- 18 Aug 21
Hotly tipped for folk stardom, Dubliner John Francis Flynn talks about his masterful debut album 'I Would Not Live Always', his unique take on trad, chaotic sessions in Ballina and more. Photo: Miguel Ruiz.
“I started learning the tin whistle because my piano teacher told me I should quit.” John Francis Flynn is in his sitting room, telling me about his rather traumatic-sounding first foray into music. That is to say, the Dubliner was only six when he was told to give up on learning the foundational instrument.
“My dad was like, ‘Well, we have to keep him playing music, so he can start doing Irish music,’” Flynn chuckles. “I must’ve been really, really terrible. I think I was bad at practicing. But then again, I was only four at the time.”
Looking at him now, it’s hard to believe he was ever as young as four. Flynn is seated, but even so he towers over the laptop screen, his head – sporting his characteristic long brown hair and beard – occupying the northern hemisphere of the Zoom frame.
Perhaps his piano teacher was operating on an early hunch. The multi-hyphenate guitarist, tin whistle and flute player is just about to release his debut album, I Would Not Live Always.
Already hotly-tipped after a tour with Lankum saw him signed to Rough Trade’s folk imprint River Lea, Flynn’s debut is an arresting folk collection, peppered not by the ivories, but rather deep drones, brooding, mournful strings and whistles, and his own steady, whiskey-warm voice. Everything in its right place.
The record puts Flynn on the precipice of folk stardom. He’s achieved a nearly impossible balance, fusing his broad influences and improvisations with the lyrics of traditional and classic folk tunes he’s collected from Shirley Collins, Frank Harte, settled Traveller Paddy Quilligan, Ewan MacColl, and Stan Hugill.
“My dad was big into jazz and all sorts of folk music,” Flynn explains. “I went through a stage of being really into Nirvana, AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. But there was always trad.
“I got some of the songs from going to sessions here and seeing what people were singing, and others I got from archival recordings. Whereas others I would have found from the likes of Luke Kelly. Then it’s just that journey of singing traditional songs for years, to the point it becomes native.”
Both modern and traditional, I Would Not Live Always is meticulously crafted, but it maintains an air of ease. At times, it seems like the musician has been swept up in and carried by the music. The title-track hinges on a great, swelling maelstrom of instruments underneath Flynn's hazy vocal, before reaching a frenzied peak – to which Flynn happily surrenders.
“I’d say some of the traditional community would probably hate this album,” he says wryly. “But that’s fine, I’ve battled with that in the past as well, because I like traditional music in a very particular style. I can absolutely be a purist in certain contexts.”
But Flynn doesn’t really see this as a traditional album.
“The source material is traditional, but there are so many more influences. There’s electronic stuff, there’s jazz... but it’s coming from me, as a traditional folk musician, within a world of music I’m interested in.”
He isn’t making any statement by trying to modernise the music. “The songs have lasted this long by themselves,” he reflects. “They don’t need me to come along like, ‘Hey! Here’s some electronics to make them relevant.’ It’s just something I was interested in exploring.
“Ian Lynch of Lankum said the same thing, that he doesn’t see Lankum as a traditional band – even though most of their material is traditional. He would say it’s just music that draws from the traditional, and I suppose that’s what I feel I’ve done.”
The title track comes between two others that are all technically supposed to be a part of one piece. If there were any difficulties in recording I Would Not Live Always, Flynn says, it was laying down this section.
“It took forever in the studio,” he laughs. “So many takes! That particular track works really well live. It was actually trying to get the live energy into it that was the hard part. That’s why it took so long. We would be recording it and it would be missing something – some sort of energy.”
They got there in the end, but it was a big exploration with producer Brendan Jenkinson.
“He had never recorded something like it,” says Flynn. “We came in this time with the material he had never heard before, and he was like, ‘This is mad.’
“It was a big lesson for us in how we would like to record in the future, in terms of pre-production. Brendan said we should go down the country for five days – just jam it out, so he could record everything and we could work out exactly what we’re going to do. It worked out, but it was a learning process.”
I can only imagine that the song catches fire onstage.
“This is another reason I don’t necessarily see the album as purely traditional,” Flynn nods. “Coming from a background in Irish music, trad is played in a pub with other people.
“It’s very casual, community-based music, and that’s the beauty of it. I mean, it’s not the only beauty of it, but that’s how I’ve formed my relationships with people. That music is not supposed to be played on a stage, necessarily.
“If Lankum started sitting down in the pub and performing their big droney pieces in a session, you’d be like, ‘Get lost!" he laughs.
The last song on the album, a version of Ewan MacColl’s ‘Come Me Little Son’, was the only song Flynn was actively trying to make sound like a session.
“With everything else, I tried to put that music I’ve made for the stage into the music I’ve made for the session,” he says.
“And that was a big journey for me in terms of transferring stuff onstage. Most people from other genres, like rock or pop, they’re always thinking about music for the stage. I was never thinking about that.”
Is there a nervousness involved in debuting a quiet piece of music on a large stage, to an even bigger audience?
“I try to make people laugh early on,” he says, slowly. “If I can get the audience to be on my side, then I can feel more comfortable.
“I had two performances at Other Voices Ballina last year – one was early in the day, and it was really lovely and went really well. The next one was at 11 o’clock at night in a local pub.”
And of course, it’s Ballina on a Saturday night.
“All of Ballina was out, with a few people from Other Voices trying to squeeze in,” Flynn laughs. “I’ve never been in a more packed pub. There were some really drunk locals, and one of them was about a metre away from me, as I was trying to introduce songs. I would say, ‘And the next song I’m going to play...’ and he would be like, ‘Hey you! You! John, what’s your name? What size are you? You must be about six-foot -five are ya?’”
Whoever he was, he’ll be kicking himself now.
Listen to the album below.