“I hate the word ‘artist’, I prefer to use ‘maker’. When you’re doing it, you get so selfinvolved . . . I’m an artist only in stone”
A WHILE BACK, a Ukrainian stonemason used to work alongside Mick Flannery in the workshop where the Blarney singer-songwriter earns his crust. Aside from producing exquisite albums such as Red to Blue, Flannery is also an experienced stonemason who turns out fireplaces, gates, fountains and other pieces.
“The Ukrainian lad used to call me ‘Mickey, Mickey, no speaky’,” says Flannery, remembering his workmate. “He used to always say ‘speak and we listen’ or ‘too much thinking, you go crazy’. He had my number all right.”
Flannery leans back in his chair in a Dublin hotel lobby and grins. All the advance word about the singer-songwriter points to a silent, taciturn, grumpy, shy individual. Yet he also knows how to tell a good yarn against himself, when the occasion calls for it.
It’s safe to say that Flannery does not conform to type. For instance, since Red to Blue was released earlier in the year, he hasn’t been doing the dog with live shows up and down the country.
“I did loads and loads of gigs for the last album and it was too much. It was headless chicken stuff,” he explains. “Every two weeks, you’d get a call telling you about a couple of more gigs and you never knew where you stood. This time, I said to Lorcan [Ennis, his manager] that I wanted to do it differently and that’s what has happened.
“I still do the bit of stone work and we’ve a fair bit of stuff on for the summer so I can’t always go and drop everything to do a radio thing that comes up. If I was left to my own devices, I’d say I’d have to be forced into it.
“It’s a kind of apathy where I’m content to drift through whatever is going to happen and not have expectations. Some of the lads in the band would be talking to me about things I should do or people I should talk to over in England who might be able to do something for me. But I have absolutely no interest. I just go ‘yeah, yeah’ and do nothing about it. I don’t know why that is.”
Yet there are some things which Flannery treats with the utmost seriousness.
“I love the songwriting. The creation is the nicest part: it’s something you always have and you can use it to work through stuff that’s in your head. You have to take it seriously if it’s going to be any good.
“The rest of it is vanity, I think. You see someone on a stage and think ‘I can do better than that fellow’.
“I did a post-Leaving Cert music course in Cork and we did this exercise in the songwriting class where you put random words together to come up with a verse and chorus. It was like a competition and I remember wanting to be the best at that. I aspire to the level of the people I think are the best writers. There’s no point in doing it otherwise.”
When Flannery was starting out, the best writer, in his opinion, was Tom Waits.
His fascination with the gravel-voiced, vaudeville boho was due to the Kerry uncles on his mother’s side singing Tom Waits’ songs in the pub. “When I was young, I wanted to be like those uncles. They sang Tom Waits’ songs so I wanted to do that too.”
He was also attracted by Waits’ “put-on gruffness and the American accent and that type of lyrical approach. Just the way he is. He is not too flowery, but he is rocking in his own simple way”.
Waits was also a role model for what Flannery thought being a musician was about.
“I remember having those romantic notions of what an artist should be, that I was supposed to be lost and outside everything, like all these fellows I was reading. I remember thinking ‘I’m not going to work in an office’ and was going to live this bohemian life. I’ve often drunk too much, but I don’t think I’ve done it to the same degree as Charles Bukowski did.”
Growing up in Blarney, Flannery says he was as shy then as he is now. “I didn’t have a huge bank of friends and I didn’t seek out any musicians. I was too self-conscious to write or try out ideas in front of another person.
“I was in a band with three friends of mine but they weren’t as into it as I was. It was just an excuse for them to get together – music interfered with their social life. After that, I was never afraid to call the shots and get people to play my tunes and put my name on things and get people to play how I wanted them to play.
“I’m stubborn more than dogmatic. I think that comes from my dad’s side, that ‘why isn’t this happening? Can I make it happen?’ thing.”
Flannery may talk about apathy, but he knows his actions contradict this. “I know there’s a hypocritical side to it. Here I am, travelling up to Dublin to do this interview and going on about apathy. But I don’t want to let the record label or Lorcan down. There’s a lot of people working behind the scenes to get stuff done and when there’s no reason that I can’t do something then I should do it.
“I’ve never been very self-promotional or ambitious, but at the start, I did send off CDs to competitions and set up a few gigs. Because things went well and people paid attention, I went ‘oh shit’ and retreated to the shadows a little.”
With three albums to his name, Flannery has become used to attention from all quarters. “A lot of it is disproportionate, considering the style of music I do. It’s not mainstream music. Someone will come up to me gushing about a song I’ve written and how much it means to them. I’ll say ‘thank you very much’ and then I’ll forget about it because often, they see the song in a way which wasn’t my intention. I try not to think about it too much.
“Have I ever gushed to someone? I’d often give someone a compliment saying I liked that line or that lyric. I feel it for the song rather than the person. But gushing wouldn’t be my forte.”
He winces when people describe him as an artist. “I hate the word ‘artist’, I prefer to use ‘maker’. When you’re doing it, you get so selfinvolved. Some of the worries are so obsessive and ridiculous. You get into some stupid lines of thinking. It reminds me of a spoilt