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John Francis Flynn: ‘We got an email saying, next year maybe you could dress up in costume and do a few Disney numbers’

A cruise ship’s loss has become folk music’s gain: the Dublin singer is showcasing his new album with a headline performance at Vicar Street this week

A few years ago the universe sent John Francis Flynn a message, in the form of an email from the Walt Disney corporation. Flynn, a folk musician from Dublin, was earning a living playing traditional tunes to tourists on a Disney cruise ship with his band, Skipper’s Alley. It paid well, but who grows up dreaming of headlining a cruise liner? And then, one day, Flynn’s inbox pinged ominously.

“We got an email saying, ‘We enjoyed your performance on the Disney cruise ship – we’d love to have you back. But we were thinking next year maybe you could dress up in costume and do a few Disney numbers.’” He laughs and shakes his head. No amount of money would be worth that, he says.

Disney’s loss is folk’s gain. Flynn is just back from London, where his second album, Look Over the Wall, See the Sky, has been hailed as a fresh dawn for Irish music. The Guardian heralded its growling guitars, doomy drones and distorted electronica. Stereogum, the influential US website, welcomed “a stunning level-up from an already fascinating artist”.

Flynn is amiably nonplussed by the acclaim as he prepares for a headline performance at Vicar Street this week. “I’m very appreciative,” he says over Zoom from his childhood bedroom in Marino, in north Dublin. “It’s cool that there is an audience out there for this music.”

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Folk is at its most potent when sitting at the intersection between the old and the new. That’s where you will find the Mercury-nominated “mutant” folkies Lankum and Carlow’s Ye Vagabonds, who recently recorded a charity single with Phoebe Bridgers’s US indie supergroup, Boygenius. It is also where you will discover Flynn on Look Over the Wall, where his rich, ragged baritone emerges from a fog of caterwauling pipes and apocalyptic synthesisers. In the best sense, he sounds like Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners fronting Sigur Rós, or Aphex Twin fronting Céilí House.

His music is dazzling, mysterious and irresistible. Consider his reworking on the new LP of the 1962 Peg and Bobby Clancy ballad Willie Crotty, about an 18th-century Waterford folk hero and highwayman. Crotty is reputed to have robbed from the rich and shared his spoils with the poor. (Imagine Dick Turpin if he’d been a member of People Before Profit.) He did so until betrayed by a friend and captured at his hideaway in the Comeragh Mountains. After his execution in 1742, his head was reportedly placed in a spike on the walls of Waterford.

That’s a heady tale – to which Flynn brings an effervescent weirdness. He put together his version in a bedroom accompanied by a hand-held radio, clarinet, Casio SK-1 keyboard, effects pedal and harmonica. He retains the original’s melodies – a rising gale of melancholy as Crotty’s wife mourns the loss of her man after the authorities finally track him down. But now the grief is framed in wintry squalls of electronica; the recording opens with the crackle of that radio. It is a collision between two Irelands: ancient and hypermodern.

Traditional music can have an image problem, he says. People associate it with cheesy Temple Bar pubs and tourist tat. “What you’re seeing most of the time is what they’re selling. Growing up, I would have heard The Dubliners’ stuff ... the commercialised version of that. I heard a few of their [songs] after they went downhill. The touristy stuff.”

His feelings about folk changed only when he delved deeper.

“It wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 that I heard [the English folk group] The Watersons and Luke Kelly and all these heads. Oh, actually, wait a sec: it was him singing Come My Little Son. I was, like, ‘This is brilliant.’ I associated him with this Temple Bar kind of thing. Then I had a dive into The Dubliners – ‘Oh my God, they’ve done so much good stuff.’”

He and some friends formed Skipper’s Alley in their 20s. The group, who have released two albums, are still a going concern. But in 2021 Flynn branched out with his debut, I Would Not Live Always. It was released on River Lea Recordings, an imprint of Geoff Travis’s Rough Trade, the label that signed Lankum and has put out Flynn’s second LP. As he was developing as a solo artist, his friends in Lankum were expanding the boundaries of folk in their own way. Flynn is often compared to the band – though, in truth, his music has a sweetness and nuance absent from Lankum, whose default is a sort of pummelling dread.

Flynn is passionate about traditional music and its place in the cultural landscape of Dublin. In October 2021 he helped arrange a protest around the proposed redevelopment of the Cobblestone, the pub in Smithfield long regarded as a beacon for folk in the capital.

“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. When we organised that march it wasn’t just people invested in the Cobblestone. It was people who were invested in the city. The Moore Street campaigners came out. There was a thing with Merchant’s Arch,” he says, referring to opposition to the development of the Temple Bar landmark. “People were campaigning around that. People were campaigning about the James Joyce house on the quays” which had been proposed for redevelopment as a hostel.

“I knew about Moore Street – but I didn’t know about Merchant’s Arch or James Joyce. All of these people came together, along with housing movements,” he says, sitting forward, his voice full of emotion. “Our little Cobblestone march became way more about Dublin city. If they were able to do this to the Cobblestone, then they could probably do it to anything.”

Look Over the Wall, See the Sky closes with a cover of Dirty Old Town, Ewan MacColl’s valentine to industrial Salford. The tune is often wrongly interpreted as being about Dublin, largely thanks to Shane MacGowan’s rambunctious version with The Pogues. Flynn respects MacGowan. But he wanted to take the tune back to its roots. His version is slow and sad, more lament than boozy celebration.

“The Dubliners did it. Then The Pogues did it. Both of those versions were lively – they created this setting for it. That’s how everyone listens to it: it’s a huge hit. I was, like, ‘Do you know what? I’d love to take that song and see what happens if you do the opposite to it: bring it back down.’ The lyrics are so beautiful. They’re tender and sombre. So is the melody. It’s an excellent song. I also wanted to get back to the essence. Ewan MacColl’s version is very sombre.”

Flynn, by contrast, isn’t sombre in the least. As he sits in his childhood bedroom, taking in his success, he radiates good cheer and positivity. “I wasn’t expecting the response I’ve received,” he says. “It’s amazing to get any acknowledgment. I was blown away. It was very nice.”

Look Over the Wall, See the Sky is released by River Lea. John Francis Flynn plays Vicar Street, Dublin on Saturday December 2nd, Róisín Dubh, Galway on Friday December 8th, and Dolans, Limerick on Thursday December 14th