Interview by Barry Egan
Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind — flight to the imagination...
Plato, that thinker from Classical Greece, actually said the above. Be that as it may, this philosophical nugget might just as well have come from the thoughtful mouth of the 21st century bard from Blarney, Mick Flannery.
In person, he alternates between sometimes overwhelming introspection and sometimes intriguing introspection. In his music, he is one of most emotionally powerful and — in a word — brilliant singer-songwriters to come out of Ireland these last few years. His Red to Blue album was one of the records of 2012. Live and on record, he has a voice that, when you hear it, you believe that he is telling the truth. Not least on his bone-chillingly beautiful cover of John Prine’s Hello in There for The Windmill Sessions on Independent.ie.
“Old trees just grow stronger,” Mick sings, “And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day/Old people just grow lonesome/Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’”
Mick also performed The Small Fire, one of the songs from his new album, By the Rule. Typically, the song comes with a story that is pure Bob Dylan or Tom Waits in their vintage.
“When my grandfather was three years old,” Mick begins, “he was supposed to be minded at home by his sister. But she did something else and he found a box of matches. He went out to the hay shed and he burnt everything down.
“His mother came back home from town and saw that there was no hay shed. And she couldn’t find him for a while either. He was hiding underneath the bed. He was scared of getting a beating. She was so happy to see him that she waited for the next day — you know, a whole day... to talk to him. But he knew it was coming.”
There’s a slight theatrical pause until Mick continues. “Then my grandfather said to his mother: ‘I lit the small fire, mammy. I don’t know who lit the big one’.”
Asked about the process of a tale becoming a song, Mick smiles, then says that he heard that story quite a few times growing up. “But I can’t remember when it clicked into being some sort of metaphorical type thing.”
In terms of his youth (dad, a mathematician, mother, a biochemist, Mick grew up on a farm in Co Cork) he says with almost bizarre succinctness: “I had a very happy childhood.”
So, what informed the creative path you took?
“Musically, I suppose, my mother sang and she played the guitar,” he answers. “And then her family also had get-togethers where there would be sing-songs. You know — pass the guitar; a party. So if you didn’t do anything, you kind of got passed over. I just wanted to join in.
“I started doing it when I was 14,” he says. “Playing guitar and singing Tom Waits or Bob Dylan songs. I was listening to crap music as well. Going to discos and dancing around to whatever crap was on, you know, Vengaboys!”
On The Small Fire, Mick is also singing about being scared stiff of something he doesn’t understand. “That is a reference to other people,” he says of the song’s non-autobiographical genesis.
“The reference to stuff you don’t understand could, I suppose, be a man who is a little bit small-minded or bigoted. He might have trouble with stuff like immigration, foreign religions. Things he doesn’t understand.”
Have you met this person, Mick?
“I meet them all the time,” he half-smiles. “They’re everywhere.”
Mick is performing at the Killarney Festival of Music & Food on Sunday, 28 June.
For more information, see killarneyfestival.ie
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