Mick Flannery hails from Blarney, Co. Cork, Ireland. For reasons that he reveals at his concerts, he has not kissed the Blarney Stone and might not have gained the gift of the gab, i.e. would not call himself talkative. Still, I can prove he can talk because here it is: An interview with Mick Flannery. Generally though, thankfully he pours all his wordsmithery into his songs that are acutely observed and razor-sharply worded held up by an uncanny talent for the melancholic and sometimes angry tune. The songs at times make you forget to breathe and they wrench your little heart.
He has released five albums so far, the lastest being “I Own You” (Universal). Currently he is on tour where you can catch him next week in Germany, followed by tour dates in the UK and later in summer in the US and Canada. Listening to Mick Flannery on record is the one thing, seeing him perform live the other. Not thinking he is a natural performer himself, he nonetheless has everybody’s attention not only through his music and his mastery of guitar and piano as well as owning a very soothing, yet rough voice (cannot explain it very well) that still can get shockingly loud – no, the banter in-between the songs is so deadpan and self-deprecating, it has the audience in tears, either with empathy or mirth or both.
Offbeat Music Blog had the fortune to see him perform at the beginning of April at Little Waves in Genk, Belgium and now again at the Poppodium Nieuwe Nor’s Kloostersessies in Heerlen, Netherlands. Indeed the gig took place in the chapel of an abbey, slap-bang in the middle of town and it is a very atmospheric place. Good sound, appreciative audience, a very friendly welcome. As usual, a big thank you to the Nieuwe Nor team for doing such a great job. Also thank you so much to Sheena and Susan at Blue Grace Music and of course Mick Flannery himself for making this interview possible!
Offbeat Music Blog: Thank you so much, Mick, for taking the time.
Mick Flannery: Yes, of course.
OMB: Let us start at the very beginning. You grew up outside a small place in Ireland and started doing music there as a teenager.
MF: I grew up outside the village of Blarney, a tourist town in Ireland. Music was a big part of my mother’s family. All of them, my aunts and uncles and my grandfather sang. They would have get-togethers at the pub sometimes and they would sing. A guitar would be passed around and people would take their turn. I got in to like the music they were singing, the different people like Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman and Bob Dylan. Then I started to want to be involved, so I started to play the guitar a bit. I had been doing some piano lessons as well which I didn’t really enjoy so much, so I gave up. I just concentrated on the guitar and then later went back to the piano.
OMB: Did you take guitar lessons as well or are you self-trained?
MF: Self-trained but I had some chord books. The chord books were written vertically. For a while I didn’t know I was playing the guitar upside down.
OMB: Because you are left-handed.
MF: I am left-handed but I was playing a right-handed guitar. But it hasn’t really affected me that much. But I guess it is a little strange for people to see, especially guitar players that can’t tell which chords I am playing. My hands look odd to them.
OMB: Does it put a strain on your hands?
MF: No, it doesn’t really affect much. I guess it is not the best method for doing solos like Slash or someone like that because the high strings are on the other side of the guitar. They are not so much available to you. But that’s okay, I get away with it.
OMB: You are sort of dismissive of your earlier work, finding it not so original. I do hear more original Mick Flannery in your newer albums. Have you found the real Mick Flannery?
MF: I don’t know if I have. With the earlier stuff I can hear the definite influences of Tom Waits. And I can hear myself emulating his voice too much. It kind of annoys me and embarrasses me now. I still use americanisms when I write. I find it hard to get away from using American phrases. It’s just seems to be the language of songwriting in the English language. It seems to use americanisms like the word “ain’t” appears a lot in songs but it doesn’t appear in common parlance, especially on this side of the Atlantic. For that reason I don’t know if I’ve actually found any Mick Flannery voice as yet. Maybe when I am older. I am still a stew of influences at the moment.
OMB: I do find that in your later albums there is less a mix of genres and it becomes a more definite style. But in Ireland there would be a strong tradition of being connected to the US anyway, also musically, rather than to England?
MF: That’s who my family were interested in. That’s true of Ireland in a lot of ways. We import and seem to have some affinity with country music as well. Like Johnny Cash is big in Ireland. And I guess because of our history with England, we feel less obliged to follow their musicians (laughs) even though we follow their soccer teams religiously…a strange thing. For me anyway, there is a lot of American influence. Which is fine, there’s been a lot of very good music coming from America.
OMB: Absolutely nothing wrong with it. You were signed at a young age to a major label in Ireland. Was that luck or is it also because Ireland has such a low population?
MF: It was a mixture of things, I guess. The last point is definitely true. It is a low population. It is a small market for the music industry. So a big label – I mean there’s only a few labels in Ireland, I think, there might be only two left really. People would have their own small labels but they would be only for individual work really. And lucky? I guess so. Even though the timing would seem to be bad, considering the changes in the industry. By two years into my contract, the industry was having a panic attack due to the technology’s influence. Not long afterwards, EMI itself, the company who’d signed me, was sold to Universal. So I found myself in a move from one stable to another without really…I guess what sometimes artists really need is a champion on the business side, someone who has some type of emotional bond or pride attached to you doing well. That may have slightly disappeared once I moved from EMI to Universal because it wasn’t Universal’s idea to sign me really. I was just moved over. Not that they haven’t worked but it is just: I am not their baby. Yeah, Ireland is a small market, so it’s possible if I were more forward thinking and ambitious, I would have tried to go abroad and get a record deal. Then I’d have been more likely to have a worldwide record deal rather than just an Irish one which is a little bit restrictive.
OMB: Did you ever think of self-promoting or self-releasing or would that not be your thing at all?
MF: Well, back to lucky. I have been lucky enough not to have to do it too much. And that makes me really bad at it. I have always been bad at self-promotion and I don’t really see myself getting better at it. I got spoiled, I think.
OMB: When you wrote your albums, did you have a goal in mind, something that you wanted to achieve in particular with the album?
MF: Yeah, sometimes. The album that is the most cohesive is the last one before the new one (“I Own You”, 2016, Universal) “By The Rule” (2014, Universal) which was all done in a small time with live takes. It gives it a sound of itself. Then to listen to it, I sometimes feel it feels longer, that there are too many songs on it or that it sounds all too the same. The last album was more of a departure into different types of production. Some of it sounds more aggressive. A friend of mine said to me that it seems to him that, me included, but a lot of other artists as well, seem to have reactions to their previous work. So they create a work and it is, say, missionless or blind as to what it is going to be and it is just a bunch of songs. And then have a reaction to this. “I don’t want to do that anymore, I want to do something else”. So you just do the other. And then you move on to another again. I can see what he meant. I see it in myself as well. I guess if there was any arc or progression, it would be from the topics, the subject matters of the songs. When I was younger, a lot of them were personally based, personal experience. As I get older…I think as people get older they think less of themselves as individual and their feelings so unique, they start to view the world a little more broadly. So rather than writing about your condition, you tend to write about the human condition a bit more.
OMB: I saw you play at Little Waves festival in Genk, two women were sitting behind me and they kept exclaiming: “Oh dear, oh dear, aaaaaw, the poor man. Oh dear. Such heartbreak. Too much for an individual person to bear.” I found your announcements actually very funny because they are so deadpan but I would agree: Too much for one person. Are these all your experiences or do you abstract it too and use other people’s experiences?
MF: Part of it would be personal. Then there are other ones that are, not so much stolen but I kind of attach myself a little bit or something. There are songs which aren’t autobiographical but you can’t help but have some piece of yourself seep in. So I do pretend to be other people sometimes. When I hear them speak or hear them use some turn of phrase that kind of encapsulates their whole life at that point for me, then I take that and put it in. I take on characters sometimes. I get to the melodies first and the melodies kind of ask you to write a certain thing because the melody won’t support any different subject matter. If the melody sounds pining, then you write towards it. If you buck away from it and the melody is pining but wrote something really angry, then that is not going to really work.
OMB: Your songs are more on the, well, not negative scale, but on the angrier, more melancholic side. There are not too many happy songs about in works. As much as I would wish someone well and to be happy, would you still be able to write songs? Are you at your most creative when you are not happy?
MF: I would think so, possibly, yeah, because it stirs your brain up. It makes you uncomfortable, it makes you kind of different to what you normally are. It throws a storm around in your head as you consciously try to figure it out. That is probably a good time to be creative. I found in the past that when things are going badly or someone wrongs me or if I am angry, in some situations that can be useful.
OMB: Do you find it cathartic?
MF: Yeah, it would help. If you are getting back at someone especially. (Lots of laughter). “Can’t wait for them to hear this! Bastards!” (More laughter).
OMB: When you perform older songs, does this transport you back in time or do you find the songs get a new meaning?
MF: You have to kind of apply it elsewhere, I think. Because the feelings of the time are gone, pretty much, beyond you. If the songs is good enough, the audience members will be able to attach themselves to it as well. If the song is able to do that for them, it should be able to do it for you as well. You should be able to apply different meanings to it as you moved on from the original one. That’s why people don’t use specific names and specific incidents or sometimes they do. In that sense the songs don’t really last.
OMB: You spent some time in Berlin to get out. Why out of all places Berlin? I would have probably seen you choosing the US more like.
MF: I don’t know really. A friend of mine had been to Berlin. He said it was a great place to go with a lot of art happening there, a melting pot of different nationalities. That was true. I like my time in Berlin even though it was a little bit kind of solitary. I just wanted to move somewhere I think. There was a promotions company interested in working with me around Germany. One of the albums had been picked up by the EMI branch of Germany. So I thought, if there is going to be a bit of work around, I might as well be there rather than go to America and have to cross the Atlantic. I just wanted to get away from my comfort zone. I’d been knocking around Cork City in Ireland for ten years, leaving away from home, drinking too much in the same places, not really doing anything new. I got sick of myself.
OBM: How long did you spend there?
MF: I was there for three months the first time I went. And then, I think it was a year and a half the second time.
OBM: You spent some time in New York too.
MF: I spent three months in New York when I was twenty-one. Knocking around singer-songwriter nights and stuff like that. That was my first delve into ambition. But I didn’t really believe in myself that much. I didn’t have enough songs anyway and I shied away from it and went back home.
OBM: You were very young though.
MF: Yeah, it’s hard to know. Sometimes I give myself a hard time for not sticking it out in New York and say to myself, oh, you should have stayed there and gone properly ambitious and met the right people. But I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Maybe I have a bit of a home bird instinct in me. Or maybe I just like a quiet life.
OBM: Well, New York is hectic.
MF: Yeah, I just don’t know. What I enjoy most is writing songs and it seems to take me quite a while to ferment stuff. I can’t rush myself. My brain works as fast as it works. It seems a have a certain gearbox in my head and I am stuck in one of them (laughs) and I can churn out maybe sixteen songs every two years, maybe a little bit more. Then twelve of them will be worth being on an album. I am okay with that. I am kind of okay with the level of ambition I have had as well, the level of success which has been good. It hasn’t been astronomical but it has given me my own space to do what I really like to do.
OBM: And you can live on it.
MF: I am not rich, so I am not detached from society.
OBM: Still grounded, yeah.
MF: Yeah and I am not super famous, you know, it’s fine.
OBM: You also work or maybe not so often now as a stonemason. A lot of people see a contradiction between working as a stonemason and as a musician. It is not really, is it? Both being creative professions.
MF: Yes, it is and I liked it. I still like it. I don’t do as much as I used to. It is creative and it is kind of calming. If I go on holidays, I have to bring a guitar because I don’t play the guitar. It calms me down. Building is probably a bit harder physically than playing the guitar but it calms me down. It’s relaxing – as long as it is not snowing on you. (Laughs).
OBM: Is there any other artist you would like to work together with? Maybe in Ireland which has such a huge music scene for a relatively small place?
MF: Sometimes, yeah. I don’t know, look, I don’t know I could work with anyone else because I am kind of such a solo artist, I guess. It’s nice to meet the other people in the business and be on a gig with them or have a chat about what it’s been like for them. Maybe have a singsong somewhere – that’s always fun. I have been doing a few more bits of co-writing recently which is interesting. It is never the same. Whatever comes out is always a little bit scary for me, because it’s not really mine and there are things about it I would change and avenues I wouldn’t have gone down maybe. We’ll see. The Irish music scene is good. It seems it’s always been healthy. I guess there’s just a lot of people around. The younger generation is always going to see someone is doing it, someone getting somewhere with it. They can see the bigger examples of it like, I dunno, U2, Phil Lynott or Van Morrison. Big examples of people who have gone far in that industry. I guess they just believe they can do it to.
OBM: I found that in Ireland people, especially young people, still attend gigs a lot and go to record stores and play themselves rather than just listening to a list of what’s offered to them on the charts or by the music industry. There is more of a go out and get it, a looking for it attitude, I reckon.
MF: The Irish are good music fans as well and they pride themselves of having a good knowledge of music, not just pop music.
OBM: You do record with a band. I suppose, you perform with the band in Ireland but you did not bring them with you abroad?
MF: It is a financial restriction, you know. The gigs aren’t big enough in Europe at the moment to be able to afford to bring a band. I would like to even though it is so unhealthy. Too much fun.
OBM: Too much partying?
MF: It is impossible to avoid. It is just a circus. It is a pity because it so much fun when the guys and girls do come. They have all such fun and I really enjoy the fact that all this fun is slightly because of me. It makes me feel good. I kind of regret that I can’t always have that party going on.
OBM: Stating that what you like most is writing the songs, would you call yourself a natural performer?
MF: No, I wouldn’t have been but I am getting better at it the more comfortable I get. I am just more experienced now. I kind of know what will work at various times. I think I can get a feel for the audience when they are getting bored. I don’t really have a setlist. I am long enough in the tooth as well – I have five albums worth of stuff. So I don’t really have to get bored myself. I can pick stuff from here and there. I always have to play more upbeat songs to break the rhythm of the evening but that’s okay.
OBM: At present you are not only on tour, you are also writing new songs. What direction are the new songs going in?
MF: There’s a lot to do with desire and ambition actually and the internal battle that people have with their dreams and their goals, the level of pride you might attach to your status in whichever field you are striving in. So that’s kind of a buddhist album (laughs). It is a little bit of a brain exploration, I guess, in parts. So more of the human condition stuff again.
OBM: Are you ambitious?
MF: Not really, no. I dunno, pride does peak its head up now and again. (Long thinking pause.) I guess if you work a lot at something and the quality is good and you felt that you had worked hard at getting lyrics right…It’s hard to think about it. There is some ambition lurking around at the back of my head alright. I don’t know where I’d like to be. But I know when I get there, I won’t be happy (laughs). I think I’d like to meet some of the people that I like in the business like Tom Waits or Bruce Springsteen. But that’s true for a lot of people. A lot of people would like to meet them (bursts out laughing). Maybe there’s some part of me that would like to play a song to Bruce Springsteen and have him say that it’s good. That’s an ambition of mine. I dunno, I sometimes think does acknowledgement become addictive? Do you get addicted to positive appraisals? This is part of the unhealthy stuff…maybe not healthiest stuff to have in your head. It’s important to be happy to be just happy yourself with what you have done. There is a guy I really like in Ireland. His name is Blindboy Boatclub. He’s from a band called The Rubber Bandits. He talks a lot about self-evalutation and self-actualisation, having an internal locus of evaluation rather than exporting it to somebody else which I think is wise. I must try and keep that up.