(Who's laughing now David Keenan)
In part one of this interview preceding his first tour of Australia, Dundalk songwriting poet, David Keenan, explained why being footloose meant more than being fancy-free. More even than admitting “I wanted to get away and be heard”, because it went to some deeper level of personal acceptance.
All of which is part of what some people see as a typically intense Irish artist. But there’s good and bad in those perceptions and cliches, he says in part two, even if they’re true.
I’M SPECIAL, SO SPECIAL, I gotta have some of your attention, give it to me. Well, yes, but also …
The assumption that songwriters or artists are more sensitive, or attuned to sensitivity, that this specialness is why they can make art while the rest of us look on in awe, is not always the reality. The inarticulate, the emotionally stunted type, even the ones spraying those emotions without direction, are just as likely to appear in the songwriting workshop or artist colony as in the corporate retreat, that supposed home of the emotionally clotted.
The advantage artists do have though is an outlet for packaging at least the appearance of sensitivity. Especially if you’re Irish.
“There’s a misconception that artists feel the human condition more than the next person, and that’s not true. I am by no means fully formed at all and I’m trying to go into my own skin more and more and find self-acceptance,” says David Keenan, writer and singer of north-east Ireland and the world. “But just because you can write a line of a poem, it can still be [emotionally] totally blocked off.”
The process to free those responses, to be in your own skin, can get ugly, but several albums in to his career, Keenan’s ok with that.
“There’s humility that comes in looking at that: there are areas in me that need work all the time, and that’s good, because I have things to write about. There’s no writer’s block when you’re doing work on yourself and life is happening at the same time.”
Has he found music, or his other writings, healthy? It is possible after all that they might also be dangerous to inner and outer health.
“There is an obsessive element to it, yeah. I was speaking to a friend of mine recently and he said to me I try not to go into my head but let the flashlight in from somebody else,” Keenan says. “When you are writing or whatever you are in your own head with the flashlight a lot of the time, and sometimes you have no flashlight and Paranoid FM might be your favourite radio station you know [he chuckles]. That’s just the hazards of spending a lot of time on your own writing.
“But I think it’s a healthy pursuit because it’s an investigative pursuit and you are trying to get some clarity out of what you are doing. There is healing in the writing, in the transferral of getting something from your head and putting it on the page. There is a relief and a reprieve that comes with writing a piece of music. So it’s hazardous, like any occupation, but it’s generally a positive thing.”
As you might suspect, there is a lot about David Keenan that is serious, that excavates hard experiences and harder lessons. There is a lot in his self-work about learning and reflecting emotional intelligence in connection and disconnection, and his songs come at you with a force even at their quietest.
But it seems to me that a key yet under recognised part of emotional intelligence is humour and how that helps you understand your frailties, weaknesses, and arrogance, and maybe doing it with less pious judgement.
“Yeah, compassion,” says Keenan, approvingly.
Indeed, and part of compassion is humour: the understanding of absurdity and contradictions that allows for forgiveness. It can’t be absent from the Keenan makeup. Does he have a whimsical side, for example?
“I’m a silly, silly, silly sausage. Big time,” he says with enthusiasm. “When I was younger I was so uptight, uptight with a lack of trust of people in general, that I found it very hard to let people in. It’s only been in the last two or three years that I’ve shown this kind of funny, stupid – silly rather than stupid – childlike gobshite that is me and comes up again and again in what I do.
“I embrace the absurdity because absurdity helps us cope with the insanity of the world, that’s part of the healing process. Self acceptance allows these things to happen, allows us to let people in, allows these things to happen in my songs. That’s a new thing I think over the last couple of years, which is good.”
That’s a lot to keep hidden from others, though he is hardly the first to choose socially-acceptable earnestness over silliness.
“Like I said before, I was so full of fear and I couldn’t let people in. I probably held myself to these standards where you had to be fucking the best, you had to be this poet, and all this bullshit,” says Keenan. “It was a drag, man, and it’s good to be free today.”
While there is some appeal in arguing that artists should free elements of their personalities such as humour, give them as much space in the public eye as their angst or poetic musings, it is not particularly practical. Particularly when you are carrying that kind of comparisons – storied Irish poets; musical giants of almost equal standing – a young Keenan had ladled on when he arrived.
It would be hard for anyone, let alone someone who had issues of trust and reluctance to expose himself to the dangers of intimacy and vulnerability, to say yeah I am all that but I’m also a “silly silly silly sausage”. Not when all you are thinking on release of your first album is I want people to respect me and if they think I’m silly they will dismiss me, and I can’t be funny because now I’m a poet.
“Yeah, yeah. And I lose everything that I’m saying," is the response.
"It’s not for everybody, but for me music and poetry and art are things that saved my life. And yeah, that sounds like a throwaway thing and we all fucking say that, but no, it did. And it’s given me this transformative life that was beyond expectation, a nourishing fucking existence, that’s all come about through music and art,” he says. “I think when I was younger I was more militant with this ‘this is transformative and everybody should feel this’, and I was obsessed and I took it so seriously. I was beyond trying to discipline myself and the pressure, the fucking pressure I put on myself.
“So yeah, I was afraid. I was afraid to open up and maybe I played into whatever caricature people had, the fellow up on the hill with the quill. It was self-preservation.”
Like I said, how many of us have done the same, albeit on a lower-profile scale than the Irishman? Mind you, the stakes tend to be lower for the rest of us, at least commercially but probably socially too.
“When you are in your early 20s and all these things are being thrown at you and you go from busking to selling out theatres and touring American and everybody wants a bit of you, and you are trying to cope as best you can … it was a heavy time,” says Keenan, adding that now “it’s a very freeing place” to be in so many ways.
“As long as I’m doing a piece of work that I feel is enjoyable, it’s inspired, it’s risky, and I can keep a lid on of my integrity with it, and happy days you know. Happy days. I’m going to Australia baby.”
PLAYING HOME AND AWAY – part one of the David Keenan interview
David Keenan plays:
ACO Neilson Theatre, Sydney, January 19-20 – Sydney Festival
The Gov, Adelaide, January 24
George Lane, Melbourne, January 27
The Triffid, Brisbane, January 30
Brunswick Ballroom, Melbourne, January 31
Meeniyan Hall, February 2