Big Issue Vendor

Robert MacFarlane and Johnny Flynn discuss making an album in lockdown

Academic and author Robert Macfarlane teamed up with actor and musician Johnny Flynn for an epic artistic endeavour born from limitations. Adrian Lobb listens in on their conversation.
Sense of place: Macfarlane (left) and Flynn’s friendship is one based on landscape Image: Hanna-Katrina Jędrosz

Robert Macfarlane is an academic and author, whose writing on nature and place perches wonderfully, precariously, in the space between landscape, science, time and memory, weaving spells as it goes. Johnny Flynn is a singer and actor best known for his brilliant theme to TV show Detectorists and as a stage and screen talent in films including recent hits Emma and The Dig.

Their collaboration, for an LP called Lost In The Cedar Wood, was a logistical and artistic conundrum. How to share and create inspiration during lockdown? How to blend such different creative inputs into a cohesive song-set? And how to build a story with its seeds in the poetry of Mesopotamia – specifically, the Epic of Gilgamesh – but imbued with the bewilderment, fear and estrangement of recent pandemic times?

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Robert Macfarlane and Johnny Flynn. Image: Hanna-Katrina Jędrosz

Chapter I: The collaboration

Robert Macfarlane: As long as we’ve been friends we’ve been talking about projects we might do. It was a friendship born out of crossing, weaving paths from the beginning – so we’ve always shared landscape, nature, walking, folklore, storytelling, song. These things have brought us together and bound us together. Is that about right, Johnny?

Johnny Flynn: Yeah, ditto. I don’t want to make you blush, but as well as a friend Rob has been a teacher and inspiration even before I knew him. When I first read his books, it was a searing lightning bolt of excitement about how to use language and engage with these ideas. Our friendship is synonymous with a natural inclination towards building things or making things or stories that need to be told.

RM: I’ve seen Johnny more than almost anyone other than my family this last year. In the gaps, when things became possible, we would go for walks and spend time putting the songs down.

JF: We never did anything against the rules. Technically, there were times when what we were doing would constitute a work meeting. We could do everything for the songs over correspondence then we’d come together for a walk to decide where to go next with it.

RM: We were up in Norfolk one day, on the chalk streams. We were on the Chilterns. It wasn’t challenging navigation, we followed our nose, didn’t we Johnny?

Chapter II: The big idea

JF: We were talking about the strangeness of this year and Rob mentioned [Daniel] Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Shakespeare plays written during plague years that found new meaning because of what we were going through. We had talked about telling an epic story through a modern lens, so now was the time. Rob said, “Well, there’s always Gilgamesh”, as if it was too obvious! He is steeped in these stories from loving them and teaching them for years.

RM: We set ourselves the almost impossible task of writing an album that emerged out of the days and minutes of its making and a story that was 4,000 years old, that could be listened to without reference to either the pandemic or Gilgamesh.

Chapter III: History repeating

JF: There’s a story of deforestation in Gilgamesh. It’s a story of naivety and arrogance, which comes from being a small part of the natural system and the lord of that natural system.

RM: This is not a protest record. But it is soaked in questions. The felling of the Cedar Wood [in the Epic of Gilgamesh] is the ‘first of the tellings, of all of the fellings’, as our song Tree Rings has it. It’s the story at the beginning of our literature and one we’re still carrying out now – the wanton destruction of a sacred forest for commodity. It’s hard not to hear these warnings from the past and be struck by how little we’ve learned how to hear them. We found it echoed by the news of the origin of the pandemic in deforestation and zoonotic leap. We repeat our errors as a species without heed.

JF: The assumption is that we will build back better – but look at what’s happening in the Amazon or when America was out of the Paris Climate Agreement. It looked terrifying. Human beings fuck up, that’s the thing, right? So it’s a warning that we need to work together and watch out for the arrogant individualism that creates the destruction of the cedar forest or Bolsonaro’s deforestation.

It’s a mix of hope and beauty and joy and grief and loss and death. All the things that are always in the cocktail of life but have been stronger than ever in the last year – Robert Macfarlane

Chapter IV: The pandemic and rewilding

RM: The Wild Places, which I wrote nearly 15 years ago, was an attempt to see Britain geologically, ecologically, natural historically and to push against this idea that it’s an utterly depleted, nature-stripped island. We will only start to rebuild by a recognition and celebration of what we’ve got and what we’ve lost, and the pandemic sort of forced that upon us all. For Johnny, the [Hackney] marshes became a whole new space, didn’t they?

JF: A lot of the album is about this – about birdsong being louder because noise pollution was down, and how in our hearts we felt the pull to nature because we weren’t so clouded with everyday obstacles. Rob’s words for Ten Degrees of Strange and The World To Come are all about that.

RM: There’s a line that goes ‘There’s a blackbird perched in the branches of the silver birch, growing from my chambered heart.’ I had in mind the image of the chambered cairn, which is a very old burial structure. Somehow the heart had become a kind of cairn in this hard time. It’s a mix of hope and beauty and joy and grief and loss and death. All the things that are always in the cocktail of life but have been stronger than ever in the last year.

Chapter V: Ch-ch-ch-changes

JF: I feel profoundly changed by being locked down with my young family. Being able to go deeply into who they are and what they need has been a real blessing. There were really trying times within that but my family has been my path through, and this relationship with Rob has made me excited to do things I believe in. Too often I get chucked a script and told, “This is an exciting thing to do” and I convince myself to do it. But this has been the greatest joy so I’m going to create space to do this more.

RM: There’s seven and a half billion lockdown stories, aren’t there? There were some very hard times. People very close to me suffering a great deal. I’m in awe of my children and my partner for the resilience and strength and love they’ve all shown. We’re not out in the open yet but I will emerge knowing I want to keep creating things and helping other people. The mutualism we saw emerge in communities and between individuals and groups has been the great inspiration, that there are new networks to be made, new kindnesses to be shown.

JF: The community building in the early stages was a beautiful thing. While leaders were in a distracted panic about how to manage and what spins to put out, as well as nature creeping back, humans rose up. I hope that that connection remains.

Chapter VI: Come together

RM: Collaboration is like a gift economy where you give to someone and see it not reciprocated but expanded in dimension. That’s thrilling. I’ll drop Johnny a half-formed thought and he’ll make it this magical thing. Collaboration at its best is an alchemical process.

JF: I stumbled into working with words as a songwriter, so to work with somebody who presents the idea of ‘Let’s write something in Terser Reema?!’

RM: Terza Rima! It is the meter Dante uses in The Inferno. The song Nether is about a descent into hell, into the underworld, so let’s do it in Terza Rima.

JF: That’s what drew me into being an actor. Telling stories together is a profound spiritual thing. So this type of writing has been extraordinary.

RM: All I want to do now is write songs with Johnny Flynn. I might have to give up all my jobs. I’m so done with writing 500-page books on my own, I just want to make work with people who are brilliant at what they do. Because it’s a kind of magic to me. It’s like watching miracles happen watching Johnny pick up a guitar.

Lost In The Cedar Wood is out now digitally on Transgressive Records, with physical copies to follow in September. Order at orcd.co/lostinthecedarwood.