FFS interview: Johnny Flynn

It’s the day before he and his band, The Sussex Wit, are due to embark on a tour of England to promote his new album, Been Listening, and Johnny Flynn is sporting an inconveniently sore throat. Happily, he manages to suppress this for long enough to deliver some disarmingly thoughtful answers to FFS’s questions…

FFS: The debut album A Larum was recorded in a barn in Seattle. Was it a similar situation for Been Listening?

We went back to the same place to do the mixing for Been Listening, but we tracked it in London so we did kind of half and half, because we wanted to stay in London and not be too far away from our friends for too long.

FFS: Do you think the location of recording affects how the album as a whole turns out?

Yeah, definitely. It felt really noticeable with A Larum because the songs were all arranged and done, and then we went to Seattle and it was a really isolated environment. We were four English guys and who we were felt very distilled and galvanised because of the fact we were in such a strange environment, and we didn’t have much contact with anyone. It felt like quite an amazing way of setting down the songs. With Been Listening, we wanted to let in more of those influences, so being in London felt right for this. Sonically we were more focal, and we wanted to stay in touch with our lives, as it were.

FFS: How did the process of recording a second album compare to putting together the debut? Did you feel any kind of pressure because A Larum was so well received, or did that leave you freer to do what you wanted?

I didn’t feel any kind of pressure to do anything in a certain way; I really felt quite strongly that the best way to make a record was to reach beyond any kind of reaction to anything, for it to just be truly more than it could ever be. I’m not really affected by what people think it has to sound like, the only focus I had was looking into myself and trying to work out what it had to be, trying to do what was my truth.

FFS: Did you have any idea of how you wanted it to sound beforehand?

Not really, it had loads of different stages. When I was writing and demoing the songs all sounded quite different, and certain things I liked and wanted to stick with. It was full of happy accidents. I think with the way I’ve written and recorded music since I first started, the one thing that happens a lot is that I throw things together that may or may not work and some things work better than expected. That happened a lot with this record, I wanted it to not be rooted in any sort of set sound palette or genre or anything that we’ve done before. It had to be all new things, new to us and also just who we were as musicians. What we could do and how we processed our lives to date, to come to this moment to offer this one thing where we come together and form that particular song.

FFS: Do you have a favourite song on the new album?

I’m still at that stage of working out how I feel about it. With A Larum we recorded it and I haven’t listened to it from beginning to end since then. I’ve heard bits of it and had to reference it when we were rehearsing songs for tours, but this one I’ve really enjoyed listening to as if it was the music I’d most like to listen to at that moment. Rather than a Tom Waits record or something, I’d put on this record, which is nice because it makes me feel like we made the record that I’d most like to listen to. I like all of the songs pretty equally, but I really like the last song, ‘The Prize-Fighter and The Heiress’. I feel like if I had to choose a favourite it’d be that one.

FFS: Is that your favourite song to play live, too? I guess you don’t know yet…

Well, we’ve rehearsed it but we haven’t played it in front of an audience yet. I think it’d be a tricky one to play live. You know how some songs work really well on record? Well, it’s got a very long, very slow first half and then it changes and gets fast. I think sustaining the first half without people knowing the song well would be quite difficult, so maybe we’ll wait six months and then get it out on the road.

FFS: Is there a reason, apart from being one of the song names, that it’s entitled Been Listening?

It felt like that phrase worked really well as a kind of ethos for the whole album. I was thinking of names and I came up with a few possible titles, but they all felt extra to the record, as if I was pushing them on top, and that one kind of came from within the record and worked quite well with the feeling of the whole thing. There’s not any substance to it, in a really nice way, in that listening to something means you’re not saying anything, nothing’s going on, you’re just listening and waiting, and that seems to work really well.

FFS: On a couple of tracks you’ve collaborated with Laura Marling (on ‘The Water’) and Anna Calvi. How did they come about? Did you write the songs with them in mind?

I didn’t write them with them in mind, but it happened as we got closer to the proper sessions, after demoing. Just before the album came out I did a tour with Anna Calvi so I got to know her really well and her kind of guitar playing I knew would be the spirit that we needed in the song that she plays on. I just held myself open to that and realised that was right, and followed my instinct with it. The song was written and ready to go, and then I was like “Oh, and now, yes! It should have Anna Calvi!”. And the same with Laura, I’ve known Laura for years, and really admire her voice. I realised that actually it’d be really cool to have her, because the quality of her voice has this kind of mystical thing to it, and it just felt really right for that song.

FFS: You’re about to go on tour with the band and then set off by yourself around Scotland. Do you feel that there’s a big difference in your live performance between playing solo and with the band?

Yeah, it’s pretty big. With both, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Mostly now when I go on my own it’s circumstantial, either because it’s just been offered as a solo gig or they’re small venues that can’t cater for the band. I really enjoy doing both, I find it rewarding to play the songs on my own, but then also it’s really nice touring with the band. When that works it’s amazing. They just feel like totally different shows, I think they’re both cool when they come off.

FFS: When you’ve spent a while concentrating on music, do you feel like spending some time on acting?

Yeah, I really miss acting. I wish I had more time to do it. It’s hard because to be a jobbing actor you have to be endlessly available for work and for auditions. But for now it’s working out okay, we’ll do the promotion for this album and the touring, and then I’ll have some time out and hopefully do some acting then. That’s the plan.