Frank Turner

Hearing from the man himself while in North Carolina for the third leg of their American tour, it’s a very hot day and Frank Turner has a hangover. Which is not at all a great combination I’m told. Now, Frank  Turner is one of the most honest artists around these days. That was damned true of the Engish folk-artists persona, lyrics and music well over a decade ago, and it’s all still absolutely true now in 2018. For the things that he has shared with new and old fans in his records over the years is not only astounding but quite confronting too. Ever wanted to know what the musician thinks and feels about life, love and the world? Well, just put on one of his albums! The songs will tell you all you need to know, my friends. 

The only thing that’s really changed over the years for him is the passing of time, settling down, and the number of albums that Frank has released with his good friends and great live band, The Sleeping Souls. His latest album, May’s ‘Be More Kind’, featured all of the singer-songwriter’s usual high-levels of musical charm and lyrical honesty. Except now he wasn’t just talking about his own failed loves and self-criticising. Instead, with a calmer personal life, and with his love life now in order, Frank turned his focus outward to other external topics to discuss, whilst also being introspective at the same time with his 7th LP. The result was a solid record that strived to be personal, catchy, fun and also direct in how there really is a much better way to engage with other people these days; to “be more kind” as it were. And it was all of this that I discussed recently with the always-endearing Frank Turner before he hits Aussie shores this December, his first tour out here since 2015. 

So Frank, you guys are on tour right now through America. How is that run going? When compared with other countries, like say Australia, American tours tend to much lengthier due to the larger number of people and cities.

Yeah, there are a lot of people who wanna listen to our music here, so there is a lot of cities to play. It’s been a long run. In our older age, we’ve scaled things down a bit, as we all used to go on tour for months at a time without going home, and now we’ve all kinda grown up a bit. And we’ve all got reasons to go home now too, so we’ve been doing it in chunks and we’re right at the end of a chunk right now. It’s been a blast but we’re all ready to go home now I think.

For sure, mate. One thing I think was really interesting with yourself and America was one of the new songs, ‘Make America Great Again’, which I’m sure you’re not totally exhausted from talking about in interviews! Now, I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but that title does sorta time stamp the song to what’s going on right now in America. And I’ve read in reviews or just from comments online about how people enjoy the song but feel uncomfortable singing along due to that phrase. What’s your take on that, Frank?

Yup, that’s something that I have heard a few people say and I do appreciate it’s because of that phrase. But that was the point of why I used it in a song title, as my intention was to reclaim it and hopefully make fun of it. I like that setting and dynamic of taking something that’s uncomfortable and not cool and then spinning it on its head. If nothing else, I like the idea that anyone wearing that fucking hat is not accidentally now on my team or anything. I spent a lot of time working on the words for that song, as I wanted to pitch the tone of it exactly right. It’s not actually supposed to be a harsh song though. The way I would characterize it is if you’re out at a bar and your mate has had one too many and he’s arguing with the bouncer, so you put a hand on their shoulder, give them a glass of water, put them in the cab and then get them home. It’s that kind of friendly reaching out, as far as my American friends are concerned. Aside from the title, it doesn’t mention Donald Trump by name, as it’s a much broader comment than that. I still think it’s a wonderful country; there’s still a lot of good in that American ideal. They’ve strayed away from a lot of those values. But that doesn’t mean they’re invalid, just that they should be examined in where they’re heading.

The song’s lyrical structure and the way it’s been prosed is incredibly important too, whilst trying to engage in wider discussion as per the songs music video. I liked that it was a positive approach to it rather than being solely negative. Like in the video, where you ask people on the street to share what they personally think makes American great, and that one woman said “immigrants (like me)”. There were definitely some comedic moments and light-hearted sharings, yes, but also a lot of poignant and real ones as well that hit home.

Yeah, that video was just a crazy one for me. Standing on a street corner in that fucking stupid suit trying to talk to strangers was really not my comfort zone, you know? And of course, I had no idea what people would write. We’d just give them the board and say go for it. I was definitely pleasantly surprised by the variety of things that were shared, which successfully represented the tone of the song too. Also, that video only cost me like $50 to shoot, as I just did it on my iPhone. I’m probably the first artist to make actual money off his music videos since the 1990s. [Laughs].

Speaking of that song, I’m not sure if you’ve seen this video, but during a Warped Tour set you did this year, you played that song live and when the chorus came in – “let’s make racists afraid again” – there’s this guy in the crowd wearing a MAGA hat and he’s just looking around so confused.

Yep, I did see that one. Ever since writing that song and now touring the States, I feel duty-bound to play that song at my shows. As to me, it would be cowardice to write it and not play it in the hope of offending people. I’ve made the statement so I need to stand by it publicly. But we’ve been getting an incredible response from it. Last night, we played in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is where that White Power rally happened last year where someone was killed. I was a bit nervous about it and took time out of the set to give it a special mention and introduction, and it all went over swell and people were happy with it. We have had one or two walkouts over the course of the tour, but that’s fine, they’re free to do that. But one big thing about this new record’s theme is to find constructive ways to disagree with one another, as we’ve forgotten how to do that. Human beings disagree with one another – that’s just a fact. If we can’t disagree properly and peacefully, we can get violence and that’s a fucking disaster. The fact that I don’t have an ideologically homogeneous crowd is good as we can start a conversation with one another. Which is what we all need to do I think.

You’re right about that disagreement, especially over the internet and with politics. Just today, I saw something coming out of England where some Young Tory wanker was talking about the left, workers and socialism and painting them all badly when he was pelted with an egg. And then it brought up this wider discussion about how if you resort to those methods, you’re potentially no better than them. Not sure I fully agree that an egg is as violent as a punch or a gun, but what’s your thoughts on that, Frank?

It’s not a very long-term solution, is it? There was that whole debate a little while back on social media and if it was okay to punch Nazis. A lot of my friends who were posting about how it was okay to do that, they look like people who would lose a fight. You don’t wanna normalize physical violence – it’s a bad fucking idea. Any brief study of history will tell you that.

Of course! And while there’s some politics on this new record, that’s not all it is. When you did that Facebook live video announcing the album, this world tour, and the first single, you mentioned how a lot of your records come from tumultuous personal life moments at the time of writing them. Yet for ‘Be More Kind’, things are calmer for you now, they’re more easy-going. Hence that positive, outward-looking ethos behind the whole album. So I wanted to ask about your personal life right now, Frank, and how it’s all going?

Oh, it’s going very well, thank you! I actually just got engaged recently, which has been a wonderful thing in my life, honestly. Of course, it now means I have a nightmare of wedding planning to do. Which in all honesty sounds like work to me, given what I do for a living [laughs]. The preceding two records [2013’s ‘Tape Deck Heart’ and 2015’s ‘Positive Songs For Negative People’] where all about my romantic ineptitudes and my ability to dig a hole and fall into it. Now that I’m writing from a better, more settled space, it’s really interesting to me. As you said, I am calmer on the home front and can turn my gaze onto other topics. Another new thing for this album was the happy love song. I’ve written loads of love songs in my time and pretty much all of them are sad. Or at the very least, have a real sting in the tail. So it was fun to write some songs about matters of the heart that weren’t all so relentlessly depressing, know what I mean?

[Laughs] for sure. something different in terms of perspective. To follow your music for so long from the early days, through to ‘England Keep My Bones’, to ‘Tape Deck Heart’, to ‘Positive Songs’ to now, is just a really lovely growth. As that stigma that Frank Turner must be depressed to make decent records is bullshit; ‘Be More Kind’ proves otherwise.

Thanks mate! And quite simply, something that’s been very important in my life is Jason Isbell. Both in the sense that he’s an incredible songwriter and a good friend that I’ve toured with, but also how he’s handled his struggles with marriage, kids, substance abuse in a very public format is really inspirational for me.

I can see that, totally. To leave us off, I wanted to ask about the Cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) that you’ve been undertaking the last couple years, tying into that better personal life situation you’ve found now. ‘Little Changes’, from the new record is about CBT, and I wanted to hear from the horse’s mouth about those little adjustments you made in your day-to-day cycle and your overall thinking and outlook.

‘Little Changes’ is a really interesting song for me, as it straddles both topics on the record of world issues and being happy in a relationship. It’s about both. On a personal level, I had some really severe issues with substance abuse and drug use, and with the help of my partner, I sought out some help. As someone who comes from a middle-class English family who grew up listening to Henry Rollins records, I was naturally predisposed to not asking for help. So reaching out was quite challenging for me, but it made a huge difference in my life very quickly. There was also a broader lesson there, as CBT taught me this idea of breaking things down bit by bit into chunks instead of trying to fix it all in one go. Because that can be completely daunting. And that works for a lot of our politics lately too. I think that our world is somewhat broken, so trying to solve it all at once feels impossible, therefore people just go, “well fuck it, it’s not fixable”. So, from the solution of CBT, you break it all down into parts, get to the issue, and then find your way forward. That’s me, anyway.

Catch Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls at the following Australian dates in December:

Sat 1st, Dec – Triffid, Brisbane
Sun 2nd, Dec – Forum, Melbourne
Tue 4th, Dec – Basement, Canberra
Thu 6th, Dec – Cambridge, Newcastle
Fri 7th, Dec – Metro, Sydney
Sat 8th, Dec – Capitol, Perth
Sun 9th, Dec – The Gov, Adelaide

Tickets here.

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