January 23, 2021

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Dermot Kennedy you made me believe in love

Dermot Kennedy you made me believe in love

I found you by accident. It was early 2019. It was the Coffee and Chill playlist on Spotify. The song was For Island Fires and Family. While I was looking to chill, you gave me chills. I could feel your passion for love in the way you sang that song. Your voice told me that you really knew what it meant when you said:

And I couldn’t tell you enough that I’m sorry

And no, you couldn’t tell me enough that you love me

You made me believe in love Dermot. Not believe in love again, but believe in love at all. For that I write this letter of thanks as if you are a dear friend who’s helped me through hard times.

The most incredible thing about your lyrics is how real they are. You don’t write songs that paint an idealistic picture of love. You write songs that show me you have seen the darkness. Just like me. You have touched death. Just like me. But your songs and the passion with which you sing them, show me that you still believe in love. This is despite the woman you sing about in Moments Passed saying: “I know that love is all about the wind, how it can hold me up and kill me in the end”*1. Take the last verse from For Island Fires and Family as an example:

You know that feelin’ when you think your heart is gonna come right out through your shirt?
Get it a couple times a year
But I’ve been gettin’ it more often with her
Now when I’m face to face with Death, I’ll grab his throat
And ask him, “How does it hurt?”
Up in those golden moments, growin’ old too quickly
Was he thinkin’ of her?

The way you start with a beautiful description of what this woman does to your heart, and then immediately move into brutal raw lyrics about death takes my breath away. You put on full display how well you know that “this love, this life is brief”2, and how “the angel of death is ruthless”3.

In my 31st year on earth, in 2019, I had my plans of partying my way around Latin America shattered by a diagnosis of stage 2 testicular cancer. Following my treatment I was severely depressed. I didn’t understand why because I had been given a clean bill of health after 4 difficult rounds of chemotherapy. My girlfriend, partner and best friend was with me through it all. She even sacrificed 5 months of her daughter’s life, sending her away in order to care for me in her own home.

The problem was I was cynical about love. It’s not that I didn’t want love. It’s not that I couldn’t love. It was that I had convinced myself that the people I’d met who appeared to be in healthy and happy relationships, must have been fooling themselves; That love never really works out.

I can’t contribute my climbing out of that hole entirely to you Dermot, but damn did you do your part! You released your debut album Without Fear at the exact right moment, even though my depression made it difficult to listen to at the time.

I remember watching the video of you live at WGBH’s Fraser performance studio, and being blown away. Every performance was amazing, but the one that stood out first, was Moments Passed. It was so touching to hear you speak of “someone who had been in this beautiful perfect relationship when they were young and then it was taken from them too soon”. Clearly I can’t know this, but I get the feeling this song is about you. That’s why, I believe, your music is littered with melancholy lyrics about the power of love, in the face of death.

One of the most incredible things about my journey with your music, is how different songs grabbed in different moments. For example the song Rome. At the time this song touched me I felt like it was my partner singing to me:

So, what’s the past for? I’ll need it if love don’t last long
You can run around infinite in my head
Oh, you can’t see, oh, I’d stay if you asked me
Now you know I care, but it’s hard to tell when you’re scared

But last night
It hurt me to hear you say it felt broken
And even though I tried
All these memories run my mind in slow motion

But at the same time when you sang “I’d play you songs you were in, I just want to be there again”, I would agree. I would wish I could go back. Back before the cancer, when we were laying in bed together and I said to her “estamos novios no?” (We are a couple now aren’t we?)*4. The lines “I just wanna be there again” were running around infinite in my head as I struggled to find my way back to that time after all we had been through with my illness.

To be honest I could write a whole thesis about every one of your songs, let alone the album, but I want to keep this short and end with the songs “Outgrown” and “Redemption”. They are on the tail end of the album, which I only really discovered properly after I’d come out of my depression.

Listening to Outgrown I hear myself. At first I didn’t understand this song. But now I feel it’s about you realising who you are and learning to trust yourself in spite of those around you needing and wanting different things. Despite feeling like you had to “let go of the love that others hope to capture”:

So, I’ll try to chase those days and never catch ’em
I’ll try to walk the other way and learn detachment
Raise the eyes you save for me and all the laughter
You used to hold me in

I’ll just let go of love that others dreamed to capture
I’ll never know another feeling like your rapture
I’m gonna go, I gotta be here in your absence
Now, this poem has ended

I am now trying to live these lyrics. The way you describe it is exactly what happened to me. I found a girl who loved me, believed in me and treasured every part of me. The thing that is even more chilling is that I wrote most of this article while I was on a redemption journey to Latin America to make up for the one I lost. I was without her too, like you are when on tour. Except on this trip I spent my time meditating, exploring nature and writing music. I didn’t even miss the party at all. And most importantly, I was with her even in her absence.

Speaking of redemption, the last song I want to thank you for is Redemption:

Every wrong I did turned me to a better kid, so alright
Every time we kissed, knew I wanted more of it, so don’t hide
Never let it in, especially since we’re getting rid of all lies
You know you’ve always been someone I’ve confided in on the cold nights

But redemption will come for you so
Guess I’ll just call it a feeling
Tonight I’ll just comfort you so
Maybe you can start to believe it

Now the amazing thing about this song, is that I think it captures exactly how my girlfriend treated me, when I was going through serious mental health issues after my tribulation with cancer and that didn’t stop when I was stranded overseas during the beginning of the Covid pandemic. On top of that I think I know what Without Fear as an album is about.

Death took someone you truly loved when you were young (Moments Passed). You spend some time lost, not knowing if you could ever love again, but you knew love was possible because you’d at least had it once. However that was a problem for you as it made it hard to let go and surrender when it found you again. And she had some issues of her own. That is what I now believe the lyrics below are about:

All I know
Oh, no, no, I won’t let go
Oh, no, no, I’ll never leave ya
Oh, no, no, I won’t let go, no (All I know)
Will you start to believe it?

Again I cannot know this for sure, but I think this is about her having issues with anxiety and depression. There are parts of the album where you say things like “and I wondered if I could let her down”, that show me that perhaps you didn’t handle them perfectly to start with. But the lyrics in Redemption are you telling her, you will hold her and comfort her until she believes you are never going to leave and that everything is going to be ok. Until she believes that love will make even the darkest times bearable. Absolutely beautiful Dermot.

You are going head on into this relationship with love. Without Fear.

A message from the bottom of my heart

Now because one cannot send a letter to a friend and “big” him up too much I have two more things I want to say to you. One is tough love and one is a little joke about the only lyric on the album I take umbrage with. I originally wrote most of this before the whole global pandemic we are now living through so perhaps it is less relevant now but I feel it’s still worth saying.

I remember around the middle of 2019 telling my partner I was worried about you. I love your voice Dermot, it’s incredible and powerful, but I could tell you were hurting it. Low and behold in September I saw an interview where you said as much. Now I hope you can hear this with that big heart of yours. You should take it easy with that. You are too talented to burn out. As I was writing this I went to find a video I saw from the end of 2019 where I could hear the pain in your voice, but was saddened to find more recent one where it sounds like you shouldn’t be singing at all. I’m hoping that one great benefit of this pandemic we are living through is that you’ve taken the time to rest. By the looks of your performance of Giants on Graham Norton it looks like you have.

I say this with love Dermot, even though I don’t know you. I say it because people love you Dermot. You are not a pop singer who needs to take advantage of your 15 minutes. You have years to play with. I need another 10 albums from you. I need to see you perform live in your full glory like you did in the WGBH’s Fraser performance studio.

This brings me to my last point, and the only lyric on the whole album that I don’t like. It’s from Lost:

I could have told you ‘bout the long nights
How no one loves the birds that don’t rise

I am a New Zealander, and here’s a reason you should come back here, besides my desire to see you perform.

Do you know what we call ourselves? Kiwis. Named after a native flightless bird. Everybody here loves them. In fact I’ve never seen one in the wild because they are nocturnal, and endangered. A British friend of mine recently did and I was so jealous.

If you ever come here again, and I hope you do, maybe we can go looking for one together and you can learn something from me this time? Thank you  Dermot for teaching me that “love exists”*5.

References

1 From the song Moments Passed
2 From the song For Island Fires and Family
3 From the song An Evening I Will Not Forget
4 Although this is the best translation I can do, in Spanish “novio” means boyfriend and “novia” means girlfriend. When you pluralise and want to be gender neutral you use the male version “novios”. This is just one example of how speaking about love is much more concise and precise in Spanish than it is English.
*5 From the song Shelter

Seth Reid

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Dermot Kennedy you made me believe in love