Diva is not a word you’d use to describe Frank Turner. With two books, seven albums, and approaching 2500 gigs under his belt (including the Olympic Opening Ceremony and a headline show at Wembley Arena) you could forgive him for being a little detached from reality. But this is simply not the case. When we first meet, I’m perched on a front row pew at St James’ Church, Piccadilly, and after cheerfully greeting all the staff he walks into the building to soundcheck. As he unpacks his guitar from its case and plugs it into the nearest speaker he takes the time to greet me and ask how I am, commenting that he’s a little tired, but enjoying the book tour he’s finishing that night. Indeed, this genuine friendliness extends to all aspects of his life: he’s known for personally writing lyrics for tattoos, frequently going for a pint with fans after shows, and answering every single email he gets – something that many artists much less established than him would never think to do. There’s a reason why he’s so beloved to fans globally, and this is it.
I start the interview by taking him right back to his childhood. To the surprise of a lot of people, the self-proclaimed ‘skinny half-arsed English country singer’ is actually an Etonian. He was sent there on a scholarship as a child, and continued his education right up until he left for London immediately after his last A level exam – he describes getting home, immediately packing a suitcase, and taking the next train (apparently his mother wasn’t pleased). Expensive boarding schools and punk rock do not usually go hand in hand, but Turner, although labelling private education as “fundamentally unjust” does see the divide he felt between himself and his peers as a major source of inspiration.
“In retrospect wasn’t really fully cognised in what was going on when I got sent there. I remember taking an exam and being congratulated for passing it… and then suddenly I was at boarding school with people who I found socially quite different, shall we say. And then in the midst of that (which of course was combined with being an adolescent and being thirteen years old), was the moment that The Clash and The Black Flag and The Sex Pistols and NO-FX and all that landed in my life and y’know, punk rock definitely gave me a way of answering some questions that I had about the world, and therefore became my primary love in life. It’s kind of a boring counterfactual to say, ‘what would your life be like if you hadn’t been sent to that school?’ Would you love punk as much as you do? I don’t know.”
Yet although Turner professes his devotion to punk throughout our conversation, what genre his music actually fits into is harder to say. Beginning in post-hardcore punk band Million Dead, after their 2005 split he switched suddenly to a solo blend of folk and punk, predominantly on acoustic guitar, releasing classic albums Sleep Is for the Week (2007), Love Ire and Song (2008) and Poetry of The Deed (2009). The albums are beautiful, ranging from a triumphant and frantic celebration of life inspired by the passing of his friend Lex in Long Live the Queen, to a heart-breaking, desperate cry for help in My Kingdom for a Horse. Yet as the years have passed, Turner’s music has changed, becoming more polished and professional. For comparison, his first EP Campfire Punkrock (2006) was primarily recorded in the front room of his friend and band-mate’s house in Oxford, his latest album Be More Kind (2018) was created by award winning producers and recorded in a professional studio in America – complete with a gospel choir. His albums have moved from being labelled ‘folk punk/folk rock’ to ‘indie rock/indie folk’ over the years, leading to backlash from some fans who believe that his music has lost the raw, personal element that they fell in love with. Yet the singer-songwriter is surprisingly casual when asked if this criticism bothers him.
“I think that to be worried about being pigeonholed you have to give more of a fuck about what other people think that I tend to do. That’s the pull quote, soundbite answer. The real answer… well when I started in my solo career I fell between every stool going because I wasn’t part of the punk scene, I wasn’t really part of the folk scene, I wasn’t really part of the indie scene and there have been moments in my career where that’s been quite frustrating, just in the sense that I’ve seen other people kind of accelerate past me by riding on the wave of a scene. But they then tend to crash when the scene crashes as well, and at this point in my career, seven albums in and fourteen years as a solo artist and the rest of it, I can sort of look on the whole thing with a degree of magnality and victory. All those trendy indie bands who got the record deal that I didn’t get are now appearing in ‘where are they now’ articles in the NME y’know. I mean folk-punk was a term that was used around me and my friends for a while, and there’s some mileage in that, but it seems quite limiting to me in the sense that if nothing else, I think country is a much stronger element in my songwriting than folk. But, I like to think that I’ve kind of reached the point in my career where I’m just gonna be.”.
Yet Turner’s versatility does not just apply to the genres of music he can create – he’s also incredibly well-read, particularly when it comes to history, the study of which he sees as intrinsic to life, commenting “it seems like an odd way to go through life, just walking down the street with no curiosity about how it came to be there”. This has led to a recent movement away from the confessional style of songwriting that he’s known for. In fact, by the end of 2019 Turner plans to have released a brand-new album of songs written about, and from the point of view of, historical women: with one exception – a song about his mum. As well as his music, he’s also a skilled author, and has written two books: The Road Beneath My Feet (2015), a kind of autobiography told through past shows, and Try This At Home (2019), which again tells the stories of his life, but through a deeper glimpse into the meanings of his songs. He does have strong feelings towards certain types of media blending however, surprisingly virulent on his view on lyrics and poetry combining:
“I feel very strongly that contrary to popular opinion, poetry and lyrics are not interchangeable art forms. And this spate of people publishing their lyrics as books of poems that’s been going on lately is kind of bogus. Because lyrics are an art form that survives with the music, they’re integrally related – or if they’re not then you should write better songs”.
Yet after fourteen years of bearing his emotions through song Turner seems to be getting a little bored of introspection, admitting that he’s a little worried that writing two books about himself “verges on narcissism”. As well as the forthcoming album, he somewhat wistfully speaks of researching and writing an academic history book, as well as radio shows, and a secret side project that he can’t speak in depth about, but describes as “the single, most unhinged bit of music I’ve ever been part of”. Even his most recent album, Be More Kind is significantly less intimate, and more angrily political than previous creations, most clearly illustrated in his satirical attack on Republican America through the single Make America Great Again. Turner is vocal in is critique of hate in all its forms, and unashamedly labels Donald Trump a “lying con-man”, yet has a degree of reticence about commenting on British politics – with the exception of the “annoying” and “slightly facile” song Thatcher Fucked the Kids (2006), the subject matter of which is, you may be able to guess, not exactly pro-conservative. Indeed, her refused to play the song for over a decade, predominantly because:
“There is a certain subset of political fans who just want to hear that song and they don’t give a fuck about anything else you have to say and it you try to make a statement that challenges them in any way then you are the devil incarnate and it because apparent to me that the entire conversation had left music a long, long way behind.”
Ultimately, like his hero, Bruce Springsteen, Turner has dipped his toe in the murky waters of political music, but is reluctant to label himself directly as a protest singer and become entangled in the sometimes dangerously hostile community that surrounds it. Yet the usually endearingly blunt musician admits that his reluctance to comment on British politics also stems from the complexity of the situation.
“I find it easier to comment on American politics than British politics because I have the benefit of an arms-length. The outsider’s status on a situation can make it easier to see the broader picture, or at least kid yourself that you can. The Brexit thing I feel is really quite complicated because I have extremely smart and integral and kind friends on both sides of that plate and it’s not quite as easy as just going ‘oh Trump is a lying con-man’ – that seems a little more clear-cut to me, which makes it easier to write songs about. But y’know, maybe I’m just shying away from making substantive statements that I can get shot down for in this country”.
It can be argued that this is not a very ‘punk rock’ response, but in fact this reactions shows how much Turner has matured since his earlier Million Dead days. After years of struggling with alcohol, drugs, and troubled relationships, the musician now appears significantly more settled, with a healthier outlook on life (he’s mentioned using CBT in the past), a fiancé, and a wonderfully instagrammable feline by the name of Boudicat. Yet in some ways he really does stay true to his roots. As well as touring as a solo artist, he’s also part of the hardcore punk band Möngöl Hörde, due to release a new EP soon – although Turner admits that they’re “the slowest, laziest band in the history of the world”, and not entirely serious in their subject matter – one of the first songs they wrote was about Natalie Portman’s tapeworm using her as a puppet to take over the world. In his general attitude though runs a deep devotion the punk ideas of reaction against the state (admittedly, in a fairly middle-class, ‘I’m going to sing about you’ manner as opposed to throwing bricks though the windows of Parliament), and to the general promotion of individual freedom. Lyrics from his most virulent anti-establishment song, Sons of Liberty (2009) protest that “the government will only work for its own benefit”, and bluntly instructs the listener “if ever a man should ask you for your business or your name/ tell him to go and fuck himself, tell his friends to do the same”.
Yet again this attitude seems to have mellowed, if not in intensity of feeling, in expression in the past few years. He speaks of the Clive James poem Leçons de Ténèbres (2013), written when the poet had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, as inspiring not just his most recent album, but his philosophy in general, especially the powerful lines “I should have been more kind. It is my fate / to find this out, but find it out too late”. If we take anything from his music and words then, it’s this message – kindness. From sending personalised birthday and wedding messages to fans, to using his platform to promote charities like Safe Gigs for Women, Turner makes a point of practicing what he preaches, and although nobody is perfect, he is very clearly trying – as the fact he’s happy to spend half an hour being interviewed by a student journalist illustrates pretty clearly. So maybe I should let the man himself finish this all off with the simple but important quote that titles his latest album – “be more kind my friends, try to be more kind”.