Blarney singer Mick Flannery casts a cold eye on the music industry itself on his new album. He talks to Alan Corr about moving out of his comfort zone and why he'll never be Paul Simon
It’s lunchtime on a heat wave Thursday afternoon in Dublin and Mick Flannery is lugging instruments into the Lost Lane venue just off a bustling Grafton Street.
Later that night, the stone mason from Blarney turned singer songwriter (and master poker player) will take to the stage to air songs from his latest album, a self-titled affair that consolidates his position as one of the finest singers in the country.
Like two of his previous releases, the new album has gone to No. 1 but vast wealth, stretch limos and the luxury of roadies will have to wait. Last week Flannery was Ireland’s best-selling music artist; this week’s he’s back on the road pouring his heart and guts out as the bittersweet chronicler of love lost or about to be dashed on the rocks.
The loneliness of the long distance singer, indeed.
Despite his steady success since he made his debut in 2004, 34-year-old Flannery remains quietly guarded and he still speaks haltingly, with the occasional grin.
"I don’t think much, you see, about the future anyway. I’m like Homer Simpson - it’s all day to day," he says, finally taking a seat upstairs at the venue.
"It’s like the Simpsons episode where there’s a new guy in the power plant and he tries to do everything right but he ends up f***ing it all up and he gives out to Homer in the end, saying `You just waffle through life without any plan!’. That’s what I do. I’m Homer. I’ve been getting away with it."
As self-deprecating as ever but Flannery has done well on "getting away with it". Six albums in and he’s built up quite a catalogue of work. However, he’s unlikely to get a lift from the vapour trail of the current retro vogue for solo male singers such as George Ezra and newcomer Lewis Capaldi.
"I didn't write it about an insurance salesman and about his ambitions to be the top insurance salesman in the world or some soccer player who wants to be the new Messi."
Maybe it’s because the Blarney man’s songs are just too knotty and dark, too smart or damn ornery to get sucked into an easy chorus and become feel good hits of the summer. Flannery always takes the bleak and oblique view and his big, brooding voice will always belong in the Waitsian settings of late night bars and last chance salons.
His last album, 2016’s I Own You, was the nearest thing he’s gotten to social commentary so for his new album, he’s back to good old caustic self-examination.
"This one is more inward looking but it’s done through the eyes of a character, not always the same character," he says. "Of course, the characters are in the music industry so the stuff I know about the music industry seeps in."
"Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Nina Simone. Bob Marley, you can see them as people who were doing it for good reasons and fame wasn't one of them."
He paints a pretty vulgar picture of a business that can be just as dirty and as much hard work as chiselling away at rock and stone to turn it into something beautiful. However, Flannery is reluctant to call the new songs autobiographical. "It is slightly I suppose. Let’s just say I didn’t write it about an insurance salesman and about his ambitions to be the top insurance salesman in the world or some soccer player who wants to be the new Messi.
"There is something quite different about the music industry. People can be seen to be quite altruistic. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Nina Simone. Bob Marley, you can see them as people who were doing it for good reasons and fame wasn’t one of them. Fame doesn’t play into the insurance industry either. Music can be seen as purer."
There is nothing pure about new album stand out Light a Fire, which finds Flannery at his most sorrowful. With an eerie dispassion, he relays the sordid tale of a band’s tour going off the rails amid drunken orgies, drugs and biblical bad vibes. Proof, once again, that there’s nothing like a bit of moral turpitude between friends.
Is that a side of the industry he has seen over the years? "I’ve never been in an orgy, if that’s what you’re asking but I’d say it’s like the insurance industry," Flannery says.
"I'm fairly ignorant of a lot of the language of music because I concentrate on lyrics and what the song is supposed to feel like to the listener that I just haven’t paid attention to that Paul Simon might have paid attention to."
"Light a Fire . . . depends on how you look at it I suppose. If monogamy is your deal then maybe orgies aren’t your deal. I don’t know if there’s any moral thing to be made of it but there is a kind of looseness especially among young people who go off on tour.
"Say they’re single and there would be drugs involved from time to time so stuff can happen. Adrenaline can do things to people. They lose inhibitions and sometimes a sense of adventure comes into the touring mindset . . . "
Flannery, who lives in Ennis with his partner Susie and her daughter, recorded some of the new album in Cork but the bulk of the songs were recorded in LA with Tony Buchan, who’s previously worked with Courtney Barnett and Tim Finn.
It’s certainly more spacious sounding than his previous work. Quite literally. "Tony wanted room, the exact amount of room that I occupied," Flannery grins. "He didn’t want me in the room when he was doing pre-production stuff."
"My girlfriend listens mostly to Drake so I listen mostly to Drake."
It was a matter of shaking him out of his comfort zone. "I come up with similar harmonies the whole time and I don’t have a good vocabulary for beats and timing, I don’t have a good vocabulary for styles or syncopation.
"I’m fairly ignorant of a lot of the language of music because I concentrate on lyrics and what the song is supposed to feel like to the listener that I just haven’t paid attention to that Paul Simon might have paid attention to."
Having previously cited his influences as Kurt Cobain, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, I ask him what he’s listening to these days - new music or old. "I don’t listen to anything. I’m an idiot. I should listen to more stuff because when I do I think I’m getting something from it. My girlfriend listens mostly to Drake so I listen mostly to Drake.
"I mean, I don’t mind him. He’s grown on me. He’s got some good line and his atmosphere is cool. My girlfriend’s daughter thinks everything I’ve done is very `sleepy’. That’s what she said."
Alan Corr @CorrAlan2
Mick Flannery is out now. He plays: July 19th - Dolan’s, Limerick, July 20th - Galway Arts Festival (SOLD OUT), July 21st - Claremorris Folk Festival, July 28th - Connolly’s of Leap, Aug 2th to 4th - All Together Now Festival, Aug 18th – The Blue Arrow, Glasgow, UK, September 4th - The Pie Shop, Washington, DC, September 5th - The Word Barn, Exeter, NH, September 8th - Rockwood Music Hall, NYC, September 26th - Cork Opera House, Cork, October 10th - Lost Lane, Dublin, October 11th - Lost Lane, Dublin, October 12th - Spiegeltent, Wexford