Music

Tommy Fleming celebrates 30 years of music with Northern Ireland gigs

As Sligo singer Tommy Fleming reflects about 30 years in the music industry he tells Jenny Lee about his new album, why he hates the word celebrity and how he is contemplating retiring from touring

All These Years celebrates Tommy Fleming’s 30 year career

UNIQUE, honest, emotive, powerful and dynamic are some of the terms which have been used to describe Tommy Fleming voice – a voice that has reached out through a myriad of genres.

Having grown up on a farm and worked in his local cattle mart in Aclare, Co Sligo as a teenager, the iconic Irish folk singer rose to fame in the early 1990s when by chance, Derry singer-songwriter Phil Coulter came into the pub where 21-year-old Fleming was singing.

Coulter asked Fleming to be a supporting act on his tour, playing the likes of New York's Carnegie Hall, and he soon established himself as a solo artist.

For 30 years Fleming has shared his gift and emerging from prolonged lockdown he is delighted to be performing live again, with four gigs planned in the north this February.

And while the Mayo-based singer is feeling excited to get back to what he does best, he admits feeling “extremely apprehensive”.

“I'm apprehensive wondering if the people like the show and if we've still got it. But most of all, I'm worried if people feel safe enough to come out again. That's natural.”

Accompanied by his band, Fleming promises a unique opening to his show, relevant to each city or county he visits.

“There are some good songs in there, some great stories attached to them and a touch of nostalgia.”

And whilst dates are also planned for England and Scotland, Fleming teases, “I might hang my boots up after this one”.

“I'm tempted. It's been an absolute emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows, and especially lows in the past couple of years with the blow given to the entertainment industry as a result of the pandemic.

“I'm OK. I've had 30 great years, well 28 if you count the pandemic, but there are artists and musicians who just started and have been wiped. It's tough,” adds the 50-year-old.

Marking his three decades in the business, Fleming has released a brand new album entitled All These Years.

It mixes hope, history, love, friendship and respect through a variety of tracks, which include popular favourites like Isle of Innisfree, Come What May, I Dreamed a Dream, Raglan Road, Carrickfergus and Hardtimes.

Whilst initially having planned a compilation album, thanks to the extra time lockdown presented to him, the project evolved into a triple CD, including 13 new tracks.

“This is the most invested I've been in an album,” says Fleming, who as well as keeping his garden in immaculate condition, devoted more attention than ever before to the album.

The album includes duets recorded with Vince Gill and Donegal singer Diarmuid McGee in the past, as well as a unique version of the Dire Straits hit Why Worry with Elaine Paige.

“I rang Elaine during lockdown, knowing that she wouldn't be busy and she was delighted to get involved. I asked her if it was OK if I explain what I want and she said by all means. At the end of the conversation I joked with Tina (his wife and manager) that I couldn't believe I was telling Elaine Paige how to sing,” he recalls.

One of the new tracks on the album, The Bend in the Ocean, co-written with Conal Early, demonstrates the depth of thought in which Fleming puts into his craft, with lyrics from the song being written over a period of 20 years.

“I find inspiration in the strangest places,” he explains. “The title came from when I was flying home from Australia in 2019 and woke up from a nap to look at the progress chart and found myself at the tip of the Indian Ocean.

“Another line comes from my memory of being in Sudan doing charity work just after 9/11, when the planes were grounded for weeks. I was lying on a hammock under a mosquito net at night and thinking whether my loved ones at home where seeing the same stars as me.”

Fleming almost lost his life in 1998, after being involved in a car accident. Although he suffered a broken neck and was told he may never walk again, such was his determination and resilience he bounced back and was performing just six months later.

I ask him if it's the same strength shown then that accounts for his success.

“I hope I'm good at my job, but I would never ever say I am successful,” he replies humbly. “I've been tagged on those things on Facebook where people are asked their favourite celebrity, but I'm not a celebrity for God's sake.

“I love my job and I love walking out on stage; but I just don't like the attention it gets. I've been asked to do shows like Dancing with the Stars, but that for me would bring too much attention,” adds Fleming who has always strived to keep a work-life balance and separate his personal and professional lives.

“My social media is all very work oriented. The odd time I might post a pic of the dog or me out for a run - but that's as far as personal as I go with it.”

During lockdown Fleming did invite fans into his home on a Saturday evening for his popular show Tavern Tunes, streamed live from his home-built pub, complete with bar stools, and Heineken and Guinness on tap.

Whilst it connected with 3.5 million viewers, Fleming says he has “no idea” and “doesn't care” about hits and views. “The only way I look at it is I hope it helps somebody.”

So what next for Fleming in terms of career goals and ambitions? Having played the leading role in the 2015 musical drama Paddy about emigration, does a return to acting beckon?

“It's an awful lot of work and a very different discipline. When I did Paddy I had 132 pages of dialogue, which took a lot of learning.

“But what I really love is that for two-and-a-half hours you're somebody else and you can get away with things.

“I've been approached with a few scripts. I was going to do Angela's Ashes, but the dates didn't work out.”

Those he has turned down include a one-man-show based on the life of an artist from the 1800s and a play based loosely around the 1980s Aids epidemic.

But one project Fleming is contemplating is writing a show with his musical director Conal, based in Cricklewood in London.

“There's a lot of things come in and as my mother used to say I “file it under possibilities”. My problem is I never stop thinking. I need to learn how to let the brain relax.”

And when will his fans finally get to read the Tommy Fleming autobiography?

“If I get to 60, and please God health wise I do, I might just write it and tell the real stories. There were a lot of difficult years - then I would definitely have to retire,” he laughs.

:: All These Years is out now. The Tommy Fleming 30th Anniversary Tour plays Belfast's Ulster Hall on February 20, Derry's Millennium Forum on February 25, Omagh's Mellon Country Inn on February 26 and Armagh City Hotel on February 27. For ticket information visit Tommyfleming.com.

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