“I Tend To Write First And Think About Message And Direction Afterwards” – An Interview With Frank Turner
Frank Turner is a law unto himself, a unique musical force of nature. Part punk part folk musician, Frank tours pretty much constantly with his backing band The Sleeping Souls or on his own (he’s recently racked up his 2000th show). People tried to get me into him for a while but it wasn’t until 2015’s ‘”Positive Songs For Negative People” that things clicked. There was just something perfect about the album that spoke to directly to me. It acted as a gateway to his back catalogue. Why had he passed me by before? “Positive Songs For Negative People” has become one of my favourite album’s to listen to, and I’ve adopted the single “Get Better” as an anthem (as has plenty of others) especially when I need to fight my anxiety and depression head on.
A lot of his work talks about the human condition which really resonates and speaks to a wide audience. I had tickets to see him at Newcastle on his last tour but my anxiety robbed me of the opportunity. I emailed Frank to see if he would be open to doing an interview around his work and mental illness which he was happy to. Here are the results of our online chat…..
For people who don’t know you, would you like to say a few words about yourself?
My name is Frank Turner. I’m a musician and songwriter, originally from Winchester, now based in London. I grew up playing in punk bands, but now do something that’s somewhere between folk music and rock’n’roll.
You pitch yourself as kind of between rock/punk and folk. Was this something you intentionally aimed for when you left your old band?
Not really. I was experimenting with the acoustic guitar, with a more stripped down and direct form of song writing, something more in the folk or country style. Beyond that I just let it flow, and my musical background in punk rock shines through. But again, I want my music to come in its natural form, not to be pre-directed by me.
Your songs come across as personal but also universal. Do you feel that’s something that’s important in your song writing or are you writing from a more third person point of view?
I write autobiographically, but it’s not quite the same as copying out a journal. In a way the Holy Grail of song writing, art maybe, is to translate your personal experiences into something universal, to be able to straddle that divide. Having said that, you can’t really aim directly for that, or you end up sounding forced. It’s something that has to come of its own accord. Hopefully I hit more than miss, but it’s an ephemeral thing.
You have a strong bond between yourself and your audience. Is that something that you’ve striven to do or is it something that’s evolved more organically?
I think the main thing is that I try not to hold myself above my audience if at all possible. When I’m on stage it’s my turn for the spotlight, but once I’m done, everyone else in the room has their thing that they do, and they’re of equal importance in the grand scheme of things. I don’t like the word fan, as it seems, to me, to posit a permanent barrier between the stage and the audience, which I think is both disrespectful and false. I think carrying that kind of approach has helped, over the years.
You made a recent appearance with Ginger and The Wildhearts at his Birthday Bash which may surprise a few fans (you can see some footage here). How do you know Ginger and how was singing “I Wanna Go Where The People Go”?
I met Ginger through mutual friends a few years ago. I’m a big fan and he’s an absolute sweetheart, we’re thick as thieves these days. Singing that song was amazing, I remember watching the video on “Noisy Mothers” back in 1993.
Your current album, “Positive Songs For Negative People”, taps very much into a vein that’s swimming in feelings and emotions that could be seen as very down but yet you manage to put a spin where you focus on taking these feelings and using them as a rallying cry for change. Is this something that you focused on doing?
I tend to write first and think about message and direction afterwards. Writing as a process is sacrosanct for me, or at least I try and make it so. The material and tone of PSFNP reflects where I was at, emotionally, personally, artistically, when I was writing the record. After the songs were done I was able to present the material holistically.
I’ve used the song “Get Better” as a way to motivate myself when I feel the darkness creeping in on me. I’ve even sent it in to others who have helped them. Was that the message you intended with the song or have you found this a complete surprising side effect of the song?
If my songs ever sound like they’re pointing fingers at anyone, it’s almost always me. I’m having a word with myself. I guess that song is the archetypal version of that. If other people can get on board with that, or take something from it, that’s awesome, I’m grateful and humbled. But I wouldn’t say I write intentionally in that direction.
Some of your songs seem to have a central character or theme where the character is or has been suffering with conditions like depression or self worth. Do you see that as something that’s becoming more common in society or do you feel it’s because people are able to talk a little more openly around darker subjects?
I think it’s probably something to do with it being easier for people to talk about in society, which is a good thing. I doubt that it’s becoming more prevalent, per se, humans are remarkably consistent little things. Incidentally, I don’t (with a few obvious exceptions) really write character songs.
What experiences do you have with mental illnesses?
I’ve had a shadow of that nature following me for most of my adult life. It’s taken various forms over the years – from self-harm to drug abuse – but it’s fair to say I’ve not been overly settled.
Do you find people reach out to you as they connect with your songs? How does it feel when people say how much your music has helped them? Does it help you in any way?
That’s something I’m still getting my head around. It happens a lot, people email me or come to me after shows and so on, and it can get quite intense. At base it’s a compliment, and I understand that. I have similar feelings about words written by other people. But I don’t naturally hold myself in that kind of regard and I don’t write songs for other people’s benefit; that would seem dishonest for me. I write for my own best judgement. If other people then connect with it, again, I’m grateful and humbled. But it does still take a little work for me to get my head around it.
So after a lot of touring and the release of your film what are your plans for 2017? Are you planning any time off at all?
I just had a holiday, back at the grindstone now, which I’m enjoying. We have a bunch of stuff this year – a big North American tour, the Lost Evenings Festival in London, the 10th anniversary of my first album, and the “Get Better” film on DVD. But my main concern for this year is focussing on finishing writing and then recording a new record.
What would you say to anyone who is experiencing any aspects of mental illness at the moment?
That isolation is the worst thing, and that there are people who you can talk to – if family and friends are not an option, for whatever reason, there are wonderful people who can help, who can listen.
I’d really like to thank Frank for taking his time to answer my questions and for being so approachable. His website at www.frank-turner.com is a great place to go (it also features an ongoing blog by him too).
Also, a special thank you to Gordon Armstrong for the photos of Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls live at Whitley Bay last year, as well as his words of encouragement about the blog.
As usual, if you’d like to chat to me further you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. I’ve created a closed support group on Facebook also called The Order Of The Dog. It’s there for people who struggle with mental health issues as well as people who want to support and get a better understanding. It’s a closed group which means only members get to see and interact with what’s posted there. Finally, please feel free to share this blog with anyone and anywhere you think it might help.