Johnny Flynn - Folk firebrand with an independent streak

Since folk-rock singer/actor Johnny Flynn split from his record label, life has never been better. With a new album and a rave Royal Court debut, he's a rare talent, says Gillian Orr
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The Independent Culture

It's fair to say that it could have been Johnny Flynn on stage at the Brit awards last month, making an awkward acceptance speech. As it was, he wasn't even aware that the ceremony was on.

For along with his friends and former collaborators, Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons (who both went home with major prizes that night), he was one of the leading lights of the young folk scene that emerged out of west London a few years ago.

After scoring an impressive multi-album deal in 2007 with Vertigo (an offshoot of Universal), fame, riches, and even one of those coveted statuettes were surely within his reach.

Only Flynn wasn't interested in any of that. And much to the chagrin of the label, he refused to play by its rules, which all goes some way to explaining why he was happily performing in a play at the Royal Court on the night of the Brits, rather than swigging champagne with JLS.

When I meet the 27-year-old at the prestigious theatre, where he has been winning plaudits for his role in The Heretic, he is softly spoken and polite, telling me why he and his band, Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit, got out of their major label deal. While he might appear shy and modest, he is also remarkably ingenuous.

"I didn't want to be some huge band because I thought that would ruin what we had," explains Flynn, picking at the flapjack in front of him. "The guys at the label had pitched the deal as a chance for me to take what I did and what I believed in to a wider audience. They had said to me, 'We like what you do, don't mind us', but they actually had this huge agenda and I was very naïve about it. They wanted to sell me in a certain way and I really didn't understand that because I was just into writing songs in my bedroom."

If you're at all familiar with Flynn's sincere and literary take on traditional British and American folk music, you might understand why he found himself at odds with the commercially minded suits.

Flynn first got involved with the London folk scene after a trip to America inspired him to start a club night with Emmy the Great, having become enamoured with New York's anti-folk scene and artists like Jeffrey Lewis, Diane Cluck and Langhorne Slim.

"I was just amazed this scene existed," Flynn recalls. "People were just writing and playing for their friends, and the recordings they made were only home recordings but they sounded so truthful. Collectively, it was very beautiful because it was just of itself, and for itself and for that particular place and time."

When Flynn caught the attention of the major labels, he was wary of committing to such a big deal but he wasn't prepared for the sacrifices they wanted him to make.

"I didn't want to do the things that you have to do to be the sort of band they wanted us to be," he continues. "Like doing really crummy radio singles or edits of your songs for adverts because I don't really believe in that or using music in that way. The label got frustrated. I ended up having to slightly wrestle with them to do it in the way that I wanted to, without jumping through hoops. But that didn't win me over with some of the guys that were higher up there."

Having released his debut, A Larum, to critical success in 2008, Flynn and his band were about to embark on an American tour with Marling and Mumford and Sons, when the label got in touch to say that they wouldn't be funding the tour, despite the band having already spent a considerable amount towards it. After being told by the label that they would support the band to slowly build up towards a long career, in the harsh face of the recession, accountants decided they weren't profitable enough. The band was essentially broke and they parted ways with the label soon after.

"I was so happy," recalls Flynn. "Because I'd learnt that it wasn't actually fun to be a band like us on a major label like that. It works fine for different people but it wasn't cool for us."

Now signed to the indie Transgressive Records, Flynn feels at home with the modest operation, who released their second album, Been Listening, last summer.

"We made the record that I really believed in and I'm happy with the reception that it received," says Flynn. "We didn't have a lot at our disposal but we'd won our freedom. It didn't get a huge push on release because we'd gone to the smaller label but it felt like a real achievement."

Having been raised in a family of actors, 13-year-old Flynn won a music scholarship to Bedales school, where he honed his skills on the violin, trumpet, banjo, guitar and piano. Afterwards he attended drama school in London, and he has been casually juggling the two disciplines ever since. Alongside his music career, Flynn has toured the world with the all-male Shakespeare company, Propeller, and starred in a Dutch children's film, Crusade in Jeans, meaning his picture adorns many a teenage girl's wall in the Netherlands. "I had a great time on it and I learnt a lot," says Flynn. "I don't particularly rate the film itself but it's for kids."

It's true that some of his acting choices have failed to match the calibre of his music career.

"My dad was an actor and he always said that work was work, you can't turn your nose up at it," says Flynn, by way of explanation. "We didn't have much money when I was growing up and he had this real work ethic, which I inherited. I still find it hard to turn down an audition. I'm pickier now but at the time..."

He has no plans to concentrate on just music or acting, seeing no reason why he can't do both. "You can record for a couple of months, then do some acting, then go on tour. They lend themselves to that kind of lifestyle," he insists. "I just go with whichever project is appealing to me at the time."

For his next part, Flynn is to take on the role of doting father and when we meet, his girlfriend of a number of years is a week away from giving birth to their son.

"I'm very excited," he beams. "I've wanted to be a dad for a really long time so it feels really normal. It somehow feels like I'm fulfilling a primal instinct to nurture and provide for someone."

With his successful recording career, film and theatre opportunities and young family, Flynn isn't one to follow the trodden path. "I wouldn't put up any barriers to doing anything," he concludes. "I just wait to see what opportunities come along. It's great to be able to write songs and draw on life to write truthfully, and to be able to do that it's good to be exploring other stuff as well."

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