Though Frank Turner is still a young buck in the folk-punk game—he turns 28 in December—he's accomplished an awful lot in the past few years. The British songwriter forsook a fledgling career fronting punk bands to write detailed, contemplative pub pop and stirring folk-punk anthems with stylistic nods to Ted Leo, Against Me! and—while Turner says he's a only recent convert to his music—Billy Bragg. Turner's songs—tales of drinking, loving and aging against a backdrop of stupid pop culture—would overwhelm listeners with pop sentimentality if they didn't ring so true. On Poetry of the Deed, Turner's third album in as many years, he pairs characteristically detailed lyrics with a newly layered approach at melodic exploration. We caught up with Frank over the phone from England ahead of his US Fall tour supporting the Gaslight Anthem.
WW: Hi Frank, listening your new album Poetry of the Deed, it feels a bit more hopeful, aspirational even, than the last one? Which seemed to be suggesting that everything's going to shit and we're all screwed, a little bit?
FT: Ha, yeah a lot of people have pointed out that I appear to be in a slightly better mood, which I guess is a fair cop really. You know, things have been going reasonably well with my career and I think my personal life is a little less of a car crash than it used to be, so guilty as charged I suppose.
I wondered if that was solely due to personal factors, or any wider positive changes you'd noticed?
No, no, I hate the world as much as I ever did! This [antipathy] is in a broad, abstract kind of way, but when it comes to personal life, like I say, my personal relations are not too shabby at the moment.
What were you planning on, musically, when you went in to the studios this time around? Because it sounds like there's more instrumentation on there, and it's got a much richer sound in places?
Yeah, I think basically with both the previous albums, I pretty much played everything myself and then afterwards taught the songs to my live band. And the thing was that they are all amazing musicians, much better than me, and it sort of reached a point where the live version of pretty much every song was better than the recorded version as far as I was concerned. And it just struck me that there'd be no point in doing that again. So we decided to just cut straight to the chase and get the guys in my live band into the studio with me. As a result of that, we rehearsed the album for ages before we even went into the studio, which obviously then affected the sound a little bit, made it a bit bigger, more expansive, and kind of more band orientated.
Are you pretty solid touring mates by now then?
Yeah definitely, they're all friends and they're amazing musicians as well so, no complaints whatsoever about those guys. And it's kinda cool as well, because there are pluses and minuses to Band vs. Solo and all the rest of it, but I think that the camaraderie of having a regular group of people that you take on the road with you is something that I miss from being in a band. So I've kind of got that back now which is a good feeling.
I wondered with your songwriting, is it all from the heart and mainly about your own experiences, or do you find you can create characters at all?
You know what, I've tried actually, because I'm a big fan of a lot of the songwriters who use more fictional characters and that sort of thing, I'm just not very good at it! I love Springsteen for example who's great at characterization, and I've tried but I'm just not very good. I always end up feeling a little false when I do that, and the most important value for me is honesty. This doesn't necessarily have to mean that it's 100% “this is the gospel truth”, but it's got to be emotionally honest. Which I'm not so good at unless I'm being literally honest as well.
Well it sounds like there's some of that on “Journey of the Magi” for example. But does this mean that when you sing about not living the life your parents wanted, on “Faithful Son”, that's all from the heart? Maybe everyone feels a little bit of parental disapproval but I assumed yours would be kinda stoked?
My parents are just from an incredibly different background to the lifestyle that I've chosen to pursue if you see what I mean, so... I mean my mums kind of into it now but they've certainly over the years been pretty anti what I do for a long time.
Really, completely against?
Well my mum is a Bishops daughter you know. They're from a very traditional, conservative with a small ‘c' background. And err, going off and getting tattoos and living out the back of a van and not changing your jeans for 6 months, and stuff like that, is anathema to them. But like you say, I think they sort of twigged on the fact that I'm not going to stop any time soon, they're coming to terms with it.
And you're making a living off it pretty well.
You sing about Sunday nights too, and not wanting to go to your day job in the morning—now you don't really have a crappy day job to go to, do you just remember that feeling, and try to still include it, or does the monotony of certain band stuff get you down too?
Well this is kind of a big issue. Something I spend quite a lot of time pondering about is that if you want to maintain contact with normal people, but by writing songs about normal stuff, there reaches a point where that becomes ever so slightly duplicitous if you're a musician, ‘cos I spend my entire life in the back of a van. But having said that, it's not like I don't have experiences to draw on for that kind of thing. I've had my fair share of times living a perfectly normal life and working jobs in between tours and all that as well. So I guess it's just drawing on past experience more than current experience. But having said that, I do work really hard at what I do as well, the thing is just that Sundays don't mean as much to me as they used to, days of the week are slightly less relevant when you're touring it has to be said.
I wondered with your website, given that you make loads of effort to reply to people, and you say that there's a lot of boring work to your job too, is that less of problem as you get bigger, or there's more and more?
There's a lot of it to do but I'm getting better at learning how to delegate, basically. Which is something that I've been very loathe to do for a long time but is becoming increasingly necessary for my… sanity, as it were.
But something I'm very interested in is pulling aside the curtain when it comes to the business of being a musician. I was never really into that idea either that the people that make music are this kind of “removed breed” who have to be treated differently to other people, or conversely that… well people have very bizarre view of what life as a musician is like. People regularly come up to me at bars and go, “oh you must be loaded, buy me a beer”, and I'm just like “are you kidding??”. Yeah I make a decent living out of what I do but I'm hardly wallowing in cash, enough to be buying rounds for a barful of strangers, you know what I mean? So it's kind of interesting to me to try and, I don't know if “educate” is the quite right word ‘cos that sounds kind of up myself, but just try and disseminate more information about what it's like to actually be a professional musician, I think that's interesting.
On “Try This At Home” you sing about people who are in the London indie music industry for the wrong reasons and so on, do you think that is a continuing problem, or something of a phase that's on the way out, with the way things are in music at the moment?
I don't know, the music industry is still massively populated by arseholes, and I guess the trick is to find the cool people and hang out with them. Which I think I do reasonably well at. But yeah as long as there's any kind of profession that brings with it a degree of fame, or notoriety maybe... celebrity that's the word I'm looking for. Then there's going to be people who head for it for those reasons and not for the concurrent reasons. But you know, it's a wider societal malaise the idea that people can be famous for being famous rather than being respected for having a skill.
How did you develop your songwriting style? Did you just write a lot and it comes out how it comes out, or are there certain writers that you admire and study?
Yeah I do. I've never been taught about songwriting, I've never really had a technique, and I often feel a bit like a schizophrenic serial killer after a massacre where I've blacked out, because I sort of wake up and these songs are done and I don't really remember how they happened. But the other thing is, I guess the only sort of research I do is that whenever I hear a song that I really like - and I guess this has been the case since I first got into music - I start trying to pick apart why it is I like it. I start trying to think about which parts of it work and why they work and that kind of thing. But it's not like I did a course you know. People are always trying to ask me for advice on songwriting, and I get really tongue-tied when people ask that because I don't really know what to say. So who knows.
You seem pretty good at speaking about home truths and picking out things people can relate to. Like “Isobel” particularly resonated with me, do you write things and suddenly find people saying, “Oh my God that song's about me!”?
Well in a round about way, in my opinion this is the highest thing to achieve with songwriting, or poetry, or art or anything - is to take the specific and make it universal. I've never been a fan of the sort of songs that go, “life and love, and this is how the world is…” in this really sweeping obvious kind of way. The trick is to find something small and make it sweeping and universal. So you take someone like John K. Samson from The Weakerthans, who'll just pick up some incredible image about duct tape and soldered wire and turn it into some metaphor about broken hearts. And THAT'S the good stuff, right there.
So I hope that people do kind of identify with things in my songs. Because in part what that means is that I haven't just put some live ramble into music, and that it's been put in a way that makes it more accessible and more universalist. So for example “Long Live the Queen” is a song about a friend of mine, but hopefully it's a song that an awful lot of people around the world who didn't ever have anything to do with Lexie can relate to.
Yeah I wondered with that one, are there some times that - I mean we all have days where sometimes we don't particularly feel like talking - do you get days where you don't really want to sing your heart out in front of a crowd, and some songs are hard to have to do every day?
Yeah definitely, completely. But then at the end of the day I do a job, it's like, one of my big bugbears in life is that it's like I'm an entertainer before I'm an artist, at the end of the day. You know musicians are entertainers first, we might be artists in the final analysis, but first and foremost our job is so that when somebody pays money on one of our records, or more importantly comes down to see us play a show, that they come away having had the best night out that they could have had. And I just think it's really pretentious and arrogant to dismiss that, do you know what I mean. A lot of people are like, “oh I'm not just a mere entertainer” - what do you mean a “mere entertainer”? That's one of the greatest jobs in the world! It's such an excellent and noble profession to have, to be an entertainer, to be that person who tries to take people out of themselves at the end of a shitty day. That's a wonderful job to have, and if you do it well then life is pretty fucking sweet.
So, I can't remember why I started saying this. But yeah, being an entertainer is important to me, there you go, I can't remember where we started.
I saw your website blog posts about piracy and how much response that generated and was wondering, does it give you a bit of hope now that people are hearing about you through the mainstream media too, and actually buying records?
I don't know, that whole downloading blog was kind of an interesting one, I received actually quite a lot of pretty virulent hate mail for that as well. I literally got people emailing me saying, “you should feel privileged I took time out of my day to listen to your music”, which is just not really worthy of reply. But, I dunno, things are changing. The music industry isn't going to stay the way that is has been, and that is probably on balance a good thing. And I'm generally pro the internet, but it's like there is a transitional period that we're going through now and it needs society to take care of the little people while that happens. I guess the main thing that grinds my gears is there's people who try and view themselves as some kind of ideological crusade of “Fighting Against The Big Guy”, which actually just shits on the small guy. It's just like, you're full of shit. And that kind of grinds my gears.
I have my opinions about every other band that gets played on Radio 1 that I've heard, but I'm not really sure that that's particularly relevant to this discussion. But at the end of the day I am, and I put some effort into continuing to be, still just a kid who got into music when I was younger. And you know, I used to go crazy when I heard bands that I like on the radio and all that kind of thing, and to hear myself on Radio 1 is nice, and I hope I never lose that sense of it being that.
Just like at Reading & Leeds this weekend, that was the first festival I ever went to. I went there loads and loads of times, and if I ever lose that sense of “holy crap I'm on the other side of the fence, I'M playing at Reading & Leeds!” - if I ever start becoming blasé about that I really need someone to kick me in the nuts.
I was going to ask, and you might have just answered it, what makes up the best kind of show for you, is it outside at a big festival or is it small little gigs or anywhere?
I wouldn't put it in a specific place, it's just an atmosphere really. The thing that makes a good show for me is just when you've got room full of people who are all on the same side and it feels pretty good. And beyond that it can be a basement or, you know I've felt that watching Springsteen in front 60,000 people, and I've felt like that playing my own show in front of 20 people at the bar, so I don't think it's specific to time and place, it's specific to performer and audience.
Is there a difference how, because of the minutiae that come into your songwriting, is there a difference how the US and the UK receive your music? Because some of it seems particularly “Englishy” if you will, do Americans pick up on that, that you've noticed?
They lap it up, I mean there's a lot of Anglophilia on the American scene, which is kinda cool, but it's interesting to me sort of how much does completely translate. But then think about it, I'm a massive Dylan fan, I'm a massive Springsteen fan and they're very kind of Americana in their references, but we all kind of understand them. So I think it's nice in one way for there to be some cultural traffic going the other way, even if it's just in the tiny five seconds I'm being relevant.
Are you much of a Billy Bragg fan too, are there any particular songs of his you've admired?
Mm my favorite Billy Bragg song? “Levi Stubbs' Tears” is hands down best song he's ever written. I am a Billy Bragg fan. It's kind of weird though, because actually I must admit I got into Billy Bragg because when I first started playing solo stuff people told me I sounded like him, so I went and checked out the voice he had in the past. But I mean, I get compared to a lot, it's a totally fair cop, he's a great songwriter. But it's not like I'm a kid who sat around listening to him all day and then went “I'll tell you what, I'm going to fucking rip this off”.
How do you feel about being labeled both folk and anti-folk? The latter has always sounded like a weird genre tag to me.
I'd describe myself as pro-folk actually, haha. Maybe anti-punk? Who knows, it's tricky.
Have you been through Portland before on your American tours?
I have been to Portland a couple of times actually, and it is a good fun town. The last time I'm went to Portland was in March, and things happened about which all of us the next morning promised to never to speak of again. So I can't tell you what happened. I'm a Portland fan.
Crikey. How well do you get on with tour mates Gaslight Anthem?
Yeah they're my boys, we just hung out at Reading [Festival] and we did the tour earlier this year. They're really good people and I'm looking forward to spending another four weeks on the road with them.
Finally is there anything you're particularly looking forward to about touring America?
I love touring America it's the most fun. Personally I get so frustrated with people's stereotypes about America, because I find Americans to be some of the most friendly and welcoming and inquisitive people that I encounter on my travels, and I always have a blast when I'm in the states, and I'm looking forward to having a blast again.
Plus I really like eating in America as well. You get tons of food, it's great.
Frank Turner plays Tuesday, Sept. 22, at Berbati's Pan (which has great food), with Gaslight Anthem. 7:30 pm. $16 advance, $18 day of show. All ages.