Mick Flannery’s latest album, Alive, is a live recording of a concert performed way back in 2019 at the Cork Opera House. At a time when much of the live music industry has been thrown into uncertainty due to COVID-19, the proceeds of the album are going to Mick’s band and sound engineers.
Alive wonderfully encapsulates the energy of a live performance. The songs themselves are intensely powerful; biting and bracing in turn. Flannery’s talent for storytelling and his incisive empathy shines through in songs like ‘Get What You Give’ and ‘Boston.’ The thumping intro to ‘One of the Good Ones’ would make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and have your heart and feet dancing in unison. Moreover, the anecdotes that come between the songs, the laughter and applause, these things anchor the album to a time and place we are at present far removed from, adding as much life to the album as the songs themselves do. Alive contains an energy that can be reminisced upon as much as bolstered by.
I got the opportunity to chat with Mick about Alive, taking on other characters in his music and the inevitable world domination of friend and songwriter Christy Skulls.
University Express: How has the response been to Alive so far?
Mick Flannery: It’s been cool, there’s been a good few sales. I’ve been doing a lot of it myself here at home through Bandcamp. I put the local post office through hell the other day with the boxes of different stuff I was posting out. It’s kinda cool to see the different names and different countries [of people who’ve been buying the record]. I don’t have a good idea of figures really yet financially, so I could know the type of funds to be passed out to the lads and ladies in the band crew. Hopefully it’ll be more than a tenner each for them!
UE: What was it about that gig at the Opera House that made you want to record it as an album?
MF: We didn’t know if we were going to release it or not [as an album]. We recorded it semi-deliberately because it was the end of a tour of songs promoting a new album and we reckoned we wouldn’t be together in a place like that again for a while. Having had a good few gigs behind us we knew the songs well, so that’s why we chose to record that gig.
[The Opera House] has kind of a nervous energy for me. It’s kinda formal, a big theatre, so it puts on the pressure a bit. Then there’s the fact that it’s a Cork audience mixed in with that, having the craic and shouting at you and stuff like that. They kinda take that [nervousness] away. I’m glad it was that show that was recorded and I’m glad I was as nervous as I was. I make a real hash of trying to talk to the audience, I tell a couple of stories. It’s kind of lucky that I did. You never make those mistakes again.
UE: There’s no comparing a live gig to a recording, but hearing those ‘in-betweens’ (the stories, the jokes, the audience themselves) adds a closeness to what was happening in the Opera House.
MF: I do like that element too. I guess it gives it some kind of place and time. Like if you were to listen to it in a couple of decades time, you would be thinking about people that were living then. Those people didn’t know there was a pandemic coming their way, that Trump was going to try and stay in office illegally until November. It is kinda nice to have that human interaction.
UE: When you’re writing a song, do you have that live instrumentation in mind? What is the process of getting a song from page to stage?
MF: I’ve been playing with a number of the band for a good few years. I would send them songs that would be finished structurally but I don’t have a good knowledge of drum beats and stuff like that. I wouldn’t know what direction to give in that regard. I might have some kind of vague melody idea for harmonies and strings. Usually, when it comes to the people in the band, I just say “Here, here and here is where it needs something”, some kind of dynamic noise. A lot of it is down to them really. They come up with a lot of their own parts.
When it comes to live [performance], their own parts are depending on the night really. There’s not a lot of prescription when it comes to what to play. Alan [Comerford]’s guitar solos are always different. He never plays the same thing, which is really cool. We all get to hear it as it’s happening on the night. I do like that there’s a record of it now, a tribute I guess to them. They all played very well that night. Alan’s solos were cool, so was Matthew [Berrill]’s saxophone playing.
UE: Has your approach to songwriting and storytelling moved into a different space over the course of your career?
MF: I think a lot of it depends on what age you are really. When I was in my early twenties I seemed to be writing a lot about love and break-ups and confusion about that kind of thing. It’s normal, people in their twenties are writing about those experiences that they’re having and panicking about finding someone they like and panicking about whether or not they themselves are likeable.
When you start to lose complete interest in yourself as you turn thirty, things start to turn outwards! That’s what happened to me anyway. I started to think about society and about myself less as an individual and more as just another monkey knocking about in this mess. Those kinds of broader themes come in. Even when you talk about broader themes, it’s often nice to talk about one individual story, to make it more relatable. I wrote a song a few weeks ago with a couple of people in America and we decided to write the song from the point of view of the person that was driving behind Philando Castile before he was shot by a policeman. The whole song would generally be about wanting people to think about how life is different for different people. Stepping into public contains more dangers for some groups than others.
UE: How easy is it for you to get into the mindsets of those different characters in your songs?
MF: I guess you use a lot of licence. I don’t know if there was any particular person driving behind Philando Castile for any amount of time. It’s only a kind of tool, really. We picked an imaginary specific. To try and speak for somebody else is kind of dangerous territory. There’s an arrogance to that, trying to embody somebody else’s thoughts. It’s very hard to not let your own opinions run through, no matter what character you’re doing. You’re still voicing your own view of the world. Although it is possible to use an unreliable narrator, where you satirically give an account from someone who is clearly not the ideal narrator. But then again that’s just the flipside of your own opinion. You’re just giving your tainted view of someone who speaks oppositely to you.
UE: When you performed the song ‘Suzanne’ with Lisa Hannigan as part of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra Performs Leonard Cohen, what was the experience of taking such a well-known song on as your own?
MF: I’m a big fan of Leonard Cohen, so I was just honoured to be invited to that gig. I knew that song quite well. I was more worried about the other songs in that set, like ‘What Happens to the Heart’, which was eight verses long. I was panicking about not getting the lyrics right. ‘Suzanne’ was such a familiar song that you feel as though you’re singing it as close to (Cohen’s) version as you can so that people can feel as though they’re listening to the song. Often people don’t want to hear a hugely alternative version to something they really like. I wasn’t going to drift far away from his use of those words.
UE: You recently recorded a performance for Other Voices with SON at the Crawford Art Gallery. What was that experience like, so far removed from a stage or pub, to perform in?
MF: It was cool! I’ve done a couple of Other Voices things before and some of them are done without an audience in alternative locations. We were trying out new songs and we had that nervousness about us. We’ve been working on a project together, so giving that first debut live is always a bit nerve-wracking to see if you’ve got the structure of the song right or if the song is getting boring during certain points.
The place has a natural reverb in it, which makes everything sound better. It makes you feel good about yourself! Like you’ve got a stronger voice than you do, which is never a bad thing for the confidence.
UE: What has lockdown been like for you in terms of listening to and taking the time to write music?
MF: I don’t listen to a lot of music. I love going to gigs, just to see what people were doing. During the lockdown, I was working on a lot of songs and had things to finish. So whatever I was doing, like if I was mowing the lawn or tipping away at some other job, I would be trying to finish the puzzle of the song in my head. I would be going through the words and the melodies and trying to Lego-block them together in the right way. That means that I’m kind of ignorant when it comes to music. I don’t listen to a lot. I like silence.
I got a lot of stuff done writing-wise. I did my own solo songwork, which was especially finishing songs I hadn’t quite finished. Then I had this project with Susan O’Neill [SON]. I think we’re nearly finished the writing part of that now and it kinda turned into a semi-concept album, where we were singing as these characters who aren’t exactly in the best relationship possible, it seems.
Then I had another project which was basically correspondence/co-writing with Ana Egge who’s a songwriter in New York. We would have a call nearly every evening for about an hour, where we would show our work. She would show her take on an idea and I would show mine. We would collate stuff and then start a new idea towards the end of the call and then go away and work on it and we seemed to work very well together.
UE: And finally, when touring is a possibility again, will we get to see your American correspondent and songwriter extraordinaire Christy Skulls opening for you?
MF: I think by then Christy Skulls will be too big to be an opening act. He’ll have to be a co-headliner, or maybe we’ll be supporting him. Christy Skulls is hell-bent on world domination and I don’t know if he can be stopped!
‘Alive’ is out now. Digital and physical copies of the record are available to buy on Mick Flannery’s Bandcamp page, with all proceeds going to his band.