David Balfe feels guilty. The Irish musician’s debut album “For Those I Love”, which he recorded under the same name, has had the kind of success most artists can only dream of: it garnered widespread critical acclaim and the only Irish number one spot. It was only beaten on the album charts by Justin Bieber.
But the record was not made for public release, and Balfe said he felt uncomfortable being recognized for an album about his working-class childhood from Dublin and the recent death of a friend.
“I feel like I’ve benefited from the release of these difficult and deeply personal stories,” Balfe, 29, said in a recent video interview. “It’s a little out of my control now.”
He described the album – which depicts gang violence, poverty and substance addiction – as “storytelling set against the backdrop of electronica.” Its lyrics include memories of all-night parties with Balfe’s close circle of friends and the indictment of wealth inequality in Ireland – a country where both House prices and homelessness rate have increased in recent years.
Balfe grew up in the northern Dublin suburb of Donaghamed, but went to school and had family and friends in nearby Coolock, where crime levels were rising during his teenage years. “I grew up in a very violent background and aggressive place at an early age,” he said. To survive there, he said, “I need to learn the coolness.”
In the album, Balfe explores death, grief and inequality in Dublin, which he said are all “internally connected.” On one track, “Birthday/The Pain,” he recalls a homeless man who was murdered on the street where he was six years old.
Balfe said that he was impressed by the “universal acceptance of a record that is so descriptive of a very specific piece of geography,” adding that he was “shocked to see the subtlety of a world that I see as a world.” grew up resonating with people “far away from me.” “
Balfe’s best friend, Paul Curran, was instrumental in many of the stories told on “For Those I Love”. They met in high school, and the Quran became a popular spoken word artist, writing and performing about everything from politics to football.
At Chanel College in Coolock, the two explored music at lunchtime guitar jam sessions organized by Mick Phelan, an English teacher. “David and Paul were non-judgmental,” Phelan said of Balfe and Curran in a video interview. “He had friends, but he talked to everyone. I saw in him a humanity and a maturity that I don’t often see in teenage boys.”
After graduating, Balfe and Curran continued to make music and art together: first in a hard-core band called Plague; Later, as part of Burn Out, a collective that did audiovisual works that addressed youth unemployment in Coolock, Which is about 25 percent. was going on All over Ireland at that time.
Balfe returned to the problems of Dublin’s suburbs in 2017 when he debuted “For Those I Love”, in which he performed vocals on a solo instrumental project in his mother’s garden shed. She brought her voice – half sung, half spoken, in a strong Irish brogue – to sample-heavy dance music she wrote, mixing in snippets of WhatsApp voice notes and spoken word work by Koran.
The tracks were made for him to share with close friends and his family, saying: “A document of love and thanks for the sacrifices made by him.”
But in February 2018, Paul Curran died by suicide and Balfe, stricken with grief, gave pause to “For Those I Love”. The next few months were “a roaring whirlwind of chaos”, he said, which felt like “a day and a decade in a row”.
“In the shadow of grief, we were all very different people,” he said. “It’s so easy to believe that you can never be creative again.”
Balfe’s return to writing music was “the first step towards reform”, following Qur’an’s death, he said. Some of the material, such as the opening track “I Have a Love,” was completely rewritten, changing from an ode to a Qur’an from a praise to his group of friends; Nostalgic new songs, such as “You Stayed”, were added.
“It was a way of self-expression and existence at the time,” Balfe said.
When “For Those I Love” ended, in May 2019, Balfe put it on the independent music platform Bandcamp to share with family and friends. Some Irish music blogs found it as well, and the record received some favorable reviews. But Balfe’s fortunes really changed when the September recording brought “For Those I Love” to the attention of A&R manager Ash Houghton, who also represents Adele and London Grammar.
“The album speaks for itself,” Houghton said in an email. “My only thought at the time was that it would be a tragedy if more people didn’t hear it.”
Houghton offered a release on the label, yet Balfe was initially hesitant to share such personal work with a wider audience, he said. But friends whom Karan also knew suggested the album might help others, he said, “and talk to them as they move through their grief.”
In March, September Recordings re-released “For Those I Love”. which entered the Irish Albums Chart at number two, and Balfe’s first live show in Dublin, scheduled for October, sold out in 10 minutes.
Niall Byrne, editor of Nialler9.com, an Irish music site He was one of the album’s early champions, saying in a video interview that, while many Irish musicians were producing good music, “you don’t hear a lot of rawness.” He said it was this quality that set Balfe’s record apart.
A recent wave of new artists, he said – including the group Balfe pillow queens and post-punk bands Murder Capital – were “defined less by style or sound”, but rather by “the sensibility and values of their music.” His songs are informed by real issues.”
Balfe stated that he was working on a new album, which would also be informed by Dublin and its politics, but the project had hit a “hopelessly stagnant brick wall”. Despite the success of “For Those Who Love Me”, he was still “working a day”, he said – although he did not want to say what that was. “The thing I love most is the fear of turning creative pursuits into labor,” he said, before signing the record deal as he kept the job.
Since the wide release of “For Those I Love,” Balfe said, fans have been messaging him on social media, sharing how the record has “helped him overcome his grief.”
He still mourns Karan, saying: “A semi-successful local record isn’t going to make it any better.” But, he said, he is happy that his music has touched others. “Those responses,” he said, “have gone a long way to helping with some of the guilt.”