British singer-songwriter and actor, Johnny Flynn understands why the Fall of Civilizations podcast gained such popularity during the pandemic.
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“I find it hilarious that we take comfort in learning about other civilizations that have gone to shit,” he explains over Zoom from his home in the UK. He relates the phenomenon to the appeal of noir detective novels. He continues, “In the beginning, someone is murdered, but by the end, they find out who it is, and everything turns out ok. There isn’t a detective novel where someone gets away with it—otherwise the author’s career is over.”
Flynn’s pandemic project—Lost In The Cedar Wood—claimed a stake in this oddity of human nature. With the help of his dear friend and influential nature writer, Robert Macfarlane, the artist wielded ancient literature to translate the universal experience of what feels like a uniquely devastating global pandemic.
The two men were united by synchronous influence. Before they were introduced nearly a decade ago, Flynn had become “obsessed” with Macfarlane’s books.
“He was giving format to something I was feeling,” Flynn describes. “It was a poetic exploration of how landscape affects us, how we interact with it. It’s a humble style, almost like a cousin to the thoughts I was having as a songwriter.”
A mutual friend who Macfarlane taught at Cambridge confirmed the feeling was mutual. While performing at the Globe Theatre in London, the mutual friend brought Flynn a stack of books Macfarlane asked her to deliver. Flynn recalls, “Apparently, he was listening to my music while he was writing these books that had influenced me.”
The two first came together over a cricket match on opposing teams. They both enjoy the “gentle nature” of the sport. From there, they began taking walks and spending more time together, bouncing ideas off of each other.
“He would often say, ‘If you ever want to make a story or piece of theatre together,’ I’d be up for it,'” Flynn says. “I always thought he was being nice, but he really meant it. When the pandemic struck, he called and said ‘Here’s our chance.'”
The next question was, ‘What story do we tell?’
The pressure of resurfacing “plague literature” like Shakespeare’s King Lear forced them to consider their artistic response to an unprecedented global experience.
Drawing inspiration to Anaïs Mitchell’s play (2006) and album (2010) Hadestown — which employ Greek mythological characters, Orpheus and Eurydice, reimagined as a busboy in a 20th-century French Quarter barroom and a homeless drifter in New Orleans, to address modern problems — Flynn and Macfarlane sought answers, sifting through catalogs of classic literature.
Similarly, Macfarlane’s 2019 book Underland digs up tales from under the earth and he was eager to continue in that mode. “We both felt like it’s a shame someone already tackled Orpheus well because we were seeking a big ancient story to serve as a lens for what we were experiencing.”
They landed on the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest works of literature in history. Flynn describes the text as an “alternative to the creation myth, a different take on The Garden of Eden.”
At the same time, MacFarlane was sending articles about deforestation being the root of the pandemic. Rooted in both of their ecological activism, their undertaking of the 4000-year-old text reflects the steadfastness of crisis over centuries. The opening track, “Ten Degrees of Strange” evokes the poignant grief of watching it all unravel.
“We’re still dealing with the fallout of deforestation or bad governance,” says Flynn. The story, as he describes, “is about the arrogance of man in nature. Gilgamesh is chased down by his sense of mortality, how he permeates that, and comes out on the other side. Other themes include love, and of course, loss—something we’ve all experienced this year.”
He continues, “These are universal themes, resonate to the times as their translated in different eras with different flavors. We were going through something of such intensity that it was really interesting to go back to the foundation stone of storytelling to understand the effects.”
Lost In The Cedar Wood is Flynn’s first album since Sillion in 2017. He balances music with his acting career—most recently in Emma and The Dig. From their respective homes via WhatsApp and voice memos, Flynn and Macfarlane pieced together an 11-track response to crippling global devastation.
The first eight songs were recorded in a cottage deep in a Hampshire forest in rural England, without electricity. The recordings capture the rawness of the atmosphere, including a chorale of chainsaw sounds from next door, backing songs about ancient forests like “Tree Rings.”
Bringing Macfarlane into the musical space was a benefit for Flynn who truly valued his contribution—although he could not express his opinions in a technically musical way.
“What we do as musicians is often closed off to those outside of this process,” says Flynn. “But Rob has a different way fo feeling, seeing, and interpreting things, he’s a titanic force of ideas and thoughts. But, he’s a great soul, and very humble with his ideas, so I demanded he be honest in this process. Ocassionally he would say, ‘that sounded like it was too much’ and I loved that.”
By connecting their thoughts on what felt like a singularly tragic experience to Gilgamesh’s enduring anecdotes, they remind their listeners that the challenges faced in 2020 are akin to those overcome by thousands of preceding generations of humanity.