In 2017 I interviewed Johnny Flynn for the podcast Talk The Line. His topic of choice was psychogeography, a term he’d adopted for his passion of investing in the experiences that happen when you go on a journey, no matter how long or short, inspired by the writer Robert Macfarlane to whom he’d recently been introduced.
“There’s one writer in particular that’s been a really big influence on me who I like reading and have become friends with recently. So we make some voyages and talk a lot and he’s become a really great mentor from afar, and sometimes in proximity,” said Flynn.
Fast-forward four years and the pair are releasing the collaborative album Lost In The Cedar Wood, out this month via Transgressive Records. Written across WhatsApp notes during the darkness of the first lockdown and recorded when restrictions became a little lighter, it draws inspiration from The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving work of literature known to man. From natural disaster and environmental crisis to love, loss and grief, the epic poem covers universal themes that felt as poignant in 2020 as they were four thousand years ago.
From the rousing opening of “Ten Degrees of Strange” that tackles anxiety and depression, through the soaring, unanswered questioning of “Gods and Monsters” to the melodic acceptance of “Enkidu Walked”, Lost In The Cedar Wood draws parallels to past and present, whilst standing strong in its own narrative value. The musicianship is tender, rich and reactive to the stories that Flynn tells, his vocal idiosyncratic and engaging, animating Macfarlane’s crafted words with humour and heavy sentiment.
I spoke to Johnny Flynn and Robert Macfarlane about the record, the mythology that surrounds it and its enduring relevance, and about their friendship. Together, the two who share a warm rapport and a charming reverence for each other’s talents, offer some eloquent insights on the impact of the past year.
BEST FIT: Johnny, I was just listening back to the podcast we recorded in 2017 and it’s funny listening to it in the context of this interview and what you both have done together, because you talk about Rob quite a lot. But you also talk about writers and poets like Edward Thomas, Nan Shepherd, and all these shared interests and influences the two of you have. It really feels like a precursor to this record. You can see the evolution of your relationship, interests and thought processes. And Rob, after Johnny and I spoke I then read your book The Old Ways.
ROBERT MACFARLANE: You may have seen in my acknowledgements, there’s always a musical acknowledgement section, and I think at the very end it says something about the tracks for the tracks, as it were. I think it’s PJ Harvey, The Pixies, Vaughan Williams and Johnny Flynn.
JOHNNY FLYNN: Keeping very flattering company.
MACFARLANE: So yeah, I was definitely walking to Johnny’s music and thinking with Johnny’s music a full decade ago, certainly.
FLYNN: And likewise, at the same time I was reading the books, before meeting you, Jen. All those things, Nan Shepherd, all those references, and even rediscovering Edward Thomas. That’s all just riding on Rob’s very generous coattails and discovering all these things that he was bringing to lots of people.
But reading Rob’s books and being inspired to write songs in those lines of thought, then it was so amazing to meet and befriend Rob. Then this time last year, having kicked about ideas for a collaboration, maybe something theatrical, some storytelling thing, and Rob was so kind and lovely and he kept bringing it up. So I was thinking, he’s not just saying it. And then it was exactly when the first lockdown was official, we were on the phone, I can remember that conversation. We were like, ‘Let’s do it! This is the chance to tell a story,’ and this is what has arisen, this is the album.
Rather than going into detail about the album, I feel like what’s more interesting is how this has evolved with your shared passions for mythology and ancestry relating to new ways of living, walking in nature, retracing stories of the past. The concept feels bigger than just this record, and it all plays into each other so wonderfully.
MACFARLANE: That’s lovely to hear. Gilgamesh is the oldest story, as you know, the oldest written story we have and I spent seven or eight years writing this book called Underland about underworlds and stories and resonances and echoes of our draw down into the dark, which is far older than our draw up to the height of mountains.
It’s one of the things we’ve been doing as a species is burying our dead underground and making art in darkness for as long as we’ve been human, and the first words of Gilgamesh in the Babylonian version are, ‘He who looked into the abyss.’ It’s a story about looking into darkness and learning from it, and I think it was almost by chance I happened to have a copy to hand when I was speaking to Johnny and I was saying, let’s write some songs. And then I said, ‘Oh yeah of course, there’s always The Epic of Gilgamesh.’ And Johnny was like, ‘Ooh, that sounds interesting.’
We have all looked into the abyss this year, so I think the idea of music that comes both out of everyday life of the last 375 days or whatever it’s been, and from the oldest story in world literature which suddenly seems ringingly fresh in the moment. I guess that’s been the double engine driving the music and the writing.
FLYNN: I agree, obviously. Because Gilgamesh is this journey deeper into death, and it’s these stages of a realisation of mortality. I think that’s what makes it so architecturally beautiful. It starts with naivety and hope and vitality and these mistakes of youth and these arrogant actions and then gradually, through hard lessons, the characters who are kind of anti-heroes because they do these terrible things…
MACFARLANE: …Yeah, pretty odious. They kill the animate spirits, they chop down the cedar wood, they govern badly and violently. Many things that we’re seeing repeated now. But then they’re very fragile as well.
FLYNN: Yeah, you can really feel for them as well. It’s really amazing and I suppose that’s the thing about humanity and our collective mistakes, and yet we still have to love each other and find compassion and I think that’s why it’s such a beautiful story. There’s these two male figures in the middle of it who go on a journey of learning and of course, somebody asks us, ‘Well, do you see yourselves as Enkidu and Gilgamesh?’
MACFARLANE: [Bursts out laughing]
FLYNN: Well, I suppose it was very unconscious. The bit that resonates for me is there’s a brilliant exploration of naive masculinity, and masculine ego through the ages in Gilgamesh. The essential thing of chopping down the sacred forest, and Enkidu chops down the most holy cedar tree in the middle of the forest to make a new temple door, and the irony of that action. Rob sent me an article this morning about how 2020 was the biggest year for deforestation on the planet.
MACFARLANE: Still doing it. We’re still chopping down the cedar wood. When people say, ‘Are you Gilgamesh or Enkidu?’ It’s not much of a choice. One of you’s an odious, swinging-dick tyrant and the other guy, a maggot crawls out of his nose. So, no, this doesn’t map on.
FLYNN: The bit that I like is that through their questionable actions, of which we all have in our past, the way they relate to each other and the way they deal with the lessons that they’re handed and the journeys that they have to make to get to the next stage of learning.
When Gilgamesh is mourning for Enkidu and he ends up crossing through the river of death and being ferried to the island, the way they can talk about those experiences and relate to each other is heartbreaking and really beautiful and profound. Even like, there’s a moment that we ended up referencing with the cover image of the album, just before they enter the cedar forest, Enkidu’s terrified. He’s heard all about Humbaba, the terrifying monster who now is thought of by some as more like a guardian spirit of the forest, but Enkidu thinks that it’s this awful monster, most terrifying. I mean, the description of Humbaba is pretty scary, like his jaws of death.
MACFARLANE: It’s what I have on my business card.
FLYNN: [Laughing] But he turns to Gilgamesh and says, I’m too scared, basically. I need to go home. He’s a giant demi-God, wild beast himself, so he must be really afraid, and Gilgamesh turns to him and says, ‘We’ll be like two rafts bound together with rope. Because two rafts bound together will never sink, one will always hold the other one up.’ In amongst this awful thing that they’re doing, they’re being kind to each other, and that non-polarisation is the moral compass of the story. That’s humanity, isn’t it?
MACFARLANE: Yeah, the disorientation and bewilderment that we’ve all wandered in, and the importance of kindness and going on together. As we’ve said at some point, you don’t need to know anything about Gilgamesh to hear the album and for it to resonate.
How much was a jumping off point? It does feel like a concept record. How aware were you of relating this to the pandemic when you were writing it? I feel like I don’t want to listen to an album about the last year just yet, I want some distance.
MACFARLANE: Maybe when you re-route by 4,000 years, you do an 8,000 year roundtrip, that’s distance. I mean there’s only one song, perhaps “Enkidu Walks”, the name might trigger a curiosity if you didn’t know like, who’s Enkidu? Well, that might take you to Gilgamesh, but other than that, in a way you wouldn’t need to know that the world had just passed through a pandemic year. A detail would often generate a song, as it were, which would then unfurl with its own force.
FLYNN: Yeah, it is really just a leaping off point. Looking at what we’ve all just been through, through the lens of a story like that, a myth like that that’s so universal and the emotional worlds of Gilgamesh are just eternal. So that’s what we found. The songs didn’t literally have to be about, ‘I can’t get to granny in the care home’.
MACFARLANE: But we did draft that one. It was a good chorus.
FLYNN: And yet they’ve all had a feeling like that. So the poetic expression of the emotional world of that feeling, which is also somewhere in the Gilgamesh story, because of its universal aspect. It’s that anthropological idea that there are only so many stories. I think that actually, they are all in Gilgamesh. That’s what it feels like, you could sort of apply it to anything, and as Rob says, you don’t have to have read Gilgamesh.
MACFARLANE: “Ten Degrees of Strange” in a way, is a song about sadness and depression but also how you move to stay ahead of it. ‘There’s a black dog following hard on my trail. Set firm on holding my heart till it fails. But I run ’cause I must leave that dog in the dust. Gonna run like a river right down to the sea. Gonna run like the sap through the heart of a tree.’
I’m a runner and a walker and Edward Thomas would walk to keep ahead of his sadness, many people do, I think. Running is a way of outpacing the shadow at the edge of vision, and that’s always been the case. But that song also has these tiny embedded details that do come out of Gilgamesh, but not explicitly so.
When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh dreams that he might dam up a river so that the bed dries out, then bury Enkidu in the bed of the river and then let the river flow back over it so it forms this extraordinary double grave. So there’s just a line in there that says, ‘Dam up the river, dry out its bed, bury me there, body and head.” So that comes out of Gilgamesh, but it also comes out of shared stories. I guess as a runner yourself you might recognise that feeling to just want to get out and move and shake off the shadow?
I think a lot of people have felt that. I read an article about running shoe sales increasing 200% during the first lockdown. I’ve never seen as many runners out as I did last May. It’s funny that you’ve mentioned Edward Thomas as well, because I think it was The Old Ways where he was your guiding spirit writing that, Rob. And then Johnny, did you grow up in the village where Edward Thomas had lived?
FLYNN: Sort of, I went to school there.
MACFARLANE: And Johnny and I once walked from The Poets Stone, which is the memorial to Thomas, northwards for about twelve miles to Gilbert White’s grave, the great father of English Natural History. He wrote The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, so we did our Thomas pilgrimage together along the paths.
FLYNN: Some of his poems are set there in the village and there’s one called The Path, and we found the path. There was nothing left of it.
MACFARLANE: We found a stream with lager cans and crisp packets.
You’ve collaborated before on a walk, with a lecture at St Andrews that was part poetry, part song. Was that your first collaboration?
FLYNN: Yeah, we walked along the Lea from Broxbourne. We had an idea to journey from source to the Thames, but I was doing theatre…
MACFARLANE: He had to be on stage by 6pm.
FLYNN: We’d met once or twice playing cricket, and then it was lovely. Rob had been invited to do this presentation at St Andrews and it was writers and musicians. Paul Muldoon and PJ Harvey had done one together. So when Rob called me up to ask, did I want to do that, I was over the moon.
I’ve never had a relationship like this where I feel like every time we get together, our ideas, they mesh in this way that for me, feels like more than the sum of their parts. More than the individuals that we are, they become this living, tangible thing and it’s such a privilege to call Rob a friend. He’s been such an inspiration to me through the years and to be drawing on his power and for these songs to be what we are together is a really beautiful thing.
Our friendship has always meant a lot to me, personally. One of our first conversations, we were walking the River Lea and talking a lot about rivers that have meant things to us over the years, and it was lovely realising that our conversation was becoming like this torrent, this river, and forming all these offshoots and the things that we were excited by were becoming little streams of interest and inspiration. I feel like since I’ve met him, that’s what it’s been like, and our correspondences and now our songwriting together is a continuation of that spirit.
MACFARLANE: It’s lovely to hear all that, and double it back. After we did that walk together, I’d printed off all the maps from Streetmap so I had all these coloured A4 pieces of maps that we’d walked through and I remember turning those over and suddenly starting to write Johnny a long letter and sticking down the first thoughts and images from the day on the back of the map. That seems like the right sign for what’s gone on since.
But the songwriting this time has been a preposterous privilege. Music is huge in my life but I’m profoundly unmusical, technically speaking, as Johnny heard when I tried to do some backing singing for the album. It’s been an incredibly harmonious process of just sharing words back and forth and meshing them. But then this wild wonder, I always call it the Johnny Flynn Song Machine. I feed in my little tickertape of words and then two days or a week later I’ll get this WhatsApp message with the notes on it signifying that Johnny’s done a demo, and I’ll gather the family round because they’re all massive Johnny fans, we’ll all have a listen and I’ll be like, this is the best machine anyone has ever made.
It’s amazing that you had such an easy collaboration and that you could be creative in such a natural way at a time when a lot of artists, musicians and writers really struggled to do anything. The world outside, you used the word bewilderment in your press release, but it really was bewildering. It was really difficult to create or focus, or even get up in the morning. People threw around the phrase ‘The Great Reset’, and it’s a mythology that of course relates to the Flood Myth in Gilgamesh. But that’s what it felt like.
MACFARLANE: This is what got me up in the morning, pretty much. I’d just finished work on a book and then suddenly the thought of anything of that scale was impossible. But just growing this, yeah, that got me up in the morning.
FLYNN: Yeah, if I’d tried to make a record on my own this year without being able to see my band and have my usual safety net of things to be inspired by… It was an absolute lifeline for me and I feel so privileged to come out very unscathed from this year. Looking around I can see all the tragedy and loss, but so much of the trauma has been this shadow, insular isolation. Things being cut off and the relationships you rely on being cut off, so this correspondence that we’ve had really continuously, that’s given birth to these songs, it’s just kept me going.
MACFARLANE: We’re still writing songs and they’re still coming thick and fast and we’ve just finished one called “The Uncanny Valley”. There’s a vernacular which falls in that space between the specifics of what we’ve all just been through and the mythics of what we’ve all just been through.
One of the things that struck me again and again is how exceptional many of us have found it, inevitably because it’s the first time we’ve lived through anything like this. But that ‘unprecedented’ word of the year. Actually, it’s not unprecedented. Communities, regions, nations, continents have lived through devastating epidemics and plagues before, entire indiginous communities have been wiped out by imported viruses from colonists and so on and so forth. And of course, living through it, we feel like we’re living through it for the first time. But then you read Gilgamesh or you read some of the Epics, and suddenly it’s all there again and it’s a reminder of this weird, cold comfort of many historical precedences.
Coming from a family of respiratory doctors, Rob, I wonder if you needed that extra level of escape? Whether the realism was even closer for you than for most?
MACFARLANE: My brother, he’s a frontline respiratory consultant so he ran a covid ward in Newcastle for the first six months of the pandemic. He was part of the vaccine trial, he got covid inevitably, because he was just dealing with it. He was absolutely fine. And my dad’s also a respiratory physician who worked a lot on TB and legionnaires disease, so it’s been good to ring Dad or Jim and talk to them about it. That has made it feel very close, but also it helps to get a medical perspective on things as well. They’ve been very generous with their knowledge. I’ll give them these songs at the end of the year and that’ll be my thanks for their work [laughing].
The decision to record in Hampshire, was that part in homage to Edward Thomas?
FLYNN: It was nice for me that it wasn’t far from a place I’d grown up in. It’s a house lived in by our friend Cosmo Sheldrake’s fiancé’s mother. And Cosmo and his brother Merlin, and Cosmo’s fiancé Flora are all on the album and basically they got stuck there for the whole year.
There’s no electricity. There’s a generator that you can turn on, but they’re basically off grid and it’s the most beautiful rose-covered cottage lost deep in the woods. On the one side you’ve got pine forestry, so it was amazing recording these songs, singing “Tree Rings” about felling a cedar forest and in between takes you could hear the chainsaws. And then on the other side it’s all wild, ancient woodland.
We went there because they were there, and there was a break in the lockdown in the summer and it was the best place to be. I love records like Music from Big Pink and these albums that seem really imbued with a place and a time and a moment. Because of what we were singing about, writing about, this album felt like it should have its own marker sewn into the sound of that room that we were singing in and the sound of people being together in quite a precious time. =
So that was the Hampshire thing. It was a really special place. I love that when I listen to the record you can hear us just hanging out, basically. It’s that sound of where we were and those few days that we had together.
That must have felt so special after all those months apart, WhatsApping. I’m guessing you got at least one good walk in?
MACFARLANE: We did.
FLYNN: A bit of drinking, a bit of walking.
MACFARLANE: A lot of music.