An Interview With Frank Turner
For a large section of artists currently residing at the head of the UK music charts, mainstream popularity and chart success might well be the result of riding the success of a single hit record, perhaps the fame associated with a certain audition-based reality TV show or, different still, riding the wave of current musical tastes and trends. But for English folk-punk singer-songwriter Frank Turner, it means something else entirely.
The 30-year old Turner hasn’t had the privilege of sky-rocketing to fame and fortune overnight, nor has he been subjected to any significant level of attention from the mainstream press. His latest solo album, England Keep My Bones, debuted at number 12 in the UK charts, his highest charting album to date. For Turner, that success has been earned rather than presented to him; a combination of tireless self-promotion, feverish hard work and, yes, quite phenomenal music.
Striking us as an honest, down-to-earth and easily likeable fellow, Turner describes his music as “somewhere between country, folk and rock ‘n’ roll”, although a background of growing up “with punk rock and indie guitar music shines through also, for better or worse.” Quite a breadth of genres, you’d be right in thinking, but under the guidance of Frank’s quite raw yet powerful vocals, expressive lyrics, signature acoustic guitar and the layering of his now-definitive backing band The Sleeping Souls -- whom Frank labels his “touring brothers” of three years, bringing an “edge” to his music -- it’s a wholly distinctive, energetic and irresistibly pure sound that deserves both recognition and acclaim in equal measure.
“There was music in my life all along, my parents had a piano and so on, but the moment when it became an obsession for me was when I came across Iron Maiden,” says Turner on his musical background. “That was my very first exposure to rock ’n’ roll and it pretty much took over my life from there,” he recalls, an infatuation that eventually led to Turner becoming vocalist for hardcore punk band Million Dead in 2001 at the request of Turner's former Kneejerk band mate Ben Dawson. Though the band formally disbanded in 2005 due to “irreconcilable differences within the [group]”, there's no doubting the influence that experience had on Turner as an artist. His latest two albums, Poetry of the Deed and England Keep My Bones particularly, blend heartfelt, slow-moving acoustic tracks with full-blooded, full-band, edgier 'rock' music to terrific effect.
“By the end of my time in Million Dead I'd been touring in and playing with heavy bands for a long time and was pretty thoroughly drained by the whole thing, I needed a change of scenery,” Turner tells us on the move into uncharted solo territory. “Playing alone, or even playing with a backing band, is a very different dynamic from being in a normal band. I guess I'd say that the main difference is that, as the sole focal point, things are more intense - if things go well, you take the credit, if they go badly you take the blame.”
But there's something else about the songs of Frank Turner that make them so captivating. If the old adage goes that authors should write what it is they know best, then it wouldn't be too much a stretch of the imagination that a young Frank was paying extra attention in class that day. His music speaks for itself; outside of tired cliché and rather authentic, believable and, we'd imagine, informed through personal experience, both the precious memories (“But oh then she fixed me, and then she kissed me, and she's yet to let me go”) and the painful (“Lex was lying in the hospital/She'd been pretty sick for about half a year, but it seemed like this time the end was drawing near”). “I want my music to be true. I just try to write what I consider to be good songs, which to me contain a fair dose of honesty, and honesty is easiest to access through personal experience.” He continues, “There are songs that say things I wanted to say well and which present interesting musical ideas [alongside that].”
There's an inherent Englishness to Turner's music that, too, further accentuates the personality of the man behind the microphone. With tracks like A Decent Cup Of Tea and latest album England Keep My Bones, that appreciation of his national identity has paved the way for remarkably beautiful odes to England; from the warmth and familiarity felt in returning home in Wessex Boy (“There's something about coming back to your hometown again/I'm a Wessex boy, and when I'm here I'm home”), to Rivers' telling of the history surrounding our isles (“Our history runs down our rivers/Reminds us of the things that matter: home and hearth and history/When I die I hope to be buried out in English seas, so all that then remains of me will lap against these shores until England is no more”) and the album's accredited title (taken from Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John - “O me! My uncle's spirit is in these stones: Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!”) “It's an inescapable part of who I am, and that's what I wanted to discuss on the album,” surmises Turner.
Currently touring the States (a cross-country, venue-hopping tour spanning Dallas, New Orleans, Orlando, Brooklyn, Boston and more), Turner is also heavy into the planning stages for the largest headline show of his life – a gig that will see him perform in front of thousands at London’s Wembley Arena on April 13th.
Speaking to Turner about the prospect of headlining at such a magnificent venue, it’s a credit to his confidence and assurance in his talents as an artist that he appears largely unfazed by it all. “It is a little daunting – it’ll be my biggest headline show to date by some considerable distance, it's a huge place. But at the same time my band and my crew are very good at what they do and I'm confident that we will put on a killer show,” he assures us. “We're putting a lot of work into making sure it's a good night for everyone, and making sure that it retains the sense of inclusivity that has, I think, characterised my shows to date. We have some tricks up our sleeve for the show but I wouldn't want to give the game away just yet.”
He has every reason to keep the cards close to his chest, despite us nudging him in the direction to reveal more. What we do know so far through Turner’s personal blog is that the show has now sold out the smaller capacity of the venue (already a sizeable 8,000 tickets) which means opening up the rest of the UK’s largest-capacity stadium to his adoring faithful, including ourselves we'd hasten to add.
Totting up the staggering amount of upcoming gigs he is penciled in to attend -- set to make 37 appearances at locations across the world (USA, England, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands) before the typically crammed festival season has begun –- Turner shrugs off the pressure with ease. “I like to be busy. If you compare the number of shows I do in a year with the number of 9-5 office days, it’s a similar number. Sure, I travel more, but that’s more than offset by the fact that I have the huge privilege of doing what I love doing for a living. It’s exciting seeing tour dates stretching ahead,” he contests, before concluding “it means there’s still road to run!” And long may the road continue.
A huge thank you to Frank Turner for taking time out of his alarmingly busy schedule to talk to us. For a full list of Frank's upcoming gigs, take a look at his official website. Tickets for the Wembley gig on April 14 are available now for £22.00 here.