It’s a special moment when a classically trained singer finds herself covering MIA to the delight of drunken bridesmaids. Mel Flannery, a Wisconsin-born Manhattan School of Music graduate, shares some inspiring words about starting her career working the day shift at an Irish pub, climbing her way into soul singing gigs, and heroically starting her own wedding band business to save brides and grooms from bad disco.
The L: Where in Brooklyn do you live and how long have you been here?
Mel Flannery: I live in Crown Heights, and I’ve been in the city for 9 and half years. I moved here to go to Manhattan School of Music — which is a good place to get into if you’re trying to convince your parents that you can leave Wisconsin when you’re 18!
The L: Did you always plan on studying jazz singing?
Flannery: I took classical singing all through middle school and high school, but I’m really, really happy that I went with jazz when I went to college. I learned so much about general musicianship — writing and arranging — and I got so much personal attention because there were only two people in my program in my grade.
The L: What kind of work do you do as a jazz singer?
Flannery: A lot of the work I do isn’t really jazz. I do some soul and rock background-singing. I do some recording work here and there. My band, Mel Flannery Trucking Co. is rooted in soul but with a heavy jazz influence. It’s been categorized as avant-soul. Our last album is in Best Buy! I’ve also had a great background singing gig for a while with Nigel Hall, and he’s part of Royal Family Records so we’ve done a lot of shows with [label mates] Soulive and Lettuce. They’re great players, so it’s been really fun to be along for the ride on that. And Royal Family is putting on BOWLIVE III, a two-week residency at Brooklyn Bowl, starting tonight, where I will be singing some backgrounds periodically. Also, recording stuff for demos and jingles is something I’ve been really enjoying, too.
The L: And you’re in a wedding band, as well?
Flannery: Yes, my band that I started about a year ago is called MIXTAPE: a cover band for hipsters — for the bride and groom who don’t want the Bee Gees but do want the Black Keys. I can’t imagine myself or any of my friends wanting to hire a cover band that only plays disco. It’s a tragedy when you go to the wedding and all you see are old people and little kids on the dance floor.
The L: So that’s what inspired you to start the band?
Flannery: Yes, and another big reason for starting it was the song “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. A traditional wedding band wouldn’t know it, but it’s so joyous, it’s a duet — what kind of idiot wouldn’t want that song at their wedding? Plus, it’s just great to have a project that I actually get paid for. It’s a living wage, and I get to hire all my friends as musicians.
The L: How many people are in Mixtape?
Flannery: The smallest band is 6 pieces, but I can also book an 8-piece or a 10-piece. We can add a trumpet and a trombone to cover Sufjan Stevens or that latest Bon Iver record that has a lot of brass on it.
The L: So what’s the most popular request you get for the first dance as bride and groom?
Flannery: I’ve been really surprised that a lot of people want the Bright Eyes song “First Day of my Life.”
The L: Have you gotten any difficult song requests?
Flannery: I’ve been horrified that I have to do “Paper Planes” by MIA — almost everyone requests it and it’s like, “Alright, here goes! Time to get over myself!” Ultimately it’s really fun.
The L: You’re a busy woman. And you squeeze in bartending, too?
Flannery: I bartend at the Crown Inn, which is in Crown Heights — it’s a beer and whiskey bar, with a great selection of scotches, bourbons and ryes. It has grown-up clientele, not children coming in ordering shots of well vodka. The place has integrity.
The L Magazine: Have you had any particularly bad experiences behind other bars?
Flannery: Oh, yes! Unfortunately, yes. I’ve worked in too many other places. My very first bartending job was at the Baggot Inn [a now-closed West Village pub], and they gave me the day shift to start. We opened at 11am, so you can imagine the kind of clientele that comes in for a beer at that time — at a place that serves no food. There was one time when I had to open on St. Patrick’s Day. It was a Saturday, and we were really close to part of the parade route, and there was already a line at the door before I started my opening duties. Soon, I’m making 20 million Irish Car Bombs and washing dishes for myself at the same time. Then, my manager comes in and asks, “Why are you using so many glasses? There are plastic ones.” Great! I’m sweating, I haven’t gone to the bathroom in hours, and there are people doing coke on the bar when I turn my back to them. And I’m feeling like, if I can do this, I can do basically anything.
Photo by Kim Huston