Ireland’s No.1 artist, the self-effacing Mick Flannery downplays his hit album and tells Shelley Marsden why he hasn’t been invited to any festivals yet…
Hoping to stir up some healthy competition I ask Mick Flannery how it feels to have his fourth album, By the Rule, knock Imelda May’s >> off the top of the Irish album charts. But he doesn’t bite.
“I wouldn’t think of it in those terms, of beating somebody else to it”, says the softly-spoken Corkman.
“Music charts are inherently a competition, but arty-farty people don’t like to think of it that way. Maybe I would have some kind of strange competitive pride if it was One Direction or somebody I was knocking off the top spot.”
He admits it’s a good feeling to have a number one, but maintains he’s happier for those around him who have been working hard to promote it.
The music is pretty downbeat, this album possibly more so than the previous – you won’t get any ‘throw your hands in the air like you just don’t care’ moments here, and it’s reflected in his laid-back personality, unassuming dress sense and almost frustratingly pragmatic attitude to success.
“Sometimes I think I’m too laid back – like people might get the impression I don’t give one fu** whatsoever. It’s better for my health. None of this really matters; it’s so transient and there are so little guarantees that there’s no point in getting too excited about things.
“But that attitude can annoy people –like, you’re a knob and you’re taking everything for granted, you know? But I’m… quietly happy, alright?!”
The songs on By the Rule were written in Kreuzberg, Berlin, where Mick was living for for most of last year. He moved there on the recommendation of friends who’d previously lived there, and wasn’t disappointed.
Having lived in Cork most of his life (bar a couple of two, three-month long trips to America he has never set down roots anywhere else), the singer wanted a change of scene.
But it wasn’t a year of debauchery and diving headfirst into the German capital’s infamous party scene – he’d be more likely to throw on a pair of runners and stick Eminem (he’s a fan) on his headphones when he needed to let off steam.
He recalls: “I didn’t know a lot of people there, and I wouldn’t be great socially, so I did have a lot of time to myself. That fed into extra contemplation time. A couple of things started coming, I did some demos and… I have times when I write nothing for six months, then with a good month your confidence is amped up and you’re suddenly very productive. But as soon as I had enough for this album, I stopped song-writing! I haven’t written a song since.”
The songs in question were written in the rented room of a “beaten-up apartment”, an old place with very little furniture. Mick had a big, bare room where he would “go in and sing at the walls, and there was a nice reverb to it. I didn’t mind going in there for a couple of hours a day.”
The result is a spare, slow-burner of a record. Some numbers are almost self-reproachful (Get What You Give, Own It) , others are about love gone wrong (Out to Sea). Even Now has a gorgeous, late-night intimacy and The Small Fire builds to an intense, violin-laden climax. But you’d never go as far to call any of them ‘upbeat’.
With a new record company on board, Mick says he was, more than usual, under no pressure to come up with radio-friendly songs: “But I don’t want to sound like some rebel because I have made compromises in the past, and they’ve paid off. Everyone who wants to sell records is part of the machine. You don’t want to piss everybody off. You’d need serious clout to do that, clout which I don’t have.”
The album cover, an opaque image of Mick behind a mottled pattern, was taken while he and his girlfriend were in New York. It was getting very close to the time when he needed to decide on a cover, so his other half was messing around and taking various photos (“That one was actually taken in a toilet, in front of a rusty mirror. And people liked it, so…”).
A number one album in his home country is a big deal, but Ireland’s a small pond. Does Mick have ambitions over here, or in America? None he’s ready to pronounce, anyway: “This is dream-thinking now, but I’d like to make a living out of music until I’m able to retire. I wouldn’t like to have to seek other work again.
“Look, I could be back to doing my old job, stonemasonry, next year. The business is not what it used to be. Even with perceived success, there’s very little financial return, so you wonder how you’re going to make a living out of it.”
It’s no surprise that the reserved singer enjoys song-writing best in the music-making process. He still gets extremely nervous going out on stage, and says performing is “un-natural to my personality, I think”.
“I try to be calm about it but… it doesn’t always work for me. I might have drunk too much the night before and my nerves are at me, so I come out with something silly that I think will be funny and it just sounds awkward. Then that snowballs into a whole two hours of awkwardness. Maybe not, but in my head it’s fu**ing apocalyptic!
Will he bringing that bouncy demeanour of his to any summer festivals this year? He hopes so but says, laughing, that he’s still waiting for the invites.
“I like doing them because there’s a distinct lack of pressure – there’s no guarantee anyone in front of you has any idea who you are.
“Sets are shorter, and there tends to be lots to do afterwards. The problem is I’ve set my stall out as such a miserable prick that nobody wants to book me for these summer festivals!
He adds, giggling now: “You’ll probably find me in the wooded area, unconscious under a tree. Is there a market for winter festivals? I’d probably do well at those…”
Mick turned 30 last year. Hoping against hope for one last sound-bite of cheer, I ask if he feels his thirties have been good to him so far.
“As someone said, you seem to become less self-obsessed around now. Yeah…Yeah, I think so. Now don’t force me to say I’m ‘happy’ or anything. I’m not giving you a quote! Ok… I’m absolutely ECSTATIC!”
By the Rule (Universal) is out now. For more, see mickflannery.com.