Life

Tommy Fleming on 26 years of song and new acting success

Sligo singing star Tommy Fleming is headed back to the north for a run of shows, including stops in Derry and Belfast. David Roy spoke to Fleming about 26 years in the music business and why he's recently branched out into acting

Tommy Fleming returns to the north next week

TOMMY Fleming has enjoyed a string of hit albums and sold-out concerts during the course of his 26 years as a professional musician, a period which has seen the Co Sligo singer performing all over the world with the likes of Phil Coulter, De Dannan and as a solo artist.

Fleming was born in the village of Aclare near the Mayo border, an area with a strong musical tradition. Now based in Enniscrone, he released his most recent record The West's Awake to Irish top 10 success in 2014, while last year saw a special 10th anniversary reissue for Voice of Hope, the hit live album documenting his landmark performance at Knock Basilica in December 2004.

However, the 44-year-old father-of-two (who is managed by his wife, Tina) has recently won fresh acclaim in a whole new field – as an actor.

Last September, Fleming took on the lead role as Patrick Murphy in the new play Paddy, a drama centred on an Irishman's trials and tribulations in London from the mid-1960s to the late 90s.

"I loved it but it's been the biggest challenge I've ever had in my life," Fleming confesses of treading the boards around Ireland in the well-received production he co-wrote with Gerry Carney and Tommy Marren.

"My dad always used to say 'always do something that scares the s**** out of ya at least once a week' and this has been the most I've ever risen to that.

"It's 16 years since I acted: I'd done a few plays before and had a small role in a film called The Blue Note – but I wouldn't even Google that one because it's the biggest raspberry there ever was.

"I based Patrick's character on my dad and my uncles. They actually went away to England and led that life, which was full of loneliness and depression. It's kind of a tribute to them, as well as all the lost Irish who are still there."

Paddy will be back out on tour in September before crossing the water for an English run in Watford, Birmingham and Manchester during November.

However, before that, you can see Fleming and his band in action this month as their current Irish tour snakes its way north towards dates in Cookstown, Derry and Belfast.

"I still can't believe I'm getting away with it after 25 years," jokes the singer, who had just played sold-out dates in Clonmel, Ennis, Kilkenny and Waterford when we spoke earlier this week.

"I mean, I've been gigging since I was 14, but to be doing it in the public eye for so long and to still be receiving such fantastic support from people is fantastic – it's unbelievable."

As on previous tours, Fleming and his faithful band of long-serving musicians ("We're like a bunch of friends, we all enjoy hanging out together," he enthuses) are once again being backed by an orchestra to help them deliver full-bodied renditions of some of his favourite tunes plucked from across 12 studio albums.

"We're pushing as many songs that are representative of significant events in my life into the two and half hours we're doing every night," he reveals.

"It's turned out to be a great night of storytelling and songs – I'm revealing things I would never have revealed to the public in my life.

"I think that's coming with age: I'm 45 this year, and I'm just not worried about what people think any more."

After nearly 30 years in the business, Fleming has certainly endured his fair share of ups and downs: his debut album Different Side of Life was released in 1996, just three years after his talent was spotted and nurtured by Derry legend Phil Coulter.

Yet a near-fatal car crash in 1998 left the singer with a broken neck and a painful recovery, almost ending his career just as it was taking off.

The death of his parents Paddy and Annie in 2012 was another massive biggest blow, yet Fleming once again bounced back to channel his grief into the cathartic Begin album.

"I'm not a religious man, but I would be spiritual in my own way," he tells me.

"I carry a handkerchief belonging to my dad and rosary beads belonging to my mum and that's as far as my religion goes. They're the ones I talk to and ask for help."

It's therefore ironic that one of his most legendary gigs should have taken place on holy ground.

The Voice of Hope concert at Knock Basilica in 2004 was one of the high points of Tommy Fleming's career, the subsequent album and DVD becoming chart-topping hits that firmly reestablished the singer as a force to be reckoned with.

However, it almost didn't happen.

"It was a huge risk," he tells me of the show, which was subsequently broadcast to millions on US television.

"We mortgaged our house to do it and it took a year of discussion to set up, during which I became very good friends with the head man, the late Monsignor Joe Quinn.

"One day we were walking around the chapel together and he asked me why I wasn't genuflecting. I just told him that I'd be a very big hypocrite if I did.

"He says, 'That's fine by me' – then we went back to his office, had a nip of whiskey together and he told me 'You can have my Basilica, just give it back to me the way you found it'.

"I asked him why: 'Anyone else would have genuflected', he told me. So he appreciated me being genuine rather than getting on like a holy Joe."

Blessing received, the mammoth task of converting the Basilica into a venue suitable for live performance began as 5,000 tickets flew out the door of the Flemings' home office.

All was going well until the night of the show, when electricity blackouts struck the Mayo region. With the venue cast into darkness and showtime fast approaching, Fleming and his team resorted to using generators to ensure the show would go on.

"I'll always remember standing with Joe Quinn backstage beforehand, on the verge of being sick with worry," the singer recalls.

"I looked at him just said 'Joe, I'm f*****. But he put his arm round me and said 'Don't you be worrying about a thing, the Good Lady is looking down on you'."

No wonder this hard-working Irish talent has been 'getting away with it' for so long:

Tommy Fleming might just be living proof that God loves a trier.

:: Tommy Fleming, Thursday February 18, Burnavon Theatre, Cookstown / Friday February 19, Millennium Forum, Derry / Saturday February 27, Ulster Hall, Belfast / Sunday February 28, Bord Gais Energy Theatre, Dublin. Full ticket info at Tommyfleming.com.

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