Johnny Flynn is an up and coming songwriter/actor/artist/genius from London. With the support of his band, The Sussex Wit, he makes exciting genre-defying music. His debut single Tickle Me Pink is out Feb 26th on Young and Lost records.
We spoke to him in the Monto Water Rats before a gig. We just enquired about his newly-dyed hair (from blonde to brunette) and he explained that he is in Propeller's touring production of
Twelfth Night/Taming of The Shrew. For an unknown reason that bit didn't record properly.
Johnny: I'm playing a twin so I have to have the same hair colour as the other guy.
Roy: Do you look a lot like the other guy, playing his twin...
Johnny: Erm, probably, roughly. You know the story is like, they get confused between ...
Johnny: Yeah. But his wife basically put her foot down about having his hair dyed blonde, so I had to go dark.
Roy: Ok. So erm, we've listened to your music and I saw you play live, but the only bio I could find is the 'pussy in the well' thing [from his myspace].
Johnny: The "pussy in the well". Oh yeah, I'd forgotten about that. I didn't write it.
Roy: Could you tell us a bit more about yourself?
Johnny: Um. Er... erm... er. I don't know.. um... not really. I mean, ask me a question. I just find it difficult...
Rob: How did you get that scar on your face?
Johnny: That was from a dog
Roy: What kind of dog?
Johnny: A Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Which was shot.
Rob: Ah, because it bit you?
Rob: 'Destroyed' as they say.
Johnny: Destroyed. In South Africa.
Roy: When were you born?
Johnny: When was I born? Ok. 1983
Johnny: Yeah. Shall I tell you about the music?
Johnny: That's difficult as well. I sort of started writing songs when I was quite young and, that's it, that's the last thing I remember! No, it's difficult to work out how things happened from then...
Rob: It's quite folky, your music, yeah?
Johnny: Yeah. It's really weird... I have this real problem with thinking about things in terms of a...
Johnny: ...like any kind of genre or category, and particularly because you just hear something... and I might like the way something sounds and try and emulate it... I certainly wouldn't consider myself anything in particular and it's weird because people are quite keen to put things together, it's the way the human mind works, you associate things. Because a lot of my friends play music as well, I was asked about this sort of 'scene', and I didn't really know what this 'scene' was, it didn't make sense to me. I see it as people who are just doing what they're doing.
Roy: What's next for you? What are you looking forward to?
Johnny: I've got a single coming out with Young and Lost, it's a limited seven-inch. I'm really pleased with it, it hasn't come out yet. It's nice because my girlfriend did all the artwork for it and it has this theme of this poem I wrote and it's all incorporated into that. It's quite odd the idea of commiting yourself to a record, or a definitive version of anything. I've never existed through any definitive or clear cut versions of songs.
Roy: We went to see Bob Dylan last year, and the way he sings his songs now is completely different to the way you hear them on record. You try and compare them with the version you have in your head and it's really strange to decide which way you think is better...
Johnny: I kind of relate to that... I guess you can only express yourself once really and then that moment's lost so you just have to keep re-inventing it, if you want... I mean, otherwise you can play just how you sound on record. I went to see a Pixies gig when they reunited, and they sounded exactly, like, scream for scream how they sounded on the record, on the albums, and that was really gratifying... but I think I would find it frustrating to be doing it that way.
I like that when we play live, the line up changes every gig and the way we do it. It's quite nice.
Roy: Do you find yourself influenced by poetry or visual arts?
Johnny: Yeah, massively. I'm quite open to using anything as a stimulus...
Rob: Is there anything or anybody in particular?
Roy: Say, a favourite poet?
Johnny: I like Yates... because I'm doing this Shakespeare play at the moment, I'm really gaining a lot from being surrounded by his words and that rich essence that's between the words. It's difficult, I think, to pinpoint particular people or passages, it's more about how they make you feel. I think that's what I'm trying to access all the time, that's what I see artists trying to do. I can't imagine an artist saying this is my favourite painting I've ever done, or this is my favourite song I've ever written. It doesn't exist like that. It might be like, I feel this way today and then a week later you realise that on that day you created something and you hope that you might feel like that again. It's just an expression of that...
Roy: Do you see yourself always making music?
Johnny: Yeah, definitely. I think so. I feel addicted to it, I need to play music everyday, I need to be surrounded by music quite alot of the time and then sometimes I like to have no music and just try and work out how I feel. I definitely think I'll be playing music for a long time.
Rob: Do you have any particular main musical influences?
Johnny: I used to listen to a lot of Bob Dylan... You said I sounded quite folky and I have listened to a lot of folk and bluegrass, blues and country blues and stuff like that. I think the biggest musical influences on me have been movements, the sensation I get from a movement. You know about antifolk, in New York... just going to New York and seeing people like... it was the first place I saw Jeffrey Lewis play, and I really fell in love with how he played his songs. He's not a brilliant instrumentalist or anything, he's not a technician, but he somehow does it truthfully. It was amazing to see somebody doing it despite themselves. Of contemporary people, there's a guy called Langhorne Slim who's also a New York musician, he's a more polished backwardsy bluegrassy guitarist singer who I really like, he's a friend of mine. I used to listen to bands like the Pixies and old rag time records. I play the trumpet as well...
Rob: How many instruments do you play? The guitar, mandolin, violin, trumpet...
Johnny: I play the banjo now, and the mandolin... thats about it. Oh, and the harmonica.
Roy: Slightly unrelated, what do you think of New Rave?
Johnny: I don't really know anything about it to be honest...
Roy: I didn't either.
Johnny: What is 'New Rave'?
Roy: Well, I went indie clubbing the other week and there were loads of girls in glitter and really colourful clothes and glow sticks.
Rob: Isn't it just what the name suggests - Rave, again?
Roy: But it's rave to electro-indie music though rather than house or techno.
Johnny: Is it with bands and stuff?
Roy: The Klaxons are very new rave.
Johnny: Oh, so it's like electro pop and...I don't know, I don't really have an opinion about it.
Roy: What new music are you really excitied about?
Johnny: I got the Beirut album recently, they're really good. I think it's one guy who writes the songs and then he has a band, but it's all influenced by Balkan brass bands and it's really interesting. I really like Joanna Newsom. The thing I like about her is that she's a brilliant musician and has a really interesting way of singing, but her lyrics are atmospheric...
I think... what I'm painfully aware of is that I can't really express adequately enough anything with words, and that's where my music helps, to give a sensation. Beyond that there's something else you can't even talk about, some kind of essence, and she embues her music with that kind of atmosphere and that's good.
Roy: If they wanted to use a song of yours in a Coca-Cola advert would you let them?
Johnny: I'd tell them to fuck off. I wouldn't do that.
Rob: Would you do any adverts, if it was something...
Johnny: ..something harmless? I don't know. I'm not going to be snooty about money. I would probably need the cash, I would review the situation at the time. I mean... I'm also an actor and I did a voice-over once for a corporate IKEA advert. That's about as close to selling your soul as I got.
Rob: What other acting have you done?
Johnny: I've done a few plays, I did a film last year or two years ago, some TV stuff. Nothing very interesting, except for this tour that I'm on at the moment, it's good for me. We're doing Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night all around the world. It's really cool.
Roy: Cool. We've got this game...
Johnny: A game?
Roy: Yeah, we give you an answer and you have to give us the question.
Roy: So the first answer is... "Invisible!"
Johnny: Can I write it down?
[we give him paper and a pencil]
Johnny: It's not really a question, it's like a beginning statement...
Johnny: It's not really a question but...
Roy: It will do.
Rob: It makes sense. It includes the answer in the question.
Johnny: It's a statement.
Rob: Ok, second answer is, "That's something only James knows, and I'll be damned if he'll tell you anything about it"...
Roy: Ok... The last one is, "David Cameron"
Johnny: Er, it's so difficult to bother to even think about David Cameron...
Rob: etc. excellent. Do you know Top Trump cards?
Rob: Right, if you were a Top Trump Card, what would be the quality you would have that would make you beat other cards?
Johnny: I know... [he starts writing]
Roy: You don't have to write these down...
Rob: Why are you writing everything down?
Johnny: I find it easier to...It's very easy to see things when they are written down, I can't picture it...
Roy: What is your favourite word?
Rob: (to Roy) What's yours?
Johnny: It's a good word. I don't know, er maybe 'Rudesby'?
Johnny: Rudesby, wait...
Rob: What does it mean?
Johnny: It means a rude person.
Rob: Oh right. Rude as in, yobbish and ignorant or as in rudeboy?
Johnny: It's a Shakespearian term... like, 'Rudesby, be gone!', that's the phrase it would be used in.
Roy: (to Rob) Do you have any more questions?
Rob: What question have you always wanted to have been asked, but no one has ever asked you? Something you've always wanted to answer..
Johnny: To be honest, I find interviews quite difficult... I find it very difficult to say much as myself.
The sort of things people ask me about, I don't have opinions on. I always just want to say things like, when I was talking about words having
a lack of meaning, and that's really what I think. The fact is I can't really... I find it difficult to be moved to say anything, unless
I'm somehow drawn to it, and so it's really... I don't know why, It's very difficult for me. I don't know whether that's because I tend
to communicate, like, erm... in the context of my band, or on stage or something, you know, I'll be doing what
I do within the structure of what I've rehearsed and trying to find out what's interesting about that particular rendition
of that song or verse or whatever...
Roy: Do you do the same thing with acting?
Johnny: Yes. There's a structure and you can play with it, be spontaneous.
As far as answering questions... I also find it hard to talk to strangers...
Roy: Can you draw us a self portrait.
FOR MORE OF JOHNNY FLYNN, VISIT HIS MYSPACE