By Jane Kramer
I first met songwriter Michael Flynn a year ago when he reached out to me via email asking me to join him for a songwriter-in-the-round series he was hosting regularly at The Purple Onion in Saluda where he lives. All I knew about him was that he played piano, moved here from Charleston and was a friend of, and came highly recommended by, Grey Eagle talent buyer and head honcho of Worthwhile Sounds, Jeff Whitworth. That made him alright in my book.
It’s probably better that I didn’t know the sprawling list of accolades and musical accomplishments Michael carried with him at the time, including but not limited to having songs placed in ABC’s drama series Grey’s Anatomy and One Tree Hill, being named one of the top 25 national “Artists to Watch” by Paste Magazine in 2008, signing numerous publishing deals, touring with The Avett Brothers under his former performing moniker, Slow Runner, and having numerous songs featured on MTV, VH1 programs as well as Showtime’s Shameless because I would have been severely intimidated. (He’s so humble that I didn’t know about this laundry list of accolades until I read his press kit later.)
Instead, I just showed up to the gig with an open heart and mind and let myself fall in love with his witty, quirky, self-deprecating and unflinchingly honest songs. One song in, I decided he’s the real deal.
I’ve had the pleasure of building a musical friendship with Michael and collaborating with him on a few duet projects. I hope there will be more. I think I have a lot to learn from this guy in the writing department.
Flynn’s new album, Survive With Me, is as much a pointed, relevant commentary on the current national and global situation that we humans find ourselves in as it is a personal statement about rooting down, facing himself with humor and leaning into a slower-paced life in a small, charming mountain town. I recently caught up with him to learn more about his stunning new full-length release, which is out today on all platforms and at michaelflynn.com.
Jane: I find the songs on this album, particularly taken collectively, to be hugely relevant to the societal/global climate we are living in right now – pandemic and politics and all, and I don’t think that’s just a coincidence (or is it?) But I want to know what you think the role of an artist is (or should be) in our society right now, in particular, in this time of great suffering, division and upheaval.
Michael: So, this is the second album I’ve made since 2016 (the first being 2018’s Pretend Like) and both have been heavily influenced by what I think of as this pervasive societal anxiety that kind of blankets everything and has only worsened in 2020. This feeling that things are spinning apart, that we’re on a leaky boat with no hand on the rudder and malevolent forces are pushing us toward the waterfall at the edge of the world. Even when it’s not something I’m consciously thinking about it’s always there, coloring everything. So some of these songs are sort of me trying to figure out what joy feels like in the midst of that feeling, how love can blossom amidst all of that fog, and some are me legitimately trying to just write a fun song and being unable to keep the state of the world from seeping into the story. Regardless, I think being an artist in 2020 and somehow ignoring that feeling is pretty impossible. It seemed like in the previous decade or two, pop music was hyper-focused on the mythical “tonight” — all that matters is tonight, this party, this specific moment, these specific drugs, etc. So much of that feels cruel and dumb and unlistenable to me right now. I love me some escapism, but I need comfort-food escapism these days. I don’t want to be at the rooftop party that ignores the protests on the street below.
Jane: I’ve always been way partial to making a full-length album for a lot of reasons. In this age of digital music consumption, and with the pressure on artists to continuously put out new music quickly, I love the statement you make by putting out a full-length album of songs that have a deep chronological arc and that are intentionally all related to one another. So many independent artists are not opting to do this anymore, for a host of logistical reasons. Can you tell me about what this decision to put out a full-length album looked like for you, and why?
Michael: It’s funny, I’ve been wanting to NOT release a full length record but these songs all kind of came in a torrent and it felt to me like they all made sense together. They influenced each other; elements like saxophone and marimba showed up in one arrangement and then suddenly they made sense in some others, and soon there was a whole musical setting that they all kind of made sense in and it felt wrong to separate them into smaller EPs or singles. I’ve certainly read all about how you’re supposed to release music in 2020 and it’s not full length records anymore, so I might have done this in a way that doesn’t exactly help my career. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. But I felt like this album wanted to be an album, more-so than any I’ve made before, and I believe too strongly in feelings like that to try and fight them. It’s hard enough to make a thing and give it to people. Seems harder to do that while preventing it from existing in its best, truest form.
Jane: I kind of hate the word “anthem” but I’m going to go ahead and use it here. I want to use it to label the universal truths that you chisel out so poignantly in this song and its irresistible sing-along-a-bility. I think that “Survive With Me” is an anthem, particularly for this very specific point in our national and global history. Did you set out to write it that way? I’d love to know what the kernel of emotion or lived experience was that sparked the song and what you think about anthems.
Michael: This is one of those that kind of started out as a simple love song but I couldn’t keep the world out of it so some climate anxiety got in there. It’s also about that feeling of watching someone close to me break away from her parents’ conservative worldview and choose her own path. Like when Baby chooses to dance with Johnny at the end of Dirty Dancing. I wanted to be the one saying “I’m with you, let’s go, nobody puts Baby in a corner, you’re right and they’re all wrong.” That’s such a galvanizing, song-worthy feeling. And sadly I suspect this is not the last “climate love anthem” people will write.
Jane: One thing I love so much about this album is its richness and diversity in sonic textures. There’s a lot going on there and it’s as important to the story you are telling, I believe, as the songs themselves. Having also engineered and produced your own album, can you talk to me about the more abstract soundscape you built and what it looks like for you to build and play with textures in your recordings?
Michael: It took a lot of satellite recording from friends: marimba was recorded in Charleston; sax in Portland; cello in NYC; drums in Charleston and Nashville; banjo in WNC; mixing and additional production in Los Angeles. Lots of friends and collaborators doing special work from afar. As the songs were being written and arranged, I started to really see the band I wanted to play this album, and it was a huge eclectic undertaking that I’d never have been able to pull off without them. I wanted that mix of musical personalities, people who’ve inspired me, to add some unpredictability and humanity to the songs and I was lucky that so many folks said yes. My first solo record was very electronic and synth-heavy. The second was more somber with mainly just piano and my first real attempts at orchestral arrangements. I wanted this one to be vibrant and kinetic and musically fun (even if the lyrics are often pretty dark).
Jane: The song “Saluda” took my breath away when I first heard you perform it live and you capture the bittersweetness of it so perfectly on this recording. It’s equal measures ache and hope to me. You talk about rooting down, embracing a more settled and rural life, watching your daughter grow up in this tiny, mountain town. You come from a larger city and have spent a ton of time on the road touring. How has this chapter of your life affected you and your music?
Michael: I am so in love with my quiet little life here, and this song is about that as much as it is about a place. I’ve toured all over and I love it. I love how energizing it is to constantly be in new places meeting new people and I love the forced simplification of living out of a suitcase. But the right balance for me is going out and experiencing all of that and then leaving it out there and returning to a small, slow, quiet place where none of that matters. I feel real lucky to have that. I kind of assumed that I’d never have a family or a traditional existence, so when those things materialized for me I was surprised to find that they actually kind of agree with me. And for a while I struggled with the idea of how do you write songs about mundane contentedness? The songs I wrote in my 20s were all about the drama and frustrations of romantic beginnings and failures. So it’s a relief to feel like I can still make art out of my experiences and it can still resonate with people. Or at least myself.
Jane: I love the healthy dose of self-deprecation and honesty in all of these songs, particularly in “Easy To Love” and “Satan Take The Wheel.” And the sense of acceptance and unwavering hope in “Survive With Me“ and “Saluda.” I’d love to know what you feel like you’ve learned about yourself through writing and recording these.
Michael: This is definitely the closest I’ve yet come to realizing my sense of humor in songs. I’ve always failed at that. I’ve always felt like a relatively funny guy but when I’d sit down to write suddenly that whole side of my personality was inaccessible, only barely surfacing here and there amidst pervasive, exhausting self-seriousness. So I think I’ve grown as a songwriter with this batch of tunes. It shouldn’t be surprising that the more insecurities and neuroses you can deal with and remove from the equation, the easier it is to put your whole self into a song. I constantly look back on creative decisions I’ve made and wish they were less driven by some form of insecurity I was oblivious to at the time. Nothing obscures your vulnerability and authenticity like fear, and those are the things that make songs meaningful. And I’m at a point in my life and career where I’m able to tune out a lot of that static and just let my heart wander. So by that metric I’m more proud of this record than anything else I’ve ever made.