THREE PEOPLE have profoundly shaped Mick Flannery the musician, and the music he creates - his mother Elaine; Ricky Lynch, a prominent musician in County Cork; and a chance encounter of a haunting Kurt Cobain performance.
Mick, who grew up in Bantry, also grew up surrounded by his mother's favourite music. "What she was listening to when I was growing up had an impact on me," Mick tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview. "She's a big Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Jim Croche fan. She's good taste in music."
However it was seeing Kurt Cobain's Unplugged In New York performance of David Bowie's 'The Man Who Sold The World' that set Mick on the road to his current position as one of Ireland's finest contemporary singer-songwriters.
"I was watching Dave Fanning, he had a music show called 2TV, and I saw Kurt Cobain and thought, 'He's cool'," Mick recalls. "I just hung up the phone on whoever I was talking to and watched him play. He was already dead at that stage, I must have been about 16, that was 1996, I hadn't heard of him before.
"His look was very carefree, he was wearing a cardigan, he struck me as a rockstar, and the lyrics were impressive, there was an aggression to them I hadn't heard before. It's a strange song, it's very effective, with lines like 'We passed upon the stair…", that whole first verse. I was very disappointed to find he hadn't written the song."
Nirvana became Mick's entry point, with the final piece of the jigsaw being supplied by Ricky Lynch, despite a very strict ban on the youngster listening to The Eagles.
"Ricky Lynch is a musician in Cork," says Mick. "He gave me my first gig at 16. He let me play two Nirvana covers in The Lobby Bar and I brutalized them, but it was a good experience. He was very encouraging, I looked up to him, and he's been very nice to me. One day I was buying my first batch of CDs, there must have been a couple of Nirvana ones in there, and Dylan's Blonde On Blonde, and The Best Of The Eagles. We were in a bar with my dad. Ricky took the Eagles one aside, kind of skootched it over, quietly kept it, and said 'You're not bringing that home', and that was that."
The stonemason and the songwriter
Before his music career began in earnest though, Mick trained in stonemasonry, beginning his apprenticeship at 15. "My dad didn't want me working in any of the local bars, where all of my friends had got work," says Mick. "He thought it would be a bad idea, so I went working for a stonemason instead and it was great. It's a nice trade to have and it's a creative one. When you're driving along you can say 'I built that wall' rather than if you had just plastered it. There is more of a physical receipt."
Mick sees parallels between the craft of stonemasonry and the art of songwriting. "It's just that really, the inception of it, the basic process of coming up with something," he says. "Tom Waits said music is 'interesting ways of moving the air'. When you sing a song or create a noise that's original, that no one has ever sung before, it feels good. It's fun. It's an interesting hobby. It's a strange enough craft. There are only eight notes on the scale, so it's not a lot to work with, but it's like DNA in that way, from small amounts of ingredients, different things can be made."
The first flowering of Mick's songwriting talent came with the release of his debut album Evening Train in 2007. A concept album about the relationship between two brothers, while it was not a huge seller, it earned critical acclaim, and enough notice to pave the way for Mick's breakthrough, White Lies (2008 ) which went Top 10 in Ireland. This was followed by Red To Blue (2012 ) and By The Rule (2014 ), both of which reached No 1.
By The Rule contained two of his most powerful and affecting songs in 'The Small Fire' and 'Get What You Give', songs, which, by the artist's own admission, point in the direction of where his music is starting to go.
'The Small Fire', about a man who is scared of and prejudiced towards, what he cannot understand, captures the anxieties of the era in many Western reactions to immigrants, Muslims, and regional conflicts.
"There are issues people suffer personally that can be mirrored by society at large," says Mick. "My dignity might be affronted by someone knocking into me, or pushing past me, and not saying 'Sorry', and there are the larger problems of when, say, Russia encroaches on another territory, it's that issue of not respecting another person's space and integrity. The little sparks of human nature are evident in the larger mechanisms."
The raw folk-blues of 'Get What You Give', the album's lead track, finds humanity alone in a universe without God, and how His absence invites a troubling mix of freedom, opportunity, disorder, and guilt.
"I like your interpretation," Mick says. "I have been accused in that song of being on a search for God. A lot of religious people say its necessary to maintain morality. The song needles that a little bit. I do have anti-religious feelings a bit and maybe they were borne out of that. The character in the song was coming to terms with his inherent loneliness and that is belittling God in a way, and he's struggling with what he'll do with his freedom, and the terrible beauty of that."
'I may have to go back to building stone walls'
Mick's fifth album is due to be released in October and Galway may be treated to some of its 13 scheduled songs when Mick plays the Galway International Arts Festival Big Top, supporting Villagers.
"We're just waiting for the masters to come back," he says. "It's a little different, there are more upbeat songs on it. One even has a drumbeat on every bar of the song, which is a step forward for me! If you like the two songs you mentioned, the new ones are in a similar vein. Some of them are a bit threatening as they're dealing with social issues as opposed to my 'f**king irrelevant feelings'. I'm nervous of them because people could say, 'What gives you licence to comment on that?' That's scary, but f**k it! It is what it is. It's only a song. I'm not running for office.
"I've no name for it yet. I could come up with one but that might change and that would be embarrassing for the both of us. There's 13 songs on the album at the moment. I'm thinking about culling some of them, but," and here Mick allows himself a little chuckle, "I might leave the 13 on. People can suffer that."
Mick's success is well deserved, yet at the back of his mind, he openly admits success is not something he can take for granted and that his future may one day find him no longer a musician.
"It's always possible I won't be able to make a living out of music forever," he says. "I always say to myself, you must be prepared for the eventuality this will not continue, and prepare your pride for that, and keep your ego intact. It's not a guaranteed certainty you can make a living from this long term.
"As you age, you become less naïve, less passionate maybe, and other things will pass with that, it's natural. I don't know how long it will go on for, but I'm enjoying being a musician, the travelling, the meeting people, playing gigs. It's an interesting and privileged way to make a living, until one day I may have to go back to building stone walls, and even that will be a lucky eventuality. It's mental insurance."
Mick Flannery supports Villagers at the 'Galway International Arts Festival/Róisín Dubh presents…' Big Top concert in the Fisheries Field on Tuesday July 19 at 7pm. For tickets see www.giaf.ie and www.roisindubh.net