David Balfe feels guilty. The Irish musician’s debut album “For These I Love”, which he recorded under the same name, had the success most artists only dream of: it received wide critical acclaim and was only beaten at number one in the Irish Justin Bieber album charts.
But the record wasn’t made for public release, and Balfe said he was uncomfortable receiving recognition for an album about his Dublin working-class childhood and the recent death of a friend.
“I seem to have benefited from publishing these difficult and deeply personal stories,” said Balfe, 29, in a recent video interview. “It’s a little bit out of my control now.”
He described the album – which shows gang violence, poverty and drug addiction – as “storytelling against the backdrop of electronica”. His lyrics mix memories of nightly parties with Balfe’s close circle of friends and accusations of wealth inequality in Ireland – a country where both house prices and homelessness rates have risen in recent years.
Balfe grew up in the northern Dublin suburb of Donaghmede but went to school and had family and friends in nearby Coolock, where crime soared during his teenage years. “I got into a pretty violent setting and an aggressive place at a young age,” he said. To survive there, he added, “I had to learn cold.”
On the album, Balfe explores death, grief and inequality in Dublin, which he said are all “intrinsically connected”. On one track, “Birthday / The Pain,” he recalls a homeless man who was murdered on the street where he lived at the age of six.
Balfe said he was “overwhelmed by the universal acceptance of a record so descriptive of a very specific piece of geography,” adding that he was surprised to find the “details of a world I grew up in resonated with.” Seeing people from one world “so far from me.”
Balfe’s best friend Paul Curran played a key role in many of the stories told in For Those I Love. They met in high school, and Curran became a popular spoken word artist, writing and performing on everything from politics to soccer.
At Chanel College in Coolock, the two discovered music at lunchtime guitar jam sessions organized by an English teacher, Mick Phelan. “David and Paul weren’t judgmental,” Phelan said in a video interview about Balfe and Curran. “They had their friends, but they talked to everyone. I saw a humanity and maturity in them that I don’t often see in teenagers. “
After graduation, Balfe and Curran continued to do music and art together: first in a hardcore band called Plagues; later as part of Burnt Out, a collective that produced audiovisual works addressing youth unemployment in Coolock, which was about 25 percent across Ireland at the time.
Balfe returned to trouble in Dublin’s suburbs in 2017 when he started For These I Love, superimposing vocals on a solo instrumental project he had put together in his mother’s garden shed. He brought his own voice – half sung, half spoken, in a strong Irish brogue – to the sample-heavy dance music he’d written, mixing snippets of WhatsApp voice memos and spoken words from Curran.
The tracks were made to share with his closest friends and family, he said: “A document of love and thanks for the sacrifices they have made.”
But Paul Curran died of suicide in February 2018, and Balfe paused his “For Those I Love” grief. The next few months were “a thundering whirlwind of chaos,” he said, which felt like “a day and a decade rolled into one.”
“In the shadow of grief, we were all very different people,” he said. “It’s very easy to believe that you may never be creative again.”
Balfe’s return to music writing was the “first step to recovery” after Curran’s death, he added. Some of the material, such as the opening track “I Have A Love”, was completely rewritten, switching from an ode to his group of friends to an eulogy for Curran; nostalgic new songs like “You Stayed” have been added.
“It was very important then to express yourself and to survive,” said Balfe.
When “For Those I Love” was finished, Balfe posted it on the independent music platform Bandcamp in May 2019 to share with family and friends. Some Irish music blogs found it too, and the record received some positive reviews. But Balfe’s fate really changed when Ash Houghton, an A&R manager at September Recordings who also represents Adele and London Grammar, became aware of For Those I Love.
“The album speaks for itself,” said Houghton in an email. “My only thought at the time was that it would be a tragedy if more people couldn’t hear it.”
Houghton offered a release on the label, but Balfe was initially reluctant to share such personal work with a wider audience, he said. But friends who had known Curran suggested the album could help others, he said, “and talk to them as they go through their own grief.”
In March, September Recordings re-released For They I Love, which debuted at number two on the Irish album charts, and Balfe’s debut live show in Dublin, scheduled for October, sold out in 10 minutes.
Niall Byrne, the editor of Nialler9.com, an Irish music site that was one of the album’s early champions, said in a video interview that while many Irish musicians produce good music, “you don’t hear a lot of rawness. “It was this quality, he added, that set Balfe’s record.
A recent wave of new artists – including Balfe, the group Pillow Queens and the post-punk band The Murder Capital – are “less defined by genre or sound”, but rather “by the sensitivity and values that their music possesses. Your texts are shaped by real topics. “
Balfe said he was working on a new album that would also be shaped by Dublin and its politics, but the project had encountered a “frustrating stagnant wall”. Despite the success of For Those I Love, he still did “a normal job,” he said – although he didn’t want to say what it was. He kept the job he had before signing the record deal out of “fear of turning what I love most, the creative pursuits, into work,” he said.
Since the wider release of For Those I Love, Balfe said, fans have sent him messages on social media to share how the record “helped them shake off their grief.”
Still mourning Curran, he said: “A semi-successful local record won’t make it any better.” But he was glad that his music had touched others, he added. “Those answers,” he said, “went a long way in easing some of the guilt feelings.”