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Darren Kiely credit Dustin Haney 01 R2 MOBILE

How Darren Kiely found his sound

01 May 2024, 12:15
Words by Kelsey Barnes

Lead photo by Dustin Haney

Irish singer/songwriter tells Kelsey Barnes how his time as a singer in bars across New York and moving to Nashville were vital to his songwriting.

There once was a time when Darren Kiely was on the path to becoming an accountant. Now, the Irish singer/songwriter is just happy his time moonlighting as a singer in bars across New York has paid off.

The Irish transplant has always said yes to the things that would terrify anyone else. Instead of building up a listenership in his home country by gigging throughout Ireland, he opted to “go big” by playing shows in New York instead. “I had been to New York for a few months and stumbled into playing music there,” he reflects. “I gave up college after three years, and because COVID was happening there wasn’t much happening in Ireland when I went home. There was just a different energy I felt from being in New York, I felt empowered and inspired by it. That was why I went back — I wanted to feel that again.”

During COVID, he played various functions and weddings around Ireland. There was a moment when he realised that, if he wanted to, he could make that lifestyle into a career. But rather than playing other artist’s songs, he wanted to know what it would be like to sing his own. “That was the next challenge. I wanted to get to a point where I could sing my own songs.”


Shortly after, he returned to the Big Apple to make peace with what he describes as “unfinished business,” working in accounting during the day and slinging his guitar around the city to play at bars in the evening. As much as he wanted to make a career out of songwriting and performing, he was still unsure if it was ever going to be a viable path — until his songs “How Could You Love Me, “Ella” and “Time To Leave” all began trending. Being chained to his desk six days a week during tax season didn’t leave much room to create music, so he quit and put everything into music, songwriting, and crafting his sound.

“When you’re outside of the world of music, you think about what it might be like to release a song,” Kiely explains, looking back on his growth as an artist between his debut single “How Could You Love Me” to now. “I had songs that I wanted to release, but I wasn’t sure the sound direction I wanted to go in, or what exactly I wanted to say. Finding my sound was a lot of addition, subtraction, and adding elements of music that I loved when I was growing up.”

Darren Kiely credit Matthew Berinato 45957 R

Growing up in a small Irish town of 1500 people meant that Kiely was first exposed to traditional Irish music and instruments rather than what one hears on the radio. At five, he played the tin whistle. At 15, he learned guitar from his cousin. He didn’t grow up listening to a ton of music with “electric guitar riffs,” but much like his Irish counterparts Dermot Kennedy and Hozier, Kiely hasn’t shied away from experimenting in his music. “I want to be open to things that might work in my music rather than thinking, ‘No, I’ve never heard of that’ and discrediting it entirely.”

That childlike playfulness is embedded in Kiely’s music and storytelling. The live-action 2003 remake of Peter Pan is the first story that comes to mind when asked if there was one tale that resonated with him growing up. “He had this idea that once you grow up, you lose that playfulness and a perfect life that you believe you have as a kid. I don’t know if it made me want to be a storyteller or not, but I am fascinated by that idea. You wonder if you had the choice, would you grow up too?”


His childhood seems to be defined by the word “excited.” He was hyper about everything, seeking any sort of excitement and thrill. Despite his career now, music wasn’t exactly the most exhilarating hobby for a young boy. “I have an older sister who plays the keys and accordion. I feel like that kept me practicing with music. I picked up the fiddle when I was eight or nine and I was terrible. I felt like she influenced me to keep on with it, though, because I wouldn't say I was disciplined enough to have stayed in it. I had a grandmother that I used to visit every weekend and we had to play music for her. It almost felt like a chore which is mad because now older people say they wish they kept playing an instrument. That could’ve easily happened to me which is mad to think about.”

Kiely views songwriting as a muscle he continuously works on. After playing shows and touring over the past five months, he’s been feeling a buildup of creative energy. “I think the better ideas come when it's just random and comes out of nowhere, but I think trying to put myself in the way of that is something I need to do. Showing up, every day, with the intention of creating something is important for me.”

After leaving New York City, he has been living in Nashville, the mecca for songwriters, over the past year, spending half of his week in writing sessions and the other half alone. For an artist who began songwriting alone, it’s been an initially awkward but much-needed experience. “I feel like for the first year it's been trying to find people that you can connect with,” he admits. “You want to be comfortable sitting in silence with them and being able to say, ‘Actually, I don’t like that.’ Having that rapport helps with the song because you can be really honest. You can’t always do that with people that you’re not comfortable with. It’s been such a lovely feeling to find a community of people to create with.”

Nashville became his music playground, a city to help shape and craft his next project. His upcoming EP From The Dark, out on 17 May, builds on the foundation that his debut EP Lost created. On From The Dark, Kiely pushes his songwriting capabilities — dancing between the dark and the light and using it to mirror his own battles. What intrigued Kiely the most while making the EP was just how close it can be to slip back into the dark. “The previous EP was a bit more hopeful, but on From The Dark what interested me was how it can feel like there is a massive distance [between light and dark] yet it can still seem very close. I think that's where most of the songs took inspiration from — I tried to describe the different emotions when you're not sure whether you’re close to the light or not.”

The EP’s title track is also the closing song, representing the low place Kiely was in when writing it. “It’s just that line — ‘a long way back from the dark’ — just felt like it encompassed what I had been writing about.” For an artist who spent much of his debut EP exploring feelings of self-doubt and impostor syndrome, From The Dark is a more assured, confident Kiely. “It’s grittier and stronger, but not in a way that’s better — the dynamic between the softer parts and the gritter parts are more noticeable. Reflecting on the previous work which I do love, I don’t think I pushed the vocals as much as I do on this [From The Dark]. I’m more comfortable talking about what I’m experiencing in the darker times rather than trying to convince myself that things are better.”

Darren Kiely credit Matthew Berinato 45439 R MOBILE

With the impending release of From The Dark, Kiely is looking ahead to the lighter side of things. He’ll be spending a good chunk of the later part of the year supporting Mat Kearney’s tour across America, performing for new audiences that he’s excited to “win over,” and ending the year by headlining his first-ever arena show in Killarney. It’s a big change for someone who performed for his accounting colleagues at bars in New York. Back then, although he played for 15 or so people, he could see more and more people singing along and connecting with his music. “It’s hard to describe because it’s not something you prepare yourself for,” he says when asked about seeing people sing his songs back to him. “It’s only when you’re reflecting on it now when you think, ‘Oh my god, people were in the rooms and they made a conscious effort to go and buy a ticket.’ I don't even have a full setlist of songs or any major hits. It’s a wholesome, grateful feeling.”

Still, he has some goals he wishes to manifest for himself by the end of the year: “I would love to manifest a full band on stage by the end of this year. Aside from that — and this might sound stereotypical — but I just want to keep writing songs that I love. If that’s it, then I’m happy.”

The From The Dark EP is released on 17 May via Free Flight Records

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