This article was published in the Guardian on December 3, 2010.
Johnny Flynn is looking even more English than usual this afternoon. He’s seated in the back room of the White Horse Tavern in New York, wearing a tweed jacket and a check shirt open to the third button, nursing a half pint of brown ale. His straw blonde hair and pale pink complexion are straight out of Thomas Hardy.
He’s not averse to playing up this old-fashioned ideal, particularly when he’s in the USA. The sleeve of his latest album, Been Listening, shows him lying on a couch, surrounded by artfully arranged possessions: a trumpet, a cricket bat, an ancient map of Sussex, a photograph of his Grandfather’s school rugby team, a banjo, a deer’s skull and a volume of Keats. It looks like he’s slipped off for a nap, in a quiet moment at the village antiques shop.
Flynn has a strong jaw, blue eyes and a charming bedside manner. His one line biography – musical prodigy turned Shakespearean actor, with the soul of a poet – is appealing and easily digested. He may never match his half-brother Jerome Flynn’s three number one singles (in karaoke duo Robson & Jerome) but of the artists leading Britain’s folk revival, he is the likeliest international star.
He first came to New York nine years ago, to win back his childhood sweetheart, but when he arrived, she had a charismatic American boyfriend in tow. They took him to open mic night at the Sidewalk Cafe, home of the anti-folk movement that had launched the careers of Jeffrey Lewis and Kimya Dawson. Flynn went on at four in the morning, to an uninterested audience of drunks. He didn’t get the girl, but he was changed by the experience. “Whether it was good or bad, I felt it was exhilarating that it existed,” he says. “When I went back to London, my friends and I decided ‘it’s alive, the flame is still burning’ and set up our own night.”
Apocalypso, founded with Emmy The Great and Tom Hatred, adopted the anti-folk creed, in which sincerity trumps technique. Along with Pick Your Own and Blue Flowers it was a vital incubator of London’s folk resurgence, reassuring young fellow travellers that music made with acoustic guitars, mandolins and accordions could be relevant.
Although he has toured with Mumford & Sons, and is friends with Laura Marling and the Mules, Flynn is wary of labelling it a scene. “When I first moved to London, there was talk of a folk revival, with annoying names like electro-folk and nu-folk that made me feel slightly ill,” he says. “The truth is there’s always a hum of people playing folk music in cities. There’s just a tipping point when enough people buy one record that suddenly everyone else gets some attention.”
As a child, Flynn sang treble in the Winchester College Chapel choir. His music scholarship required him to learn two instruments, violin and trumpet, and practice each for an hour a day under adult supervision. He rarely played the sheet music in front of him, teaching himself to improvise instead. “It was the most rebellious thing I could do,” he remembers. “It made it easy for me to pick anything up quickly, which led me into interesting situations, in loads of different bands, when I was very young.”
He describes himself as a “country bumpkin” whose formative years were spent pursuing the traditional English pastimes of cricket, fishing and getting smashed. His father, Eric Flynn, was an actor specialising in musicals, whose two sons from a previous marriage both went to drama school. “All the adults in my family were actors, so there wasn’t much else, in terms of role models. I fell in love with that world, being back stage at the theatre,” he says.
His folk epiphany occurred at the age of eleven, when he bought The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan at a school jumble sale. “I went home and played it and was completely captivated by the voice,” he says. “I remember listening to that record and crying on my own in my bedroom.” His mum gave him the old songbook she used in her twenties, when she sang in a trio along the lines of Peter, Paul & Mary. He taught himself guitar and watched how his dad worked a crowd. “There was often music and singing in the local pub. Dad knew all the songs and just needed a pint in him to sing them. It didn’t seem archaic to me, because the music was so alive.”
From Winchester, he won a second music scholarship, to the exclusive, liberal boarding school, Bedales. Fellow alumni include Daniel Day-Lewis and Lily Allen. Flynn once cast Luke Pritchard of the Kooks in a school production of Kes, but he was kicked out for drinking too much and throwing up.
His best friends were into bootleg rave tapes, but he gradually convinced a few to join him on his Dylan trip. “We read every Dylan biography and started piecing together this knowledge, listening to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.” He bought Harry Smith’s Anthology Of American Folk Music, tracked down Alan Lomax field recordings and learned the songs. On his first trip to New York, he went in search of the Gaslight Cafe and was horrified by the tattoo parlours and tacky bars he found on MacDougal Street.
Although Flynn never stopped playing music, acting was the only career he seriously considered. Soon after finishing drama school, he won the lead role in a big budget children’s movie called Crusade In Jeans, playing a teenage football star who time travels to the middle ages by mistake and is adopted as the Messiah by children on their way to the holy land. It flopped, everywhere but the Netherlands.
“It’s a terrible film, but the money was really good,” he says. “It funded me being a musician for the first few years. I was thinking ‘this is not really why I wanted to be an actor’ but I was being treated like a film star, staying in five star hotels.” A job in Ed Hall’s Propeller theatre company followed, in an all male touring production of Twelfth Night.
His debut album, A Larum, is named after a Shakespearean stage direction, meaning a commotion which can’t be seen by the audience. It was recorded near Seattle, at a studio called Bear Creek. “The only thing around was a coffee stand where the girls wore bikinis,” he remembers. “It was on a main road through the woods, in the middle of nowhere. That made us feel very English.” One of his bandmates fell in love with a waitress and stayed.
Veteran Rolling Stone columnist David Fricke selected A Larum as one of his favourite new records. An enthusiastic review in the New York Daily News called Flynn a “ye-olde-British-style folkie,” comparing him to Bert Jansch and Richard Thompson. This was a decent first step towards cracking the American market, but midway through a joint US tour with Marling and Mumford & Sons, Flynn’s label Vertigo suddenly pulled the plug, citing the recession’s effects on sales. One album into a five album deal, he was dropped.
For his current tour, he’s left his band, The Sussex Wit, at home. Two years of scrambling have left him broke and with some catching up to do. He’s got a part in a new film called The Lotus Eaters and a final audition at the Royal Court Theatre, but is in danger of being left behind by his musical peers. The day after we meet, Mumford & Sons have a headline show at Terminal Five, one of the biggest venues in Manhattan.
Flynn’s gig is decidedly smaller, third on the bill at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Fresh off the plane and jet-lagged, his finger-picking is a little sloppy and his voice a little hoarse. Even so, he inspires plenty of screaming from the noticeably young and female crowd – enough to suggest that with one big hit, to hang the rest of his songs from, he could be the stuff of literate teenage dreams, a star like Robert Pattinson that mums and their daughters can agree on.
When the tour ends, he’s planning to stay in New York for a few days. His girlfriend Bea, the woman he came to woo nine years ago and the inspiration for many of his songs, is working here on a production called Sleep No More. She’s also five months pregnant. “Since we met when we were teenagers we’ve always had an on-off relationship. Now it’s definitely on,” he says.
On New Year’s Eve, they will open an envelope, to read a note from their doctor telling them the baby’s gender. Whether a boy or a girl, it will be born and raised in England. “It would be amazing to live here one day,” Flynn says, “but England’s the place for us.”