Interview: Mick Flannery

Corkonian artist Mick Flannery speaks to Lauren McCarthy about his new album, pressure and giving derivative advice

In a traditional Irish pub, playing traditional Irish music, singer-songwriter Mick Flannery describes his new album to me, an album which goes far beyond the stereotype of Irish music. “The title song ‘I Own You’ is aggressive and inspired by wealth inequalities in capitalist societies. It tries to convey the violence inspired by that inequality.”

Indeed, the song is exactly that, guttural and passionate, which is not what you’d expect upon meeting Mick. Soft spoken with a dry sense of humour, I’m almost surprised that this same man wrote and performed such a furious song.

Humble Beginnings

Born in Blarney, Mick is a Cork man through and through. He was surrounded by musical influences from a young age, citing his mother and her side of the family as great musical inspirations growing up. He attended Coláiste Stiofáin Naofa where he completed a music management course which led to the production of his first album Evening Train in 2005. A concept album, Evening Train is a conversation between two brothers.

Following this, Mick has released three more complete albums; White Lies in 2008, Red to Blue in 2012 and By the Rule in 2014. His music has won him recognition both at home and across the ocean. He won the Meteor Music Awards’ Best Irish Male in 2009, and won two categories at the International Songwriting Competition in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was the first Irish musician to win. With four albums already under his belt, Mick doesn’t appear to be giving up any time soon.

A New Direction

His fifth album, I Own You, which is to be released in October, is very socially aware. It’s title track is heavily influenced by Freddie Gray, an African American who died due to fatal injuries he sustained following his arrest in April 2015. “It seemed to just feed into the song, the lack of dignity that was afforded to that group of people. It was a social injustice.”

The rage is palpable throughout the song, building and building throughout. The lyrics are almost frightening, dotted with expletives, intensifying that simultaneous sense of both fear and fury. It’s an honest song that directly calls on the abuse of power throughout the world. The music video for ‘I Own You’ echoes this idea. Eerily lit and shot in a large old house, it shows countless people being forced to eat from the same plate, while one man gets a plate all to himself. Mick explains that it reflects the song as a visual metaphor for uneven wealth distribution throughout the world.

He is a musician well accustomed to the trope of self-involved singer songwriter, but it seem-flann-8-brendan-landy-1ms as if the rest of his album will contain more references to the inherent flaws of humanity, rather than heartbreak. “There’s one song about human apathy. Even though we are bombarded by what we ought to do, all the different atrocitie
s that the human race are perpetrating on the world, we just stroll through existence, without really changing anything. There’s a song which tries to understand a psychopath and a capitalist. There’s a song about determinism…. Straight to the picnic!” It’s refreshing to hear about an album motivated by philosophy and politics, rather than love and loss, which seem to be current on the radio.

Pressure is for tyres

I’m surprised when he tells me he doesn’t feel too much pressure to release music that will climb the radio charts. Rather, he finds his pressure comes from a person more difficult to please – himself. However he still retains a healthy attitude towards this self-inflicted pressure. “It’s enough to force me to sit down and work a little more often. It might not be the wisest thing to get down about not writing.” He does admit to feeling disheartened if his album release takes a lot longer than intended. “It’s like, oh no my brain is slowing down!” he laughs. “I’m not interested anymore!”

When asked about nerves prior to performance, he agrees that experience is the best teacher. He confesses that when he was younger, performing was a much greater feat for him. “I was quite shy in general when I was younger. Teenage, secondary school years, I was very introverted. It was a mess mentally for me to get onto the stage. I’d go to rugby training and someone would say; ‘were you singing in a bar there? What’s going on with that, like?’ I tried to say, ‘Nah I’m still rugby, I’m still cool.’”

Now it seems as though those rugby teammates are his supporters, with Mick claiming that Cork is a great place to perform because of its hometown encouragement. “It’s a good crowd. People who grew up with you go ‘ah look at that fool up on stage.’ That kind of feeling isn’t existent elsewhere.”

He has been fortunate enough to play in other countries around Europe such as Germany and Denmark, and has even played in New York. While these shows abroad can often be daunting, he acknowledges that the audience can be pleasantly surprising.

An artist who performs

To Mick however, the performance isn’t the most important thing musically. He is first and foremost a songwriter, and would rather craft songs than sing them onstage. The creative process is what he finds more valuable. “I prefer the writing, the creative side. If I had to sing it once for someone who would sing it for public consumption, that’d be fine, as long as they weren’t too shit!”

Honest, modest and down-to-earth, Mick comes across as the most normal guy despite his musical success. He appears dismayed when I tell him that young people are often deterred by the arts out of fear they won’t earn a substantial living from it. “Well that’s a sad set up there now, who’s telling you that? Whoever they are, I don’t think you should listen to them.”

He becomes reluctant and almost embarrassed when I ask him for advice for those who do decide to pursue music, or indeed any creative career path. “I don’t know. My advice would be mundane and kind of derivative. Kind of ‘to thine own self be true’ kind of thing. As best you can, just be honest. I don’t know, I’m not very good at giving advice. I don’t think of myself as wise. Just be yourself, the best you can.”

I feel pride for this Cork musician and am inspired by his words, no matter how derivative he assumes them to be. Here’s someone who grew up in a farmland outside Blarney who decided he wanted to create music and he ultimately created success. He hasn’t lost any of that classic Irish humour and modesty and while his music may be different from the trad echoing around the typical Irish pub, he is showcasing a unique and exciting element of Irish music, that we can all look forward to hearing more of.