For Those I Love: Ireland’s potent new poet of grief

When the Irish recession of 2008 shattered the country’s economy, communities from Dublin’s inner city neighbourhoods of Coolock and Donaghmede were struck hard. The frank lyrics of David Balfe, under the pseudonym For Those I Love, illuminate a generation who emerged from the wreckage.

“I’ve been with people whose families had lost their livelihoods because of the recession,” says the 29-year-old. “At that younger age you don’t have the vocabulary, but you see that displacement, and you think: ‘Why are we suffering? Why has this happened to us?’”

His superb self-titled debut album, out in February, rumbles into this core of working-class Dublin. The near-biographical account carries his deepest sorrows and depressions, as well as the accompanying memories of a childhood now laced with nostalgia’s golden glow. Across nine songs Balfe lays his life bare, penning Streets-esque passages over electronic productions that recall James Blake or Mount Kimbie. “Red eyes and red credit, searching for a way to get out of the estate on Reddit,” runs a typical lyric.

With these narratives, Balfe moves through the community he has built his life around while also mourning his best friend and fellow artist, Paul Curran, who died in 2018. “I didn’t have counselling at the time, I didn’t have medication, I didn’t have any other way,” he says. “I didn’t know any other way than to make things.”

Before For Those I Love, music began in his teenage years with a shed in his parents back garden, a place of refuge from what at times in Donameghde and Coolock was a “very violent upbringing”. When he was six, a body was dumped at the end of his road and he still remembers the blood stain on the street. But alongside his friends, he found escapism in the shed, a place where they “all just cut our teeth,” deeply grateful for the “trust to be able to close the door, have privacy and make a racket”.

The shed was also an emblem of a family who held him close, who “didn’t have fuck all”, but whose investment in his interests and future “did help steer me away from certain avenues and down much more positive avenues. If I hadn’t been able to fall back on that love and care, I don’t know what I would have done, it would have been a very different trajectory of my life.” Eventually, bands emerged. Plagues and the Branch Becomes turned out metalcore. Burnt Out, with Paul, was angst-ridden punk.

When Curran killed himself, a deep grief settled over Balfe and seeped into his solo work. The Myth / I Don’t confronts grief’s lasting echo: the PTSD panic that consumes him whenever his phone pings, “terrified of what’s on the other end”, the possibility of more tragedy.

The bond that held the two friends is now woven through the record: WhatsApp messages and voice notes knit the nine songs together, digital residue from years of documenting their days, “just recording everything, archiving everything”.

“I have a bad memory,” Balfe says, “and one of my biggest fears is forgetting: people, moments, things that shaped the person that I am.” Being able to build these pieces into the record was a way “for me to immortalise those moments,”, he says, because “there’s no way you can make a record about the people that I love without having their imprint all over it. They’re more than just those stories, it’s their voices, it’s the way they speak.”

Making the album after Curran died was “tough” and “ate me up alive”, but it was necessary. When it was finished, Balfe listened to it every morning as he rode the bus, and an “otherworldly comfort” would settle over him. “Maybe it was a way for me to experience that catharsis without having to break down, without me having to fall into whatever black hole could come if I let that door open.”

For the past six months, Balfe has been caged in Dublin’s strict lockdown. But with the live music industry slowly revving its cold motor, he has unearthed the album to rehearse for live performances. That process of “propelling air out of your lungs for the first time in months” has given him grace, he says. “I felt light for the first time in a while. It’s going back to how it feels to be human.”

For Those I Love’s self-titled debut album will be released in February