Paul Dempsey

Paul Dempsey is a hell of an interesting guy. To the huge number of Something For Kate fans out there, this certainly comes as little surprise, but chatting with him reveals someone enamoured by the written word, even if writing itself remains an enduring battle. Across 11 SFK albums and two solo releases, he’s demonstrated himself as an artist committed to his craft. With Queenscliff Music Festival fast approaching (and a journey into the studio to start work on his next solo album just weeks away), we chewed Dempsey’s ears about life, the universe, and the drive to write.

“The simple answer is, coming up with musical ideas for me is really easy, really enjoyable and exciting,” he says. “I can pick up an instrument and get carried away with something quite easily. In my workspace at home I can put down drums and then get on the bass and guitar, keyboards, I can build up something quite quickly, and that's a really exciting process. That's always fun. But I need to write lyrics, and that's the complete opposite for me. It's a real slog. Lyrics are hard work for me, but I accept that, and you need to just do it.
“Lyrics, you're laying that much more on the line, you're laying yourself open so much more. It's much more of an intensive scrutiny. You want it to be right since you're going to be singing these lines for 30 years to come. So I get a lot more uptight and crazy about lyrics, while music is totally freeing. Ultimately by the time you finish something, though, it is very rewarding, and when I do feel like I'm satisfied and have laid down some vocals, it's almost an even greater feeling.”
Struggling to find the shape of your thoughts when facing a blank page can be a heartbreaking endeavour. The sentiment may be strong, and the music ready to rise, yet the words remain cruelly absent, refusing to be enticed. Dempsey has made no secret of his struggles in the past, and while the silver bullet has yet to be found, he has nevertheless reconciled his better self to the necessity of frustration.
“I had a big shift in my life about ten years ago where I decided to think about a lot of things differently, and one of those things was the way I think about what I do with writing,” he says. “I don't characterise it as writer's block anymore. I chose to accept it as a personal difficulty. It might be easier for other people to write words, but my process just happens to be a hard one. There's an easy side, and the lyrics are just the difficult side. To think that just because ideas aren't coming I'm suffering some kind of block, I now take the attitude – just keep on going. Keep on writing shit that you're unhappy with, and write pages and pages of that. Fill whole notebooks full of shit, until you do find something.”
It might sound strange, but Dempsey’s encouragement to just keep writing is likely the most sound advice out there. The authors Dempsey admires are of a remarkable standard – Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, William Vollmann – so drawing inspiration from them is an impressive ambition. But what seems fundamental to his profession is hard work.
“People always ask me what my inspiration is, and God, I don't know. I don't know there's any such thing within me. There's also that thing people say, ‘Oh, I had this flash and the whole song just came to me.’ And I don't know if I believe that either. I think a lot of stuff just quietly gestates in the back of your mind, and then when you suddenly have that flash, it didn't all just happen then and there. The pieces were all assembling themselves in the background, and all you did was put them together.”

PAUL DEMPSEY plays Queenscliff Music Festival, which runs from Friday November 27 – Sunday November 29 in Queenscliff, Victoria. The lineup also includes Augie March, Hoodoo Gurus, Melbourne Ska Orchestra and many more.