THE CORK singer-songwriter Mick Flannery has been causing a stir among fans for many years. Yet unlike many upcoming media-savvy artists he is not entirely comfortable with music press interviews and told State in September that he’s a “grumpy aul bastard”!
During the course of this interview with the Galway Advertiser, Flannery was characteristically elusive in answering questions but put this down to the fact that “I was enjoying myself too much last night.”
His record label EMI states that “if you’re determined to get up close and personal with Mick Flannery, you’re going to have to kick back and listen to his music because that’s where he actually talks about himself.”
So, over the course of 20 minutes conversation, I got some idea of what that description meant and why audiences will get a better understanding of the man and his music when he plays Róisín Dubh on Monday December 22, showcasing songs from his White Lies album.
Flannery grew up in the touristy village of Blarney in west Cork. A major attraction in the area, mainly among American tourists, is a trip to Blarney Castle to kiss the world-famous Blarney stone which is supposed to endow the kisser with the ability to talk constantly and to be able to flatter and charm before and behind him.
Ironically, even though Flannery comes from the area he has somewhat not been blessed (or cursed ) with the ability to talk for hours.
“It was a strange place,” he says, “because every summer you’d have all these Yanks arriving in the village looking for the gift of the gab. It didn’t impact me too much but it was funny all the same.”
Mick’s father David is a maths tutor but it seems that it is from his mother Elaine that he gets his musical abilities.
Earlier this year he told Aoife McDonnell of State: “My mother’s side were all musical. All her brothers and sisters would get together at parties and this bar in Killarney, get locked in, and you kind of had to do a party piece. It was good craic. I was only about 15 or 16 when I learned guitar. It was good fun. They were all playing Tom Waits, Dylan, and Joni Mitchell.”
When I ask Flannery about his early experiences with music he says: “Yeah I suppose that’s where I get it from. My mother is a singer and she used to play guitar. I started playing guitar and putting together a few tunes in my early teens but I never really showed them to anybody until I was maybe about 19 or something like that.
“After a while I played them in front of people but I never had any ambitions to be a songwriter. I first started doing cover versions like Nirvana and I really enjoyed that”
When he was in school he got together with a few local guys and formed a rock band called Black Orange but their gigging history was sporadic and they went their separate ways a few years after.
“That was with three of my best friends,” Flannery tells me. “We were kind of a grunge rock band and I was playing electric guitar. It was kind of more upbeat than the stuff I do now. We used to play a bit in Cork but when we were starting out we found it hard to get gigs so we used to organise our own gigs. We only played about 10 or 12 gigs altogether.”
Flannery’s experiences with Black Orange had somehow whetted his appetite for the life of a touring musician. After leaving school he did a post Leaving Cert music course in Cork and it was during this that he recorded his debut solo EP Evening Train.
He was not though keen to plough headlong into touring around Ireland just yet and so instead decided that he’d have a bit of an adventure with a three-month sojourn in New York.
“It was good craic,” he says Flannery. “I was over there with a friend of mine and we just had a good time. I didn’t really get heavily involved in the singer-songwriter scene over there – we were drinking mostly.
“We lived in a couple of different places and got to see a bit of the city. When we went over first my sister was living there and she put us up in a nice place in Manhattan. Later on though we lived in Brooklyn and then we were in Harlem for a short while.”
The sister in question is Sarah Flannery who at 16 won the ESAT Young Scientist Exhibition for her development of cryptography. She subsequently published a book entitled In Code – A Mathematical Journey and also lectured at Cambridge University.
“That’s her in The Irish Times ad that was out a few years ago,” says her proud brother Mick.
It was during his stay in New York that Flannery officially released his Evening Train’ album. Urban Folk music magazine poured forth: “Mick is a songwriter of the first order. His voice is pained, gravely, and powerful. Recorded or live, it carries through and stops you in your tracks.”
While involved in the Big Apple music scene Flannery entered the US songwriting competition in Nashville and finished in the top two. Of particular joy for Mick was that his hero Tom Waits was among the judging panel for the competition and Flannery sent him a note of thanks.
Upon his return to Ireland the music press and record industry began to sit up and take notice of this talented Cork man. Many compared his singing style to that of Waits and other gravel-voiced songsmiths such as Bruce Springsteen and Ray Lamontagne
The Irish Times said: “At the grisly old age of 24, this stonemason from Blarney, Co Cork, has already (self- ) produced two of the best collections to come out of this country since George Ivan Morrison was a boy.”
RTÉ.ie said: “What’s all too rare these days is for an artist to have the ability to instil excitement about what they’re going to do next time. That’s always a thought here. While he’s rooted in tradition and has learned from masters, you know he won’t make this record again. And at 24, you wonder just what he’ll be making by 30.”
Perhaps Flannery doesn’t need to be a big talker. His music alone is getting the message across loud and clear, and that’s what really matters.