David Keenan at Winery D.C.
Usually, The Georgetown Independent interviews only local campus and D.C. artists, but we made an exception for the Irish singer, David Keenan. A young, twenty-something, wise beyond his years, Keenan shares his authentic folk melodies with a Celtic lilt. I had the chance to chat with him when he came to D.C. as part of his American tour. His perspectives of spreading meaning and life through genuine music and raw emotion provide great inspiration. We are so grateful to be located in Washington, D.C. where artists, local and international, have the chance to spread their messages and connect us all.
On Monday, Mar. 11, Irish singer David Keenan walked into our interview at City Winery D.C. dressed in his signature braces (suspenders), a button down shirt with the top half open and a tattoo peeking out, and dress pants. He greeted me with a hug and took me on a walk to have a chat. We landed on a rooftop above the winery, the walls dancing with ivory. He leaned onto a wooden barrel, picking at an imperfection on the top of it with his ringed fingers–one ring from Scotland, another he picked up because of its emerald color–and stared off over the city as he formulated his responses to my questions. Even through his sunglasses, I could see his piercing blue eyes making contact with mine. With passion and a thick Irish accent, his words as poetic as his songs, he explained to me his desire to share his thoughts and emotions with the world in a genuine way. It felt as if we had either gone back in or were paused in time–I still can’t decide. Perhaps that’s the magic of Keenan and his music; he has a way of doing both.
“Rushing is a sin,” he told me as we began.
You tied a scarf around the microphone during the sound check. Could you tell me more about that?
It’s just… it’s just my lucky scarf. When you come to a place, a venue, it’s just nice to bring a little bit of your own identity with you on the stage. I don’t know maybe it just helps me put a little bit of myself on the stage before I even open my mouth… I picked it up in France. It’s just sentimental, you know? Sentimental dole.
What is your musical background? When did music become part of the picture?
I suppose it’s always been part of the picture because there’s music in everything. It’s like breathing, it’s like when I first became aware that I could hear.... When we’re babies, you know, we’re picking up on sounds, we’re picking up on terms of phrase, we’re picking up on people’s language and musicality in language, and how people speak. I think most people are very musical in the way they speak. And music was just always there, it was always there. So, it’s kinda like—I don’t know—it’s like dancing, it’s like movement, it’s like walking, running...it’s like breathing. I’m kinda skirting around that f*cking awful cliche, you know, music is like breathing to me, but it was always there.
And playing guitar, singing… was that always part of it, too?
Well, I started singing when I was probably about four years of age because I remember I was encouraged by my parents to sing a song around that age… kind of traumatizing, you know? But as soon as I starting singing, I felt like I was safe; I was tuned into something that was bigger than me. I was singing songs about people losing all their money, or drinking all their money away, or falling in love, running away with somebody, but I had no experience of those things. But in a way, I had, because you see the short films unravel before your eyes when you are singing. It was always like me going to the movies, I was kinda singing the songs and I could become the characters, and I knew what they were wearing, what cigarettes they smoked, all that kind of stuff.
Did you have a lot of Irish traditional music in your background?
Yea, I think Irish traditional singers were always there… because I was learnin’ Irish traditional nursery rhymes, and I went to an Irish school. So, I learned how to speak Irish. But they were just great songs and melodies… [Irish music] was always there.
Do you have an Irish song that if you’re asked to sing, you have to sing it?
I suppose I do, yea. I love that song, “The Parting Glass.” It’s just, it’s kinda, an ode to the lovable rogue. It’s kinda… [about having] no regrets. I love that. It reminds me of my grandfather as well.
How has your grandfather’s storytelling influenced your own? What stories do you want to tell?
Well he’s influenced me just by his character… He’s evidence from that era… and just his attitude as well, like his attitude towards his life. He carries around a flip blade, he’s 83, he’s just, just mad to live, and I love that, and, you know, it’s just lust for life, whatever people call it. He has that fire in his belly, so it just happens that he’s my grandfather and I love him as well, you know? What stories am I trying to tell? I’m just trying to document my inner world, and my outer world—it’s linked, of course. I’m trying to investigate the human experience as I see it, as other people see it, and I’m trying to get deeper to the source all the time in terms of truth. There’s not such thing as being good or bad; it’s just coming from a place of honesty and truth, you know? It’s like all art: it moves you or it doesn’t, it’s believable or it’s not. It’s the imagination, fueling the fires of the imagination with songs, and a song is like a passport of music to get to a place, or that higher kind of state. I mean, playing live is that. It’s that conjuring, you know? And poetry can intoxicate you, and words and the beauty in people who aren’t classified as beautiful, the beautiful ugly. The beauty in the ugly, the ugly part, and celebrating that as well. I believe we’re just gonna be here once, so I’m using words and the melody to express how I’m feeling, and it’s really just cathartic. And I get to stand here and watch the sun with you and have a chat and talk because I wrote a song in the bedroom and people take to it, and people find some sort of connection to it. It’s an amazing journey. It’s an education. It’s a gift.
David Keenan at Winery D.C.
Do you have a specific writing process?
I’ve reached a stage with [writing] now, that I always have the notebook, and the pen, and the strangest things can act as like a catalyst, and then dominos start to fall. It can be with anything. I can’t really describe it. Leonard Cohen said, “If you knew where the great songs came from, you’d go there more often.” It’s that kind of feeling, it’s like, I don’t know, being in love or being depressed. You don’t know how you got there, but you’re in it. So when inspiration comes—for me I have to write everyday, that’s the beauty of being on the road—that kind of emotion seeps into the words, and there’s a musicality to the words and you get the melody of the song from [that] you let it come out.
You seem to have an old soul. How were your teenage years fitting in, finding your place? I don’t want to assume, but it seems like you wouldn’t be a fan of the rap-sort of music your peers probably listened to.
It’s funny of you to mention rap music, if you listen to Bob Dylan, “it’s alright man when you’re bleeding”... it’s, like, rap music, you know? It’s that flow. There’s a lot of great rappers, great lyricists. So I did like great writers from all areas. Growing up as a teenager, I think it’s maybe hard in the sense of not belongin’. I mean… when you’re younger, you’re very malleable and you’re trying to find your tribe, you’re susceptible to all things, and I mean music and just music it just protected me, you know? I could always escape to that inner world. That’s not to say that I had a horrible teen experience, but I just think that it was all valuable. And if I was longin’ for anything, I was writing about it to my songwriting so I could go to that place. But yea, there was a lot of wanderin’ the fields (laughs) and just always wanted to belong in a tribe like you read about in Paris in the 20’s or Dublin in the 50’s. I kinda feel like I’m a part of that now back home in Dublin. There’s just this, like, incredible scene where it’s just like egality between the musicians and the artists and everybody is expressing, everybody is creating, everybody is just tryin’ to be brave… stagnation is death, you know what I mean? Everybody is trying to get to that place of truth. Realism! That’s what I mean. You know like, cut through all the frivolity. Because every day the past is over. We’re getting closer to the inevitable. You know? (laughs). So we’ve just got no time you know for fuckin’ pissing in the wind anymore. It’s just like, you know, to really live and to try to eradicate fear from your thinking and I don’t mean by that to become arrogant because evil is fear, but I mean just to be brave in what you’re putting across in your art and to recognize that there’s a responsibility in that, unless you’re just in it for a bag of silver.
Can you talk about the creation of your record label, Barrack Street Records?
It was a blessing that I never got signed as a 17- or 18-year-old, because I wouldn’t be standing here [if I had]. You see so many kids just [being] swallowed up by… the iron jaws of that machine. I needed all the time that I could get, you know, to grow into myself today, and everyday is an education. But Barrack Street Records came about by just wanting to put my music out. You don’t need this producer in the white cloak who’s gonna give you your sound in a box. You just have to go out and you have to find it within yourself. And it’s just myself, and some people close to me that are just doing it ourselves. And maybe hopefully providing our own terms to a kid who thinks he has to go to music college, and get a loop pedal, and sing in an American accent or English accent… if he’s not from there (laughs). But that’s okay as well, you know, if he’s expressing himself. Look within yourself, because it’s your own uniqueness that actually makes you who you are. You don’t have to outsource that.
I’m blessed that people are supporting me, that people who find some resonance in my music are acting as patrons, they’re buying records, they’re coming to the gigs so that I can go and I can travel here and I can put all of that back into song and into records. That’s the relationship I hope that I have with people who listen to me, that there’s some sort of exchange, that it isn’t just me singing to my shoes and I’m just taking all the credit. I think we all need [authenticity] in some aspect of our lives because the pendulum is swung towards toward the fakery and the lies and greed, and I think we just don’t want any more of that, we’ve had enough. We have in all areas, in politics, in music—just in general, people are like, we just want f*cking truth.
Is that what you mean to address, then, in “Rip Your Eyes from Your Phone?” This idea of a lack of authenticity and truth?
It’d be wrong for me to say that everyone [should] bury the phones in the back garden, because I use one. I’m not a martyr, but there is that [feeling] at gigs, you sometimes hope that people will just experience, like, you know, just put down your phones, and really feel this in your heart, in the cells in your body. You don’t need a second-hand experience of life through a phone, you know? I mean, I wrote [“Rip Your Eyes from Your Phone”] because I say it to myself. Again, the song is just a reminder to me: I’m trying [to] vent something that I’m gonna learn from, you know, an incremental change that will help…so rip your eyes from the phone.
I really like your rings. Do they have a specific meaning to you, or you just thought they were cool?
[Laughs] I got this one in Glastonbury. I snuck into Glastonbury a couple of years ago. A friend of mine said come on over I’ll get you in it’s fine... And we got caught, and I got eviction papers and they shipped me out ot a village 15 miles away, and so we waited until four in the morning and I got the passes, and I tunneled in, and I got this ring there. So if I ever play Glastonbury legitimately, my backdrop is gonna be my eviction papers. [Laughs] And the other one, I just like the color.
“Field Upon Field” is a spoken word piece within your album. Being that all of your music is poetic, how did you decide to leave that one, in particular sans music? How do you decide poetry versus a song.
Some pieces just don’t need music. That’s something that I try to put across… sometimes the words are just enough. You get that with a song as well, you just kinda go there’s nothing I could put on that—just leave it alone! So, maybe that’s what I was thinking as well, it just felt right. You don’t want to question things too much.
You talk a lot about creating connection with people. What has it been like playing at larger venues, and moving from city to city within days?
When a body of people get together into a room—especially when music’s involved, because it’s so ancestral, we’ve been doing it since the beginning of time, we’ve been beating drums and singing–but when you’re in a room of people, and people are emotionally invested, and [there’s] just [this] kinetic energy in the room… something there connects you between bodies, that collective intention, that collective energy. It’s just so powerful. There’s a real level of understanding at the gigs so far on the tour. It’s really uplifting. As I said, hopefully that kind of exchange goes on. I’m a firm believer that the gig should be a communal event. People should be encouraged to express themselves. Leave your fears and anxieties at the door, let’s go down and extract something and feel like we’ve taken part in something, rather than just paying your money and coming in… it should be an experience.
What was the inspiration behind “Subliminal Dublinia?” It is definitely a very moving song and video to watch.
Yeah, that was just… it f*cking filled me up! It was life affirming! The song came about because I was commenting on the frustration of living in the place that I love but having a conflicting relationship with it because of the epidemic of homelessness that’s in Ireland. “Dublinia, I love you but you’re breaking my heart/Revolution I call you... evolution of the mind, of the soul and of heart, isn’t that a start.” And that’s just me kind of screaming out to meself, and keeping the flame within and hopefully attracting people who feel the same way and are passionate about the same things and want to effect some change through getting together. That’s where the real power lies, just people getting together. Let’s just change things here—why can’t we? This is our time. You don’t have to leave ideas in the past. It’s important to hold onto ideas and Romanticism. We aren’t here to just consume and go to the grave and that’s it. We can question things, and we are independent thinkers and we have a conscience. It felt right to [perform the song], to walk up Grafton Street, because even on Grafton Street you need a licence to busk, and if I had tried to get permission to do that, I wouldn’t have gotten it, it wouldn’t have happened. So just, like, let’s walk up this street. Why can’t we do it? We’re just singing a song! We’re not kicking in windows! Come on! And people came along and we all sang and it was beautiful. People just came in! It was really upliftin, yeah.
David Keenan at Winery D.C.
How’s your reception been in Ireland?
As I said I feel like I’ve found my tribe, and that’s a testament to the people I’ve met along to way. People I've met form back home, you know people in Dublin and the musicians in Dublin, a lot of them are gracious enough to be in my band, and just because everyone is independently creating music and art it’s just like this breeding ground for ideas and everybody is encouraging one another to express and be brave. So yea, I do feel that sense of belonging for the first time. And once you’re welcome in your own company, you start to feel welcome in other peoples companies and once in other peoples companies, you really are a part of a whole, part of a greater thing and there's just really a great sense of contentment in it, there's a great sense of empowerment. Me and my manager, Aidan—Aidan is a young man with a family who is started his own business a couple years ago... —we’ve just been chattin and projecting and living in the present but also you know just, it’s independent. We don't have a team on a record label tryin’ to tell ya what shoes to wear, [laughs] or comb your hair or whatever. So you know there’s a real freedom there, you know?
Tell me more about “Two Kids.” What was the creative process of that song and video?
It’s all a metaphor, you know. I’m not going to give the game away, but it could be an number of things. It could represent the male and female part of the psyche, it could represent two souls kinda trapped in addiction it could be an addiction of whatever substance—it could be love—it could be just two kids playin’. It could be a number of things. But I wanted to try with the songs to stretch them and say what needs to be said and not worry about it being three minutes long. And the music video is as well, I want them to say somethin in themselves and be independent, that if you took the music out they could stand alone, as a piece of film, and it would still express something without even sound. I want to put the lyrics across for the record as well without music, that it could be read and stand alone and not to be worried about getting a radio edit done or [that] it has to be under two minutes. You wanna challenge yourself and the person who’s listening. That was an intense day [making the music video]. It was a beautiful experience– I was with Laura Quirke as well. She sang in [“Two Kids”] and was a real star.
You have such a talent for writing in general. What made you decide to take a musical path instead of going to college and taking a more literature-based one?
I never applied myself at school. When you're 14 or 15, you're not really equipped emotionally. I had no interest and maybe just no confidence in myself to go onto college. And I think when my friends all went off to school, I just kinda felt, “shite,” just again that sense of loneliness. But you [can] go off and educate in any way you can, you know, self-educate; college isn’t universal, it doesn't monopolize education. There are things that can't be taught—you have to go off and live life. I wouldn’t change it. [There was a] need to kind of go live and escape and just play music and be free. I got on a boat and I went off and busked for a while, just sitting at people’s feet, people that have been playing for 30 years and seeking out these poets and mad men and women, and getting meself into situations, and just living life. I got my education. I’m getting it! Maybe there was a time when I wished I was in there studyin’ English literature, but it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t one who could read off long lines of f*cking Yeats, or Shakespeare. True living life, you find your own voice, and I just learned to trust that as I go on.
How did you start to develop your sound?
That’s kinda a progressive thing. I think if you’re doin’ somethin’ for long enough… if you develop any craft, you’re gonna make mistakes and make a few abominations [laughs] it’s all crucial [to creating your own unique product].
Do you have any favorite stories from your life education?
A friend did say to me a couple years ago that all I had to do was get out of my own way. I remember at the time thinking, what does that mean? Give me more. I’m starting to discover what it means. Just, get out of your own way. Just believe in yourself. You need to be brave. The pain is important, as well, for growth: there's growth in the healing. Embrace the darkness, celebrate the light.
Gorfine is an International Politics Freshman and Reviews Editor.
PC: Alexis Gorfine