Johnny Flynn on Bob Dylan and Playing American Folk Music

May 20, 2011 at 3:05 pm
Johnny Flynn on Bob Dylan and Playing American Folk Music
Steve Gullick

Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit will be in town on Monday at the Duck Room. We talked to Flynn from the UK, where he lives. For more from our interview, read on as Flynn talks about American folk music and being the only kid at his school who liked Bob Dylan.

Katie Moulton: Are you in England now?

Johnny Flynn: Wales, actually, which is not in England but is next to it. It would actually cause offense here if you mentioned anything having to do with England. I grew up here and I'm visiting my brother who still lives here.

How did you move from a classical music education to the folk revival music you make now?

Even through school, I played in bands and started writing songs and taught myself guitar and other instruments. I was into the classical stuff, but I skived off to improvise on the violin. I always slightly rebelled against... I was the laziest music scholar, according to the teachers, but really I was just wanting to play my own stuff. Now I appreciate that classical background because I can use it a lot.

Who or what are your influences?

When I was about thirteen, I got really into Bob Dylan. None of my friends knew who he was when I was getting into him. I was like, "This guy's amazing," and they were like, "Why? Oh, that's terrible." It was my secret passion. Then I realized that lots of people like him.

Through him I think I went on quite a journey to the inspirations behind his music. I got into a lot of old blues and traditional American music. I still really like listening to Bob Dylan, but more than anything I like tracing the roots of that music back to say, early Delta blues. I got really into listening to old folk collections like the Smithsonian field recordings, that pre-rock-and-roll music.

If I hear anything that excites me, I'm into that. I also listened to punk growing up, liked the energy of that. I was really into the Jeffrey Lewis Band and this whole scene called the anti-folk movement, ironically. Lo-fi singers and bands, really specific scene to New York, and they were writing about their scene and performing for their friends. [Note: Jeff Lewis' drummer is now Flynn's drummer.]

When I went to New York when I was eighteen and saw that for the first time, it was really exciting for me, because it was a bit like discovering the Greenwich Village of the 60s was still going, the torch was still burning in a way, but on the lower east side.

What would you be doing if you weren't making music right now?

I'd probably be doing more acting. It's hard to tell. I nearly went to university and did an English degree. I wanted to be an English teacher. That was a big thing that I was wanting to pursue. I'm one of those people who I kind of drift into things, and I'm quite happy doing something for a while until something else grabs me.

Does every song start with a character?

You have this reaction to something you've seen, an emotional reaction. My songs really aren't political in a left or right political sense. I mean, everything's political, but what I mean is they come from an emotional point of excitement that you have to lay out. I learn something by writing it. I quite often start with a character that's placed in a set of given circumstances, that mimics that emotional environment. Quite often [it's] a powerful tool just to put this character through their paces. They're probably aspects of myself.

Your new record's opening song, "Kentucky Pill," has a line about cow-tipping. I know you're an actor, but what does a British guy know about cow-tipping?

We never did that, but I grew up next to farms. We used to jump into the fields as the cows were sleeping and walk around. If we found a bull paddock, we'd go in and dare each other to get as close as we could. It was an atmosphere, the sense of going out for some country mischief, that was familiar to me. But there was actually a girl from Kentucky who I met in New York who told me about cow tipping...which is incredibly cruel! But I thought it was quite funny when I heard it.

Speaking of mischief, have you and your band ever gotten into trouble on the road?

We were once victims of an inadvertent gay bashing, I think. We were in Stockholm [to play a festival], which is supposed to be one of the most peaceful places, it's a really nice place. We went into a bar that we didn't know was a gay bar, and when we came out, these skinheads pounced on us. It seemed like incredibly bad luck. These guys were really high on speed or something and attacked us, and they were trying to punch and kick us, but we're not really that macho ourselves, so we were just kind of taking it.

One of them said to my bass player, as he was punching him in the head,[in Swedish accent] "Welcome to Stockholm!" and I just heard Adam, who's very placid, say between punches, "Thank you." It was a really good moment. Now it seems funny to us. Five years later.

What can we expect from the live show?

We put everything into it. We have my sister Lillie, who's quite something. She's got an incredible voice, she's going to be playing some mean flute. It's going to be a really raw, energetic show. We try to approach it with honesty and a sense of the unknown. Which is slightly terrifying for us, but we do it with a lot of heart.

What other artists do you relate to?

The books I've been reading lately have been about babies. I feel slightly cut off from culture. [Laughs] I've been reading a nice Hemingway book called A Moveable Feast. I'm in some kind of dialogue with Hemingway in my mind, his undefined sense of the mystical, which is never really acknowledged in any other way than just a statement is made that immediately makes you look around very quickly because something great is happening and you might miss it. It's very conscious writing, which is very cool.

Anything I've forgotten to ask?

It was nice, that question about what's inspiring me, that it doesn't have to be other musicians. At the moment I'm really inspired by being back in Wales, where we moved to when I was fourteen. It's a little fishing community, and for me, it's a timeless sense of coming home. Just realizing that now, with a child and with my girlfriend, we really should be living here. It seems much more normal than living in the city. The most inspiring thing is the nature here and being by the sea. It's amazing, the bluebells are out around the hedgerow. It's kind of like I've become myself when I arrive here.