There are eight new songs on Pretend Like, the new album from Slow Runner Michael Flynn, but its most telling one might be “Old Soul 2,” a new arrangement of a track from his first solo album, Face in the Cloud.
The original “Old Soul,” like all of the songs off that record, was built on a bed of drum loops and synths that created a romantic, delirious soundscape from which Flynn’s songs seem to gradually emerge and subside within.
It’s a sterling example of Flynn’s penchant for layered, detailed production, both on that record and in his work in Slow Runner, but that kind of arrangement can often have the effect of blunting some of his most powerful weapons — his ability to craft indelible hooks and sharply written pop-rock tunes, and a rich, mournful voice that can wrap a song up full of longing and regret.
Those two things take center stage in “Old Soul 2” and Pretend Like, with Flynn stripping songs down to just a keyboard or piano and his voice and often augmenting with nothing but lushly composed string and horn parts. The approach has the effect of amplifying his songwriting smarts. Witness how the winding melody line in the old song finds new emotional resonance as Flynn slows down his delivery so that the words really hit hard: “You’re a blind leap/ You’re a heartbeat/ You’re an old soul,” he sings tenderly. “You’re a songbird/ You’re a bad word/ You’re an old soul.”
“I started out thinking that I wanted to pick up from Face in the Cloud and push myself further in that direction,” Flynn admits. “But as I actually was trying to write songs, it was just uninspiring.”
What did inspire Flynn, as it turns out, was returning to early Tori Amos records, the ones he had discovered in high school in the ’90s when piano and keyboard rock music was a bit hard to find in the heady days of grunge.
“That was my way into feeling like there was something out there that I can sort of relate to [as a keyboard player], and even though I’m totally different, those first two or three records were kind of game-changers for me,” he explains. “I’ve always wanted to make [that kind of] music, but I just can’t make myself, generally speaking, a delicate-enough sounding thing to actually do it.”
He also liked the idea of writing a batch of songs that he could play live “without a ton of machines assisting me,” and it fit with his usual M.O. of “rebelling against the thing I did previously.”
The results somehow feel revelatory for a songwriter who Charleston has known for more than a decade and a half. “Greater Charlotte,” the first single from the record, feels almost plaintive in its opening moments, with the kind of stillness that would have been anathema to any Flynn or Slow Runner project before. But you feel the lyric, a midlife reclamation of purpose, intensely, and when Flynn launches one of his patented made-for-a-soundtrack choruses, it’s all the more sweeping, particularly when the strings come in.
And the strings come in a lot — every song gets some sort of distinct addition, all composed by Flynn himself.
“I’ve been dabbling in string arrangements — I did a few on the last Slow Runner record, and I’ve done a few for friends,” he says of his past experience composing for orchestral arrangements. “I really wanted to kind of nerd out in that direction, and this was obviously the perfect situation for that. But it was a ton of work. I worked harder on this record between the writing, trying to get the lyrics just right, and arranging the strings, a lot of hours went into it.”
Flynn considers himself “pretty much a layman” when it comes to the string and orchestral world, and he penned all of the parts on piano first and then enlisted a professional arranger from Nashville, Danny Mitchell, to check over his charts for any technical improvements or changes that would make more sense for string players. And while much of the record was recorded at Flynn’s North Carolina home and at Truphonic Studios in Charleston, Nashville session players were brought to Flynn’s Slow Runner bandmate Josh Kaler’s studio in Music City to lay down the strings.
“I just sat in the control room trying not to cry because it was so emotional to hear the stuff that I’d worked so hard on come together with these,” Flynn vividly recalls.
Because it’s a bit of a throwback, Flynn thinks of the new album “the least commercially viable thing I’ve ever done in that it’s not for everybody, you’re not going to jump up and dance to it.”
Nonetheless, he plans to play more shows behind it than he has in a while, itching to get out there while he still can.
Flynn left Charleston with his family last year to travel some, eventually settling in Saluda, N.C. in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s the settled feeling of growing older — a lyrical theme which pervades the record — that is motivating him to get out and play these songs.
“I’m getting older and my kids are getting older, and I don’t know how many more records I’m even going to make or how much I’m within sight of the years where I’m going to be like, all right, I’m, I’m too old to tour,” he points out. “But I’m not there yet. I’m still blurry — if you’re sitting in the back and you’re not really looking at me too closely, I could be in my early-30s, you know? I’m still at an age where I can do all that stuff, and I want to do it. And I’m really proud of this record.”