IN INTENSITY AND LYRICISM, not to mention a dark-tinged creative spirit, David Keenan couldn’t be anything but Irish. Even more so in his combination of traditional and more rock and soul-based musical shapes.
But it could have been so different, from accent to motivation to tan: the folk singer and poet from the borderlands on the way to Northern Ireland nearly found himself growing up in Australia.
Like several of his extended family who moved here last century, Keenan’s parents were all but set to do it in 1988, before he was born – neighbours in their town of Dundalk had been told, preparations has been made – but his grandfather fell ill and plans were put on hold. And then abandoned.
Chewing on this today, the alternative life could keep us occupied for ages – not least what might those frequent comparisons in Keenan’s reviews to native poets Brendan Behan and Patrick Kavanagh, alongside too often to be discarded comparisons with Tim Buckley, have translated to here. But maybe this nearly-Australian did get a touch of the long distance traveller anyway.
As his touring outside Ireland has expanded to next month’s first time in Australia, including the Sydney Festival, he is rediscovering the excitement of being out of his element.
“I haven’t had that, for four or five years, since I went to America for the first time,” Keenan says. “That real absolute wet behind the ears [feeling], which is a beautiful thing because everything feels shocking.”
That said, he has been exploring since his mid-teens when he took his first trip to perform in the UK – running away from home and school in the process – and later settled in Spain for a while. There is some advantage to being displaced.
“I just needed to get away, to be in motion, with different smells and sights. It’s something that I’ve always done, so yes, I am a nomad really,” he says. “And that’s something that I’ve been trying to accept and embrace, and look at in some Freudian, therapeutic way.
"Do I want to alter that at all? No, because in a previous life I would have been a fili [one of a caste of poets in ancient Ireland], a bard or something, going from place to place, singing for my supper and trying to tell stories, trying to do something alchemical [about] whatever is going on inside me, connecting really.”
This is wildly romantic, albeit not practical. Except maybe it still is.
“There is a real joy in the seek and the learning you know,” Keenan insists. “There are nine dates in total on this Australian run, so I feel like an explorer because you go down to the well, you’re going within.”
What has driven this need in him? It’s clearly been there a while. Why did he run away in his teens?
“Anger. And frustration. Escapism. That’s what I got in songs when I first started singing,” he says. “I’ve always sung. I sang at my mother and father’s wedding you know, when I was four. There is a safety in it, it’s a safe space to go into. If you’re a kid and you are trying to find them safe space in your imagination, music was that for me, and then writing.
“But I felt when I started writing that that was like autonomy, as a young kid. It’s a new discovery when you don’t have language for that but feel the sense of autonomy, and maybe I was looking for people who understood me as well. And I didn’t see many of them in Dundalk.”
Spain, the UK, or for that matter Australia, haven’t pulled him away; they only borrowed him as Dandalk is still home really.
“I’ve come full circle with that now, years later, but then I wanted to get away and be heard. And the buzz of being on stage,” Keenan says. “Really, when I went to Liverpool [while still at school] there was no plan: it was two day’s busking and then I had to sleep somewhere, 99p to eat each day, but just being so full of fucking excitement with that life, instead of sitting in my mother’s house rocking back and forth.”
If those last words don’t give you a hint of the turmoil within him then, Keenan’s description of those early escapes as “getting a fucking padlock off my neck, that was there emotionally”, should do it. It was music that “opened me up to getting better”, when anger roiled inchoately.
“Fear and anger can be really useful if you’re trying to say something or express it in a healthy way,” Keenan says. “Just fucking express it, because you need to or you are going to explode.”
His most recent recordings, in particular last year’s pared back Crude album and its 2023 offshoot, the Crude Boyo EP, as well as the more soulful An Irish Song, the first single from his next album, don’t appear to have anger at the core. Yes, even if one song on the EP is At One With My Rage. Does he still see anger there? And if he does, is it still useful?
“No. The first record, I think there was purging going on in my life but Crude is real gentle: though it’s DIY garage-y and abrasive at times, there’s a,fragility in it,” says Keenan. “There’s a song called Waiting Room and it’s really gentle: I’m talking to my partner in that, and intimacy was always a thing that really freaked me out. I always thought I could write a song so I could be sensitive, but really I was emotionally blocked. Intimacy fucked me up.”
He had never envisaged making an album like Crude, so “very very naked” and vulnerable, not in its sound but its intention.
“That’s taken me years but it’s a good sign that I’m doing the right kind of work, because I don’t want to be screaming on my own in the corner when I’m 40,” he says. “But anger is really useful if you express it instead of retaining it and turning it in on yourself. There’s no reason why I should be doing that, because I’ve a voice and I can play something.”
NEXT MONTH: in part two of this interview, David Keenan throws off the serious artist cloak to reveal “I’m a silly silly silly sausage”, and why it took so long to admit it.
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