Derek dempsey
A light moment for Derek Dempsey before a performance.

Dream-visit helps singer-songwriter get back on track

My father died after a long illness in 2016. The news of his final days came while I was on a mini-tour that took me to Florida and Las Vegas. I sat down in the hotel room, looked out at the desert all day, and then went through the motions on stage at night in the dry heat. 

After coming back from the June funeral in Dublin, I could barely get out of bed that summer, often only getting up at 5 p.m. to be ready for my nightly shows in Times Square. I was despondent. Not even music could rouse me. 

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One night, I had a dream-visit. My father came to our front door in New York. He was his old self, pre-illness Gerry Dempsey. Unlike most dreams in which you know the location but it’s transformed into some bizarre Dali-like version of your house, this was like a replay of a home video. Everything was as it was in real life, especially my father. 

My father came into the house and we sat at our eat-in-kitchen table, the same table to which for so many years my American family has gravitated as if by some force for what would often be very important family conversations. 

We chatted about trivialities for a while and then my father told me in his Gerry Dempsey way, “You’ve done enough grieving. It’s time to move on. Go make your music.”

I woke up and called my collaborators. We began to work immediately on my song “Breathing Like An Alien.” 

After a year filled with a constant back and forth between Washington DC and Times Square to perform (while writing my debut novel “Anthony’s Aria”), I booked a flight to Dublin to make the accompanying video for the song. On the afternoon of the flight to Dublin we got an October snowstorm. The flight was delayed by three hours. I went into my music room, picked up a guitar and in a stream of consciousness wrote the first two verses of what would eventually become “The Face in the Window.” On the flight, I wrote another set of lyrics and then put the song away.

Life continued to press on. I spent a long time concentrating on the many drafts of the novel in such locations as Martinique, Dominican Republic, Washington DC, Switzerland (on Charlie Chaplin’s lawn), Ireland and New York. Then March 2020 brought its cloak of unknowingness. 

In October 2022, as I was still scrambling to get my career back up from the shambles, I found the song in my voice memos. I sent it to my lyric writing partner David (my 2018 release “Every Christmas” collaborator). His exact words were “Where the heck have you been hiding THAT?!” So we got to work on it. 

We knew the song was about the story of immigration, of the duality of belonging to two countries, the feeling that perhaps I would never be home no matter what soil I stood on. We discussed at length what we wanted to express in the song; how we would get from America to Ireland and back; how we would convey the feeling of mother and child; the ritual of the homecoming; the idea of our children returning to our childhood homes with prospects of marriage; and the memories conjured up by the simple everyday task of eating. David came up with the Proustian idea of the burst of memories conjured up by the pudding.

This led to the reverie of my hateful schooldays and how music came to save me. We revealed deep influences from Horslips to Sinatra, Lynott to Bowie the Brixton boy. We threaded through Dublin by way of Wilde; those who moved to suffocate my music; and my mother’s stories about living across the road from Brendan Behan and his empathy for the poverty-stricken children of 1950s Ireland. 

On the surface, the song is about returning home, loss, family, love, mortality, and self-awareness, but underneath, it may be about much more than that. I suppose listeners will find the “much more” for themselves and maybe tell the writers. 

For more about the writer, go to his website here.

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