- 30 Nov 23
Two years on from his critically acclaimed debut album, John Francis Flynn returns with his sophomore album Look Over The Wall, See The Sky. He discusses Dublin, Paddywhackery and what traditional music means to him.
Hours before he plays a session in McNeill’s on Capel Street, Marino’s John Francis Flynn is in high spirits days ahead of his eagerly awaited new album, released by Rough Trade imprint, River Lea Records.
“I’m really excited, it’s been a long time coming. I’ve been sitting on it for the last six months so that’s kind of tortuous,” he laughs.
Released in July 2021 his debut album I Would Not Live Always put Flynn on the map, winning Mojo’s ‘Folk Album Of The Year’ and RTE Folk Awards’ ‘Best Singer’ and ‘Best Emerging Artist’, along with a slew of glittering album reviews. Was the pressure on the second time around?
“I felt more inspired and less pressure. I’d taken a chance with my first album in terms of pushing it in a certain direction,” he explains. “Way more people than I thought liked it and that gave me a lot of confidence in terms of my own vision.”
Track after track, Look Over The Wall, See The Sky is dripping in Flynn’s originality and creativity. He opens the album with a magical version of The Dubliners’ ‘Zoological Gardens’.
“Zoological Gardens was the final piece of the album, it’s what tied it all together,” he explains. “Although the album tracks sound quite different, with different kinds of themes, the unifying thread was that it was very much a Dublin album. Although the tracks aren’t all necessarily about Dublin, the spirit is about Dublin and Irish identity.
“‘Zoological Gardens’ sets it up perfectly – you’re immediately in Dublin. It starts off solo singing for the first verse so you think, this is a traditional song, a traditional album. But then it starts getting wonky and you’re like, where is this going? It can kind of go anywhere sonically and that really tied it all together.”
The album artwork also touches on Irish identity. With a crystal goblet of emerald green liqueur sat upon a mossy ledge, it instantly grabs your attention.
“It was important that it looked well,” says Flynn. “Once it looked cool, it could be tongue-in- cheek. You know the way in other countries on Paddy’s Day, they dye their drinks green for Ireland? I thought, why don’t they just drink Crème de menthe, it’s already green? So I started thinking of it as some sort of sacred liquid, the essence of Ireland.
“On a more serious note, the point of the album cover is to poke fun at this view of Ireland and Paddywhackery. Everyone has this idea of what Ireland is and it’s a Disneyland version of what Ireland actually is. To live in Dublin is very different to what people see coming over on holidays to Dublin, going to Temple Bar and spending ten quid on a pint, you know.
“In America there’s a lot of people who engage in a weird, skewed version of Irishness, it’s the same in Canada and England. But then there’s the real Irish people over there who engage in Irish culture in a very real way. A lot of my friends are Irish-American and they’re brilliant trad musicians, and repulsed by all that carry-on. All the harps and shamrocks, everyone thinks Ireland is this dreamy land where everyone is just singing and dancing. This is a real place with real fuckin’ problems. Dublin city is a home to many people and it’s become so hard to live here.”
The album is a masterclass of experimental folk. Flynn’s version of American folk song ‘Mole In The Ground’ is at the centre of its triumph, illuminating Flynn’s adept skill of breathing new life into well-worn songs. It’s by far one of the best songs of the year. The accompanying video features trad musician Paddy Cummins, as an angry and frustrated ice-cream man, which draws on the line “I don’t like the railroad man”.
“The railroad man back then would have been the main man, the boss man,” says Flynn. “So Paddy is working as an ice-cream van driver and he’s like, ‘I fuckin’ hate this. I don’t want to have to do this.’ He’s fed up with his situation.”
Flynn isn’t afraid to thread humour in with serious social issues and the tougher realities of life in Ireland.
“There is hope. That’s what the name of the album always represents for me – there’s still hope for Dublin.”
Having played a role in instigating the ‘Save The Cobblestone’ march in October 2021, when it comes to standing up for what he believes in, Flynn turns his words into action.
“I was lucky to have the likes of Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin (Flynn’s bandmate in Skipper’s Alley). I’m passionate about these things, but it was a major team effort. I would get involved in movements like that again for sure, but having the right people around gave me the confidence to be there.”
But where does his outspoken spirit come from?
“It comes from loving this city and being appalled by how it’s going and how hard it is to live here. I’m half moved down to Clare now, so I’m halfway between Dublin and Clare. I don’t want to leave Dublin. Dublin is my home but it’s so fucking hard to live here.”
Flynn is a central figure of Dublin trad sessions. Does he think folk and traditional music tend to attract people with a social conscience?
“I think the playing of traditional music is almost an anti-capitalist thing in itself,” he suggests. “The trad community is a cross-section of society, but the one thing that binds everyone together is the love of trad music. People go and play trad music for free all of the time, I think that’s uncommon. That scene is sold all over the world for profit, for tourism. We won’t be seeing any of that money. Whether people know it or not, it is quite an anti-capitalist thing to play music, just to play music for music’s sake. That energy attracts a lot of people with a social conscience. It’s similar to punk music.”
From local issues like saving the Cobblestone to a major international crisis, like the war in Gaza, Flynn believes there’s strength in numbers and that showing up counts.
“At the very least we should be getting rid of the Israeli ambassador and calling for a ceasefire,” he says. “The government should be putting the pressure on and stopping trade with Israel, all of the obvious stuff. I fear it won’t happen unless other big countries start making those moves. But we need to keep putting pressure on. We just need to keep showing up. I feel like it’s the only thing we can do. I don’t know how much power we have, but I do know that showing up makes a difference.
“With The Cobblestone, it was the sheer amount of people who showed up that made the difference. Thousands of people showed up and that’s what made it count, not me or the people who organised it. If we had thought, we have no power over this, things might have been different. We need to keep making noise and hopefully something happens, but you’re talking about the difference between the council and the Cobblestone versus America and Israel.”
Flynn closes his album with a haunting version of ‘Dirty Old Town’. Does he feel pressure recording original tracks that hold a lot of meaning?
“Yes and no,” he reflects. “Those songs belong to a tradition. Even though it’s a Ewan MacColl song, The Dubliners recorded it and made it famous, then The Pogues recorded it and made it even more famous. You’ll hear it walking through Temple Bar a hundred times a day, it’s done to death, but it’s an absolutely stunning song and I wanted to bring it back to its original essence.
“My favorite version of the song is Ewan MacColl’s. It’s so somber. I wanted to re-do ‘Dirty Old Town’, but in a completely different way to how it’s known, and concentrate more on that energy and lyrics. I thought it really worked at the end of the album, because it’s an album about Dublin. It’s about Salford, but everyone just assumes it’s Dublin and it doesn’t really matter that it’s about Salford for this – it can be any town. It’s actually a love song, it’s so tender. I feel like it’s a love song for Dublin when I sing it.”
The album also features a beautiful version of the trad song ‘Kitty’, famously recorded by The Pogues on their debut album Red Roses For Me. Flynn read that Siobhan MacGowan (Shane’s sister) said their mother got it from her uncle, who was born in the 1900s in Tipperary.
“That’s really powerful. The journey these songs have taken, it doesn’t involve any industry – they just involve connecting person to person, and there’s real honesty and purity in that.”
Full of outstanding covers of trad songs, does John Francis Flynn think his personality shines through on the record?
“I make decisions based on emotion,” he replies. “I engage with songs that resonate with me, I wouldn’t be singing songs that didn’t. I could love a song and really try to sing it, but it doesn’t always work. It works when I’m listening to someone else sing it and I’m happy to leave that song with that person.
“Certain songs resonate with me when I sing them, more so than when I hear them. So that’s when my personality comes out through those songs, there’s a reason why I connect with the song. The album represents how I feel about Dublin and how I feel living here.”
Has Flynn considered writing more autobiographical lyrics?
“I’ve had trouble with that,” he acknowledges. “I’ve been thinking about all that stuff recently. I’ve been writing a bit, but I’ve tried to steer clear of writing too autobiographically. I think you should allow yourself to do that for things to come out.”
Already tipped as one of the best Irish albums of 2023, Flynn is making plans for his third record.
“I haven’t started recording it,” he says, “but we might have one track and a potential start to the next album. I’ve also toyed with the idea of putting out an EP – just me on my own with an electric guitar.”
While his career is going from strength to strength, does he ever worry about his future making his living through music?
“Massively!” he admits. “I worry and I think ahead for the first time in my life. Before I put out the first album I didn’t really think a day ahead of myself, I was just going with the flow big time. Then once the career presented itself to me, I thought, I like touring, I like making music, people seem to like what I’m doing, so now I really care about it. I’m very much thinking ahead.
“I don’t think about playing stadiums by the time I’m 40 or whatever, but I am thinking about how I want to make this sustainable. It takes a lot more planning than I’m used to and I’m learning that as I go, but I’m delighted to be doing it.”
Look Over The Wall, See The Sky is out now. John Francis Flynn plays Vicar Street, Dublin this Saturday, December 2.
His Irish Tour also includes dates at Set Theatre, Kilkenny (Dec 1); Róisín Dubh, Galway (Dec 8); St Luke's, Cork (Dec 9); De Barra's, Clonakilty (Dec 10); and Dolan's Warehouse, Limerick (Dec 14).
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