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Back in the Game

Mick Flannery Susan O'Neill

Mick Flannery and Susan O’Neill told David Hennessy about their forthcoming album of duets about a relationship coming together and falling apart.

Cork troubadour Mick Flannery and the Clare singer-songwriter Susan O’Neill, also known as SON, have combined for a collaborative album entitled In The Game.

From Blarney in Cork, Mick Flannery is one of Ireland’s most acclaimed songwriters and singers. He has had four of his albums go to number one in Ireland. The former stone mason even had the honour of knocking Madonna off top spot for one of them. He has also been honoured with Meteor and Hot Press awards among other honours.

Many people first heard of Ennis multi-instrumentalist Susan O’Neill when she appeared on You’re A Star in 2006 at the age of 16.

Since then she has wowed huge festival stages with Irish dance band King King Company and accompanying the queen of traditional music Sharon Shannon on her international tours.

Susan released her debut album Found Myself Lost in 2017.

Her husky vocals have been compared to Amy Winehouse, Adele and Janis Joplin.

In the Game is a themed collection of duets about a couple’s coming together and falling apart.

Mick told The Irish World: “Susan and I settled on the idea that the two people would be in a relationship with each other, although they may not still be together. The songs touch on their associated issues, their ups and downs, beginnings and ends, and what’s happening in both of their lives aside from the relationship.”

Susan adds: “The concept is the dark and the light of the nature of relationships. The joys of love, the depth of despair in love, the wild abandon of love, and then nostalgia for times past that they know they will never have again yet should be dearly cherished. For me, the album is that sinewave and shape of love.”

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The album grew organically from their first co-written song Baby Talk which went on to win Best Original Song of The Year at the 2020 prestigious RTÉ Radio 1 Awards.

So how did the collaboration actually come about? Mick tells the story: “We have the same manager. It was her idea that our voices might sound good together and that we might work well together songwriting-wise.

“So in 2019, we had a few songwriting sessions and I had a song  kind of semi-ready to go called Baby Talk that we recorded. We recorded that quite quickly and we released it immediately.

“But by that time we had decided to try and flesh it out into an album.”

The album was written and recorded over the summer of 2020. Of course this meant working remotely due to lockdown.

Mick continues: “It was great and it came at a great time in one sense because it came at a bad time.

“It gave us a lot to do and to keep focused on whilst all these new lockdown arrangements were coming in and the world was changing.

“It was great, the recording process was lovely. It was a good thing to have on the burner all the way through, It was a great experience.

“It wasn’t ideal that we had to work across the internet with a producer. It might have been more natural had he been in the room but I think we managed.”

Susan adds: “It feels really good to see it finally being put out into the world.

“Again, we just wonder about how it’s all going to unfold because it was all made across the ether, on the internet and remotely. In this new way so it feels quite unchartered. It’s hard to know what to expect.”

Many have commented on how well the voices sound together. If the idea of working together was suggested to them, were they always convinced it would work?

Susan says: “It’s kind of hard to tell when you’re in it.

Mick Flannery Susan O'Neill

“From my perspective anyway, I always enjoy a collaborative experience and seeing what we can create when two people come together.

“When you’re in it, it’s kind of hard to know exactly how it is going to be perceived. You can only go off your feelings.

“Thematically, we both kind of agreed on some areas and some musical ideologies but I didn’t know how it sounded until far later looking back on a video, a video of a live performance, and being like, ‘Okay, that’s how it sounds to other people’.

“When you’re doing it, it’s hard to also look at it from that objective perspective.”

The album fluctuates in terms of mood going from tenderness to volatility. You could say it reflects the up and down nature of life for the last year.

Mick says: “It might have had some parallels with the frustrations of the lockdown maybe but we intentionally wrote the album as two characters who are having an up and down relationship.

“We tried to put in as much of the ugliness that will happen between two people who are trying to be together as we could and we tried to be as honest as possible.

“People can be  their worst selves even when they’re in a loving relationship.

“We wanted to put those elements in there.

“It’s good to show both people as flawed.”

Susan continues: “Mick wrote one of the songs on the album called Are we Free? and in that song the couple are at their worst kind of moment. We’re fighting and it was great to go there in a song where we were both being as disappointing as each other.

“Exploring those territories was very new but also quite cathartic as well.”

Susan had just started a big tour of Australia when Covid wreaked havoc with those plans meaning she had to return home to Ireland much earlier than anticipated.

She remembers: “I was facing into two months of a tour which was pretty jam packed. I mean we were due to play every day for two months.

“And two weeks into that, while watching global news and little red markers crossing off each country one at a time, I made the decision to get on an emergency flight home. And I’m glad I did. I’m really glad I did.

“Because there was a little section in the back of my mind that kind of thought, ‘Now’s your chance to run away and live on berries and wild foraging foods and, you know, see, see what you’re made of’.

“But I’m not familiar with Australian plants so I figured my chances were a lot less than had I been roaming around the Wicklow Way.”

Wouldn’t she have been worried about snakes and spiders? “Yeah, when I when I did a risk assessment, it didn’t come out too strong.

“So I came back home. And it was the best decision, I think, to make that time.”

Mick probably didn’t have to worry about snakes or spiders as he was in Ireland but the pandemic did ruin his plans of playing in some US shows.

“I was doing some gigs in Ireland and I had plans to do some festivals that summer in America and Canada.

“In January before the lockdown came, I had gone to the Folk Alliance international conference in America and I had luckily met up with an American agent who was willing to take me on board.

“So they set up a few festivals for that summer in Canada and the US.

“But unfortunately, that never came to be so that was a little disappointing or bad timing.

“Otherwise, it was okay for me really. I got a lot of songs written and I kind of fared unduly well from the whole thing.”

Mick and Susan got to play Other Voices and other virtual festivals while live gigs have been off the agenda for the last year.

Mick says: “We haven’t had the opportunity to play the songs and get them kind of road ready so every opportunity to get some practice is good because it really does take a while to become familiar with arrangements and dynamics with songs and have it feel like it can represent the album well. We take every gig we can get, I think.

“That Late Late show was just prior to everything going to sh*t.

“And then, we’ve done other streaming gigs as well where you would be on a big stage.

“We did one in the Cork Opera House to nobody. That was strange, it’s not ideal.”

Is it eerie to play a huge venue like that and get no feedback from a crowd?

“It is,” Susan says. “It’s a mixed array of feelings. You’re glad to be connecting on some level with any listener or lover of music.

“As a musician you’re a fragile creature looking for a little bit of validation, that you did okay.

“When none of that comes and it’s deadpan silence, it is strange but then maybe we’ve all gotten stronger.

“As an artist, I suppose it’s not that you play for validation but that when an audience responds to something you’ve done, it becomes this beautiful exchange.

“You offer a piece of what you’ve been doing to them and they acknowledge it and it becomes this beautiful, I suppose, symbiotic relationship and without that, it can be a little bit unnerving but maybe artists have gotten a little stronger now that we have had to go back in to within and really think, ‘Alright, why am I singing this and who am I singing this for and what’s my reasoning?’

“Because you have really got to ask yourself those questions if you’re playing to an empty room and you have got to dig deep for the intentions and for the vibe.

“So maybe that’s strengthened us.”

Both performers have been delighted to get back to performing live gigs recently. How good does it feel to have live dates in the diary again?

Mick says: “Yeah, it’s good to get back or at least have the idea of getting back. Hopefully all these things happen. We hope it keeps going in a positive direction.

“We did four gigs in an outdoor venue in Kilkenny.

“It was very cool: Very nice place, very nice people.

“It was socially distanced so I think there was 50 or so people at each gig. It’s still nice to do but still a little divorced from normality because the crowd is so dispersed and small compared to the capacity of the place.

“But it was great. Like as I said, we need all the practice we can get so we take it.”

After a break of so long, is it difficult to return to the stage? Can it be daunting when out of practice?

Susan says: “Yeah, there’s nerves that reappear in places that you had kind of forgotten.

“It’s like a muscle. It is very, very similar to a muscle that you build that weakens with lack of practice.

“Even the banter that you might have in between songs: I don’t know if my humour has gotten darker and my jokes are less funny and more inappropriate. I don’t know how that’s gonna work.

“It’s gonna be an interesting process getting to know it all again.

“But I think the gratitude of people hearing music live again, it does override it all really in the end.”

Can you tell us some of your dark and inappropriate jokes please, Susan?

“You know what? I’m gonna have to respectfully decline on this one.

“But if I’m doing any good hopefully you’ll hear them.”

Mick and Susan covered Angel From Montgomery by the late John Prine for the Other Voices festival and Courage EP.

It was in April last year that the American country singer who had strong connections to Ireland passed away.

Covering one of his songs was a good way for Mick and Susan to pay a small tribute to him.

Mick remembers the time he got to pay the great man his respects: “I met him once after a gig at Vicar Street. I didn’t want to really bother him but he was very kind. We just chatted for a small little while.

“I was a big fan of his. My family were big fans of his so I knew of his music since I was about 15.

“And I would often do that song at gigs are maybe another song, Hello in There or something like that.

“So it was quite natural. I think you (Susan) knew of that song as well?

“It was natural for us to do that.”

Susan adds: “I never met him but obviously his songs are amazing.

“But we had actually sang Angel From Montgomery a couple of times at gigs previously so it kind of felt right to pay tribute for the Courage Other Voices video.

“It was a really lovely thing to do. I think that was within the week of him passing.

“We had played that song over the last couple of Christmas gigs so there was an arrangement there and pre-Covid, we had shared that with audiences and it had been well received.

“It did feel very natural to do it again.”

Can you remember what you spoke to him about, Mick? “I think I just gave him a compliment on the gig that he had just done. His wife was there and his son.

“I kind of felt like I was intruding a little bit. I think he hadn’t had his dinner before the gig and he was getting ready to eat so I didn’t want to stay too long.

“But he gave me a compliment. He said he liked some of the songs I had been writing so that was very nice to hear.

“I went away happy and I drank on joyously through the night.”

So is this a one-off or could we see Mick and Susan singing together again after this album is done and dusted and toured and all?

“We haven’t really spoken about it,” Mick answers. “I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.

“But in the meantime, after this one, I’d say we’ll do an album each of our own at least before we think about that.

“But for sure I wouldn’t rule it out.”

Susan adds: “Absolutely, we’re both working on some songs at the moment.

“Actually Mick helped me to co-write some songs that I’m recording at the moment for another album. He’s still helping me behind the scenes on my solo endeavors which is amazing.

“It’s day by day for now but who knows what will happen in the future?”

Speaking of Susan’s album, her sophomore album was due last year.

It was recorded but does this mean she has started from scratch on a new collection since the pandemic hit? “Yes, the album that I made was very quickly pieced together.

“The songs don’t really feel as relevant now.

“Things kind of feel different and I guess what I have to say feels different and the mood of the music feels like it needs to evolve so I’m happy to just have that album as its placeholder in time.

“Maybe something will come of it further down the line but I feel like anything else that’s going to come now will be more sensitive to the time that we’re in.”

Mick feels the crisis has inevitably seeped into his work.

“It has possibly kind of informed some of the songs that I wrote throughout the lockdown.

“I suppose you can’t help it. It’s a big thing to happen to the world.

“It feels like anyone who will live to remember this time, I guess they’ll become a part of history in a way.

“It is a global event so it has to seep its way into your consciousness.

“However much it has gotten in, I’ve been still writing songs thankfully so I’ve got a good batch of them built up and ready to record and feeling happy about that.”

Will we see the duo bring their collaboration to London? Mick says: “Absolutely, yeah. I think we have a tentative tour plan for the UK and Europe in November.

“So we’re hoping it comes into reality. It’s always good to travel and gig, good craic.”

The single Chain Reaction is out now.

The album In The Game is out in September.

For more information, go to son.ie or mickflannery.com.

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