Michael Flynn is a singer/songwriter with a knack for capturing life’s nuances in chipper, succinct sketches. A longtime contributor to the Charleston music scene under the moniker Slow Runner, Flynn’s latest chapter has him navigating parenthood, solo music endeavors and the new COVID realities in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Grateful Web recently caught up with the musician to discuss the changing times, his unique creative process, and his timely new album, Survive With Me.
GW: How are you holding up?
MF: Not bad, all things considered. I'm intensely introverted so forcing me to abstain from social interaction is like forcing Garfield to eat more lasagna. FINE. I do miss friends and playing shows though, and I’m tired of the anxiety that now hangs over every interaction.
GW: It sounds like with your band, Slow Runner, you moved up the ladder pretty fast. A high profile label deal, big national support tours--how did that unfold? How do you think that paved the way for your future music endeavors?
MF: Yeah we had a quick steep climb for a little while there, which was amazing but had its downsides. It jump-started my career and led to many other wonderful things. 'Getting signed to a major label by Clive Davis' now sounds like a vintage story from a bygone era, but it wasn’t the classic tale of fame and riches. The changing music industry was in freefall at the time thanks to piracy and the internet, so it was more like being invited to DisneyWorld just in time to watch it burn to the ground. Plus it altered our trajectory in that we leapfrogged past a lot of stops on the prototypical path towards building a professional music career; we didn’t have to learn to grow a fan base ’the right way.’ We went from sporadic shows to international touring so we never put in the time to build up a grassroots regional following which is a nice thing to fall back on when the labels stop calling. If I could do it over again I’d still take the same path, but it wasn’t a clear win by any means.
GW: You recently relocated to Saluda, NC. What’s the difference between the Charleston music scene where you came from, and the landscape there? Have you had a chance to really dig in?
MF: When I came up in the Charleston music scene I was in my 20s, had no family, and could go out every night to everybody’s shows and ingratiate myself into the scene that way. Moving here and trying to find my place in the Asheville/WNC scene has been more challenging in that I can’t dive in with that same reckless abandon. Doubly so thanks to the virus. That said, everybody I’ve met has been incredible towards me and I feel like I’m slowly carving out a spot. Charleston doesn’t really have a WNCW or a Grey Eagle or any number of other legit institutions that heroically support the regional scene. It seems to be a little more ’singer/songwriter’ friendly here too, and there are so many inspiring songwriters I’ve learned from and befriended. I miss my Charleston friends but this feels like the right spot, right now.
GW: Let’s talk your new album, Survive With Me. The material has a heaviness to it, cleverly masked behind dry humor and upbeat melodies. Is that a go-to for you?
MF: Uhhh yeah! I’ve always enjoyed music like Pernice Brothers (an incredible NE band I fell in love with living in Boston in the early aughts) where the melody and harmony are accessible and beautiful but hiding lyrics that speak to weightier subjects than bubble gum puppy love. I’m one of those nerds who pays attention to the lyrics so I like for there to be a payoff to that, but if someone just wants to skim along the surface enjoying themselves and humming along absentmindedly that’s cool too.
GW: You sing a lot about relationships beyond romance--the “human experience.” How does songwriting help you to make sense of the world and the people around you?
MF: Part of that is just where I’m at in my life; the songs I wrote in my 20s were more focused on romance but you can’t write that stuff forever. Meanwhile the impulse to write and synthesize your emotions into art doesn’t go away. I think the older you get, the more you engage with the big picture world around you and the more you are able to romanticize the beauty and danger of mundane grown up life. In a way everything becomes more perilous because you realize how the things you once took for granted are in fact precarious and precious. Getting older is harrowing but your understanding of love deepens and widens to include stuff besides the girl across the room.
GW: What song from the album best describes where you are in your musical journey?
MF: I think the first track ‘But It Lived’ is sort of the mission statement of the record, not so much lyrically but musically. It introduces all the main characters of the play and was really hard to write and arrange. I think I’ve grown as a pianist and musician with this batch of songs, and I’m less insecure about expressing myself with music, and that song feels like 'Exhibit A' of that growth.
GW: It feels like you pulled out all the stops for this album. You have horns, marimba, banjo, synth, and of course your signature piano all making cameos here. Did these arrangements feel out of the box for you?
MF: They did, but I need that. I can’t make the same record twice. My first solo album Face in the Cloud was all about experimenting with synths and electronics. My last one Pretend Like was about playing around with string arrangements. For this one I wanted to try and harness the energy of 80s pop without leaning so heavily on synths, so I used a lot of the non-synth pop elements of the era that I love: Phil Collins drums, Paul Simon’s adventures with world music elements, the ubiquitous saxophone, etc. It was a blast and made the recording process feel exciting and new. I’m sure the next thing I do will have a different set of characters. It’s a trick I learned long ago to gin up inspiration.
GW: How do you build that sound that you’re looking for? Or is it more of an experimental, “figure it out as you go” situation?
MF: There is a lot of conscious decision making as outlined in the last question but that doesn’t happen until several songs have been written and I’m starting to get a feel for where the group of songs are pulling me. So there’s lots of experimenting early on in the writing phase, but generally by the time half the album is written I have a pretty good idea of the direction I want to go as far as building out the sound of a record.
GW: In addition to your solo work, you also write for TV shows and video games. That’s a tough business to get into! How’d you cut your teeth? Was that something you always wanted to do, or was it more of an opportunity that fell in your lap?
MF: Yeah I did that a lot for a while, and I’m still doing some but I’ve slowed down recently. It is fun but creatively draining and songwriting is still my first love. I got into it via an amazing guy I played music with in college (who, coincidentally, I roped into playing drums on most of Survive With Me). He was starting a development studio and knew from our epic Goldeneye sessions back in the day that I had the nerd cred to help bring his vision to life. I had no idea what I was doing for the first several years but it was great fun trying to figure it out. I learned a lot about arranging and the relief that comes from making music that is NOT tied to self expression. Writing for an assignment, with lots of constraints, made me a better composer for sure.
GW: Last year, you wrote a song for the indie film All These Small Moments featuring Molly Ringwald. That must have been a fun collaboration. Are there any other co-writes in your future?
MF: Actually my friend and frequent collaborator William Fitzsimmons has a new single out that I wrote called ’No Promises’. It appears on my new record too. I’ve been collaborating with people here in WNC as well and nothing big to announce there yet but lots of cool ideas percolating. I love cowriting, however awkward and unsuccessful it can sometimes feel. It’s just fun to play with the building blocks of songs, and you can learn (and relearn) a lot from other writers at all levels.
GW: Are there any “silver linings” you’ve found throughout this whole pandemic? What’s keeping you moving forward right now?
MF: Certainly none of the silver linings make this current existence preferable over the old one, but I’ve really enjoyed playing streaming shows and being able to connect with listeners from far flung places I can’t afford to tour often even in good times. Plus playing shows in your pajamas at 3pm without having to leave your house is pretty great. Despite all the headwinds that the pandemic has brought, I’ve never been more in love with playing music or more certain of its vitality as an essential force for good in culture. The world feels wildly unfair and unhealthy right now, and music in its small way can help rebalance the scales and beautify any given moment. That’s a sacred power that I’m so grateful for both as a listener and as a performer.
GW: Anything you’d like to add?
MF: Nope. Thank you for helping to get the word out on this project!