Johnny Flynn's new album 'Country Mile' sees Johnny and long-time collaborator/best friend Adam Beach (The Sussex Wit) take the helm on production duties. Recorded in a number of different studios in New York and London over the last two years, the album's main theme is one of journeying (with a 'Country Mile' being an indefinite distance). The allegory is a through line for the record, with each song making up the different elements of a life seen as one journey.
Here Johnny talks us through the album, track by track...
'I've walked in the fields and I've trod light for days...'
We meet perhaps the protagonist for the entire album. He's some way into an indefinite journey (a country mile), the purpose of which is revealed and illuminated in fragments as he places his feet one after the other along the seams of the earth. Robert Macfarlane talks of the inherent wisdom we unlock in ourselves as we make journey's along 'The Old Ways'. As if the act of pilgrimage creates a consciousness to encompass all those who've added their will to the path, and the way itself is a projection of all those intentions, and thus becomes the teacher. So it is with our hero; the answer lies somewhere in 'the closet of his soul'.
This song came out of a small red notebook. There was once 3 times as many verses and variations on the sections but over a good few years it stewed and was distilled to this version. Which is perhaps the simplest existence it ever had, but that suits the walking ethic. It's a kind of mission statement for the intent on the rest of the record and I felt from early on that those first few thrashy chords played in a warehouse in New York should open proceedings. It's more the spearhead for the record than the heart - the heart might be unveiled in what follows, beating its own drum for each listener and so that's why the album as a whole is called 'Country Mile' and not named after any of the later songs; it's the vessel, or a chimney stack seen on the horizon: you can't see what lies in the valley.
'Holly, go lightly. Bright as the day
Fresh as the moon and stale as the hay
Cold as the window, frozen with frost;
You've never been seen and you've never been lost'
A love song to a ghost of the past. This grew from words I wrote in 2007 when I was in New York doing a play there. I remember the cafe where I wrote them pretty clearly. I remember showing my friend Dickon who I was with, and he helped me with a line that I didn't end up using in this finished recording. I remember thinking there was something wrong with it for 5 years and then I played a melody to the chorus whilst in the Welsh mountains after getting married and it made sense. Some things you grow into.
The Lady is Risen
'So I'll watch you with eyes that can see,
I can see that you're too good at pulling that wool over me'
Again, these words were in my notebook a while - at least since finishing the recording of 'Been listening'. So I feel like this song was the first song conceived for this record. It feels like the beginning of the heart of the record that I was talking about. I started this one 4 times whereas I never looked back with any of the others. Adam and I did a slow 3/4 version that I still love but which didn't sound like us. It was a soul rip-off that left my sleeves too influence-ridden. This was the first song we got to grips with in my small studio and the work we did on this was like clearing out the attic so it took some time and some emotional upheaval. I took it to New York and started it again on my own and narrowed down the arrangements. Eventually it all got laid down around the drums which we did one week late in 2012. David sent me an iPhone recording of himself playing that half time beat over one of the earlier versions of the song...and the rest is....
'I dreamt I flew with the Saints last night'
My wife likes this one the most. It was a short idea - a kind of Hank Williams feel and nothing too crazy. I also started this in New York and was reading a biography of Saints' lives whilst writing the words. I'd always been curious about St Agnes; each account of her life is different and most are pretty morbid. And she is honoured in the beautiful Keats poem 'The Eve of St Agnes'. Genesius the actor sounded like someone I know. In some ways where the rest of the songs are concerned with physical movement, this one is about being stuck in a place but casting out your heart to those avatars that can feel the wind for you; considering the hawk that hovers high above the house (for us), and dreaming of the saints.
'The will of the void is to shape and name forms,
Our dance was never done then,
I remember you well from before you were born,
My chance was never won then.'
This one I see twinned with 'Time Unremembered' and celebrating in its own melody. It closes side one. The melody and some of the words for the long, slow outro are from an old idea I had floating around (in an old red notebook). I felt like the song itself could be conceived as a holy ritual being sung by itself in praise of itself. A pagan ceremony perhaps. The first part was the last thing written for the album. I was in West Wales for Christmas last year on a two day break from doing Twelfth Night and Richard iii in town and played around with these chords and had my sister try the harmonies that ended up on the finished song. Then I went back into Soup studio in London where we'd moved operations and recorded this and Time Unremembered over one or two days early this year. They were the last to be finished and I'd been saving them to play as live to capture the performances. I played piano and sang and Lillie sang at the same time - it was the only song to not have any overdubs.
'I am the mother, I am the daughter, I am the will at large,
I am the love that flows with the water, I am the holy charge'
I wrote most of the words (and a melody) in a green leather notebook while I was recording A Larum in 2007, so I guess they're some of the oldest. They seemed unfinished so I had them in the back of my mind all this time. Originally I had it singled out for a song to feature in a radio play that I began writing and recording while we were doing that first album in Seattle. I set up a desk with a mic in a vocal booth in the studio and tried to record chapters for this play, but I folded on the play after mixing on the record took over. Anyway the song survived and in the intervening years I got heavily into Chicha - Peruvian psychedelic music from the 60's and 70's and when I went back to the song it fitted perfectly with the tone of some of that stuff so I let that come into it a little. Not too much. But a fair bit.
'The gap in between them is nothing to us,
Our eyes cut the distance as loving eyes must
From me unto you son, from dust unto dust'
This one swoops around the heart of the album for me. It's a lullaby to my son and originally there were two completely different songs that had the same melody. The other words became 'Bottom of the sea Blues' and it was a difficult call to give these words to this melody. The song sort of arrived at the same time as Gabriel and I've sung it to him all of his 2 and 1/2 years. He knows the words now and recently upstaged me at an open air gig at the Globe theatre where he belted it out from atop my wife's shoulders. I sing it quietly to help him to sleep. I realise I couldn't bring myself to sing 'oh my darling' about anyone other than him. I wasn't even able to bring myself to say 'Darling' before he came along - it's a word that feels really corny when used in most contexts, and everyone knows its overused by actors - especially those in my family - so this is the first instance I've felt able to commit to it without cringing. Phew.
'Summer laughing, glacial twist,
Christmas parting, knock-out whist
Love's been in the air too long,
Love's long trodden face is wrong'
Another one from the red notebook. I wrote the melody in the small broom cupboard studio in East London on one of the days Adam were in there fooling around. It started out as something for a friend's film project and when he didn't want the song for the film I developed it, having gotten attached to it. I went to a Tinariwen gig and was reminded how beautiful it was the way in a lot of North African music there's a chorus of voices singing in unison, often in a call and response and all the instruments follow the same line. I thought I'd try something with the same ethos hence the 'where are you going to all on your own' section. The verse melody I found riffing on a new open guitar tuning I'd just discovered. It wrote itself pretty quickly.
Bottom of the Sea Blues
'My age is my condition,
My love is my intent'
This is a song of four elements really -
- The words for the verses that had kind of failed the test to be used for the Einstein's Idea melody. These were written in a black exercise book in a moment of despondence. Sometimes I feel like song writing for me is like a healthier version of taking Prozac. It's certainly some kind of counselling.
- The chorus which was written on a scrap of paper that I kept in my guitar case for a while. It came with a melody at the same time and felt like one of the more joyous things I'd ever written so it seemed a good idea to twin it with the 'blue' verses. This chorus is the other bit my wife likes on the album.
- The melody for the verses which I needed to find, having stolen the original for a different song. Eventually I went to back to one of the first songs I ever wrote (but never released) and lifted it from there. A proper case of musical chairs. The original song was one I played at my first ever gig which was at a night I ran with Emmy the Great and another friend Tom 'Hatred' who were then in a band called 'The Contraband' together. I was billed as 'Sheriff' Johnny Flynn. It went ok.
- The fast sung words for the long middle 8 section which I wrote whilst walking on my own in Northern Spain a few years ago. These were written as a kind of poem prayer and don't scan especially so I just chucked them at the song and the last piece of the jigsaw fell (kind of) into place.
'And what was the song that was playing
In the cafe when we heard?
It wasn't one of the greats,
But it rang through me for a moment
Something about a murder, a brood, a fleet, a flock of birds'
I had been listening to the Richard and Linda Thompson album 'I want to see the Bright Lights Tonight' and the sound on 'Down where the Drunkards Roll' especially informed the choice of instruments on this. There was a beautiful Wurlitzer at Soup and I was desperate to play it on the record so this was going to be my last chance. The words where from a black exercise book and as a whole it was one of the newest things in the album. I remember writing some lyrics during a lull in rehearsals for Richard iii. Mark Rylance, who was playing Richard, leant over and took my notebook and wrote a line seamlessly after the one I'd just written and gave me the book back with a twinkle in his eye. What he wrote was 'the border of normality is the most crowded on earth' and that became the line about 'the border of reality is the most crowded any place' as it was in the place where that one would come. So he should get some credit... In more ways than one - when I was mixing the record I took rough mixes to the theatre and played them to him in the dressing room we shared after the shows were finished. He gave me wonderful notes about how certain points of tension in the songs might come across better. He was able to conceive of the songs like scenes in a play and want to highlight the drama, like a director would with a text. He could see certain instruments as characters in the plot and say which forces weren't being represented strongly enough and where the darkness needed light and vice versa. I felt that this song with its themes of leaving this plane and giving up on some kind of struggle had to be the last on the record. I asked my Dad when he was ill to tell me an old story I'd heard a thousand times because it was going to be the last time I heard it and he smiled ad said, "you know, I'm not sure that ever really happened". After a confused pause I laughed because I realised it didn't matter, and I could let go of that memory at the same time as him and no one needed to tell that story ever again.
Country Mile is out this week on Transgressive Records.
Johnny plays the following live shows in October:
Sat 5th October – Edinburgh, Pleasance Theatre
Sun 6th October – Glasgow, Oran Mor
Mon 7th October – Manchester, Club Academy
Tues 8th October – Birmingham, Institute Library
Thurs 10th October – London, Hackney Empire
Fri 11th October – Oxford, Academy 2
Sat 12th October – Brighton, St Georges Church
Mon 14th October – Bristol, Anson Rooms
Tues 15th October – Leeds, The Wardrobe
Weds 16th October – Dublin, Whelans
Thurs 17th October – Belfast Limelight