Walking into the Corner House on Coburg Street, you get the sense immediately that you’re standing in a place built on stories. With beer mats of every brand imaginable, posters, concert flyers, a signpost; pieces of paper scattered around the room, and photos of times past hanging on the wall, there’s no doubt that this building has held witness to a lot of deals, fights, make-ups and reunions. There doesn’t seem to be a patch that isn’t taken by something or other, and talking to Mick Flannery you get the sense that, like our setting, his mind is packed – and has very little room for nonsense.
It takes us a moment to settle in the bar, with Flannery holding what looks like a Heineken in one hand and a brown bag in another. We exchange pleasantries, with Flannery taking a distinct interest in this writer’s future career choice as a psychologist, and names such as Freud and Stacks are used as though they are the most basic pieces of information a human can hold.
When we finally do get down to discussing Flannery’s career it quickly becomes apparent that none of it was a plan. His career started to take form after entering a Nashville songwriting competition, winning awards for his compositions.
“I entered because I wanted to see if my songwriting was, you know, good enough competitively, I suppose,” he says slowly, contemplating every word, “I didn’t travel to Nashville or anything. I just packaged up a CD, €30 registration fee and, you know, it came back positively.”
‘Positively’ is an understatement, with media across the world covering the event and his victory quickly becoming his calling card. Not only did it garner a lot of attention, but it gave him the confidence to attempt an ambitious concept album as his debut, recorded while studying in Cork. “I was in a course called Music Management and Sound in Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa in Cork and in the second year of that course they kind of left you to your own devices,” he recalls. “I was struggling for content or songs so I decided to take one song and extrapolate the story, so I could write songs to the story. It had started as a musical where I was gonna write the libretto, but that didn’t happen because it was shit, so I just stuck to the songs. It was a slow affair because I felt very naïve and felt I had no authority to speak on such things, so I thought I’d make up a story, and that will give me authority because it’s my story.” The album was critically acclaimed, yet had its flaws – or as Flannery describes it: “I had confidence in parts of it but not in other parts, so then when they kinda balanced it out – so I understand why it didn’t do very well, because I know some of that is shit.”
After the debut, his stature began to rise and he suddenly found himself being hailed as one of Ireland’s best writers in decades; things were beginning to pick up speed. Needless to say, Flannery was having the time of his life, but his songwriting wasn’t always on par with previous work.
“We were doing lots of gigs around the country, drinking a lot, having a lot of fun and driving around in the van, stinking. It was just a great life experience for young people, for people 23, 24 years old. I didn’t really feel a lot of pressure. You’d have certain things that wouldn’t go your way, but by the time of the 3rd record there was a to and fro from the record company about whether the CD was ready or not. I submitted 12 or 13 songs and they came back and said “Hey, these aren’t ready” and I said “Aw, yes it’s ready. It’s grand”, but it turned out they were right, and another six months passed and better songs came, their experience showed and they were correct in telling me to wait.”
Nowadays, Flannery is a lot more insightful about the social aspects of life in Ireland and abroad, and that in turn has influenced his new album, “I Own You”. Contemplating the themes of the album, he takes a sip of his beer and says “the new stuff is more socially aware and deals with grander themes than one man’s romantic naiveties. That would be the main difference, that it’s more socially aware.” The title track from the album was given a very stirring and bleak music video, featuring a rich man in a mansion surrounded by people from minority groups and the working class. “The song is about wealth inequality and the anger that is borne out by people – a person whose dignity is being stripped away, who’s been disenfranchised, they just feel powerless and useless and their anger then is manifested in this break-in and assault of the rich man; the poor man getting into the rich man’s house.” The album was influenced by events as far as America, with the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore playing a big role in the writing of many of the songs. “He was arrested, his hands tied behind his back and he was rolled, in the back of a truck, unable to support himself. They broke his back. He died and nobody was charged and there were protests.” Looking out of the window, Flannery pauses for a moment before saying: “I think about the brothers and mother of that man and they are powerless, absolutely powerless; just picked off the street and killed. Terrible.” Another sip follows.
As confident and as strong as Flannery might seem, there is clearly a sensitive and deep-minded individual and mindset within. When asked what keeps him up at night he replies: “I over-react to certain injustices. If someone does me wrong – I won’t give any particular examples – it sticks with me for too long. I’m one of the people that suffers and loses sleep while the other person doesn’t lose any sleep.”
“I try to imagine what it must be like for someone whose life is treated like nothing or is criminalized because of the colour of their skin and I’ll go, ‘oh, Jesus, my inability to sleep is multiplied by 1000 in someone else’s mind.’ I feel for them. Well, I don’t feel for them, really, as I can’t really empathize with it. I can only sympathise, but it bothers me how people can deal with that.” Flannery takes a keen interest in the artists of today’s music who offer a sort of social commentary, and rap seems to be a firm favourite. Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West are named as forces for good, and Flannery remarks that West has “in essence made a piece of art out of himself by drawing the ridicule of people.”
As time begins to run thin, Flannery looks around the pub and lets out a low sigh. He’s got to leave to do a radio interview across town, and must ensure he doesn’t arrive late. He slowly begins to rise, thanking us for the pleasure of the conversation and wishing us luck in our degrees, giving us his e-mail to send him on some psychology case-studies he’d find interesting. Just before he leaves, he’s asked one final question: What do you hope for in the future? He stops, strokes his beard, wondering the best way to answer before responding: “I wish racism and religion would tie themselves together and jump off a fucking cliff.” And with that he’s gone, his mind a flurry of more pieces of information that some people can even fathom. Just like the walls of the bar, he’s witnessed and holds many stories and pearls of wisdom. He wouldn’t want it any other way.
Mick Flannery’s new album “I Own You” is released on October 14th.