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Interview: Frank Turner

Winchester-born Frank Turner has recently announced his new album, Be More Kind, and first-ever world tour with his band, The Sleeping Souls.

With a solo performance at Victorious last year, his fanbase is delighted to hear about this tour, which stops in Southampton on May 1st and has already sold out. A legendary performer and incredible songwriter, there is no stopping Frank and his band. A documentary film about his life, Get Better: A Film about Frank Turner, shows how dedicated he is when it comes to music.

Last week I had a chat with him about the album, tour, his music, performing and some of his other passions, which include history and politics.

Amie: How are you? You must be buzzing from your announcement of the new album and the world tour, how are you feeling right now?
Frank: Like everyone, I’m wrestling a cold at the moment, but today I’m in the studio with another band doing some productive work, which is new territory for me, but otherwise, yes, very well, very excited and gearing up for Be More Kind; and it’s really nice to be able to say the name of the album out loud now, because obviously I’ve known it for ages.

We have announced dates and all that kind of thing, and now I can tell you what it’s called!

Good to hear! The name Be More Kind was inspired by a poem called  Leçons Des Ténèbres by Clive James. When did you start writing for the album?
It was towards the end of 2016, I actually wrote a whole other record, which is going to come out, and I was three quarters of the way through writing a completely separate record, which is a sort of historical album, and it’s quite nerdy, but I really like it, I think it’s pretty good.

But then Brexit and Trump and these politically seismic events started happening, and it seemed to me as a writer, these events demanded comment from me, in a way that I haven’t felt for quite a long time, suddenly it seemed to me that I needed to say something about what was happening in the world, or at least react to these in some way

I’ve been quite consciously steering away from political songwriting for a few albums now, for a number of different reasons; the most central one was that I just wasn’t inspired to write in that way – it didn’t feel like I had much to say about it – that I could put down into…rhyming couplets.

I think we all feel it; since the summer of 2016 it feels like history has returned with a vengeance. For the first time in my adult life I feel subject to historical forces over which I have no control, which is a weird thing to say given that I quite consciously lived through 9/11 and I lived through marching against the Iraq war. Nevertheless, it still felt like that the world I grew up in maintained its central structures for that period of time. So that is the approach to the record, in terms of the structure to the writing.

I actually wrote a whole other record, which is going to come out, and I was three quarters of the way through writing a completely separate record, which is a sort of historical album, and it’s quite nerdy, but I really like it, I think it’s pretty good. But then Brexit and Trump and these politically seismic events started happening.

So do you think perhaps this will be a record people will listen to in the distant future – the way we read books, to look back and see how the world is now?
I think time will tell – I personally think writing with that view is not a good look.  I think you just have to get on with it and throw your heart out there and see what happens. On one hand the long-term badge of merit for an artist is to be remembered – but on the other hand, once I’m dead I don’t really give a fuck because I’m not going to be around to appreciate it either way!

So the first single from Be More Kind has a lot of meaning behind it; 1933 is about history repeating itself;  do you think society is going backwards?
This is what is feels like to be powerless to a degree – there are some of our collective political demons on both ends of the political spectrum that are starting to stir again in a way they haven’t done before for quite a while, and I suspect that in the future that we will look back to 1969-2016 as being a kind of a rare idyll of peace in human history and it saddens me to think that we might have gone past the end of that because I think that idylls of peace are a good thing and we should be quite keen on them philosophically!

We are all humans and at the end of the day, and even when terrible things happen in the world, we continue to have feelings, fall in and out of love and so on – what can we expect from this album, will be purely political, as with 1933, or a varied theme?
It’s a mixture. I tend not to write concept records. Once an album is written and done and recorded, there is an opportunity for me and everybody else to look back on it as a cohesive unit but I’m not sure that I actually set out to write it like that – songs come at the moment of my choosing – so there are some personal songs on there, there are some more politically leading songs on there, and there are one or two that attempt to be both at the same time, and they are probably my favourite ones.

The other thing with the new record is that I try really hard to sonically stretch myself – 1933 is a bit of misdirection in a funny way because it is quite a heavy, punk-leading song stylistically, and that’s not really what the rest of the album sounds like at all. I mean, the things that I try to do is to make it stylistically sonic by which I mean if it’s a punk song, it’s a fucking punk song, but if it’s going to be a dance song let’s make it a dance song, and if it’s a folk song let’s make it a folk song! So I am following each stylistic avenue to its logical conclusion, which was really rewarding and really fun to not sit around and not think about cohesiveness, as an artistic value whilst recording and go ‘fuck it, let’s make this song sound really cool’.

Overall, I think the record does hang together actually, but I wasn’t really thinking about that whilst making the songs.

My first gig was at the Joiner’s Arms in Southampton; I went to see a band called Snug. A British pop-punk band who has been forgotten by history largely, apart from the fact that the guitarist was Ed Harcourt. People tend not to remember Snug these days, which is a shame as they were really good.

Your new album is out on the 4th May, and you have your first ever world tour is selling out fast – Strong Island are coming to your Southampton show at the Guildhall, somewhere you have played at many times before…
I have played there many times! I remember as a kid I used to go to gigs there a lot, I remember going to see a Battle of the Bands there when I was about 13, and I remember being there and thinking ‘one day…I’ll be at a Battle of the Bands at the Guildhall’ – which apparently was the pinnacle of my ambition at 13…it’s nice to look back on that with a feeling of victory.

How old were you when you went to your first gig?
I was 13 actually. My first gig was at The Joiner’s Arms in Southampton; I went to see a band called Snug. A British pop-punk band who has been forgotten by history largely, apart from the fact that the guitarist was Ed Harcourt, the very famous singer-songwriter. People tend not to remember Snug these days, which is a shame as they were really good.

So growing up, you were obviously influenced by going to different gigs and festivals, has your approach to performing live changed at all?
Something that no one really told me when I was starting out, because I started out in the punk scene and I wish they had told me, is that performing is as much a skill as musicianship and songwriting. Actually, I’m a performing entertainer almost more than anything else and I spend huge amounts of my time thinking about live shows and how to present them, the setlist, how to be on stage and how to engage the crowd, what to say and all this kind of stuff.

Like any other musician, and if anyone says this isn’t true then they are a fucking liar – if you are a musician you go to see another band play, there is at least a part of your brain that is taking notes. There is nothing wrong with that, that is entirely healthy – but yes I am constantly thinking about that.

I have seen you a couple of times, at Victorious last year and in Falmouth in 2016, which were fantastic gigs as you chat to the audience and are really engaging. This approach is different to many bands I have seen before, you have a really strong message that comes across very well, which I imagine is why you are so popular live.
I have learned from bands that do similar things – it’s all part of the show – just playing a bunch of songs in a row gets a bit dry after a while.

Exactly, you have to keep it interesting for yourselves too!

Frank Turner by Ben Morse Photography

So you did a mini tour with one of your bands – Möngöl Hörde. I thought you might be chilling out resting at the moment but obviously you are still performing, still producing as you are today – do you get time to rest, do you get time off?
There’s plenty of hours in the day, I’ve been pretty chilled out and largely stable and at home for the last couple of months and it’s been wonderful. I’ve definitely reached a point in my adult life where I’m more settled, geographically and personally – emotionally at the moment and I’m very happy with that fact. It’s funny, we announced this whole world tour a week ago, and everyone goes ‘Oh my god it’s the most insane tour ever!’ – but what everyone has failed to recognise is that we are coming home at least every four weeks, there are a lot more breaks in our touring schedule than there used to be. We used to be out for 19 months in a row without a break – and that was called ‘Our 20s’ three members of our crew have kids now…and I have a cat.

The other thing with the new record is that I try really hard to sonically stretch myself – 1933 is a bit of misdirection in a funny way because it is quite a heavy, punk-leading song stylistically, and that’s not really what the rest of the album sounds like at all.

So you have reasons to come home now, there is no reason to hare off around the world as before…
Well, I can pick my battles – emotionally but also in terms of my career I don’t necessarily need to go out and play 19 shows in one go, I can actually choose where I spend my energy.

So obviously Strong Island is a local Portsmouth-based website, we promote local arts, music, so for anyone who might be reading this that new to your music or just hearing about this world tour – would you have three tracks you would choose to tell people go out and listen to. I know you have so many songs!
That’s a difficult question – I am sure if you go to Spotify and find my top three played tunes or some business like that, but for the local people it might be worth having a listen to the song Wessex Boy, which is my attempt to write a song about where I’m from. I feel like Springsteen has written an awful lot of songs about New Jersey and lots of other Americans have written lovely songs about where they are from and I realised that no one has really written a song about Hampshire that I was aware of, so I thought I would give it a go.

So Wessex Boy is out there and the video was filmed partly in Winchester which is where I grew up. I Still Believe is one of my more popular songs and it’s a song that has done me right, and I stand by entirely. Then I’ll say 1933 because it’s the new one, and I’m very happy about the new material.

Wessex Boy is my attempt to write a song about where I’m from. I feel like Springsteen has written an awful lot of songs about New Jersey and lots of other Americans have written lovely songs about where they are from and I realised that no one has really written a song about Hampshire that I was aware of, so I thought I would give it a go.

Frank Turner at Highfield Festival, Germany

Don’t you have a song about The New Forest?
Yes, I do! English Curse is my attempt at an old folk song, I went through a phase of listening to an awful lot of traditional English music and I wanted to put out a record that sounded like a traditional song  – it isn’t, I wrote it, but there are certain scales and certain types of language and stories that you can get into that will give the impression. I managed to fool some of the folk music anoraks at the Cambridge Folk Festival with that one, they were like ‘where did you find this song’ and my said ‘Ha! I wrote it!’

Why are you not playing in Portsmouth again, we would love you to come back!
We were in Portsmouth on the last tour, and it’s funny because growing up in Winchester you are torn – actually I didn’t grow up in Winchester I grew up between Winchester and Petersfield so I’m torn between Southampton and Portsmouth. I have family loyalties on both sides, my brother in law is from Waterlooville, so we generally tend to do one then the other, so we did Portsmouth last time, and Southampton this time, but that means next time we are touring around, keep your eyes peeled for a Portsmouth date.

We look forward to seeing you on the first of May, and good luck with your album, released on May 4th, the production and the build-up to the tour and I hope to speak to you again soon.
Frank Turner’s latest single 1933 is out now, and Be More Kind is available to download from May 4th.


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