Photo Credit: Hanna-Katrina-Jedrosz
“I place this importance on the name of records,” says Johnny Flynn. “It becomes this talismanic focus for the record. And this one rang out like a bell.”
The choice of Sillion as a title for his fourth album was one Flynn reached through a convergence of unlikely forces — of friendship, politics, poetry but it’s a word too that captures much of the album’s colour and mood — its measure of the times.
It’s an old word, describing the gleaming furrow of earth turned over when the plough cuts through the soil, and most notably used by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his 1877 poem The Windhover: “Sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine”. Flynn liked the sound of it, the way it seemed “like something sci-fi, but it’s actually a product of the oldest point of human contact with the earth.” He was also a long-standing Hopkins fan: “I loved him ever since I was given the Windhover by a teacher at school,” he says. “His poetry is exquisitely nuanced and sensual.”
The word rose up to meet him some time last autumn, post-Brexit, just as America was in the throes of election fever, and the world seemed suddenly upturned. “I had this really visceral, physical sense of needing to go to ground,” Flynn recalls, “and to accept some of the baseness of human nature in some of the political revolutions around the world, and glean some hope from that as well.” Around the same time he was reading John Lewis-Stempel’s book The Running Hare about farming a field using old techniques. “And I had a strong sense that the album title had to be earthy and muddy,” Flynn says. He discussed these thoughts with his close friend, the writer Robert Macfarlane, famed in particular for his work on nature and language. “And Rob said ‘What about ‘Sillion’?’ And it struck me as this crystalline gift of a word.”
The record itself had begun long before, growing episodically between Flynn’s commitments to acting, composing, and his young family. “A lot of other elements of my life are impacted by deadlines, rehearsal schedules, opening nights and shooting dates,” he says. “But the way songwriting works with me, I like that slow digestion of things, to feel like there’s a multi-dimensional element to music over time, that it has lots of influences, and waiting to hear how I feel about it, and when I feel it’s ready.”
Songwriting has changed for Flynn in recent years. “Before children it was always about being in a state of adventure, but now I’m always heading home,” he says. “Before, it was all I wanted to do and I was always provoking situations to have experiences to write about — I used to be carrying notebooks all the time and digesting things. But now rehearsal spaces are good places for that: plays, living in different stories, dealing with other writers’ language, that’s really provocative for me and really fruitful.”
Much of the recording of Sillion was done while Flynn was starring in Martin McDonagh’s play Hangmen. “I was playing a psychopath,” he explains, “so there’s probably some of that darkness in the lyrics, and a celebration that you can explore the baseness of human nature.”
This darkness rises up particularly on the track In the Deepest, which grew out of a film score commission and which Flynn describes as being about “a sense of foreboding … it has such a sense of maleficent drama to it.”
A similar sensation rears up again on Barleycorn, Flynn’s take on the traditional English folk song of a similar name, that feels suddenly contemporary here, in a time of base revolt. “It’s about the ritualistic killing of Sir John Barleycorn and predates the Christian story of the slaying of Christ,” he explains. That sense of mob rule is enhanced by the recording’s use of Alfred Lord Tennyson reading the Charge of the Light Brigade to capture, Flynn says, “the rumble and drama of the people coming over the hill.”
One of the album’s earliest songs is Jefferson’s Torch, when Flynn found himself “trying to write something political.” This was long before Brexit, long before Trump. “But I was reading about lighting the torch for all mankind and about revolution happening every two generations,” he recalls.
It also serves as a belated riposte to Billy Bragg, with whom Flynn found himself in a head-to-head debate a couple of years ago. “He said ‘Where’s the soundtrack to the revolution?’ and I found it hard to articulate a response; I wanted to contradict him and say it’s not on the surface, it’s a fundamental shift in heart politics. That in being something and embodying it I don’t think you need always to engage with politics on a literal level and I think that’s part of what’s gone wrong — you don’t always know what’s real in party politics, it’s semantic, but you do know what’s real when you look inside. But I couldn’t quite find the words to give that answer then.”
For all of Sillion’s political grounding, it is an album of great intimacy too.
The opening track, Raising the Dead, tells of Flynn getting to know his new-born daughter. “My Dad died when I was 18, and that was quite a galvanising experience,” he says, “and there’s often an element of that in anything I’m writing; every big loss that you suffer in life, I think everything comes through the conduit of that. And I had a really strong sense of my daughter having elements of my Dad when she came along, and it made me kind of laugh — that cyclical sense, of thinking of my daughter as my Dad.”
In Your Pockets and Heart Sunk Hank are both tributes to his wife — the former looking at how “we met at school, and we grew up together, and lived in these different cycles of our lives and now we’re in the cycle of having kids.” The latter was in part inspired by the folk song Ten Thousand Miles. “There’s a version of that song by Nic Jones that I really love,” Flynn says. “His version is really pure and beautiful and trembling with authenticity. But I played it to my wife and she hated it. And it made me laugh: how can it be that this person that I love hates this song?”
It’s the strange humour of this juxtaposition that feeds Heart Sunk Hank, the fascination of their differing approaches to love and absence. “I’ve been away from home a lot,” Flynn says. “I’m always off, and I carry that sense of my love across the seas, romanticising it, and she’s like ’Shut up, come home.’”
It also allowed Flynn to try out a Voice-o-Graph — the recording booth popular in the 1940s which gave people two flat minutes to make a record. “There’s only two working in the world and there was one in London for a time and I had a chance to have a go in it and that wavy, crackly recording on this song is the recording I made. It sounds like the old Blues records I love. I wanted a sense of time travel in the song, panning from the Voice-o-Graph to the studio recording — at one point there’s one in each ear.”
Such sonic experimentation was something Flynn was keen to pursue on Sillion — though initially he had thought the album might be a stripped-back 60s garage record. “But it took on a life of its own,” he says. “David Beauchamp played drums again – he has since my second record when I poached him from Jeffrey Lewis’s band. Adam Beach is on bass. He’s been the most important person in terms of putting out records, he’s my best friend but a producer too, with a tremendous understanding of recorded music and how music works. Joe Zeitlin is the cello player, who’s played with us since the beginning. Dave Tattersall plays guitar on The Landlord. My sister Lillie Flynn, and my friend Holly Holden sing, and there’s Cosmo Sheldrake, who collects sounds and plays all sorts of instruments.”
Between all of this there is room enough for moments of pure poetry to rise up on this record. Wandering Aengus led out of William Butler Yeats’ poem of the same name, “Taking the lead from the poem and wondering what the song of Wandering Aengus is,” Flynn says. “Going out into nature and going into places of stillness where something’s just happened and there’s the residue of that still there.”
He found inspiration also, he says, in Jez Butterworth’s play The River, “By the way it uses that poem as the focus for the play, and I was letting those thoughts and feelings come through my mouth,” he explains. “I’ve always been obsessed with the mysterious experiences you have alone in nature — catching a silver trout or hooking a berry to a thread. I grew up by a river, we used to know the river keepers, and my Dad and I would go poaching — I remember having moments where you could barely contain yourself with excitement.”
And the figure of Robert Macfarlane appears once again for Tarp in the Prop. Macfarlane and Flynn had been invited to take part in a series of conversations between writers and musicians at St Andrew’s University, and in preparation the pair took a walk along the River Lea. “I wrote a song about it and he wrote a poem, and that became Tarp in the Prop,” he explains. “And on that walk we met a young couple stranded on a boat in the river and the man was on the roof shouting ‘There’s a tarp in the prop! There’s a tarp in the prop!’ It became an allegory for us, for these snags you encounter in an otherwise flowing environment.”
This is, by some measure, an unusual album; its influences “counter, original, spare, strange” as Hopkins might put it. But it is run through with great love and great passion for nature and humour and mankind, for all the silly and base and wonderful things we do. As Flynn put it, describing that same word, Sillion, “it’s about the sacredness of man’s endeavour to connect with the earth while in separation from the earth. It’s about the point of breathing in and breathing out.”