'It's not a musical musical... there are no jazz hands' – Mick Flannery on ‘Evening Train’
In an airy rehearsal room on the top floor of the Samuel Beckett Theatre at Trinity College Dublin, actress Deirdre Donnelly is putting every sinew of herself into a performance of a Mick Flannery song. At its end, she looks drained.
Flannery, providing sparse accompaniment on piano, asks her to try to make the singing more "dirty". Donnelly has to go somewhere deep within to deliver what he wants, and then she tackles it again. And again. And again.
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It's the first week of rehearsals for a new musical, Evening Train, which is adapted from Flannery's much-admired 2007 debut album of the same name. Telling of the trials and tribulations of fictional twin brothers, it will open in Flannery's native Cork later this month. For now, though, he and a small team, including musical director Brian Whelan, are making sure that the actors understand how the songs should be delivered.
By his own admission, the 35-year-old former stonemason is well outside his comfort zone. This is not like making albums - he's something of an old hand at that. Instead, there's a great deal of collaboration involved, particularly with theatre people who are very comfortable with the technical demands of the art.
"I'm learning all the time," he says, during a break in the rehearsals. "It's so interesting to watch the actors and the process of theatre. Earlier, they were doing a fight scene and I never realised there was so much work you have to do to get it right and believable. I thought they'd be going, 'Get up and go and hit him'. But every second of it, every body position, has to be worked out."
Working on musical theatre could hardly be more different to the loose feel of his own live shows.
"I never have a set list for a gig," he says. "I hate set lists. I like to read the audience and go, 'Right, they're getting too f***ing depressed there; let's put something with a bit of rhythm in'. If I don't do that, it's too restrictive.
"But now, this is very much on the straight and narrow. Everything is choreographed. I'll be on the [musical] cues during the performances and it's going to feel so different. I'll be terrified on opening night."
The roots of Evening Train - both album and musical - can be traced to a photo that left a significant impression on Flannery when he was younger. It showed a pair of Haitian twin brothers - not yet in their teens - who were 'chosen ones' to lead a rebel militia. One of the boys was smoking defiantly and looking straight at camera. "I was captivated by this idea that brothers could be so different," he says. "You'd one who looked so peaceful and another who looked really evil.
"I ended up writing about two very different brothers and there was an allusion to gambling. And maybe for a while I was living two different lives as well. In one sense, I was quite shy and reserved, but in another, I was going out a lot and not being very responsible with my health… too much drinking, that sort of thing."
Flannery doesn't want to talk too much about the story that will unfold on stage, except to say that there's a pair of twins and a love interest - "she doesn't know which of them she wants and they don't know about her either".
By his own admission, he is not a musicals devotee. He laments the fact that he didn't see the hit Irish production Once during its hometown run in Dublin.
"I saw the film, but I should have done my research," he says, sheepishly. "I was supposed to see Hadestown as well, but that didn't happen. It's Anaïs Mitchell - her [highly-acclaimed] production is on the Broadway ladder somewhere."
He is keen to stress that Evening Train is likely to be different to any musical you've seen. "I like the fact that this isn't a 'musical musical' - there are no 'jazz hands' numbers!"
Even before its release a dozen yeas ago, Flannery thought the material he had written for Evening Train [the album] could make a good musical and although he has tried to write the 'book', he found he was getting nowhere.
"I got too shy and too down on myself about what I was writing myself. [What I was producing] wasn't good enough. Maybe it was just a mammoth task, trying to do the music and the dialogue - I just didn't know many things like how many pages gives you a minute [of stage time], or how the arc of a story should go."
That's where Irish-Indian poet and dramatist Ursula Rani Sarma came in. "One of the first things she did was to rearrange the running order [of the songs in the musical]," Flannery recalls. "I was like, 'Really?' Then it made a lot of sense - after I had shut my mouth."
This is turning out to be an exceptionally busy summer for the tunesmith from Bandon. Not only will Evening Train pull out of the station in less than two weeks but his sixth album will be self-released next month. A self-titled album, it's the first since he was dropped by Universal. Flannery says it feels different to what he has done before because several of the songs were the fruit of co-writes with a songwriting team in Los Angeles.
He says there was no writer's block - he just wanted to try something different. "You'd go into a studio with them for six hours at a time and you would have something at the end of it. The guys there were more pop-minded than I would be, especially as they'd be saying stuff like 'a chorus ought to be a chorus and people might want to sing along'. They encouraged me to be less repressed and less modest.
"It's kind of hilarious to me that I'm doing the choruses because I'm no longer signed to a label, and that's what they would have wanted. I was let go before the start of this album. Universal would be saying stuff like 'we need some hook into the marketplace'. I get it and [writing more commercially minded songs] worked in the past." He laughs at the irony of the situation. "Now that there's no pressure, I do it, but when I was being told to do it, I didn't want to."
Flannery has spoken in the past about being wracked by self-doubt and he admits to not being sure about how good Evening Train will be. He has every faith in Rani Sarma and the director Annabelle Comyn, but old fears still come up. "I don't know what it will be like as one piece," he says. "Individual scenes and scenarios could be very good, but will they work well when they're all together as one. What if it's really f***ing boring?"
Such frankness is why Flannery - who speaks in hushed tones - makes for a more intriguing interviewee than some of his more media-friendly peers. Even when appraising his own work, he can be arrestingly blunt. "I tend to write the same song over and over," he says. "There's a lot of small town shit and a lot of failed relationships stuff."
They are not words to make those unfamiliar with his work rush out to investigate Flannery's music, but when he's on form, his bare-boned songs are very special indeed. It's not every troubadour with a battered guitar who earns praise from such esteemed figures as Tom Waits, as he did early in his career.
And it's not any singer-songwriter who has had a UK documentary film crew following him about for the past two years. He is miked up for his interview with Review and a video camera is trained on his every move. "I think," he says, somewhat embarrassed, "that they expected my last album to do well, the poor lads."
The album clearly did not meet the sales expectations the record company had had. "But there's this," he says, indicating to the rehearsal room, "so at least there's an arc and, hopefully, a finish line."
Should the musical prove a success at its 10-day Cork run, it will likely come to Dublin. But that's a thought for another time.
When the Leeside production concludes, Flannery will go about the business of promoting his album. And, as is customary, he's brutally frank about that too.
"If I was to do it again, I definitely wouldn't be releasing it so soon after this, but then I thought this might happen earlier in the year and I don't want to delay the album until the autumn. There's already been a longish gap since the last one - I want to get it out now."
'Evening Train' is at the Everyman Theatre, Cork, from June 13-23. Mick Flannery's self-titled album is released on July 9