This section doesn’t currently include any content. Add content to this section using the sidebar.

Image caption appears here

Add your deal, information or promotional text

John Francis Flynn: ‘Trad songs remain relevant – that’s why we still sing them’

  • In the News
  • 6 min read

John Francis Flynn: ‘Trad songs remain relevant – that’s why we still sing them’

John Meagher | The Independent 

The trad scene stalwart draws on different folk traditions on his rapturously received debut album I Would Not Live Always, but he gives them a modern element with collaborators who took him ‘out of my comfort zone’

John Francis Flynn. Photo by John Lyons
John Francis Flynn. Photo by John Lyons
Come My Little Son is one of the great emigration songs. It was written by the estimable Ewan MacColl in 1959 and was inspired by conversations he’d had with motorway workers in England throughout that decade.
Many of the Irish navvies who helped build Britain’s road network were far away from their young families, who remained in Ireland. Others would never live in their native land again, destined to spend the autumn of their days lonely and alone.
The Dubliners helped to make the song celebrated among folk devotees, with Luke Kelly’s voice the perfect instrument to convey its devastating sadness.
For John Francis Flynn, the song holds a special place in his heart. “It’s the first song I ever learnt. I’d been playing Irish music since I was six or seven — the tin whistle and flute — but I didn’t get into the singing side of things until I was about 19. There’s a track from The Watersons, Thirty Foot Trailer, and once I heard that I needed to hear all of Ewan MacColl’s songs. It was then that I heard Luke Kelly’s version.”
Come My Little Son closes Flynn’s debut album, I Would Not Live Always. His version is sparse and haunting.
“Songs come and go for me — but that one song, I’ve always sung it,” he says. “I feel like I’m friends with that song, almost. It’s the song I’ve gone with the furthest. It’s never got to the point where I’m tired of it. It’s a very emotional experience. It’s very much of the Irish experience of emigration. When you’re singing the song, you try to drop the ego and let people in.”
The 31-year-old from Marino in Dublin believes the song has had a special resonance during the pandemic, especially for those who have been living far from home in places like Australia and New Zealand and can’t get back. “The power of songs like that is how relevant they remain today. It’s why people still sing them. They’re not an exercise in nostalgia.”
Flynn’s album boasts several such songs, and each of the covers come from different strands of the folk tradition. He looks far beyond these shores for inspiration — Shallow Brown, for instance, is a West Indian shanty that looks at the misery of slavery.

There are tracks from closer to home, too. The instrumental Tralee Gaol is a simple, pulse-quickening delight built around the tin whistle — Flynn’s breath can be heard; there’s no attempt to polish the sound and the result is captivating and intimate.

John Francis Flynn is the latest Irish folk singer to sign to the UK’s River Lea Records, the imprint of the revered Rough Trade label. Lankum, Ye Vagabonds and Lisa O’Neill are already on the roster.

River Lea is like catnip to many critics — simply being on the label will ensure they sit up and take notice. The album has been rapturously received. The Guardian raved that “human experience burns ferociously on this extraordinary debut”.

I Would Not Live Always may be Flynn’s debut album, but he is no overnight sensation. He has been something of a stalwart on Dublin’s vibrant trad scene for the best part of a decade, mainly though the band Skipper’s Alley, and — before Covid’s arrival — a regular in the city’s best sessions pubs, the Cobblestone and Walsh’s, in neighbouring Smithfield and Stoneybatter respectively.

For years, he says he lacked the confidence to release his own album, but by building up an audience in the likes of Walsh’s and gaining the respect and assistance of his peers, he became comfortable with the idea that his music had value. Although the album is folk, through and through, Flynn was keen to work with musicians who were from the worlds of rock and indie.

“Someone who is coming at this from a different angle completely was really inspiring. They could see — hear — things differently,” he says. “There were other ideas and maybe it took me out of my comfort zone a little bit.”

He pays special tribute to Ultan O’Brien, with whom he has collaborated for years. “He comes from both worlds — he is a fiddle player, but also a contemporary composer. Ross Chaney does electronics and drums and Brendan [Jenkinson] produced the album and played on it too. Neither of them comes from the traditional Irish music world at all and I think that gives something different to the album.”

It does. I Would Not Live Always sounds both ancient and modern. It’s as easy to imagine Flynn’s gloriously characterful voice holding an audience rapt a century ago as it is for the songs to be playing over Sonos speakers in some hip east London cafe.

Flynn was elated when River Lea expressed an interest in his work and he says they have allowed him to make the sort of album he, and he alone, wanted to create. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” he says. “I simply wouldn’t have had the money to have been able to do it.”

Most of the album was recorded before the pandemic, but key finishing touches were applied throughout 2020. “It was anxiety-inducing,” he says, “sitting on a load of material like that. I mean, the more you listen to it, the more tired your ears get of it. But when we were able to get back into the studio, we were able to tinker with it — and the album went in certain directions that it probably wouldn’t have had the pandemic not happened.

“And there was this nice feeling being back in the studio that we had plenty of time — we didn’t need to rush it out, we could be more relaxed with it.”

Perhaps the album’s most striking track, An Buachaillín Bán, is the final part of a collected trilogy of songs, titled Bring Me Home, and features evocative, wordless vocals from Flynn and a recitation, as Gaeilge, from the sean nós singer Saileog Ní Cheannabháin.

“That whole piece developed over a very long time and right at the end I wanted Saileog to perform the recitation to tie it together because it references the first track in the triptych. The recording you hear is what she recorded into her mobile phone.”

The finished song sounds as though all manner of studio trickery was thrown at it, but it’s a reminder how cheap, everyday technology can be harnessed to deliver something special today.

Flynn is already thinking about a follow-up album. This one will feature original material. He has plenty of songs written but, he says, he has not had enough self-belief to record them. “I’ve never sung them in public either. I’d be very f***ing scared — that’s a whole new level of vulnerability. The trad songs that I sing are such powerful, well-crafted songs and they’ve been with us through the generations, and I say to myself, ‘You’d better write good f***ing songs’ if you’re going to put them on an album next to ones that have been around for forever. But that’s the goal for the next one.”

Right now, he’s looking forward to getting back on the road again, even if there are precious little signs in this country of live music returning to anything like 2019 levels. He will play a micro festival in Co Meath, Love Is A Stranger, next weekend and is looking forward to simply playing his tunes in front of real, actual people.

“I did a gig at the Set Theatre in Kilkenny about six months ago, and while it was great to be able to do it, there was no audience there,” he says. “I was playing for cameras so the show could be streamed and it just feels so impersonal. It makes you realise all that we’ve been missing over the past year and a half — and all that we took for granted.”

‘I Would Not Live Always’ is out now. John Francis Flynn plays micro festival, Love Is A Stranger, August 21.

 Buy the album here