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love yourself today

Damien Dempsey: 'I feel lucky that I do what I do - and other people get a lift from it'

The musician and director Ross Killeen tell us about the making of a new documentary about Dempsey’s Vicar St gigs.

AT THE HEART of Damien Dempsey’s music is integrity. He gives his listeners nothing but who he is, and he uses his songs to put out messages into the world about what he truly feels is important.

That sense of authenticity has pulled in a massive fanbase for his work. Every December, for around a decade, he has held a series of concerts at Vicar St, where his fans come to sing, dance, cry and expunge some of the year’s emotions.

Normally you’d have to be among the crowd to experience its intensity, but a new documentary film out now captures the 46-year-old’s most recent set of gigs, in a pre-pandemic 2019.

Directed by Ross Killeen and with impressive black and white cinematography from Narayan van Maele, Love Yourself Today doesn’t just take in the gigs, but also tells the story of three diehard Dempsey fans.

True to Dempsey’s spirit of positive attitude helping you in the world, the three fans – Jonathan, Nadia and Packy – all have experienced hardship in their lives. Their journeys run in parallel with Damien Dempsey explaining how he has found solace and expression in performing his music. 

In the film, Jonathan Smith talks about his experiences of abuse and alcoholism, while Packy Connors, a boxer, shares his traumatic teenage years and how he overcame them. Nadia Essalhi is in treatment for drug use following the death of her brother in a horrifying murder, and we watch how she gets ready to start life again. All three generously share their journeys as a way of showing the audience that redemption is possible. 

Dempsey knew Jonathan and Packy already, but Killeen brought Nadia on board. “I just knew they’d been to hell and back in their own lives,” says Dempsey of two men. “And the music, really they’re just lost in my music, it really lifts them, it really does something for them, they’re crazy about it. It really helps them I suppose.”

Dempsey’s own journey is an interesting one. Born and raised in Donaghmede, he grew up in a very musical household. A shy teen, he nonetheless loved taking part in sing-songs, and loved listening to the likes of Luke Kelly and Christy Moore. His first start came as a teenager when he came second in a 2FM song contest with a song about homelessness. That urge to write about social issues – addiction, suicide, homophobia – has always been in him. 

In the early 2000s his career took off, helped by support slots on tours with Sinéád O’Connor and Morrissey.  Now 10 albums into his career, he’s also dabbled in acting, starring in Between the Canals and Cardboard Gangsters. 

Capturing the feeling

It was Killeen who first approached Dempsey with the idea for a feature documentary, which would be his first after a series of shorts.

“I’d seen some of his other work and I was impressed by it,” said Dempsey of why he agreed. “So I thought it was gonna look great anyway. I didn’t think he’d be able to capture the feeling, the vibration at the shows – but somehow he has.”

Dempsey believes in the vibration that music helps foster when a group of people gather and sing together. You believe in it too after watching the documentary, with its lingering shots of people in rapture, singing with tears rolling down their monochrome faces. 

“I grew up with the sing-song. Because it was always a vibration,” he says. “It got 1,500 people singing as one, like one living, breathing animal, you know, a very primal feeling. And communal singing is just so good for you, it’s one of the best feelings in the world.”

But watching the documentary also shows how much we lost over the past 19 months, when gigs weren’t possible. Thankfully, crowds have lately been able to gather at venues, but what was the last year and a half like for Dempsey?

“I was just trying to be grateful,” he says. “I just felt very lucky that I do what I do and that people really seem to get a lift from it, and it helps them through life on that. I just thought: some people are getting a terminal diagnosis now. I have nothing to complain about, you know?

“I was just thinking about people back a few centuries ago in Ireland, you know, they’d love to be in this lockdown, with a fridge full of food and not being oppressed by a foreign empire. So I just always try and put things in perspective if I’m feeling a bit, you know, down or hard done by.”

Pandemic delays

It’s this sort of attitude that permeates Love Yourself Today, and it’s also one that helped the director Killeen when he was faced with the delays caused by Covid. 

“The whole time, I was always like: we’ll have it done, you know, we’ll shoot in December, we’ll have it finished in March. And everyone was like, ‘No, you won’t’. I maybe naively thought I’d get it finished quicker. But then obviously, the pandemic hit, and then the cinemas were closed. So suddenly we weren’t in a hurry anymore.”

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But the whole time, he held the image in his mind of the film being released, and its premiere happening.

“We had an amazing night in Galway when we premiered in July, it was an outdoor screening and that felt just brilliant,” said Killeen. ”And this is a trick that Damo taught me, you know, to visualise things and then they’ll happen.”

But it was strange watching the footage during the pandemic. “In the depths of it when you’re editing the film, you’re looking at the footage, and it was like looking at something from the 1800s. It was literally a nostalgic look back on an old reel of footage from the 18th century. You know, remember, we used to go to gigs, and, you know, hug each other…!”

There was some talk about bringing the documentary up to date, and capturing some Covid-era footage, but this idea was nixed eventually. “I was like, no, I really don’t want to do that, you know?” says Killeen.

It was a moment in time and I just kind of crossed my fingers and hoped that it would go away and that it would make sense to people, and that COVID wouldn’t become the dominant theme in our lives and there were other things that we could still relate to. 

He feels that the film will tap into how people have “had to stop and maybe appreciate what they have”. 

“I think people will relate to it, you know – the gratitude and the music.”

Lost in music

For all of Dempsey’s career ambitions, he also wants to do something deeper. Says Killeen: “When I brought the film to Damo first and pitched it to Damo, he said at the end of it that I should try and make a film that helps people, and that was something that stuck with me all the way through.”

“I feel what Damo is all about is honesty, authenticity, there’s a rawness there and the film had to be made in his image, you know. Nadia, Packy, Jonathan, they understood that this was what we were hoping to do with it.

“Their motivations for getting involved were to help people as well.”

Dempsey comes across as a very positive person throughout, who’s focused on personal growth, spirituality and paying tribute to his forebears. That comes through when he’s performing, but also when he’s talking about his own love for music. 

“I’m blessed,” he says. “I was raised on sing-songs, with me grannies and uncles and aunties and neighbours, around Dublin in different houses, so I always knew it was very special thing to sing-song.

“When someone would sing a song and everyone in the room would join in, was like we all grew wings and sort of flew off. It’s like your soul dances or something when everyone sings together. It’s very special. So I just try to bring that to the stage.”

Love Yourself Today is in cinemas now.

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