Until late last year, he earned his living as a stage actor. He aspires to write prose fiction and to make a documentary film about the music performed in South African townships of the 1950s and ’60s.
But for the moment, Johnny Flynn is a professional folk singer — arguably the most promising one to emerge at least since Idaho’s Josh Ritter started drawing comparisons to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen a couple years back. Flynn is more in the Nick Drake mold, draping his sharply observed, unabashedly literary lyrics in sensitive, autumnal melodies.
Reached by phone at his flat in London last month, the South African-born, U.K.-educated polymath was procrastinating rehearsing for the U.S. tour he kicked off in Massachusetts last Saturday — by recording demos for his next album.
"The first record was, in some sense, quite naïve," he says. "Now I’m much more able to imagine before going into the studio what I’d like to achieve, and record it myself a lot more."
But first things first. Flynn’s debut, "A Larum," has been out in the United States only since July, and he is scheduled to co-headline shows with Mercury Prize-nominated teenage singer-songwriter Laura Marling through the end of October. The double bill, dubbed the "Fee Fie Fo Fum Tour," arrives Thursday at the Birchmere in Alexandria.
"A Larum" revealed Flynn as the owner of both a voice that sounds several decades older than his 25 years and a gift for darkly hypnotic balladry. But what really sets these songs apart is their surprising and indelible arrangements.
On "A Larum," Flynn plays guitar, mandolin, violin, organ, accordion and even a trumpet to give the songs a sense of having been passed from generation to generation and adapted for whatever instruments are available at any given moment.
Part of that ancient quality comes from the way Flynn usually writes: verse first, music later — sometimes much later.
"It doesn’t really happen for me when I’m trying to sit down and find the words and the music at the same time," he says.
Verses appear in his mind when he’s on the go, and jots them down on whatever’s handy. If he never finds a melody to accompany his lyrics, it’s no problem: He publishes poetry, too.
Flynn claims that making records was "only half a thought before it actually happened."
In 2007, he was performing eight shows a week of "Twelfth Night" and "The Taming of the Shrew" with Propeller, an all-male British Shakespeare troupe. Music was relegated to "the odd Sunday," his only night off from the Bard. He was on tour with Propeller in New York when the call came from his U.S. label, Lost Highway records, the prestigious Nashville-based home to Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, Van Morrison and Willie Nelson, among others.
While he appreciates the venerable company, Flynn’s own tastes run to electronica, vintage hip-hop (N.W.A. gets mentioned by name), Seattle indie-rockers Fleet Foxes and actress Scarlett Johansson’s recent disc of Tom Waits covers. He reveres the Cole Porter and Irving Berlin songs that his father, also an actor, played at home when Flynn was growing up, too. In other words, a mix of stuff unified only by the fact that none of it sounds anything at all like Johnny Flynn. Given his diverse talents and ambitions, the unpredictable playlist is more or less exactly what you’d expect.
If you go
Johnny Flynn, performing with Laura Marling
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Birchmere, Alexandria
More information: 703-549-7900; www.birchmere.com