Last Autumn a rectangular glass box appeared on one of Dublin's busiest streets. Inside, there was a bearded man, eyes shut, singing a song recounting the mundanity of being in the same place and doing the same thing, and trying to wring some semblance of purpose out of life.
Mick Flannery, an Irishman from Cork, was recording the video for "How High," the single from his most recent album, 2016's I Own You, on Dame Street, one of the main arteries of Dublin City. Flannery is known for being an unshowy musician, whose music alone easily captivates an unsuspecting audience. So, spending a dark Saturday night in a box on a busy street in the capital seems an unlikely scenario for the unassuming musician. The experience, however, has stayed with him.
"It was cold in that box, as far as I remember. I had a naggin of whiskey in my back pocket for the duration, so I was sipping away at that, and I was quite happy to be dancing in a box by the end of it.
"But there was people banging on it, putting lipstick marks on it, dancing around in front of it. One lad had an Irish flag and he kind of went mad singing some other song in front of me. I was trying to sing the song I was singing while ignoring him, but he was louder than me. People ran after him with release forms but he just pegged off into the night."
The 33-year-old has released five albums so far, with most of his previous work dealing with the heartache that follows the disintegration of a relationship. He looks back on his earlier work with a critical eye, somewhat unfairly, particularly since the release of the more outward-looking flair of I Own You. When explaining how this happened, Flannery says it's a mixture of growing up and looking outside of himself.
"To me, it felt like turning 30 was the end of my conceited 20s, like thinking about myself too much. Some of the old songs that I sing, some of the romantic songs, feel overwrought to me and it’s like end-of-the-world relationship shit. Sometimes I just feel like shutting the fuck up."
Fortunately, Flannery didn't. He was inspired by affecting world events when he wrote the title track for I Own You.
"The lead song, the ‘I Own You’ song—at the time I was watching the news. There was all sorts of focus on American police brutality, and one of the cases that was fresh on the news was Freddie Grey – the guy they put in the back of the paddy wagon, where they handcuffed him but they didn’t restrain him in the van and they took him around the city – a nickel ride or something, they call it – and he died. They killed him. And then none of them were charged and then there was riots and at the same time there was the images of the Syrian refugees up against fences, chain-link fences. It’s hard to watch all that and not have a response. That’s where that song came from."
Before Mick embarked on his successful music career, he worked as a stonemason. He initially wanted to work in his local pub as a teenager, but his father refused to allow him to because he said that Mick would become an alcoholic. With hindsight, Mick thoughtfully concedes with his father's decision, remarking that "he was probably right." So instead, he became a stonemason and continued to work during the summer break when he was at school and college. While he still occasionally does stonemasonry, he misses the routine and stability that a normal, static job gave him.
"I do it the odd time with a friend of mine down in Cork. He’s around my age and sometimes he needs a hand so I go down to Cork and help him out. I do the odd bit for other people as well. I do the odd fireplace. I miss the routine of it. I miss the 9-to-5, strangely enough.
"Well see, my life has gone so lucky that it’s gone too far. Sometimes I have too much time off, and it leads to me feeling absolutely useless and lethargic. I get fat, I get drunk. I miss having to get up in the morning and doing physical labour and then going to bed tired -- going to bed genuinely tired, as opposed to tipsy."
Even though he's sacrificed his work as a stonemason to immerse himself in his music, Flannery still finds a degree of grounding and inspiration from being on Irish soil.
"I lived in Boston for a while, then New York for a while, and I lived in Germany. I suppose Ireland is home. I miss Cork, for sure, and you know I have friends and family in Cork. Writing-wise, Ireland would be the main influence.
"I’ve a very American influence, music-wise. American music has influenced my writing because of people that I’ve enjoyed listening to, like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Kendrick Lamar."
Now when Flannery is walking down Dame Street among the throngs of shoppers and tourists, how does he feel?
"I feel a sense of freedom when I walk past that place, I’m glad I’m not enclosed!"