“I’m painfully free,” Johnny Flynn sings on the title track of his latest album, Country Mile. It’s clear when he calls from the road south of London — driving home after buying an old VW — he’s having one of those days. About to embark on his first significant U.S. tour since 2010, the 30-year-old folk musician, actor, husband, and father wrestles with balancing art, family, and making a living.
“I’m terrible with money. I know I’ve been paid in the past, but I don’t know where it’s gone,” Flynn says, laughing. “But now, if I get paid for a movie, I don’t have to worry about making a record that’s a commercial entity. I’m not interested in that.”
Often lumped into an English “antifolk” scene, Flynn has dueted with Laura Marling and opened for Mumford and Sons (hey, can you blame a guy?). But his debut, A Larum, drew critical praise back in 2008 — two full years before Mumford’s Sigh No More swept dust through America’s shiny pop heart. His latest career moves — a self-produced album that eschews bombast, a role in a hit London play, and co-starring in Anne Hathaway’s latest film — continue to bring him just shy of major fame. He talks with us about combating stage fright, why anyone makes music at all, and the time he bowed to Bob Dylan.
Are you looking forward to being back on the road?
I enjoy it when I’m there, although it’s a nightmare before going. I often suffer from stage fright, so now I’m like, Oh my god, I have to do that thing every night and it’s really horrible. [Laughs] I think the fact that I get afraid means what I’m doing will be better than it would be otherwise. Masking that fear can be quite satisfying.
Do you notice differences between American and U.K. audiences?
Audiences in the U.S. are typically a lot more vocal. In a nice way. It’s a cliché, but the English response is a more muted “good on ya, boy,” but the Americans tell you what they feel. They holler. For someone who is quite shy, I can play on that side of what I am, pretty reserved — and they enjoy ripping that to shreds.
Talk about the influence of British traditional music on your work.
There’s a sense of balladry in this country. We have a historical archetype of the troubadour, somebody telling stories. Though my lyrics are fairly abstract, they’re still narratives. It’s supposed to be a journey that you go on, and it can go through a pretty dark realm.
What’s your writing process?
I go around with a notebook. I wake up in the middle of the night with a tune or phrase in my head. I never sit down to write. It just happens, and I can never really remember it. I think I’m only interested in songs and lyrics that have one foot in the subconscious. I have a sense of what they mean, but it’s the nicest thing when someone listening brings their own sense of meaning to the song. I try to leave enough space for that to happen.
How much do you think about character? None of your songs seem to be from strictly “Johnny Flynn’s” perspective or experience.
I’m not interested in songs from a personal perspective. When I use the first person, it’s definitely not really me. It’s an aspect of me or some leap of imagination. The writers and poets I admire, they do that. Their sense of the world is in their work as a whole, but in individual poems or songs, you couldn’t say, Oh, that’s the voice of William Shakespeare or W.B. Yeats or whoever.
What was the recording process like for Country Mile?
I was in different places in New York and London. I would go to my little shoebox studio a couple of times a week. We called it “demoing with intent.” I was doing a lot of theater, and my son was just born, so I knew that whatever I was going to do was going to be quite fragmented. There’s a sense of being on a journey, and a sense of a long time passing on the album — probably born of that way of recording.
Where do your musical impulses and interests lie now?
I’m at quite a juncture. I see these first albums as a trilogy, as one period. I’m ready for something different now, though I don’t know what it is. Maybe going back to just sharing music with friends and more collaborations with people who inspire me. That’s the joy in music. It’s being in a room and hearing all the heartbeats at the same time. That wordless sense of connection and the air changing. That’s what’s so good and important. I’m sure that’s why I got into it at first, and I’ve slightly forgotten that recently.
How do you balance acting and music?
I take both acting and music seriously in their own rights. For me, music is more spontaneous. I see acting as a real trade you can learn, and there’s a dignity to it. To be a good actor, you have to surrender a lot of creative control. You’re just doing your bit. Which is not how a writer approaches a project — they see everything, the whole arc and push and pull of a scene. So in order to satisfy my writerly ambitions, I have to write songs. Otherwise it would get in the way of my acting.
Your wife [Beatrice Minns] was a designer on Sleep No More, and still works with Punchdrunk, the experimental theater group who put it on. Do you ever collaborate artistically?
It’s funny because she always took the piss out of me for being kind of folky. She was an art student and real highbrow, and the worlds I was part of seemed really crass to her. My dad was in musicals growing up, and she just found my family really weird. Now there’s Punchdrunk, which is pretty unique, and not quite “theater,” but still she’s suddenly working with all these actors and the like, and I have the last laugh.
Let’s talk about Bob Dylan.
In the height of my passion for him, I never wanted to see him play because you should never meet your idols. Then we played before him at a festival, and he was great, but it helped me get over him a little bit. Then I actually met him when he came to see Jerusalem. I was the only one standing onstage, warming up with the curtain down, and I looked up, and there was Bob Dylan coming toward me, in a wooly hat and long gloves. I just said, “Thanks for coming.” Actually, I bowed a bit to him as if he were a Japanese sensei, like a judo master.
You were finally ready.
[Laughs] It was some kind of initiation, rite of passage. Like finally sleeping with the person you’ve had such a crush on.
Johnny Flynn performs Thursday, January 16, at (Le) Poisson Rouge with the Melodic. $15, 7 p.m.