Year of leaving Bedales: 2001
Johnny Flynn is seriously fatigued. He starts a three-week tour of the US tomorrow but his thoughts are with his girlfriend and their four week-old baby, who hasn’t got the hang of sleeping yet. Thinner and longer-haired than his photos and music videos, he has just led a song-writing workshop with a dozen Bedalian songwriters and is squeezing in a quick interview before a sound check for this evening’s fund-raiser.
Johnny’s prodigious musical talent was honed from the age of seven, when he won a music scholarship to choir school in Winchester. The regime, consisting of daily choral practice and an hour of supervised practice per instrument, alongside academic studies and sport, was pretty brutal. However, by the time he arrived at Bedales on his second music scholarship, he was already master of his violin and trumpet and ready for change. Bedales was a culture shock, to put it mildly. “I was wide-eyed at the freedom of choice. I was encouraged to be creative for the first time, taught myself the guitar and had the chance to mould my music to what I wanted to do. It took me a couple of years to relax into my own identity.”
Though he is from acting stock – his father was a musical theatre actor and two of his brothers are also actors – his is a family that eschews luvvie-dom. He missed out on a place at drama school when he applied in 6:2 first time around, which was a hidden blessing, since it allowed him to spend precious time with his father, who fell ill and died the year after he left school. Still grieving, he took up a place at the respected Webber Douglas drama academy in Brompton, where he put his head down and lost himself in work. He struggled at first: “My problem was that, to begin with, I couldn’t relate to the other students. I couldn’t see why they were bloody cart-wheeling down the corridors, so pleased to be at drama school. For me, acting was an entirely natural thing to do; I grew up seeing my father doing it.” The sense of dislocation from his fellow students that first year was mitigated by the discovery of a link with the past - two of his tutors had been in his father’s class at RADA.
I was wide-eyed at the freedom of choice. I was encouraged to be creative for the first time, taught myself the guitar and had the chance to mould my music to what I wanted to do
A self-confessed country bumpkin, he started to enjoy London. “I’d never seen music as a career option, but I started playing some gigs with other OBs. For a couple of years, I went everywhere with my guitar strapped on my back. I’d busk on the South Bank to get enough money to travel round London and would do a gig the same night. I did a night somewhere almost every day as well as two jobs and drama school. I was full of energy and enthused by it all.”
Even before he left drama school, Johnny managed to find an agent, a lead role in a film and some television work but didn’t find it fulfilling. Then, in 2006, his acting and musical interests started to converge. He had just started up a band when Ed Hall (OB 1985) cast him in Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew for a world tour with Propeller, the acclaimed all-male Shakespeare troupe. It was a revelation; a challenging and exciting time for the troupe’s youngest actor, who observes that “the all male cast adds humour and makes sense of a lot of Shakespeare.” He ended up writing and playing some music for the productions. As if acting and performing music in the eight shows a week on tour wasn’t enough to deal with, he then landed a record deal.
Johnny’s distinctive sound evolved gradually. “I started writing songs at school, but it was a private thing. I never performed one of my own songs at a JFP – it would never have occurred to me.” His musical conversion happened at an open mic night in Greenwich Village, New York, where he first encountered the US antifolk scene. “It was very specific to a particular group of people. They were playing very beautiful and very true music. There was nothing like it in London. Emmy the Great had already done some gigs and we started up a night in the style of antifolk and called it Apocalypso. It was all a bit DIY, really.”
While musically he sits squarely in the folk tradition, Johnny’s lyrics, rather than drawing on traditional stories or causes, offer an altogether more personal narrative. His song-writing is essentially private, which is central to its freshness and appeal. The first person he shared his writing with was Alastair Langlands, because “his opinion was the only one I wanted”.
He says “I think my best stuff is still quite private. The more it resonates with me, the more I guess it must resonate with other people. My records have been episodic. I wrote the first album (A Larum) on tour with Propeller, and that’s why it’s all about travelling and new places. The second, (Been Listening), was written around London when I was doing different things.” The next album, one surmises, may take another direction. After all, Johnny has had the biggest shift in his life so far with the birth of his son just four weeks ago and is still reeling. He smiles wryly: “I seem to take a couple of years to get used to things.”
Later, he performs at the Bedales Olivier Theatre, at a benefit concert for the John Badley Foundation, which also showcases current Bedales talent. Gone is the pale, wan interviewee. So understated in person, Johnny is luminous on stage, and has the admittedly partisan crowd in the palm of his hand in seconds. Where many performers concern themselves with projecting outwards, he has a stillness that makes you want to lean in closer, so as not to miss a word. He performs songs from his two albums, including Brown Trout Blues, and finishes with his hit Tickle Me Pink, which receives a noisy standing ovation. He returns for just one last song and a long round of applause and then races into a taxi to catch the 21:57 train back to east London, his love and his new baby.
Johnny Flynn was interviewed at Bedales in May 2011