When he was a boy, Johnny Flynn used to poach trout. If this sounds like a scene from Roald Dahl’s Danny The Champion Of The World, it’s because Johnny Flynn’s life would make for a great Dahl adventure… Ever since discovering a copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylanin a junk shop aged 13, he has known what he wants to do with his life: to take off on a path of discovery, and write poetic, lyrical songs that document the journey.
And with his second album Been Listening, recorded in various spaces in London and at Bear Creek Studios outside Seattle, you can hear that spirit of searching, a voice of the outsider. Johnny Flynn has developed the song-writing maturity — equal parts resigned and hopeful— that was strongly present in his debut A Larum.
While A Larum was couched in an English folk style, Been Listening spreads its wings further. Inspired by the primitive mystery of Blind Joe Taggart, the title track is inspired by an itinerant evangelist from 1920s Carolina who used a series of pseudonyms to play the blues, then considered the devil’s music, in the hope of fooling the Lord whose word he was meant to be spreading. “Sweet William (Part 2)” is the latest chapter in an ongoing fable about a young man’s journey that is inspired by Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. And “Kentucky Pill”has an African, hi-life influence that is the result not only of Flynn’s own heritage (his mother is South African), but of a change in band personnel.
“Dave, our new drummer has an amazing groove,” says Flynn. “And at the same time I was reading a book about South African music before Apartheid which was the dictum of a group of Black journalists working at a time of optimism. Somehow these two forces melded together to create a song that is like a homage to African music.”
Born in Johannesburg, Flynn grew up in Hampshire and South Wales. A classical music scholarship for his prodigious musicianship saw him through school after which he headed for drama school in London, where he moonlighted as a fiddle player for his friend, the singer Emmy The Great, before striking off on his own. “At school, my music teacher disapproved of the guitar. The idea of coming up with a song goes against my education, but it was something that was in me. I had no choice but to break away from all that training.”
Been Listening comes after years of Flynn paying his dues with impromptu sets in the back rooms of pubs. “Friends would hear me working on songs when I crashed on their sofas. They encouraged me to strike out on my own. It was an adventure to turn up at a half-empty pub where nobody knew who you were and see if by the end of the night you could share an experience together.”
Various acting jobs and a year with the Shakespearean theatre company Propeller followed. Now, backed by the critical acclaim and learning curve that A Larum gave him, Johnny Flynn is entering into a new level of song-writing maturity that recalls the accessibility and spiritual depth of an early 1970s Cat Stevens.
Alongside scoring A Bag Of Hammers, a forthcoming movie starring Rebecca Hall, and taking on the odd acting role, Johnny Flynn has funnelled everything from boyhood memories to feelings of loneliness into Been Listening, to make a collection of songs that ring out with a wisdom beyond his years. When he sings Just a lonely radio/Just a makeshift show and tell/Playing out the lives of the lost and found on “Lost and Found”, Johnny Flynn sounds the very essence of the modern chronicler, capturing a particular life’s experience in songs with a universal resonance.
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