For those of you who are unfamiliar with Frank Turner, he is an English folk singer/songwriter with heavy punk influence. This creates a rather different folk sound that can be a little refreshing. After the disbanding of his post-hardcore band in 2005, Frank turned solo and has since then released 6 full-length albums, 4 compilation albums and 6 EPs; quite a list for such a young artist. He also released a book last year.
Frank actually spoke to CONFRONT in 2013 when he was here with his band for Osheaga. A lot has happened since, namely the release of his latest album Positive Songs for Negative People and the release of his book. Read on to see what he had to say about different tracks on the album, bookwriting and how he might take a break after this 2-year tour.
CONFRONT: Last time we interviewed you at Osheaga two summers ago, we found out that you were a little OCD with keeping track of your shows. I was curious, what show are we at tonight?
CONFRONT: Wow! I think last time, you were in the 1400s.
FRANK: Yeah we’ve been busy.
CONFRONT: I see that! And what has been one big memorable moment for you in the past two years?
FRANK: I supposed the release of the last record would be it. When we went through for Osheaga last, we were touring Tape Deck Heart and that was cool and good but it was a really long, heavy tour for us.
While we were doing it, we were working on new material for the record and we had a little bit of a fight on our hands to get the new record the way that I wanted it to be. I wanted to make the record quickly; I wanted to make it rough and ready but record labels don’t generally like that. So we had a push and pull on our hands to get the label to understand that we weren’t going to make another scuzzy punk record. I wanted it to sound good but not overly polished. I found the previous one to be a little too polished to my taste. So there was quite a lot of stress around that but we succeeded in our mission and the album came out.
CONFRONT: Speaking of the album, how do you think your sound has evolved since your first solo release?
FRANK: Hopefully, it has evolved a lot. I have no interest in repeating myself; I would be mortified if I was doing the same thing at age 34 as I was at age 23. The inherent conservatism of music fans really depresses me because you get people who every time you do something different, accuse you of not being the same as you used to be a decade ago. I feel like it’s the duty of an artist, particularly within the context of punk-rock as a genre, to evolve and be different all the time.
CONFRONT: Yeah growth is normal anyway, how can you expect someone to keep doing exactly the same thing?
FRANK: Exactly! It’s interesting, I was thinking of this the other day. I think that there is an art and a craft side to song writing. There’s definitely skills you can concentrate on and then learn that a large chunk that is just that inevitable inspiration. I do think I’ve gotten a lot better at the craft side of it with practice. Again, it would be weird if I hadn’t; I have written a lot of songs. I don’t think about very much except song writing. But I feel like for any individual writing songs, there’s a certain amount of low-hanging fruit when you start off; everyone gets a right couple of songs that are just kind of basic love songs or loneliness songs or road songs or angry songs. And I think if you’re interested in not repeating yourself as you go along, it gets harder to come up with subject matter and inspiration. But I think there is also this sort of naivety to people’s firsts attempts, which I think is a valuable quality but you can’t fake it. If I listen back to my first records and I loved the way they sound, in some aspects because of that naivety but I can’t pretend that this is my first record.
CONFRONT: Yeah it’s not something you can just recreate.
FRANK: Right. And in fact, I think that attempts to do that are often backfiring.
CONFRONT: What is one piece of advice that you’ve learned throughout your career that you bring in with you every time you record a new album?
FRANK: I think it’s as important to know when to stop as it is to know when to keep going. The skill of learning when to walk away from something is a hard-learned one. There’s definitely a possibility to overwork things and overthink things. There are moments when you need to step away.
CONFRONT: Now I’m going to ask you a few “which track” questions. First off, which track on Positive Songs for Negative People took the most work?
FRANK: In terms of recording, none of them because we made the record in 9 days. But that was kind of the idea: that we were ready to go in and record. All the songs were rehearsed to death live. I wanted it to almost have the vibe of a debut record, which is rehearsed in a live context.
I suppose that “Mittens” was most worked because we re-arranged the song so many times. That was another thing that we did this time. Quite often, we’ll arrange a song and tour it for 2 years and after two year we get bored of the one on album and come up with something new and like that one better than the one that went on the record. Again, we can’t really shortcut that process but we tried to cheat it a little bit. I wrote a song, we arranged it and then we thought “ok, now let’s come up with something completely different and think of a different way of putting the song together”. “Mittens” went through many, many different arrangements and I’m still not 100% convinced that we’ve got it right. We did that with quite a bit of songs on this record.
CONFRONT: Which track means the most to you?
FRANK: That is a difficult question because they all have meaning to me in different ways. I think “The Angel Islington” is one of my favorites in terms of words that I have written in a long time because I think that it is closer to being pure poetry than most of the things that I do. There is a difference between lyrics and poetry; there is a gray area where they sort of cross over. “Song For Josh” is a very important song to me for obvious but slightly different reasons. (note: it is a tribute to the late Josh Burdette who was the manager for Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club)
CONFRONT: Which song represents the album as a whole?
FRANK: Probably “Get Better”. That was kind of why we put it as the second song on the album. There’s this little introduction piece and then the album kind of kicks in.
CONFRONT: Now, you also released a book last year. How did that come along?
FRANK: I don’t keep a journal but I kind of started writing down notes about things that happen because I was in danger of forgetting them. There’s only so many shows you can hold in memory and if you drink while you’re on tour, then those kinds of things get forgotten.
A publisher got in touch about writing a book and at first, I was very skeptical about it because the idea of writing an autobiography at all, I find slightly suspect and particularly when you’re younger than about 70.I was opposed to that but Richard, the publisher, was great and we talked through a lot of stuff and his pitch was that it would be about a diarized star memoir. We talked through a lot of stuff like Henry Rollins’ books, which I’m very into and very inspired by. James, the accordion player of The Pogues wrote a memoir which was phenomenal. Just things like that and about temporally constrained bodies of work that don’t have ambitions to being whole life stories.
When I was a kid, I read the book “Get in the Van” by Henry Rollins and that book upended my life. It was in the middle of quite a lot of things upending my life in a short period of time, which can be summarized u
nder the heading of “punk rock”. But what I loved about it was that I read loads of books about punk and rock and roll when I was a kid and most of them focused on things that I wasn’t interested in. I’m a huge Nirvana fan but I couldn’t give two shits about Kurt’s heroin problems or his relationship problems with Courtney Love. I’m interested in the mechanics of a touring band and the song writing. There are some books that focus on the song writing end of it but “Get in the Van” was the first book I read that gave me an idea of what being on tour was like and not just touring on a stadium level but touring on a grunt level. It just filled me with excitement.
So the idea was to see if it was possible to write something similar, or rather my version of the same thing; not that I’m comparing myself to Black Flag! So I started writing and I sent some chapters to my most sarcastic and cynical friends and they wrote back and said it was worth a try.
CONFRONT: It’s a good idea to send it to people who would be more critical!
FRANK: Yeah! One of the interesting things about being a solo artist, and this has changed a little over the years seeing as I have the band that I play regularly with, you don’t have a wall to bounce ideas off of. In my early days as a solo artist, I had this mailing list of about 3 people who would always get demos and rough drafts because I knew they would give me rough opinions. Those are the people who got the book.
CONFRONT: And is that something that you are looking to pursue eventually? Are you interested in writing another book?
FRANK: Yeah! Writing the book was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be but in a way that I found very rewarding. I’ve written articles and I find them quite easy to write so I assumed that writing a book wouldn’t be so hard. I was hugely hubristic and I was humbled. It was a lot more work and a lot more conceptual to think about the body of work. But I enjoyed it and I’m very proud of it. The thing is, I wrote a book about the single most easy thing to write about, which is yourself and your own version of events. I didn’t really have to do any research.
I’m definitely interested in writing another book and I’ve definitely had conversations about it. I have some ideas about some history book topics, which would be a considerably harder thing to do. I have a topic that I’m interested in but I’m not going to say anything more about it yet.
CONFRONT: Alright! And what are the plans for the rest of the year?
FRANK: We are on tour until August of next year. The album came out in August 2015 and we decided to do 2 years on the road. In that time, I’m pretty sure we’re going to hit everywhere in the world where we can conceivably hit. I don’t want to get too far down this road right now but I feel like Positive Songs feels like a conclusion to a period of time to me. I feel like I want to do a really long run and do this album properly and then take 6 months to a year off. I haven’t taken any time off in the past 11 years and I feel like I’ve earned a break.
CONFRONT: I think you have!
FRANK: I haven’t figured out what I’ll do quite yet but just something other than touring and e-mailing my manager. I might throw my phone down a well and just be off net for a bit. I have ideas of what I want to do next musically and it’s pretty radically different, I think. Other people might disagree. It’s funny because when I started doing solo stuff, I thought it was different and some people agreed but some people saw a continuity. I mean, there’s always me singing.
CONFRONT: Now, I’m going to finish by asking you to draw something that represents yourself.
FRANK: I’m going to do a self-portrait, how about that? I told you I couldn’t draw!
CONFRONT: I disagree! You can totally tell it’s someone holding a guitar.