David Keenan: A slow act of intimate musical poetry

by James Hendicott

Perhaps the strangest thing about wild developmental story of David Keenan – still unfolding slowly after years of slow-building to the heights of an Olympia Theatre headline slow – is how long it’s taken the Dundalk man to release an album.

Keenan is an intense character; his words flowing with the considered, poetic bent of someone who’s spent a lot of time thinking about what the world means, and his own place in it.

Talking to him about his music is a strange experience, uncomfortably intimate at times, having a top-class songwriter look you in the eye and talk off the cuff in a way that isn’t all that dissimilar to the way he delivers his lyrics.

The album, A Beginner’s Guide To Bravery, is now just around the corner, being due just after Christmas, and is very much a long-term project.

“It’s a consequence of living,” Keenan says of his record. “It’s a kind of bookmarking of a certain period. There are songs on the record from four years ago, and others I wrote this year.

“They’re a by-product of my own individuality, so in a way they’ve been developing since I was a child.

“A collection of things have aligned. I’ve been releasing EPs for a couple of years, with the intention of getting a body of songs that tell a story.

“It’s always been about telling that story, not just a collection of strangers on a record.

“There’s a lineage between each song, but they have to have their own personality, too. It’s the story of my evolution, moving to Dublin, finding a stride, the emotional journeys.

“It’s also been about getting the right band, and recordings that I was happy with. That was a lot about getting people I trusted into the band.

“I did it live, and that was important to me. Life isn’t click-tracked.”

The product is a brave, coherent album that’s a certain early contender for 2020 Album of the Year consideration.

“I think I see things with an optimistic realism, but through a lens of romanticism,” Keenan says.

“It’s about the ‘beautiful ugly’, about the rawness of life.

“It’s also about the importance of having ideals, and holding and standing by them. Extolling both the beauties and harshness of life.

“Dundalk runs through me, I think it’s a kind of frequency that’s stored away in my being. I was brought up on the outskirts and went to school there.

“For me, I try to look for understandings of how [Dundalk] affected me, growing up. It has an undercurrent, being by the [Northern Ireland] border.

“It had a certain atmosphere, but I think that only galvanised my spirit.

“I have a love-hate relationship with the place; it has a warmness, but also a clannishness.”

Keenan eventually escaped, running to Liverpool where he busked to survive, and crafted his trade on the streets – something that still shines out in his music.

He’s a performer, and strives to evolve that aspect of himself.

Next year, for example, between tours promoting the album, he’ll spend time in Paris learning the art of mime.

There’s a humour bubbling under the surface when Keenan explains this. He’s amused by the concept, but is not doing it all entirely jokingly, either.

It’s just another opportunity in life, a chance to become better at what seems, somehow, to be a calling.

The result is self-confident and bold, a statement of intent, and a complete musical package delivered by a man who’s very much lived a life striving to create such a thing.

It’s been a long time coming, but Keenan is a good bet for 2020’s great Irish breakthrough.

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