Robert Macfarlane began collaborating with Johnny Flynn during lockdownHanna-Katrina Jędrosz with permission for Varsity

Robert Macfarlane is Professor of Literature and the Environmental Humanities at Emmanuel College. He has written multiple award-winning nature books, which have been translated into over 30 languages. His most recent album with acclaimed musician and actor Johnny Flynn, The Moon Also Rises, has been met with critical and commercial success. In May, the duo will embark on a UK tour, which includes a stop at Cambridge Junction. As a long-time fan of Flynn’s music, I was keen to discuss the album with Rob.

How did you first meet Johnny?

We have been friends for almost a decade but for years before that I had been listening to his songs while writing my books and he had been reading my books while writing his songs. In the acknowledgements to my books, I always include the names of musicians whose music I’d been listening to while writing. So, Johnny found himself in my acknowledgments despite never having met me. Then, a former student of mine passed my books to Johnny and a letter from Johnny came back to me. And then we finally met in person on opposing teams on a cricket pitch, which is now the only place we are not friends!

“I wanted a song that could be played by any graveside over the past five to ten thousand years”

When did you start making music together?

We began in the very first weeks of lockdown, though we’d been talking about making music together for a long time. Obviously, our lives had both stopped, as everyone’s had, but it was particularly emphatic for Johnny as filming, live music and theatre all suddenly halted. We communicated over WhatsApp and Johnny would send me these really crackly demos of our songs. It was so beautiful to get them, hearing his kids yelling at him in the background: “Daddy pass the marmalade!” Using another part of my brain, I write long prose books that are all about continuous thought. Unlearning that with Johnny’s help in order to become a lyricist has meant leaning towards the imagistic bit of my imagination that sees in mosaics rather than a long line.

Is your collaboration just lyrical or also musical?

Apart from the occasional bit of background bellowing, my contribution is purely lyrical. We always make sure that both of us write at least part of the words of every song. Often, I will start a lyric or sometimes an image coming from elsewhere will get us going. ‘No Matter the Weight’, for instance, grows from an image about friendship in The Epic of Gilgamesh where Gilgamesh turns to his friend and says: “Two rafts of reed cannot sink. If you tie them together, they will survive whatever comes their way”.

‘Burial Blessing’ has become one of the most popular songs on the album – what is its story?

I said to Johnny that I wanted a song that could be played by any graveside over the past five to ten thousand years. And we recorded it inside a five-and-a-half-thousand-year-old burial chamber above Cosmo [Sheldrake]’s chapel in Leonard Stanley. I have been in lots of signing queues with Johnny over recent years and literally one in every ten to twenty people are there to tell Johnny that they got married to the sound of the Detectorists theme tune. His music has married so many people! With ‘Burial Blessing’, we have the other side of life covered now; from birth to death, Johnny Flynn is your man!

“If you listen carefully, you can hear Johnny’s voice breaking with sadness at one point in the recording”

I’ve heard Johnny is a Bob Dylan fan. The album contains lots of lyrical ambiguity – does this come from the Dylan influence?

Yes, he’s a huge Dylan-head. Johnny is one of the best lyricists I know. And what you call “ambiguity” is one of the characteristics of his writing: the disassembled structure, we could say, that his lyrics have. There is a through-line in his songs but it moves in zigs and zags and jumps and warps. Someone put their hand up in the first gig we did in Brighton for the new album and said: “everything about your music is wonky”. We were both delighted – that is exactly right. And I think that wonkiness is very Dylanesque.

My favourite song on the album is ‘Song with no Name’. I read it has an Edward Thomas influence?


Mountain View

Q&A with Lizzie Mayland from The Last Dinner Party

It’s pure Edward Thomas! We wrote both the melody and three quarters of the lyrics in the course of a day-long walk on the South Downs following in Thomas’ footsteps. We knew we wanted to write a song about paths – both as places of beautiful companionship, but also of memory and loss. It is a very affecting song to us. If you listen carefully, you can hear Johnny’s voice breaking with sadness at one point in the recording.

Many of the songs seem to be structured in terms of a struggle and a release. What does this theme mean to you?

I think that two-step, if you like, has to do with deep-down rhythms and phases of human life. We struggle and then we are released, whether that release is into death, into beauty, sleep, love or freedom. When we stepped back to look at the songs we’d written for The Moon Also Rises, we realised that they fell into two kinds: looking back into the shadows of burial, the past, and memory and then emerging or awakening into light. The sun also rises…