Johnny Flynn is part of a group of musicians who rose, gently, to prominence a decade ago, accompanied by a harmonious plucking of banjos and a chorus of softly lilting vocals, occasionally interrupted by a rasping burst of rap from their contemporary, Jamie T. Ten years later, and now in their 30s, Flynn and his friends are still at the forefront of a folksy movement, which marries a bucolic earthiness with a salient twist of glamour. Laura Marling, who moved to L.A., has just released another album. Marcus Mumford, married to actress Carey Mulligan, lives on a farm in Somerset. Jamie T, embroiled and then cleared in a GBH case, has been quietly writing more music. And Flynn, married with children, and now acting too, has just released his fourth album, Sillion.
When Flynn first began to think about the record, he didn’t have a clear vision as to its shape or sound. “I’m not very pre-determined. It’s more gut-based,” he says. His sentences are generally hung with an overarching spirituality. “There has got to be space for these weird, wonderful accidents that happen. Sometimes in the middle of the night I pick up an instrument, and this line comes out, and it’s like ‘that’s the key to the song. That’s the one.’”
Alongside occasional late-night epiphanies, Sillion sprang from another formative influence. Flynn wrote the album whilst performing in Martin McDonagh’s ghoulishly funny Hangmen, in which he played a softly menacing psychopath with a propensity for quoting existential philosophy. Immersed in his character, Flynn found himself considering his surroundings from a different, murkier perspective. “I think, if anything, it made me reflect on some of the darker aspects of human nature; because the character has quite a dark shadow and soul.”
Contrary to the old adage that says life imitates art, Flynn found this new nuance to his work to be, suddenly, trailing in the wake of a wider paradigm shift. “It was coming together whilst the Brexit referendum happened, and the American election last year. So I was sort of thinking about bigger, broader global things. That was taken into consideration.” The fractious political climate gave Flynn the impetus he had been lacking when he first started writing. Not that the album is overtly political—the first track is about his daughter, Ada. It’s more that Flynn realized, with the established order spinning in chaotic disarray, it was down to artists to start vigorously asking questions. “The responsibility is with us,” he says, urgently. “And that is really empowering. I think it’s the only thing keeping me going at the moment.
“I think that politics doesn’t contain its own answers within its form. And it’s a dead end, basically.”
That’s quite a weight to carry on one’s shoulders. But, Flynn reiterates, he isn’t looking to answer questions in his work. Just ask them. That is why the album is called Sillion, a word taken from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, which refers to the wave of soil that is overturned by a plough. “It’s like this question that man is asking the earth. That is what sillion is: a symbol of the point of contact between man and the earth—the most ancient one.”
Flynn harvests much of the depth of his work from Shakespeare, with whom he is unequivocally obsessed, appearing in productions of Richard III and Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance, and composing the music for the Globe’s production of As You Like It, using only period instruments.
“There is something about Shakespeare,” he says. “He throws up a handful of things, and then you find your own way through them, which is what the best poetry does. And he does it in every single line.
“I feel like a good song potentially does the same thing, leaves a lot of space for your experience to come in and mean something personally to you.” Flynn is quick to clarify he doesn’t think his work is up to Shakespearian standards. But, armed with his expansive vision as to the power of music, that won’t stop him trying.—Isobel Thompson
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Credits: Hannah Katrina Jedroszi