Interview: Singer-Songwriter Michael Flynn Talks Orchestral Compositions On New Album
There's a weight to life. Sometimes it's heavy, unwieldy and unrelenting in its attempts to throw us off course, but sometimes it's light, like gentle nudges floating alongside us. In his prolific career, musician Michael Flynn has managed to capture both these sensations.
As a founding member of indie-pop band Slow Runner, he helped make palatable the heft of life courtesy of geek-rock rhythms and tongue-in-cheek narrative ("You're still lonely, right? You're still only dating the pillow and the ashtray"). His songwriting credits boast collaborations with heartbreakers like William Fitzsimmons (breakups hurt but damn does this duo make 'em sound good). In his solo work, Flynn (a notoriously witty and sardonic character) taps into a sincerity unrivaled by his previous work. He gets real and raw, bittersweet truths pouring out of his latest album, Pretend Like, released earlier this year.
Michael Flynn has been a fixture of the Charleston music scene for nearly 20 years, seducing the community into falling for him with his synth-laden experimentation and home productions. As we grow, though, we change and we move on. Nobody knows this better than Flynn (you'll see what we mean once you listen to Pretend Like) who now resides with his family in the mountains of North Carolina. Thankfully, his quality of work hasn't changed with the distance. On Pretend Like, we get nine tracks of intimate indie (it's hard to label Flynn's music... it's not pop, it's not rock, hell, it's not even quite indie, but it is mesmerizing) efforts backed often by shimmering orchestral arrangements.
Pretend Like opens with "Greater Charlotte," a standout track on the record and a really lovely introduction to what follows. Here, we get the gentle sweep of rapid-fire piano plinks, unceasing and slightly desperate, as Flynn's voice acts a perfect vehicle for knots-in-the-stomach lines like "You never know how the dark gets in you / Years later, you're still shoveling out the smoke." Next comes "Great Gasp," blooming immediately with a rush of strings that grows in urgency as Flynn poetically, subtly reflects on the state of our world and the inevitable destruction that will undo us. On "Burning Bridge," a tender arrangement leads the piece, comprised of percussive slaps (wavering in their impact) and melodic piano, all ringing beneath Flynn's ghostly harmonies. The lyrical treasure "Church Clothes" might have found its way onto a Jason Isbell x Bahamas collab (yeah, it's a stretch, but we can dream), winding with a sexy swagger and deep, thumping basslines cut by the churn and sparkle of tropically-tinged rhythms.
The middle of Pretend Like is marked by "Post-Butterfly," the record's sole instrumental track. It's just a smidge longer than two minutes -- the shortest on the album -- but it's a gorgeous piece, resounding and robust with wailing strings and fleeting bursts of percussive tinkles. On "Professional Network," we get major Yellow Ostrich vibes as phantasmal echos reverberate throughout the piece and splashy electro-pop rhythms pulse beneath Flynn's frantic vocals. "Get Old" is one of Pretend Like's most earnest pieces, a poignant reflection on loving and being loved. It's a heartbreaker, tenderly pleading with mortality to "please, let me get old" in order to have the golden opportunity to celebrate life (its loves and its losses) for as long as possible. Led by a saccharine piano line and awash in emphatic strings standing their ground, willing to fight, the track is nothing short of a masterpiece.
But then we get "You Leave An Echo," yet another mind-bogglingly expert track. Flynn's voice is boyish, somehow, not as distressed as it is at other moments, but simply pretty and thoughtful. When he sings, "Love couldn't keep the wolves away," something seems to unravel among the thwacks of percussion and dazzling chimes, and we'd be hard-pressed not to say that that something is love itself, because that's what this album is soaked in. Pretend Like ends with "Old Soul 2," an homage to Flynn's own song "Old Soul" off his last album, Face In The Cloud. The original version had a quiet vocal delivery coated in distant electronic treatment resulting in a punchy, slightly morose soundscape. His new take with "Old Soul 2" instead offers more melodic vocals atop a piano-led orchestral arrangement, more monumentally cinematic this time, but still maintaining the emotion of the original.
Pretend Like is a supreme effort, dripping in stunning revelations about the trajectories we take to catch up to life and love. To do this, Michael Flynn (a musical mastermind of unrivaled, infinite talent) adopts chest-opening honesty and introduces it to beautifully profound swells and blooms of string-based orchestration. The result, then, is a collection of spellbinding love letters to life itself: that headstrong courier of both tragedy and triumph.
The Music Mermaid: First, can you tell The Music Mermaid a little about yourself and your music?
Michael Flynn: I’m essentially a bumbling fool in all aspects of life except music. Growing up it was the one thing I could do without any faking involved... so now as a partially evolved adult, I write and sing songs about the things I’m going through, which at this point includes love, fatherhood, fear of death via bad presidents, and social media fatigue. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?
TMM: Last time we spoke must have been 4 or 5 years ago when you chatted with me for Buzz Artist about your work. If I remember correctly, you had just recently become a father and you had some really interesting things to say about that journey. Years later, how’s fatherhood treating you? In what ways does your daughter influence your work?
MF: Fatherhood is good. My daughter is six and is an absolute firecracker. Having a kid really helps keep me from drowning in my own self-absorption. It also kind of helps me understand the value of life and time. You have a kid, you fall in love with them as they turn into a real person, and you immediately start doing the math of how much time you have with them, what age they’ll probably be when you die, etc. You wish you’d had them earlier so the time with them could have been as long as possible, and you regret never even thinking about the whole having kids thing from that side of the equation. And with that mindset, all of your relationships are richer, your appreciation for your parents goes deeper, and there’s a visceral gratitude for just being alive every day that wasn’t there before. And that all ends up in songs.
TMM: What was the production process like for your most recent album, Pretend Like?
MF: I spent about a year writing the songs, recording demos and agonizing over string arrangements, then last fall I did a week in Nashville recording the strings and some other stuff, and I got a few friends to pitch in too on some odds and ends elsewhere. I recorded some of it at home too. It was easily the hardest I’ve ever worked on a record, even with all the help I got.
TMM: Your work on this record is so grandiose, so orchestral, but in the most beautifully unassuming ways. Can you talk a little about the way your mind works in regards to crafting these arrangements?
MF: I’ve always wanted to do an album with string arrangements and piano, but it’s an intimidating kind of mountain to climb. I didn’t want it to be this grandiose, pretentious statement, so I tried to keep the songs ‘small’ and sparse so that it wasn’t overwhelming. Only a few songs have drums and most of the treatment of vocals and instruments are very close and intimate. The idea was maybe if we keep it small, then the strings will just add emotion and not so much size. [Editor's note: Nailed it.]
TMM: This is sort of a concept album, really, about getting older and also just being. Being a person, being a father, being a son, being somebody who loves and is loved. What was the songwriting process like?
MF: It was an emotional album to write. Like for a lot of people, the 2016 election was a gut-punch for me, and there’s been this ominous paranoia in the background of everyday life since then. So much of the writing of these songs was informed by me trying to figure out what love looks like in that world, what happiness looks like, and how to avoid going crazy or looking away.
TMM: Your career has been hugely collaborative (Slow Runner, working with William Fitzsimmons, etc). What are the advantages and disadvantages to working solo vs. collaborating?
MF: I love collaborating and have been really lucky to have people like Josh Kaler (of Slow Runner) and William to do that with, but writing has always for the most part been a solitary process for me, so in that sense, this wasn’t too different. Getting to decide where every single note went was stressful but the control freak inside me loved every minute, and I still got to work with some talented friends (like Kaler) so it wasn’t completely solitary.
TMM: We know it’s cruel to ask, but which song off Pretend Like do you feel closest to and why?
MF: Indeed this is NO FAIR but I’ll play along anyway. If forced to pick, my favorite track off of the record is the instrumental "Post-Butterfly." It splits the record in two and is kind of the simplest distillation of the emotions I wanted this record to provoke. It’s delicate and beautiful and simple and I love it the way you might love a sweet little pet bunny. It can’t do tricks but it sure is soft.
TMM: Who are three musicians you think the world needs to listen to ASAP?
MF: Well the song I’ve been most obsessed with recently is "Late to the Flight" by LUMP. So I’d say that, the new Jon Hopkins, and the Sylvan Esso cover of "There Are Many Ways To Say I Love You" are currently indispensable to me.
TMM: What has been your most memorable music moment so far?
MF: Honestly I think the day we recorded strings last fall. Hearing these songs with absolute masters playing parts I had obsessed over for so long was powerful and moving. Even if nothing else comes from this record, it still gave me that moment and I’ll always be glad I made it just for that.
The Music Mermaid: Finally, what’s next for Michael Flynn?
Michael Flynn: Next up is touring. Also, I just moved to the mountains and bought a truck so I guess it’s time to take up bear wrestling and become the man o’ the woods I was always meant to be. (He said sarcastically). [Editor's note: Or did he?]
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Featured photo by Bailey Davidson.