be a great sin to rush this album. I need time to let it breathe.”

He says there will be three distinct parts to the finished album. “The first is me on my own with a guitar and piano. The second part of the record is the Organics, which is Junior Brother and LemonCello [Laura Quirke and Claire Kinsella] and Gareth Quinn Redmond, and it’s totally free and wild and earthy. And the final part is the Unholy Ghosts – the electric band.

“I wanted somebody to put on their headphones, to lie back on their beds and to go on a journey from beginning and end. And it could be an interactive piece because people could start at act three or act two and go back. It’s built for the stage.”

Keenan has released several songs to date and while they’re comparatively hard to pigeon-hole, his passion and yen for romantic flights of fancy are rarely far from the surface. He’s a gifted lyricist and he sounds poetic in normal conversation, too, not least when he talks about the influence Dublin has had an his fledgling career. And the cobbled Henrietta Street – flanked by fine Georgian Houses – takes pride of place on the cover of his album.

“All the old ghosts are here,” he says of his adoptive home. “Moving to Dublin was like stepping into a place I’d read about as a kid. Then I started finding a tribe, just by being out and meeting these people. If you hold the candle of individuality, you’re going to attract like-minded souls.”

One of them, Junior Brother – aka Kerry native Ronan Kealy – has already released an acclaimed debut album this year.

“He’s got something special,” Keenan says. “There’s nothing choreographed about him. And that’s what appeals to me when it comes to making my own music. I want to heed the call of my gut and my soul. And when I’m playing live, I like to feel that it could all fall apart at any moment. You’ve got to perform each and every song as if your life depends on it and leave every bit of you on that stage.”

He says he first wrote sketches of songs when he was “10 or 11” and he got his first guitar around the time he was starting secondary school. Self-taught, he soon made the instrument his own. “Songwriting allows you to draw from your subconscious. It’s so important to find your mode of expression and to pursue it.”

He’s an old-fashioned figure in many ways and credits the “boredom” days of childhood with his artistic development. “Boredom is so f***ing important,” he says. “That’s when your imagination really takes off. I would have hated to have had everything in my childhood mapped out and scheduled because then there wouldn’t have been that headspace to go into another world.”

It was hearing The Dubliners’ version of the old schoolyard song ‘Weela Weela Walya’ that first made him aware of the potency of songs. “It’s sort of shocking, when you think about it – a baby gets killed. It’s that arresting power of words. I remember hearing it at my parent’s wedding when I was just four.”

And it was his hearing songs from his fellow Louth tunesmith, the satirical provocateur Jinx Lennon, that made him want to write his own. “Before [hearing] Jinx Lennon, everything was safe. But he totally kicked down the walls. So that’s what’s going on underneath the covers.”

Keenan says he abhors the cynicism that’s prevalent in so much of the music industry today, including the algorithms built into streaming services that ensure we end up hearing more of the same.

“It’s just so boring and safe,” he says. “And it’s something that crushes the idea of creativity. But I think a lot of people are fed up of that and want something different.”

He spent much of the past 12 months recording with Gavin Glass in the Hellfire Studio overlooking Dublin.

“There’s something mythical up there,” he says of the location close to the fabled Hellfire Club, the Gothic hunting lodge frequented by the notorious 18th century hellraiser Thomas ‘Buck’ Whaley. “The sight of the whole city shimmering below you is really inspiring.”

But this is an area earmarked for development and there are fears that its intangible magic will be lost. “I hate that word ‘development’ because it often means wrecking the very thing that makes somewhere special,” Keenan says. “We have to cherish our culture and the character of places.”

It’s a sentiment expressed in one of his finest songs, ‘Subliminal Dublinia’ – and there’s a striking live version of the song on his website. “I wrote that when I was in LA and I was overwhelmed by the plasticity of it all. There’s something so impersonal about that place but in Dublin – and Ireland – there’s a realness that hasn’t yet been erased. It’s the little acts of decency that keeps everything going.”

Keenan believes there is a burgeoning artistic community here that should be cherished.

“I think we’re living in a time where there’s incredible art being done in this country. It’s coming from a place of passion, of primal energy – you hear that in truth seekers like Junior Brother and Myles Manley and many more.

“There’s this well of memory that they’re drawing from and I’m inspired by it, too, and I’d love to think that that boy or girl in their bedroom feels inspired goes on and pursues that dream.

“Sing in your own accent, tell your own story and be yourself. You don’t have to come to Dublin and go to a music college to be an artist. You don’t have to go to London. Just find your own voice. Get one microphone and stick demos up on Spotify. That’s what I did. Don’t hold yourself back.”

David Keenan plays Electric Picnic, Stradbally, Co Laois (August 30 – September 1), the Kilkenny Arts Festival on August 11; and he headlines Dublin’s Olympia on January 13. ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery’ is likely to be released before year-end.

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