Interview by Barry Egan
His voice swoops and soars dynamically on certain notes and then glides down softly like a bird on the wing on other parts of Kathy’s Song — the Simon & Garfunkel classic Tommy travelled up from his home in county Sligo to record for The Windmill Lane Sessions on independent.ie.
“My thoughts are many miles away/They lie with you when you’re asleep,” he sings with a beautiful softness, even sadness.
Tommy started singing “forty years ago” as a young boy in the local community centre in Kilmactigue, Aclare, Sligo for a school concert.
“I remember it so well,” he says sitting down to talk after the performance, “because that was the last time I was so terrified.”
The six-year-old future star walked on to what seemed “like endless people — there was probably a hundred but to a kid that is a lot of people.”
Tommy can recall to this day seeing at the back of the hall, the green exit sign “that is still there to this day. That’s all I can remember looking at, just staring at that exit sign and getting through my song.”
“I probably messed it up completely all the way along but I did it. I got a great round of applause. I honestly think that is the first time I realised that I could sing.”
Was it the first time that Tommy Fleming realised that he wanted to sing?
“Not so that much that I wanted to,” he says, “because I never really enjoyed it after that. If that makes any sense, because I was always really nervous and scared to sing.”
Do you enjoy it now?
“I do enjoy it. Don’t get me wrong: I love singing. I find the public part of it always difficult, going on stage. I love the performance part of it. I’d love to be able to walk onstage and there was no audience. You spend all your life wanting an audience and then you get one — and now you don’t want one!” he laughs.
So does he sing better when he is at home alone with his wife Tina?
“I don’t sing at all when I’m on my own. Honestly. As I have gotten older, I have got to a point where unless I have to I don’t [sing.]”
“I’m not one of these people who sings in the shower. If I’m outside in the summer time, messing around in the garden I’d sing,” he adds.
“Do you know what I love? Do you know what I love to do when I’m off and when I’m in the local pub and there’s a really good Irish session in the corner?” he asks. “I love to join that. That to me is heaven.” Is that when Tommy Fleming is singing at his best because of the lack of an audience, as such?
“Possibly. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I enjoy it more. I suppose I am more relaxed in that sense.”
I ask him how his wife would describe him.
“Hard work!” he says — letting a roar of laughter out of him.
“No, Tina is great. Tina manages me. It is a difficult job to a degree.” (Not that difficult perhaps as her husband’s 2000-seater shows across Ireland and further afield seem to sell out more quickly than it takes to say his name. I introduced him as Tommy Tiernan at the start of the interview. “I was on a flight recently and I hear the air hostess say: ‘That’s Tommy Tiernan!” Tommy Fleming laughs. )
“As I am gotten older," he continues, “more so I know what I don’t want. . .”
What doesn’t he want?
“Hassle. I’m getting older and wiser —and wider [grins cheekily] — and the path of least resistance is always my option.”
What were you like growing up?
“Cocky. I’d have to admit that. I was confident, cocky. I’d say that came from my mother’s side of the family. My uncles were all musicians, were all performers. So I watched that," Tommy says, “all through my life. They all lived away; they all lived in England. So my mother and her sister were the only two that lived in Ireland. So when the family would get together, summer-time or Christmas, there was always big performances in the local pub. One of my uncles Tony, who is an amazing musician, he always used to do these gigs around the area and it was a big deal. And I used to get up and sing with him. He was a real performer. So that’s where the love of singing came from. That’s where the love of going on the stage came from, in many ways.”
At what point did you decide you would make a career of it?
“I don’t think there was ever a point where I made a conscious decision that this is what I wanted to do. I went through school, I went through primary, went through secondary. All through secondary school is when I really knew I wanted to do it, because every summer I would go busking.”
“All over the place. I hitched to Galway. Limerick, wherever. And then I was doing gigs in pubs when I was about 15. I used to make good money, actually, in the summer and Christmas.”
What did you spend it on? Sex, drugs ‘n rock ‘n roll?
“I wish!” he laughs. “Clothes. Going out. I used to save money, at that time [laughs]. And then at 17, that was really the turning point for me because that’s when I really wanted to spend my time performing. Honing my craft is the best way to put it. Doing the local pubs, doing the local gigs. I was playing the guitar. And I was a crap guitar player. “
Are you any better now at guitar?
“No, not, really. I’m just too lazy. That’s my problem. I have a gorgeous grand piano in the house and I never play it.”
Is this some sort of psychological pattern? You sound like you don’t want to leave the house sometimes?
“I’m becoming a recluse!” he laughs. “Ah no, it’s not like that at all. The piano is fantastic, because the piano is a great party piece when people come to the house. Somebody always knows how to play the piano.”
Why did you buy a piano if you can’t play it?
“Because I loved it. I can play the piano. I just won’t!” he laughs. “I’m just awkward. What can I say, Barry?”
What’s that Limerick phrase? Pure awkward?
“Pure awkward! I’m pure awkward!”
Tommy Fleming — whose 10th Anniversary Special Edition of Voice of Hope is out now — plays The Beck Theatre in London on March 17th.