A 25-year-old singer-songwriter, Johnny Flynn makes music that seems to draw equally from William Shakespeare and Bob Dylan: He has the ear of a poet and the mind of a storyteller. But the precocious, prolific, South African-born Brit is humble, too: "I guess I started writing poetry and stuff, and then decided to set it to music," he says. Flynn has just made his American debut with A Larum.
Until recently, Flynn was acting in an all-male Shakespearean troupe called Propeller. He came with the group to New York last year for a run in Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew. Characters from Shakespeare's plays, such as Feste and Hamlet, have affected his songwriting. "There's always those kind of luminary figures that seem to speak the truth," he says. "The whole play seems to be around them in a way."
The name of Flynn's album even comes from Shakespeare's stage directions. He says that the word would appear every now and again as "alarum off," meaning that some commotion was happening just offstage. "I quite liked the idea that the noise happening offstage was this album," Flynn says.
Ideas for Flynn's songs don't just come from the distant past. "Hong Kong Cemetery" tells the story of Flynn visiting his grandfather's grave in Hong Kong. "The song's a kind of musing on what it was like for my father at the time of [my grandfather's] death and the sort of generational divide," Flynn says.
He says he was inspired to write the song "Shore to Shore" after reading about a tragic accident in the newspaper: A girl named Blessing had been hit by the same No. 12 bus in south London that Flynn himself once rode. Blessing's father also drove a bus on the No. 12 line, a few behind the one that killed his daughter.
"It was quite a shocking story to read about," Flynn says. "I was trying to work out how we're supposed to place tragedy like that in our heads and in our sense of how the world works in terms of our faith and compassion."
Henry David Thoreau's Walden inspired "The Box." "Thoreau's saying that somewhere along the line we've gone horribly wrong in collecting all this stuff," Flynn says. "It was really that whole thing set to a story basically in a song."
When Flynn comes to the U.S. for his tour this fall, he'll make a stop near Thoreau's old stomping ground in Concord, Mass. He just might stop by.