David Keenan promises to hit the studio once his U.S. tour finishes this week.
By Mike Finnegan
“There’s a muse on every street corner, flipping a coin,” David Keenan said, greeting me at sound check in New York’s Irish Arts Center. In a few hours he was taking the historic stage to kick off his first solo tour in a city “overrun by a hyperactive hum,” in a room “full of ghosts lingering in the woodwork of the walls.”It’s the infinitely surprising indie singer-songwriter’s second trip to New York in six months, and the inspirational impact the city’s made on Ireland’s latest gift to the world of folk-music and poetry was made instantly and abundantly clear.
“All you have to do is keep your eyes peeled. There are songs everywhere here. Absolutely everywhere. All you have to do is observe,” Keenan said.
He was last in New York back in January – his first trip to Ireland’s transatlantic pulse – when Irish godfather of indie Glen Hansard recognized Keenan’s unique talent, and invited him on tour as his opening act.
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“To be brought over by Glen was such an incredible gesture. It just goes to show the type of man he is,” Keenan said, still chuffed by the experience. “We have a great tradition in Ireland of helping people up onto the ship – and he really pulled me up on board when he brought me to New York. It was amazing.”
Keenan’s journey of steady progression has been intriguing to observe, to say the least. Despite his impressive commitment to traditionalism and self-truth, and his rejection of artistic pandering, Keenan’s initial burst of exposure in 2015 was ironically, unintentionally – and perhaps unavoidably, today – the result of a viral video; a performance of his since-retired song “El Paso” in Maxi’s Taxi, a cab service in Dundalk. The video spread across Ireland like wildfire, landing him on RTÉ and propelling him into Ireland’s arena of insatiable artistic epicures.
The people wanted more, and Keenan was prepared to deliver – though, on his own terms.
Reflecting on the Maxi’s Taxi experience, Keenan admitted that he’s grateful for the video, though, not for what it instantly made him, but for what it made him realize he ultimately didn’t want to be.
“I didn’t know what ‘viral’ meant. I wasn’t in tune with social media at the time – or ‘unsocial media,’ let’s call it. That just happened, and it lasted for about two weeks. It held a mirror up to me, and it said, ‘Do you want to be remembered as this, or do you want to go on this path that you were always meant to walk on? Do you want to be a credible artist, do you want to make great records that are going to be remembered, do you want to go on a journey? Or do you want to be that young, naïve, lost, teenage kid in a taxi?’” Keenan reflected.
“That was the greatest gift I was ever given.” Keenan confessed, earnestly. “The universe is a great giver, and it gives you these things when you need them most. I was totally lost before that happened, and for a good while after it happened, too. But it gave me the motivation to be a strong individual, and not let anyone put me in a box.
“You have to dance with Babylon sometimes, but only if you’re leading the way. Don’t just let it lead you on a merry dance. You waltz it around the room,” he added.Critics across Ireland have appropriately compared the Dundalk songwriter’s lyrical abilities to those of 20th century Irish greats, like Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and Yeats, as well as staples in the American Beat Movement, like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Bob Dylan. While Keenan humbly denies the comparisons himself, he appreciates the societal connection between our time and the eras of the greats.
“We live in an age of modernity, and with that a lot of myths have been demystified. A lot of spiritual understanding and folklore has been dismissed as being laughable,” Keenan said.
“I think that’s where the role of the artist, and the songwriter, and the poet, and the painter come to the fore. This is when art is most needed – in times of demystification, in times of devolution, rather than evolution – certainly spiritually speaking. I think that makes language, and song, and story, and poetry all the more precious right now.”
While David Keenan is fully embracing his first American tour, and the creative osmosis the road provides, one eye is back at his studio at Barrack Street Records. The label’s name – stamped across his right wrist – has quite the backstory.
It’s an ode to the Dundalk street his grandmother grew up on; an undercover poet who published a collection of her work while living in London in the 1950s. She is perhaps the one Irish poet David’s never read. In a part sand-mandala-esque ritual, part act of artistic rebellion, Keenan’s grandmother destroyed all copies of her work before any of her relatives could read them – leaving David her poetic disposition rather than her personal compositions.
When Keenan’s two-week tour of the Northeast concludes, he plans on hitting the studio at Barrack Street Records hard and fast, with a band of kindred spirited creatives by his side.“It’s going to be a great record, and I’m going to invest everything into this spiritually and emotionally, and financially as well, because I’m an independent artist.
“I’ve gone around different tributaries, and I’ve just now arrived at the place where I’m happiest creatively, with the people I want to create with.
“I recently did an interview with Hot Press at Forbidden Fruit a few days ago and I said, ‘If I had the means to record this record, it would be done.’ But really, that was a blessing in itself, because I really needed the time to go through all of these avenues of the soul to arrive where I am now.”
Prior to meeting David Keenan, there was always a healthy dose of skepticism and concern lingering in the background. Perhaps this character was somehow putting us on. The suspenders, the sepia-colored collarless shirt, and two-inches-too-short brown trousers; the unprovoked bursts of poetic insight, and raw emotive lyrics fired out at anyone within fathomable earshot of him and his guitar.
Were we in the presence of a time-traveler from folk’s golden-era? A beatnik with a flux-capacitor? Was this one of Kerouac’s hitchhikers, sucked into a wormhole when Moriarty hit 88mph?
No. He is, however, perhaps just as impossibly rare.
This is David Keenan; an unapologetic and authentic poetic genius of our time; a necromancer of folk music’s intent; the epitome of an independent Irish artist.
He is Dundalk’s Bob Dylan, and more.
David Keenan finishes up his solo U.S. tour with shows on Wednesday night at City Winery, Varick Street, Manhattan, and Thursday night at the Saint, Asbury Park, N.J.