Songwriter Interviews

Frank Turner

by Dan MacIntosh

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The London-based Frank Turner often comes off like a ribald Billy Bragg. He's kind of a folksinger, much the way Bragg is, but Turner draws as much from Clash-like punk as he does from Woody Guthrie, so his shows have always been lively affairs.

Turner has been on the rise since his 2007 debut album Sleep Is for the Week. His American breakthrough came in 2013 with Tape Deck Heart and the single "Recovery," which he performed on the Late Show With David Letterman. He also got a boost from Ellen DeGeneres, who had him perform "The Way I Tend To Be" on her show.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): I saw you on the Ellen show. What was that experience like?

Frank Turner: It was cool. TV shows are always a bit weird because I feel like there's loads of buildup, almost more than there is for a gig, and then you play one song and you're clear. So, that was weird. We don't have Ellen in the UK, so I had to have it explained to me what the deal was. But she seemed very cool. She knew the words to the song that we played and she sat there singing along.

Songfacts: Yeah, and she introduced you by saying you were one of her new discoveries.

Turner: Right. That seems to happen quite often. Without naming names, they say that on TV shows and it's obviously bullshit, but she actually seemed like she knew who I was, which was nice. So it was fantastic.

Songfacts: And it was an afternoon talk show that appeals to women, so maybe it can break you through to a whole new demographic.

Turner: Maybe. Well, I've always said that what I do is folk music, by which I mean music for everybody. And I would never want to describe who would listen to my music or not. I think that's pretty lame when bands do that. So all are welcome.

Songfacts: Tell me about the song "The Way I Tend to Be." What inspired that?

Turner: Well, the whole record's kind of a breakup album. That song is about losing somebody, fucking something up without quite meaning to, and then wondering how that happened.

I actually wrote the words to it in Sydney Airport on a changeover on a flight from New Zealand when I was incredibly jet‑lagged and tired and a little drunk.

Songfacts: Do you stand by them?

Turner: Yeah, definitely. The exact specifics of my personal life have moved on since then, but songs are a natural moment in time. You can't try to write something that will always be relevant to your life, because you would just write something that goes, "Breathe in, breathe out," and that would be it. But I like it as a song. It has some home truths for me, certainly.

Songfacts: Tell me about writing what you describe as a breakup album. Was it a cathartic experience?

Turner: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I don't decide what to write and then write about it. It's a slightly zen journey: you sit around and things arrive. But once that process is done, I, along with other people, can read through what I've written and kind of go, Huh, these are the things that have been bothering me lately. And there was definitely a moment when we finished the record and went back to it, and I was like, Okay, yeah, I guess I needed to talk about this.

Songfacts: I've heard other songwriters say that a lot of times they don't really know what they're going through until after they write the songs, then they go back. Do you think there's a subconscious thing that goes on as a songwriter?

Turner: To a degree, yeah. But I guess the other way of saying it is that if you could just simply sit down and talk about it, then you wouldn't need to make art about it, you know what I mean?

What's that old coin? Talking about music is like dancing about architecture. But, if the whole thing could be dealt with as just a conversation, then there would be no need for the music.

Songfacts: Would you then say that maybe songwriters are... how could I put this delicately? A little bit underdeveloped in the communication area of their lives?

Turner: Abso-fuckin-lutely. There are people in this world who hold musicians and songwriters in high regard, which always struck me as completely bonkers, because we're obviously idiots. And quite a lot of the time people write to me and ask for advice in their personal situations. I've released five albums detailing how I can't handle my own personal life, what makes you think I'm going to have any idea what you should do?

Not that I don't want to help. If I could help, I'd love to help. But I can't even figure out what I'm doing in my own life.

Songfacts: Songwriters are not so much pop psychologists as they are maybe a channel to creatively express what others can't.

Turner: Well, I guess that's the deal. It's also about empathy to a degree. About that connection. And it's a weird thing, because to me, you need to write in a personal way, but what you're hoping for is that other people are going to be able to connect with it. And if that works, that's the jackpot right there.

But I feel that if you sit around and try to deliberately write songs for other people to empathize with, you end up with something really corny very quickly. It's that weird knife‑edge balance you've got to do, of trying not to do that, but hoping that you accidentally do.

Songfacts: I see what you're saying. Since this interview is for Songfacts, can you think of any of your songs that tend to get a lot of questions, that people either misinterpret or just don't get?

Turner: Yeah. I should preface this by saying that quite often people ask me what does this song mean? And when they ask that question, it is always, "Whatever you think it means." Interpretation is half the fun, even for me. I had some guy sell me this huge theory the other day about how four of my songs from different records were all secretly part of one story. They're not, but I thought it was kind of cool that he spent time thinking about it. So, I told him he was right. [Laughing]

Songfacts: Of course, what are you gonna do? If he was gonna make that much effort to analyze what you do.

Turner: Yeah. There's a song on Tape Deck Heart called "The Fisher King Blues," which even I'm not entirely sure what that song's about. I have a handful of songs like that, and I love it. I think there's something really cool about that.

Songfacts: Really? So that song is a mystery to you?

Turner: A little bit, yeah. There's different imagery in that song coming from different angles. I'm happy with it, I'm satisfied with it as a piece of work, because it puts me in the place mentally that I wanted it to put me in. But, I couldn't sit down and write out for you in a neat paragraph quite what it is I'm trying to say with that song. Something about how human beings have an endless ability to fuck up repeatedly in a way that's almost endearing in the long run.

Songfacts: Any relation to the film? [The Fisher King - a 1991 movie starring Robin Williams.]

Turner: Well, there's the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, and the film I've seen, as well. There's a lot of that. I'm a bit of a history nerd, so I know my Fisher King culture.

And in South London there's a thing called Battersea Power Station, which is this old abandoned power station. It's on the front cover of a Pink Floyd record [Animals]. It's got white chimneys and stuff. But it's this famous landmark. You can't miss it - it's huge. But it's been abandoned for, like, 100 years now, and it's this really kind of spooky ruin in the middle of London.

Fisher King is the king of an abandoned kingdom, and he sits by the river waiting for the return of his brother. So I always figured if he lived anyway, he probably lived in Battersea Power Station.

Songfacts: So you're a history nerd. What are some of the other historic eras to have inspired particular songs?

Turner: In one of my earlier songs called "Love, Ire & Song," there's a line, "Let's be 1905, but not 1917." I get endless questions about what that's supposed to mean. It's about the two Russian revolutions. There's one in 1905, which failed, and one in 1917, which succeeded. And it's much easier to glorify something that fails than something that succeeds, because if it succeeds then you have to deal with the real‑life consequences of it. So there's something in that.

I wrote a song called "Time Machine" that was about all the places I'd like to go. Well, it all turns up being kind of a weird love song in the long run. But it takes place in the Old West of America, I've done as much reading as I can about that.

Songfacts: Well, you're about as far West as you can get [Coachella]. Do you ever visit any of the areas out here when you come out?

Turner: Yeah, as much as we can. Tour is work, but, yeah, I've been to the Alamo and we were in Flagstaff, and there's some really cool stuff up there. There's the Old Town now, which is amazing. And Deadwood and some of the stuff up in the front range of Colorado as well, is really great.

Songfacts: What about California?

Turner: California, yeah. I've been to the Mission in San Francisco, and Russian River which was where the Russian colonization came. Northern California was a Russian colony once. Yeah, and some bits here and there. Not as much as some other places.

Songfacts: Now, have you formally studied history or is it just a passion of yours?

Turner: I studied history at university, but since then it's just been amateur. All I do is read history books when I'm not touring.

Songfacts: What do you think are your fans' favorite songs of yours?

Turner: Probably "Recovery" and "I Still Believe," off the top of my head, I would say those two.

Songfacts: And why do you think they appeal so much?

Turner: Well, with the caveat that I feel I'm like the wrong person to answer the question...

Songfacts: I'd have to ask all your fans.

Turner: Exactly. But "I Still Believe" is kind of like an anthemic tune, and it's a funny thing actually. Again, it feels like we're talking about myself in the third person. But I feel like people either love what I do or fucking hate it. And one of the dividing lines in that is that I'm not really into irony. Some people find that puzzling or offensive, a fact that I also find puzzling.

So, for example, "I Still Believe," it's an unashamed love song to rock and roll as a concept. It's saying that this is my culture, this is my passion and it's my life, and it's everything. I mean, learn some guitars and drums and desperate poetry. And some corners of the British music press have roundly mocked me for writing the song. Like, "That's so naff, that's so wide‑eyed."

Songfacts: Well, music journalists are the most sarcastic sort of irony film characters you'll ever want to meet. I saw Pet Shop Boys last night, and I'm just thinking about how their songs, you talk about irony and how it's almost like they kind of look down on the world with these sardonic perspectives. But there's nothing wrong with believing in something.

Turner: Right. Totally. It's just that all I really do is think about rock and roll and do my rock and roll, and I love it. And I think a lot of people connect with that song for that reason. They think, "I'm not the only one."

Songfacts: Can you think of a time when you had your first great rock & roll moment as far as going to a show and just thinking, "Yes, this is what I want to do the rest of my life?"

Turner: The very first show I ever want to. And it was not a particularly successful, well‑known band. They were a band called Snug. The only real mark on the world that they made is the guy who played guitar in that band is a guy called Ed Harcourt. He's now a singer‑songwriter in his own right, and a good friend of mine now. But that was his first band.

My mom was really against me going to shows, because she doesn't know or understand anything about rock and roll. I think she thought shows were dark rooms with people fucking and taking drugs. How right she was. [Laughing]

Songfacts: There is some truth to it.

Turner: But the thing is, one of the other guys in Snug, his mum was a friend of my mum, and so she thought that it was kind of a safe show. So I went down. It was in a pub called The Joiners Arms in Southampton, which I recently did a benefit to save because it was gonna get closed down. I did a week of shows there.

Songfacts: Oh, that must have been emotional then.

Turner: I know the guys who run it really well now and I've played there many times. This show I went to, that was when I was like 14 or something. So, it was nearly 20 years ago.

Songfacts: Let's wind things up by just asking how your mom feels about your career?

Turner: [Laughs] Now, she's into it. It's funny, because it's about frames of reference, right? I remember when I got an accountant, my mum was like, "Okay, I can understand that. That's something in my world."

But, yeah, my mum, she actually played harmonica for me at my first arena show in the UK for a song. And we played Redding Festival last summer - we were on the main stage. I injured my back about a week before the show and had to do the show in a back brace and all this thing. My mum came out and read out my doctor's note for me onstage in front of 60,000 kids. So, that was pretty cool. She's on the team now.

June 22, 2015. Get more at frank-turner.com.
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