The measured minstrel
August 21, 2009
Paul Dempsey is striking a path as a solo artist, writes Andrew Murfett.
PAUL Dempsey is a closet football tragic. He has spent 2009 mildly obsessed with his beloved Saints breaking their 43-year premiership drought.
''There's a mixture of happiness and fear there,'' he says.
Publicly, at least, Dempsey is perhaps best known as a voracious reader with a fixation on quantum physics. His love of Aussie Rules is one of several little-known anomalies in his public facade.
Over 14 years in his day job fronting local rock trio Something For Kate, he has sold about 500,000 albums and managed to erect a wall between his public and private life. It's been both a blessing and a curse. Ask those close to him and they confirm Dempsey possesses a wicked sense of humour. He has something of a reputation for retaining information, be it scientific or musical, and this translates to jokes.
One night, for instance, after a Something For Kate show in Bendigo, he exasperated his bandmates by telling jokes non-stop all the way back to Melbourne.
''It drove everybody out of their mind,'' he says.
Yet, in his quest for privacy that gregarious humour has been somewhat lost and SFK's reputation as a morose collective has remained.
It clearly rankles Dempsey.
''It's still bizarre to me,'' he says. ''Humour has always been in my writing. So I have to assume I'm not doing it right. I should accept that before I point the finger at others.''
This week Dempsey releases Everything is True, his debut solo album. And the focus is now squarely on him.
Dempsey sung and played every note on the album – and it's his most lyrically direct work. Beginning with its sardonic title, the album plays on Dempsey's pitch-black humour and deft storytelling skills.
In person, his lanky two-metre stature might be imposing were it not offset by his wry persona. He speaks candidly about topics such as his nomadic childhood, being married to a bandmate, his obsession with the metal band Slayer and a penchant for television series Lost.
"I'd put Lost in the same category as St Kilda. It's been so good up until now, I'd hate for it to be buggered up before the finish."
Dempsey turned 33 in May. But it has taken him until now, he says, having finished his solo debut, to understand how his brain works.
Dempsey has no memories of his father, Charlie, who died in a car crash when he was just a year old. He was raised by his mother, grandmother and three older sisters.
His family migrated from Dublin a year before Paul's birth. After his father's death, his mother remarried, and for a time she ran an Irish pub in South Melbourne.
Music was a constant in a family that was always on the move. Dempsey recalls moving nine times around Victoria and Queensland before he left home in his late teens.
From a young age, Dempsey listened to his sisters and mother singing at all hours and hearing them harmonise helped shape his approach to music.
Having taught himself piano, guitar and drums, he discovered he could hear a song on the radio, pick up an instrument and reproduce it. At age 10, the first song he learned to play was Eagle Rock.
Wife and bandmate Stephanie Ashworth has a theory. ''Paul is the human jukebox,'' she says. ''He can play anything he's heard once. It's a weird phonographic memory, like a strange autism.''
After leaving home and moving in with his oldest sister, Jill, his sense of place was heightened when he visited Ireland for the first time at 21.
"I definitely felt at home there," he says. "There's an instinctive connection and familiarity."
He was able to meet his father's brother and twin sister and, for the first time, get a strong, almost visceral, sense of his dad's personality. Often unnervingly. Several times in Dublin, he was approached by strangers, usually old men in pubs, who said: ''You must be Charlie Dempsey's boy.''
Dempsey's past undoubtedly had an impact on his solo record.
In 2004, making Desert Lights, the fifth Something For Kate record, he suffered a debilitating bout of depression. It was only after some convincing from those close to him that he sought treatment.
Dempsey was struggling to function and became physically ill. For more than a year he took antidepressants, battling the side-effects of nightmares and anxiety. He eventually weaned himself off them.
"It's there on this record," he says. "Looking back on those two years, it's like it happened to someone else. It's like watching a movie. It's so hard to relate to being in that space now.
"Something changed drastically about my whole brain or person. I'm still getting used to me after that. Something about these songs has more space and breath. It's brighter, I guess. I feel like the ropes are untied or the anchor's gone. I feel less afraid. Which is really good but really scary sometimes, too."
On Everything is True, Dempsey expresses feelings of wonder, confusion and bemusement. In his songs, life is a puzzle nobody really understands. That view clearly informs his writing.
Ashworth and SFK drummer, Clint Hyndman, say they pushed Dempsey to record a solo album.
''Actually, I was a little resistant to being pushed out,'' Dempsey jokes.
His bandmates also insist they are comfortable with his new touring band – Shannon Vanderwert, Patrick Bourke and John Hedigan.
"We hope the next Kate record will be received with fresher ears," Dempsey says.
Dempsey has been playing solo shows away from the band for more than a decade. He believes these have increased his confidence, helped him improvise and strengthened his singing.
But, he admits, his tendency to spend excruciating amounts of time pondering lyrics remains.
During the difficult gestation of Desert Lights, for example, the band arrived in Los Angeles to record the album but were unable to enter the studio because Dempsey was unhappy with the lyrics.
''Clint and I literally pushed Paul out of our car in the middle of Hollywood and told him he can't come back until he's finished,'' Ashworth recalls.
Again, it took him 18 months to write the 11 songs on Everything is True. Dempsey wishes it was quicker. He writes daily, and wonders if that's excessive for four-minute pop songs.
What keeps him going is the satisfaction of finishing.
''I'm proud of this album. But I've often looked back at a song and said: 'Why the hell did that take me so long?'"
Dempsey also took plenty of time to publicly reveal his 13-year relationship with Perth expat Ashworth, which began before she joined the band in 1997.
"It was us being private and not wanting to talk about ourselves like that," he says.
So has he often wished for a separation of work and home life?
"We did sometimes. But we now wouldn't have it any other way, particularly with the travel. Initially it was a three-piece band with two of the members hooked up, so we thought problems would arise. But they haven't, really."
Dempsey and Ashworth have lived in their inner-Melbourne home for five years, the longest he has lived anywhere. This slightly troubles Dempsey, who tends to not become attached to places.
"I've never really felt like I had solid roots anywhere," he says.
The two married almost four years ago in a Las Vegas hotel room (there was no Elvis impersonator). He says the decision to elope was typically pragmatic, based on the liberal marriage licence laws of Nevada.
"It probably keeps to the perception of me," he says. "It was very easy. And not really that crazy."
Everything is True is out now through EMI. Dempsey plays The Corner Hotel on September 12 and 13.