“Here’s to the fathers of the lost sons and the unholy ghosts. It’s the ones who seem destined to get left behind interest me the most. I am the prodigal son, resting his head on the drum that was carried through the welcoming parade. And I’d give all I have, I would give all I have, strip me bare, let me wash in the rains.”
David Keenan – Unholy Ghosts
When David Keenan puts pen to paper, and then sets those words to music, the everyday becomes the extraordinary. Take Barrack Street in his hometown of Dundalk. It’s an unremarkable little place, rows of terraced houses lining either side. Its pair of pubs have closed now, to be redeveloped into the inevitable flats. It’s the kind of street where nothing ever happens.
But not in the imagination of David Keenan. His Barrack Street, he sings in Good Old Days, is a place where the events of domestic life become a fairy story, “where the sailors all come in to greet their families”, where people gather in “the picture house where the navies and the banshees roam”. It’s a place, like his music, where past and present and future come together in a reverie of truth, poetry and fantasy. If you want your singer-songwriters to be relatable and blokey, David Keenan is not the man for you. If you want them to have the epic sweep of Van Morrison, the high notes of Tim Buckley, and the soul of Samuel Beckett, then he very much is. David Keenan makes music that floats, where his words – not plain-spoken, but wandering and questing – are woven into music that can be urgent or solemn or joyful as the song demands.
“I've always understood that music, language, prose and poetry transcend modernity or any kind of time,” Keenan says. “I don't attach myself to this period, or any past, present or future. Through the relationship with art and language I grew closer to my true self.” That true self is expressed on his remarkable debut album A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery. “The album is an embodiment of all that. Just trying to, through creative catharsis, self-educate and sculpt an inner world that become your outer world.”
Maybe the story starts with the Hohner guitar, belonging to his uncle, that he found in a wardrobe in his grandmother’s spare room as a child. And with the music his uncle played to him – Leonard Cohen and Tim Buckley and Nick Cave and Dinosaur Jr. Or maybe with his mother taking him across the border to the Ulster Folk Museum in Northern Ireland when he was nine. “You know those little blue jotters you get in school for words you don't understand? That was the first time I wrote in that. It was of my own free will. Something happened then in that moment. I felt an element of control, and the ability to sculpt with the imagination.”
Or maybe it starts with the kid with the leather boots on the school bus – and you just didn’t wear leather boots on the school bus in Dundalk, not if you had sense – who gave him a tape of the Libertines, and when Keenan heard them for the first time, colours exploded in his head and he wanted to be in a gang and he knew the songs he was already writing had to be better. But probably it starts with The La’s and Liverpool and disappearing.
Nine years ago, when Keenan was 17 and on the dole after doing a computer course, he packed up and left Dundalk and went to Liverpool. He disappeared – it was two weeks before he went to a phone booth and called his mother and told her he was alive and he was in Liverpool and she wasn’t to worry – and he was on the trail of the disappeared. He had gone to Liverpool to find Lee Mavers, the elusive singer of The La’s. “The La's opened up a new world of tuning your guitar to the hum of an electric fridge. It was like holy music, holistic. I stumbled upon them. I found this blog called Diaries of a Rock’n’Dole Star. That's all that I needed. This guy went to Liverpool and spent his grant money on tracking down The Stairs and Shack. And I had to go. I had never been out of Dundalk before. But I'd read all the books. I'd read Kerouac and I needed to escape. Dundalk was grey brick upon grey brick. My imagination needed to go and explore. So I got a one-way ticket on the ferry. I didn't find Lee Mavers but I found some members of the band. I found Barry Sutton and Cammy from the La’s, and I did support John Power eventually. But it was an incredible experience. It broke down all the shyness barriers, because I had to play to eat. I had to get £21 from busking every day to pay for the hostel in Edge Hill. If I didn't get that I didn't have anywhere to sleep. I was busking. They kind of took me in, and I ended up at the Lomax for the open night, which was where all the bands in the 90s played, a place that never shut for denizens of the nocturnal world. It was dreamlike, living off this pulse. This first place I ever felt safe was there.”
When he returned to Ireland, the newly confident Keenan began sending demos off, and people began to take notice. Mick Flannery gave him support. Damien Dempsey took him on tour. And he learned more about what kind of artist he was and who he needed to be. “Looking at someone sing a song as if it's the last song they're going to sing. That's what I get from Damian Dempsey or Jacques Brel. They're not fucking cheating you out of anything. They're giving it to you as it is. It's life or death, you know. Seeing things like that, it's like any artisan craft. You have to study it. It's a discipline. You have to call yourself out on bullshit. Pull out the weeds all the time.”
There were other steps along the way, paving stones on which Keenan alighted and where the light shone on him and more people noticed. The drunken incident in a taxi in Dundalk in January 2015 – no, not that kind of incident – when he sang El Paso for a local cabbie who liked to film his passengers, and the clip went viral. “I ran away from this for a number of years, because I was running away from myself. Totally lost, full of fear. I wrote that song when I was 15. I would have considered it, at the time in my snobbery, a whimsical throwaway song. But now I'm proud of it. For a 15-year-old to write it, it's decent. But that gave me a kick up the arse. Sometimes having an opponent is good. It gave me the drive to bus up and down the country, do as many open mics as I could, really work at my writing. And it got me gigs for a while, as well. It sustained me for a few months. I played in Dundalk last Christmas. I was playing James Dean, and there were these lads up front demanding El Paso, and I was cursing them in my head: ‘You'll never get that!’ And something clicked. And in surrendering to it I gained victory. I've been running away from this kid for years – but why? I'm gonna fucking heal. And you're gonna fucking help me do it. And we all sang. It was a real growing up moment.”
Finding his voice required more than just growing up, though. It needed him to connect with the past, with traditions, with the people who haunted the bars of Dundalk and with their stories. “There were all these characters who could hold a room with a story or with aphorisms but would never write it down. I was enamoured by all these wild characters. I'm from the border, where the air of suspicion given the nature of the time, and then these wild people. That all bled into my songs.” The stories of the past appear in them, snatched from the ether. In Good Old Days, he sings the stories told by his grandmother, in moments of lucidity as she lived with Alzheimer’s, about coal hidden beneath the cot so the glimmer man – the gas inspector – wouldn’t find it, about the men cycling home in unison from the factories at lunchtime.
All these threads are knitted together in A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery. Keenan’s experiences feed into a record that is rich and ripe and romantic – not in the sense of him being a lothario, but in his connections to the Romantics and their cherishing of intense emotion and individualism; Wordsworth’s demand that poetry be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" could have been written for Keenan. Subliminal Dublinia came to him in Hollywood, on his knees in a hotel room, despairing of his surroundings. Love in a Snug came after “I saved up for two weeks to buy a suit when I was living with my grandfather. I got dressed up with nowhere to go in my best clothes, and walked from one end of the town to the other. I ended up on Barrack Street and there was a snug bar there, and the story just came, after weeks of binge drinking.” He talks of Dundalk as a collection of sensory experiences – the smell of Jeye’s cleaning fluid coal smoke and pork cooking at the salami factory, and the sullen greys of the houses. And in his songs he adds to that the world he has now experienced, and the changes he has undergone and the characters he has met. And he and they fuse into the people who dance in and out of his songs. “I get an image in my head of what their take on life is. What prejudices they have, what cigarettes they smoke, what they're wearing. They create their own mythologies, these characters. They're giving me clues. All the beautiful and demented parts of my own psyche, the extremities of other peoples'. Everything is absorbed and put into this petri dish and you watch it grow.”
A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery took just a week to record – five days in May, two in August – at Hellfire Studio on the outskirts of Dublin, with Gavin Glass producing. A week to record, perhaps, but there are lifetimes in it. And there are more lifetimes being explored. Already, Keenan is playing new songs live – in front of huge audiences supporting Hozier – and writing more in his notebook with the oxblood leather binding, into which words pour every day. A Beginner’s Guide to Bravery is brilliant, but its title is true. It is only a beginning. There’s so much more to come.