The Brit folkster talks influences, from Shakespeare to scratchy 78s
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With his 2008 debut, A Larum, Johnny Flynn snuck into the collective consciousness with fellow Brit-folksters like Mumford And Sons and Laura Marling. His latest, Been Listening, is soulful and simple. His songs are eclectic, charmingly verbose and, above all, endlessly listenable. Judging by the way the careers of Mumford and Marling have skyrocketed in the past year, good things may be in store for Flynn. The A.V. Club caught up with him to talk about his influences, from Shakespeare to 78s, in anticipation of his show tomorrow at World Cafe Live.
The A.V. Club: How did the title track of the new record come about?
Johnny Flynn: I was listening to a whole bunch of really old 78s, all of which were just incredibly scratchy. I have loads of that stuff. One of the songs, I could only make out the words “been listening,” and to me, listening is really important.
It kind of spun me out on my own take on that song, where I imagined a scenario where all music disappears from the universe and humanity. Society becomes more complicated and more confused. Values are lost. We need an idea of what music is, what connects people. Then, in this scenario, one single song comes to replace all music, and it is the answer. It’s like quantum physics—like one big thing comes and answers everything.
AVC: Is that always what writing a song is like for you?
JF: It’s always like learning something, or discovering something about the universe. I don’t really write songs. They’re just there anyway, chiseling away at the atmosphere, and suddenly they’re like, “Oh, thanks for coming. Thanks for finding me. We’ll share each other now.”
AVC: Why is listening so important to you?
JF: I think the truest things come from silence, but everything’s always so clogged up with noise. If everything falls away, and you can truly listen to someone, giving them yourself and generosity, you can truly lose yourself in what they’re saying. Like, not impose your ideas on what they’re saying, but really tune into them.
I think it’s just the most joyful way to go about things, even a picture gallery exhibition or listening to music. It’s nice to discover that stuff rather than have ideas about what they might be beforehand. Not listening is the reason for so many misunderstandings and conflicts.
AVC: What draws you to older music like those 78s?
JF: It’s just good, honest music. There was no A&R guy walking into a studio thinking, “Yeah, we could make this a radio hit.” The music came from people who were just doing what they did, and someone just happened to record them. They were just writing for themselves in the immediate situation, and weren’t conscious of people in other countries 80 years later listening to it, or whatever. It’s just much more of an insight, old music, into these people. Bands that make music now are so much more self-conscious about the whole process.
The songs are strange, and old, and ancient, and wise. Sometimes they’re really angry or sad. They’re not rounded-off or neatened-up and made into two-minute-30 Radio 1 playlist hits. They’re just really rough and good.
I’m also obsessed with field recordings. That’s my favorite stuff to listen to, just really incidental music.
AVC: Is there anywhere you’re especially looking forward to going on this tour, music history-wise?
JF: I’m really looking forward to going to Nashville for the first time. I always love going to New York. I’ve been to Chicago once before, but I didn’t get much of a chance to look around. I’ve always wanted to go to blues clubs there.
Actually, have you seen that documentary Desperate Man Blues? It’s about a guy who’s spent 60 or 70 years of his life collecting old 78s, finding things that were only pressed locally. He goes out and collects them. It’s a really great film. It’s got great music, and he knows a lot about the history of musicians. He’s discovered musicians a ton of people know about now just by knocking on doors and picking up records from the attics.
AVC: I haven’t seen that, but I did see something about a guy digging for hi-life records in Africa, which actually segues perfectly into talking about “Churlish May,” the kind of hi-life song on your record. How did that one come about?
JF: My drummer, Dave, is really into a lot of good music, and he’s gotten me into a lot of it. I get really excited about trying different things with music, like different drumming styles, so we went there on that song. It’s not like we were trying to really go there and get a conga player and stuff, but we were just edging into new rhythmic dimensions.
AVC: The press release for your record talks about how you had kind of an idyllic Roald Dahl-like childhood, growing up catching trout and living on a farm. Weirdly, “Kentucky Pill,” on your record, reminds me of Roald Dahl, but in another way. Like in the “I’m secretly better than everyone and I will ultimately persevere” Matilda way. Did you mean to go there with that?
JF: It’s generally a song about a sense of growing up. It’s about finding yourself to be slightly more dangerous and effective as a human being than you thought you could be. When you’re young, you live in a state of innocence, but eventually you realize that actions have wider consequences than you thought. As you grow up, as you get a sense of time, you stop living in your immediate presence. Your emotional world grows and you can kind of start being hard.
It’s an abstract thing, but the song’s about all these situations you experience growing up that stop you from being innocent. It’s about wanting to hurt people and get hurt.
AVC: Is that based on any specific personal experience?
JF: It’s not explicitly a story from my own life, but it’s about little snippets and things. I used to go cow tipping, for one. I grew up in the country, so that’s par for the course, but then I started thinking about the cows, and that upset me. I realized that they were actually being hurt.
AVC: You recorded your first record and part of this record outside Seattle. What made you want to go there?
JF: We recorded the first record there with Ryan Hadlock, and we just wanted to go back for the second record. It’s a really nice place to do the record, his studio. It’s an isolated barn out in the middle of nowhere, and it really accentuated who we were.
It’s a weird landscape out there. Like, that’s where they filmed Twin Peaks. There are all these Native American place-names, big waterfalls, and huge forests.
It’s very far from home for us, which increases the sense of what you’re doing. You’re not in your environment, doing what’s familiar to you. It’s a good way to bring out what you are really trying to say or do.
AVC: You toured with a Shakespeare company for a year as an actor. Do you think that experience shaped your songwriting at all?
JF: Definitely, yes. Hugely. We toured the world and were very entrenched in the plays we were doing, Twelfth Night and Taming Of The Shrew, which are quite different plays, really.
Twelfth Night especially had a big impact on me. There’s such an ambiguity to it, and it’s very poetic. It’s more about learning to say what isn’t there, and how what’s not say is more important than what is. It’s a good lesson in pre-emptive storytelling. Good poetry doesn’t have to say much.