TLM13: JOHNNY FLYNN
A resonator is a type of guitar built for a sound many generations old. It hums and shines, as if an acoustic guitar was broadcast through a tinny phone line. Rather than a wood sounding board, the heart of the guitar is a metal cone, ornately decorated, that brittles the sound and projects it even without electronic amplification. Resonators are rarer now; they’re hard to come by. But they carry a unique magic in their sound, their history, and their owners.
Johnny Flynn’s resonator is a bit of a mystery. “No one knows where it was between 1940 and 2004, which is when I bought it,” Flynn says. “It has quite a strong spirit.”
It was one of the first things he purchased with his record-deal money, and it has followed Flynn’s eclectic artistic path as band leader of the Sussex Wit and now as an actor, where he strums and plucks it through Song One, a film about a folk musician searching for inspiration and finding it in a woman and the New York music scene she traverses.
“I’ve learned that when a creative path dies out, another door opens, and you have to stay loose enough, present enough, and absorbent enough to figure out what path you have to walk down,” Flynn says in his soft English accent. “That sounds like a terrible cliché, but being in creative industries, for me, is a spiritual path.”
Flynn has been carving that path, guitar in tow, with a balance of wide-eyed enthusiasm and artistic curiosity. He has sought out company that emphasizes shared forms of creativity, whether onstage, on camera, or in the pubs and music nights of London’s early-Aughts folk scene.
Flynn is in London now helping produce English singer-songwriter Nick Mulvey’s album. We speak after a studio session with Flynn in a cab back to his London flat just after sunset, a small break from a schedule that has permitted him more time to his songwriting and the musical community that gave him so much of his identity. Flynn never left music, but he felt the need to slow down to give acting his full focus. “I hate having to rush a job because you need the space to say what you have to say with your fullest voice and as much confidence as possible,” Flynn says.
“Not being honest in those circumstances is my version of being sacrilegious or blasphemous. There’re lots of ways of doing something, but if you find a way that’s true, then you’re happy.”
Several years ago, Flynn stopped touring in order to pursue a series of increasingly meaty acting roles, including a run at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in the acclaimed, all-male Shakespearean troupe Propeller. Now Flynn’s about to have even less time, thanks to a breakout role in Song One, opposite Anne Hathaway, and the upcoming Olivier Assayas film, Clouds of Sils Maria, opposite Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz.
In some ways, it has improved his songwriting. “I’m never going to abandon music,” Flynn says. “I was dragged back out to play shows here, and it was a good thing to be reminded that this is something I love doing.” Flynn’s friends did everything they could to “drag” him out for some gigs. It helps when your friends happen to be Mumford & Sons, who actually played one of their first performances opening for Flynn. “So many bands only get to write songs about the view from their hotel window, but I get to work with language and be inspired by that,” Flynn continues. “That seems invaluable as a song- writer. I am very grateful for that.”
To hear Flynn sing is not to see him. His solid build, tousled hair, and craggy features absolutely do not set you up for the lilting way his lyrics seem to fall and float out of him. His voice can crackle or rise sweetly into a falsetto, all while singing stories of small towns, large hopes, and even larger characters.
There seems to be a minor groundswell of British folk musicians waiting for Flynn to finish with all this acting business and get back to music full-time. But Flynn embodies a new creative state of mind, one that is not bordered by form— musician, actor, painter, poet—but one that applies considerable talents to tell better stories.
The story of Song One hews close to Flynn’s own. James Forester is a folk guitarist, resonator in hand, searching for inspiration. Forester, like Flynn, is exceedingly polite, a dewy-eyed talent capable of heart-grabbing honesty both onstage and off. “In terms of lifestyle and where his head is at, a lot of that stuff came from conversations with Kate [Barker-Froyland], the director, of what it was like to be a musician out on the road,” Flynn says. “I think he’s a character that is quite close to me, so I have to find a fine line. In real life, I’ve got a wife and a kid.”
Song One’s music went ￼through a similar process; written for—but not by—Flynn, he used the songs as a way to find his character. “That’s what being an actor is about,” Flynn says. “You’re doing a good job if you’re serving the piece. It was quite a relief in a way to not have to worry about every aspect of the music. I think I enjoy giving up that leadership role for those situations.” The collaboration between Flynn and songwriters Jenny Flynn, Johnathan Rice, and Nate Walcott resulted in an album, which they recorded on weekends between shoots. Even though the songs are not Flynn’s, it’s hard to imagine anyone taking them from him. There is a stamp Flynn places on his projects, a vibration that is all his own.
In a way, Song One best captures the hell and catharsis of creativity. “You sometimes lose your way or you end up turning out the same stuff for a while, and before you know it you end up losing your inspiration, what put you there in the first place,” Flynn says. “And then you find it.”
What put Flynn there in the first place was an old book of hand-written folk songs and The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. Born in Johannesburg, Flynn moved with his family to Hampshire, England, when he was three. He earned a music scholarship, picking up violin and trumpet, but classes felt forced and dull.
“I learned to play the guitar using an old songbook of my mum’s that she’d handwritten, and it was full of traditional folk songs, songs that she loved,” Flynn recalls. “I got really obsessed with the Bob Dylan songs because they were really exciting to me. I was studying music as a music scholar, but I was listening to all of that stuff.”
Folk music has a tendency to take care of its own, and Flynn found himself mingling with the artists who would come to define the modern folk sound in its early London years. He and some friends established a music night, called Apocalypso, with fellow folk musicians Emmy the Great and Tom Hatred. “We played with people like Laura Marling when she was starting out, and Florence from Florence and the Machine when she was around,” Flynn says. “It was an early scene to be a part of in London at that time when I was forming my musical identity. When I was growing up, we didn’t have much money, but it was about finding something to do together.”
If Flynn found a musical family in Apocalypso, it was a mirror of his own upbringing. “My dad was writing songs in the Sixties and Seventies, and my mum sang songs and had been a folk singer in the Seventies,” Flynn says. “My older brothers are actors and keen on music. Yes, I guess, I loved hanging around backstage when my dad was doing shows. That atmosphere was what really infected me and made me want to become an actor. It seemed like this magical world of storytelling that my family was privileged to be involved in. Because I went away to boarding school, and I was studying classical music, my way of rebelling was to write my own music. I just fell in with a group of friends who liked to make music and were obsessed with studying the history as well, both American and British. Those are our heroes. It kind of took me over.”
It was Emmy who initially introduced Flynn to resonator guitars. She had an old metal resonator lying around and Flynn took to it. “At one point I was crashing on her sofa and I was using her guitar a lot,” Flynn says. “I used it for a lot of bedroom recordings and things, and I fell in love with it.”
That guitar, with its odd metal heart, helped Flynn find his voice, a voice he is now rediscovering in film. “I think playing characters onstage and things like that has told me that you can take on various entities and channel your own voice through the habits of a certain character, the rhythm of someone else’s voice or using someone else’s language,” Flynn says. “But you still have to have your own heart in the middle of it.”
Song One is out January 23. Clouds of Sils Maria is out April 10.
Zachary Sniderman is the associate editor of The Last Magazine.
Styling by Celestine Cooney. Hair by Lee Machin at Caren. Grooming by Jenny Coombs at Streeters. Photographer’s assistants: Iain Anderson and Alec McLeish. Stylist’s assistant: Poppie Clinch. Digital technician: Mike Harris. Production by Lucie Mamont.