Q&A + Giveaway: Johnny Flynn Talks America, Roadside Bears, and Overproduction in Advance of His Monday Night Show at The Prophet Bar
London's Johnny Flynn released his debut album, A Larum, in 2008 when he was just 24-years-old -- although you'd never guess it. Though credited as a release from Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit, that disc saw Flynn at the far and away front-and-center, his flair for traditional British folk music shining through, his voice sounding like that of a weathered old man. It was a pehnomenal debut, one that earned him heapings of just praise -- even inspiring a few critics to hail him as the future of the budding nu-folk scene.
His June-released follow-up, Been Listening, again finds the now-26-year-old's taste for the traditional at the forefront, although it also finds his backing band playing a bigger role. To hear Flynn tell it, that's a result of where it was recorded -- back home in London, where his friends and fellow musicians were at his beck-and-call, as opposed to the rather spare scenario he faced when recording his debut in Seattle.
It's a bit odd, then, that, in support of this fuller-sounding record, Flynn is now touring the States as a solo act, his music now reverting to the form in which it first became so beloved. As such, his performance on Monday night a the Prophet should prove an interesting one, with Flynn offering up his songs in an intimate space, in the bare forms in which they first were conceived.
In anticipation of that show, we caught up with Flynn earlier this week, shortly after his arrival in the States for this tour, with his American bewilderment still quite in tact; just the day prior, he'd seen a bear on the side of the road -- an impossibility back home in London. We talked about that encounter, as well as his traditional folk background and his thoughts on the recent folk revival.
Read the full Q&A after the jump -- where you'll also find out how to win a free pair of tickets to his show on Monday; the Prophet Bar's been kind enough to offer two DC9 readers the chance to win a free pair of passes to Flynn's show. It's all one click away...
Want a free pair of passes to see Johnny Flynn on Monay night? Just be among the first two people to email me, starting right now, with the words "Sussex Wit" in the subject line, and you're in. Good luck!
I'm sorry I missed you yesterday.
No I'm sorry. We were driving along a ridge in the Appalachian Hills and I had no idea there would be no phone reception.
Welcome to the States, I guess.
Yeah, it's amazing. We were right in the middle of it. We saw a bear. We were up in the mountain and we saw some people stopped on the side of the road, looking up into the trees, and we sort of slowed down, and we looked up, and just like 30 feet away, there was this black bear kind of lumbering through the woods.
Yeah, it was pretty incredible.
Do you get that kind of thing in England? Ever see that kind of wildlife up close?
[Laughs.] No! They don't have bears. Bears haven't been in England, I think, since, well, the Middle Ages, probably.
So I guess it really was kind of a "Welcome to America" moment?
It was, yeah! And also since I've been listening to music from that part of the world since--well, y'know, I grew up with it. And I've sensed that culture, but I've never been to those places, so it was pretty amazing.
You've toured the States before, though, correct?
Yeah, but we didn't go that particular route. We kind of headed straight from D.C. to, like, Denver or something. And we were in a big bus last time. And, this time, we're just driving around, since I'm solo, in just a small car. So you get to see a lot more when you're driving yourself around.
In listening to your music, there's a very strong traditional sound--even vocally. I was surprised to find out you're just 26-years-old. Is that the music you've always been drawn to--more traditional folk?
Yes and no. I have a lot of old music in the music I grew up listen to. But I have a quite varied musical background. Most of it, I think, was the instruments that I played that led me to certain types of music. The violin was my first instrument, and I played old fiddle tunes and traditional, kind of, British, noirish music. So I had some of that stuff. And, I dunno, I always liked a lot of traditional American music. I love all the collections of folk songs that anthologists have collected--like the Smithsonian collections. I'm really into old Delta blues.
It's interesting to hear that a lot of your influence came from American music.
It's equal parts, I think. A lot of it is English traditional. I think that even before I got into that American stuff, I was into the folk revival sounds of the '60s, things like Fairport Convention and people like that. And through them and gotten into more traditional stuff and following the lines back a bit. In this library, found this collection of all this folk music collected by archivists of songs from the early 20th Century and I used to go there quite a bit and browse through the library. I think, for me, my interest in older music is how it connects the dots.
Is it fair to say that you researched before you wrote?
Nothing was too conscious. It was just, as I picked up a new instrument, I would hear stuff that would lead me into new stuff. It wasn't so studied or conscious--just an interest. And, like, because of music production and the way that's improved, for me, it's really nice to hear recordings made before proper studios, and just stuff that's cut on really old microphones. There's something really powerful about the purity and honesty of that.
Do you think that there's a reason why traditional music like yours is finding an audience these days?
I think maybe we've reached a saturation point for over-produced music. After a while, it's like, oh yeah, you can make a great song on a violin or whatever it is, maybe a banjo. The last time people got massively into folk was in the '60s with the folk revival and the Newport Festival and that sort of thing. It seems to be coming back in a way.
What were you trying to do differently between your last album, your debut, A Larum, and your new album, Been Listening? The new one sounds a little more fleshed out.
Well, I never preconceived any sound. The one thing I wanted to do was stay completely open and to pull in as many fresh sounds and to be as spontaneous as possible--not in a flippant way, but in finding the best way of expressing something. We worked together and shot out to try new things and that was nice. I was drawing a lot from the band as well, on the new record.
This last album was recorded entirely in the States, and this one both here in Seattle and also back in the U.K. I wonder if that affected the sound at all, the locale?
More than anything, with the first record, our identity became even more eccentric because the boundaries of our situation were more apparent to us. Like, we were five English guys in the woods outside of Seattle and felt very English. We were on our own island. And I drew on that, certainly. And the new one, I wanted to make in London--the tracking at least--so I could have certain friends play on it. And also so I could see my girlfriend. Because I've been touring a lot. And that felt more kind of blended into our daily lives. We weren't so on the frontier. In a way, it was better as far as making a record about you and your life and your experiences, because you're referencing them as you're walking home and coming into the studio the next day. You're like, "Oh, I saw that same guy that I've seen every day for the last 10 years" and those situations, which I think kind of blend into the album.
How does that bleed into something like this tour, which is a solo tour without your band and those friends and those reference points?
I guess it goes back to being a heightened sense of everything being pretty weird. [Laughs.] Everything's really bright and weird and shiny. Like, seeing the bear yesterday, it completely blew my mind. And even just the things you see in the shops at the gas stations. It's pretty crazy, but also great.
Johnny Flynn performs Monday, November 1, at the Prophet Bar.