Interview: David Keenan

Irish singer-songwriter David Keenan chatted to The Mic pre-lockdown about his writing process, religion and the importance of reflection. Words by Annie Peppiatt and Claudia Treasure-Chapman.

David Keenan is unequivocally an artist. Wielding bittersweet nostalgia and transfixing vocals that keep you on your toes and summon goose bumps to your skin, Keenan’s undeniable musical talent is only surpassed by his skill in storytelling. He mythologizes unglamorous, everyday experience into a folk fantasy. Keenan is intentional in avoiding the pitfalls of lazy song-writing, declaring that ‘you can shoot yourself in the face with a terrible lyric’. This instinct for poetry and spinning a yarn is evident in his debut album, A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery. Reminiscent of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Van Morrison, Keenan also professes to be influenced by the music of Fat White Family, Insecure Men, and King Krule; yet, his voice remains confidently his own both in person and in performance.

Image credit: Press.

In the sticky-floor haven of Café Totem, Sheffield, it is clear from the start that David Keenan is bored by small talk. Scrap the simple questions – we chew over philosophy, class, and personal insecurities over a pint of Guinness, covering music (‘somebody banged a drum, somebody else banged a drum, then somebody banged two drums and it all went from there), but also the investigation for enlightenment. I can confirm that David Keenan is no deity, stating that ‘well, if there is a god then I know it’s not me – that’s half the battle isn’t it?. His penchant to wax poetic has the potential for pretentiousness, but a certain surreptitious smile and twinkle of Irish charm suggests that Keenan doesn’t take himself too seriously. Nonetheless, he is serious about the egalitarianism of art and education: ‘Art is for everybody, it’s accessible to everybody – everybody! Universities do not monopolise education, class structure does not monopolise education. Education and self-education are for every soul on this planet’.

Later, his performance provides a sweaty, joyful example of this communal experience of art, sharing with the enraptured crowd his songs and his heart, interspersed with craic. For a musician at the beginning of his rise, Keenan commands the crowd’s attentions with uncommon confidence and stage presence. Although his tour has been postponed due to the current pandemic, Keenan still has more to share. A pre-pandemic song-writing stint across the Channel promises new music steeped in rich Parisian influences without losing his distinctly Irish sound, because ‘there are only so many f**king croissants a man can eat!’. Watch out for Record Store Day, when an album of live recordings, Alchemy & Prose, will be released. Until then, enjoy the feverous wanderlust balanced with apparitions of the ordinary; the gentle piano, glittering electric guitar and comforting folk sounds of a troubadour’s diary – A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery is out now, and it’s worth listening to.

‘Art is for everybody, it’s accessible to everybody – everybody! Universities do not monopolise education, class structure does not monopolise education. Education and self-education are for every soul on this planet’.

You speak about this album being your unfiltered truth. What is that for you? What do you want people to know about you?

I don’t really care what people know about me. What I care about is what I know about myself… lying to yourself, that’s the greatest sin of all when it comes to your art. Every day that passes, I’m dying of this disease called old age. Setting the intention of wanting to capture life while I am here, I’d like to try to understand a little bit about myself and that’s what song-writing gifts me. When I say unfiltered truths, it’s just what I’m trying to unearth all the time – I’m trying to scrape away all the layers of shite. I’m trying to be free of things, unnecessary fears and I’m also trying to accept that I’m fallible and I make mistakes.

Have you let go of any of those fears making this album?

A lot of fears, a lot of anxieties… they’re just balls around your neck, balls and chains. A song for me comes about as a result of a certain block of living and the song is like a bookmark in the block of your life. So, as you record, it’s a condensed experience of having to step back into all these headspaces that I was in at the time to get the most honest delivery. That in itself was f**king heavy.

Is there a particular environment that you find conducive to your creativity?

Being out on the road for most of the year then going back to Ireland, putting myself back together again. You’ve got a chest full of all that’s just happened to you and you’ve got a head full of what’s gone on, [you] go out foraging and you live and then you come back… and just roll out my acorns, throw them all on the table and…

Sift through them?

Yeah, exactly!

The lyric where you say you’re ‘out of sorts, like a road sweeper dressed up to the nines’ – I love that image. What makes you feel out of sorts?

Not belonging in the skin that you’re in. These are things that I felt and sometimes I use characters to express. I mean, I feel out of sorts almost every day.

Do you have any poets you are influenced by?

I loved the World War I poets like Wilfred Owen and Sassoon. When I was a lot younger, I had a real romance about fighting in that war. I think maybe in a past life I did, I fought in some war – I don’t know. I love Gregory Corso, people who can make sex and violence exquisite things. Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, writers [like that] really appeal to me because they kind of ripped up the ‘prancing around with a gardenia in your teeth’. With the record I wanted to shine a light on the romantic ugly, the beautiful ugly, the things that get overlooked. The man on the street that is gonna give you some aphorism that’ll change your life, but you just walk past.

'I think I’ve learnt to be more lenient on myself. With the knowledge that we’re all going to die anyway, how seriously are you gonna take yourself? We’re all f**king fallible, we’re all trying our best'.

What have you learnt recently – what have you taught yourself?

I think I’ve learnt to be more lenient on myself. With the knowledge that we’re all going to die anyway, how seriously are you gonna take yourself? We’re all f**king fallible, we’re all trying our best. We’re all recovering from society and how we’re programmed from being totally free and liberated children to putting up your hand to go for a piss in primary school, and get a job, get a mortgage, get a degree, get a car, get yourself in debt, have a family, have a midlife crisis, then realise that your time is running out and try to figure it all out – get a tattoo maybe, in your 50s, and then… that’s it? That doesn’t have to be the way – it can be the way, I’m sure it’s a great way as well. But there are alternatives. I’m being a bit facetious but you know what I mean?

On your website, you welcome people to your album as ‘fellow followers of the flow’. How do you get into the flow?

Just get out in the world and trust your intuition. I think that intuition is your truth and trust in that – you become captain of your own ship.

Where do you want to sail that ship in the future?

For a long period, I lived in the past and I lived in the future, so I was living in a state of anticipation, I was never present. Expectations are the seeds of resentment. Try to be in the now, man!

Do you think your music is a way you help cement yourself in the present, rather than jumping back into this past headspace?

It allows me to remove myself from the static that’s going on around me, or that I’m creating myself. But I suppose that is absolute present… if I clear out space in my head then I’m open to just being free of inhibitions, not being enslaved by the bullshit that we all experience.

You use a lot of religious language. What’s your relationship with religion?

I grew up in a Catholic country so how could I not? You’re commenting on your environment and you’re commenting on the worldviews that are drilled into your psyche from the get-go. For me there’s interest, intrigue, healing in the investigation. If I actually truly, fully believed it, then I’d have a great sense of comfort. But because I haven’t got that rubber stamp, as a songwriter I’m a kind of an investigator – I’m interested in all parts of myth and legend, occult and supernatural, theosophy, philosophy. For me, atheism is a bit of a dead end.

Growing up in the tail end of Catholic Ireland, I just remember the stress and anxiety of being kicked out of the door on a Sunday, bailed into the car, you know – ‘Get to f**king Mass! Eyyyyyy!’. And we were always late! The stress, and I was going, ‘this is supposed to be a holistic practice and I don’t want any of it!’.

I’ve investigated all of these things. You can meditate. I’ve been to sweat lodge ceremonies with Native Americans. A lot of the intentions are all the same, it’s just when they’re warped and twisted by lack of understanding – that causes harm. The seek goes on. But it’s not like I’m walking around waiting to be saved, I’m not.

Is there anything that you consider sacred?

Love. Love is a sacred thing. A sacred thing to be cultivated and nourished. You don’t really get too many chances at it.

Has it been an adjustment going from writing for yourself to knowing that there are crowds of people listening and paying attention?

I think there’s a kind of perverse excitement that maybe more people are coming to the gigs, more people are listening, because I think a lot of hidden in-jokes are in the lyrics, and before I was the only one laughing at my own jokes. You could let fear creep in, but I’d just be lying to myself if I was trying to pander.

I might sound like I’m up on a f**king mountain top in a cloak being very philosophical and very truthful and honest, but it has to be that way, otherwise you’re just people-pleasing, aren’t you? I did the monomyth kind of thing with A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery. The live thing has grown over the last two years – it’s been just me, and me with a roots-y group, and then at the end of the gig the electric band come out, so it’s like three acts in one play.

My method of trying to transcend the mediocrity that I felt in myself as a musician and as a f**king individual has been through all this self-discovery and music and playing live. Then through it I’ve got a bit of self-acceptance today. You’ll never reach enlightenment, but who the fuck wants to?