‘I am walking in some mountains’. That’s the out-of-office that pops up when I email Johnny Flynn to request an interview. The folk star and West End actor is on holiday. But he’s not doing the Three Peaks Challenge. No, he’s tracing St Paul’s third missionary journey across southern Turkey, a 30th birthday present from Bea, his wife and teenage sweetheart. ‘I’m obsessed with pilgrimages,’ Flynn says. He’s also done the Way of St James, which finishes in Santiago de Compostela. ‘I love following old routes, imagining the consciousness of those who walked them.’
When he’s come down from the mountains we sit down to talk about the recent release of his third album, Country Mile. Sporting a solid tan and raggedy beard, Flynn still appears horribly handsome. And he’s sickeningly talented. The Lamda luvvie plays banjo, guitar, trumpet and violin.
But Country Mile is not your typical slick studio production. It was written in snatches, during breaks taken from the intense acting schedule Flynn has worked to over the past three years. He played alongside Mark Rylance in Jerusalem (‘thrilling to be on stage with, you don’t know what the fuck he’s going to do’), and the two teamed up again last year for a double bill of Richard III and Twelfth Night. Transferring from the Globe to Shaftesbury Avenue, the all-male production of Twelfth Night, quite the funniest Shakespeare I’ve seen, saw Flynn cast as Viola, pulling off the considerable feat of being a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man.
Flynn’s new musical offering is clearly the work of someone steeped in Shakespeare. Melancholy is ‘yellow’, hearts are ‘stout’, ‘the colours of autumn’ are ‘burnished with gold’ and (dead giveaway) ‘Mab is my queen’.
The great Bard is not the only reference point for this literary songwriter. Country Mile’s second track is titled ‘After Eliot’. ‘The bathos — putting the banal alongside the grandiose; the constant sense of mystery in everything; his powers of observation’ — these are just some of the features of T.S. Eliot’s poetry that resonate. So too does the vigilant viewpoint afforded by the experience of exile (Eliot was originally American.) Flynn was born in South Africa, but his family left when he was three. Securing a music scholarship to Winchester College, he was the first in his family to go to a public school. ‘My dad was working class,’ he boasts. ‘The manner and culture of the world in which I found myself was foreign.’
But Eliot’s influence isn’t limited to allusions alone (‘We share the experience of being alive/ And then we took some tea’ à la Prufrock). It runs deeper. ‘The progress of an artist,’ pronounced Eliot, ‘is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’ It’s this famously impersonal style Flynn aspires to. ‘I’m not really interested in myself in my writing,’ he says. ‘I can’t see myself in the songs even though I know different parts of me are there.’
This can make his music harder to engage with. Not for him clear choruses with identifiable emotions. Not for him the plaintive complaint: ‘I can’t live with or without you.’
Take ‘The Lady Is Risen’, the centrepiece of Country Mile. Emotion is unquestionably present, as Flynn — over pounding organs and his trademark single-note trumpet solos — strains up the octave. But from the lyrics it’s not clear what that emotion is. Traces of unreciprocated love, ‘I’m cold in your head/ But you’re burning in mine’, are not anchored in an easily deciphered scenario. Who is the Lady, and what does it mean for her to have ‘risen’?
Flynn emerged from the same west London group of musicians as Noah and the Whale, Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons; why does he think they caught the public imagination? ‘There are two things to talk about there. The community and ethos and spirit. And then the actual sound of music made on acoustic instruments. I wanted to make music on those instruments because what I found in electronic music lacked authenticity. I couldn’t feel any heart in it.’ Flynn is quick to say that his taste is now broader, but there’s still something essential for him about the physical phenomenon of sound created on instruments.
That’s instruments, plural. Because the eclecticism of Country Mile — ‘Einstein’s idea’ is a lullaby, ‘Foi-de-Rol’ pure samba — stems from Flynn’s virtuosity. ‘You hear a different melody if you play an idea on a banjo. Play it honkily on a piano and it pushes you in a different direction again.’
And then there are the waltzes: one on Country Mile, another on Flynn’s previous album, Been Listening (2010); all of a sudden old-fashioned seems remarkably fresh. If you’re a crier, you probably won’t get all the way through Been Listening’s ‘The Water’ — a duet sung with Laura Marling. Letting Marling have the melody, Flynn sings the harmony. The two voices interweave beautifully. ‘It was about trying to get the male and female voices like river currents, swirling around each other, tracing each other, overlapping.’ While the equivalent track on Country Mile, ‘Murmuration’, is unreservedly romantic: ‘When everyone is talking at the very same time, I’ll still hear your voice, my dear.’
Considering how multitalented he is, Flynn could be forgiven for having a bit of a swagger. But there’s no trace of that. Instead, he’s realistic. In terms of festival crowds, ‘my sound doesn’t adapt to that size’. He’s modest. Sitcoms are a stretch because ‘I’m not a funny person’. And his vacant stare is not cold, just reassuringly ethereal.
We finish with the future. He wants to continue acting. Having just completed filming an indie movie with Anne Hathaway, Flynn feels that only now is he beginning to be considered for parts he dreamt of in drama school. More generally, as the album attests, he’s preoccupied with ageing. That comes, he divulges, from ruminating on his father Eric’s death and son Gabriel’s birth, as well as his fascination with spirituality both Buddhist and Christian. ‘I always looked forward to being older and being able to better inhabit my thoughts.’
James Mumford is a fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.