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Frank Turner: Punk rock ‘feels like my salvation’

23 August 2019

Frank Turner talks to Madeleine Davies about songwriting, atheism, patriotism, and redemption


Frank Turner performs at Boardmasters Surf and Music Festival, Newquay, in 2017

Frank Turner performs at Boardmasters Surf and Music Festival, Newquay, in 2017

AMONG Frank Turner’s back catalogue is a song called “Glory Hallelujah”. On YouTube, you can watch footage of him leading thousands of people at Wembley in its exuberant chorus:

There is no God,
So clap your hands together,
There is no God,
No heaven and no hell.
There is no God,
We’re all in this together,
There is no God,
So ring that victory bell.

Whether it will be in the set at Greenbelt this weekend is uncertain. A few years ago, he left it out when he played the crypt of Liverpool Cathedral — his atheism may be resolute, but he has no desire to offend, he says.

“I like to think I’ve never quite strayed into the kinds of aggressive atheism of the Dawkinses of this world, because that sort of seems slightly needlessly cruel and slightly illiberal to me in many ways,” he explains. “Politically, I am nothing if I am not liberal. To the extent that other people leave me alone, I’m perfectly content for people to be as religious as they wish to be.”

LIBERTY is a touchstone for Turner, who has the words “Freeborn” tattooed on his hands, and mentions Isaiah Berlin and John Stuart Mill in the course of our conversation. A patron of Dignity in Dying, he was “filled with indignation” when he tried to envisage being told “that I didn’t have the right to dispose of my body and my own life in a manner of my own choosing”.

“If we don’t have sovereignty over our own life, then what do we have sovereignty over?” he asks.

It’s a leitmotif in his songs, too.

“Once an honest man could go from sunrise to its set, without encountering agents of his state or government,” he recalls in “Sons of Liberty”, a ballad that goes on to celebrate Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Turner, a self-confessed “history nerd”, is keen to emphasise that his songwriting is, first and foremost, “an attempt to make art that I think is good . . . way, way before trying to tick any political boxes”. But it is tempting to trace the evolution of his philosophy through his albums.

An anarchist when he was in his twenties, he has previously described himself as a libertarian. “Once We Were Anarchists” is among a clutch of songs that convey disillusionment with politics:

The times they aren’t a-changing —
Yeah, England’s still shit and it’s still raining,
And everybody’s jaded and tired and bored
And no one lifts a finger because
It’s just not in our culture.

Last year’s album Be More Kind combined gentle ministrations (“Don’t worry if you don’t know what to do, I’ve spent a little time in worried shoes”) with overtly political anthems. “Common Ground” is a plea for bridge-building and forgiveness which would not be out of place in a post-Brexit Church of England pulpit. “Be suspicious of simple answers,” he warns in “1933”. “That shit’s for fascists and maybe teenagers.”

“The point of the song, for me,” he says, “is that history doesn’t have to repeat itself, because we are moral agents with the ability to act in the course of our lives collectively. Lots and lots of people are saying there are parallels to the 1930s. My response to that is to say, OK, if that is true, let’s make sure that we make different choices this time around.”

TURNER’s politics (which he defines as “the middle ground”) are not typical in the circles he occupies professionally, which he describes as “very heavily left-leaning”. A history graduate of LSE (whose tutor urged him to ditch music for a Master’s), and a lifelong constituent of Jeremy Corbyn (“I am not a fan”), he thinks that it is a “vast problem” that the “crimes of the Communists” weren’t part of his schooling.

What does he make of recent shifts in the political landscape, described by some as the return to ideology?

ALAMYPerforming in Bergen, Norway, in 2016

“You can make an argument that the opening up of ideological discussion points again is for the good,” he says. “It’s slightly depressing that a lot of people now are getting deep into the weeds of justifications for socialism and that kind of thing, and there’s much less discussion of, say, Isaiah Berlin, or John Stuart Mill, on the basis of liberalism. . . With the benefit of a little bit of age and wisdom, I’m not sure that a moment in history when there is a broad consensus is necessarily a terrible thing.”

Cynicism is an undertow in many of his lyrics. Does he believe that it’s unwise to place our faith in politicians?

“I regard politics and politicians and the state in general as a necessary evil,” he says. “I think that all conglomerations of power, wherever they come from, should be watched like a hawk at all possible times, because human beings have an inbuilt tendency towards authoritarianism.”

He found deciding how to vote in the 2016 EU referendum extremely difficult. “I had intelligent and good faith friends on both sides of the argument. . . I’m not sure that I ever really came down on either side emotionally, shall we say. . . The central takeaway from what’s happened since, to me, is the complete and utter failure of our political class as an institution. . . I think that the dearth of intelligence and character that has been revealed is really quite something, and really depressing.”

IF THERE is plenty of darkness in Turner’s songs, there is no shortage of joy either. A tireless tourer (he chalked up 1000 gigs by 2011, having gone solo in 2005), his performances are energetic crowd-pleasers full of exhortation to suck the marrow out of life.

“I personally find the idea that this is our one and only life to be liberating, in a funny way, in the sense that we have to do what we need to do now,” he says. “If we are to be moral actors, if we are to make impact, then now is the time to do it, and I find that quite inspirational. There is no deferment: get on with it!”

He was inspired to write “Glory Hallelujah” after performing “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” (“Is a better home a-waiting In the sky, lord, in the sky?”) in Atlanta, wanting to put “the other side of the argument”.

He is the grandson of Richard Cartwright, Bishop of Plymouth in the 1970s (“a wise and kind man”), and spent the first 18 years of his life going to church almost every day, attending chapel as a King’s Scholar at Eton College.

Despite some of his lyrics (“No cowering in the dark before these overbearing priests”), he says that he never felt oppressed by religion — “it was Church of England, so it was all pretty much tea and cakes” — and is grateful for the cultural grounding that it provided.

“I feel fortunate to be as well-versed in the literature of Christianity as I am — both the King James Bible, and Wesleyan hymns, and anything else you want to reference,” he says. “I do think there is a lot of inherent beauty to a lot of that writing in and of itself . . . and some of the philosophy, shall we say. Secondly, I think it’s quite hard to understand most Western culture pre- the 20th century without being quite well-versed in the Bible.”

It would be inaccurate to say that his faith “faltered”, he says, “because I’m not sure it was ever sincerely held, if I’m honest. . . It just became apparent to me as a kid that, for me, the burden of proof rests on people positing anything more than the world that we experience physically, and I have yet to be convinced of any proof of that. . .

“The natural world is super enough. We didn’t need the word ‘supernatural’. I think that there is more — to use a religiously loaded word — in creation than anyone will ever fully understand, and we are doing a historically excellent job of understanding it as it is. I find wonder and beauty in reading about physics, or nature documentaries — plenty enough to keep me going, enough transcendence for me personally.”

SIN, salvation, and redemption all make appearances in his lyrics. “Who’d have thought that, after all, something as simple as rock ’n’ roll would save us all?” he asks in “I Still Believe” (”I still believe, in the saints, in Jerry Lee and in Johnny and all the greats”).

While it is “more tongue-in-cheek than some people seem to notice”, Turner observes that, on a personal level, it is not hyperbole. For the first 14 years of his life, he felt “extremely alienated from the world into which I was inducted, in terms of my parents and schooling”. Punk-rock shows were “where I finally figured out somewhere I felt welcome and somewhere I felt comfortable. On that level, music generally, and punk rock specifically, is something that’s incredibly dear to my heart, because it does feel like my salvation, if you like.”

His solo work is the latest incarnation of a musical career that dates back to these teenage years. The first record he owned was the album Killers by Iron Maiden, and, until 2005, he was the lead vocalist of the hardcore group Million Dead.

ALAMYCrowd-surfing at Frank Turner’s gig at the House of Blues, Dallas, Texas, on the Be More Kind tour, 2018

A prominent theme in his solo work is a restless, itinerant lifestyle (“I woke up on a sofa in an unfamiliar house, surrounded by sleeping folks I didn’t know”), and an anxiety about being tethered to one place. His lyrics share a wanderlust with Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, and The Littlest Hobo (“Just grab your hat, come travel light!”). Musically, it is reminiscent of Billy Bragg (another example of a friendship spanning a significant political gulf) and the energetic ballads of Indigo Girls.

You also get the impression that he is quite hard on himself.

“One of the biggest misconceptions about me in the public sphere is that I am somebody who is supremely self-confident,” he says. “That is presentational, believe you me. I am extremely unsure of many things in life. . . I sometimes want to say to some of the denizens of Twitter: ‘You think you are being critical of me; I am the Olympic gold-medallist of being critical of me.’

“And I second-guess myself, and I doubt my decisions, past, present, and future all the time . . . to the extent that, if anybody is on the receiving end of any fingers that get pointed in my songwriting, it is invariably me. I am talking to my own reflection in the mirror before anybody else.”

The anthropologist Kate Fox once suggested that “an underlying rule in all English conversation is the proscription of ‘earnestness’”. Although there is no shortage of sarcasm in his lyrics, it is not a rule that binds Turner — he is not a fan of music “laced with irony”, he says.

He has documented family relationships and break-ups, and anxiety about everything from turning into his father to singing selfish songs. “Why didn’t you call?” asks “Song for Josh”, written after Josh Burdette, a security guard at a punk venue, took his own life. The last track on his new album, “Rosemary Jane”, is about his mother.

“When it comes to the confessional style, but to art more generally, honesty is an extremely strong and important quality within music to me. I enjoy music when somebody says something unretractable — that viscerality is really intriguing, exciting, and moving to me.”

What is difficult is the extent to which this style pulls others into the spotlight: “I do try when writing to be unforgivingly honest about myself; but, not being an atomised individual, that obviously will occasionally involve talking about other people, and what right I have to put that into the world is an interesting and open question.”

TURNER released the album England Keep My Bones, a celebration of “home and heart and history”, in 2011. The wandering troubadour is happy to be back home on the South Downs.

“In a lot of my early work, there’s a tension between wanderlust and nostalgia,” he reflects. “There were many, many years of my life when I would be homesick on tour; and then I would be home and crawling up the walls a week later, and desperate to get out of there.”

England Keep My Bones was inspired by spending “an awful lot of my time on my own” during years on the road, when he was often the only English person in the room, “standing on a stage, and wondering how your idiom and your experience and your stock of cultural reference points would translate. . . It made me examine my national identity in a more conscious way than I’ve ever done before, in a way that, generally speaking, was not kind of value-laden.”

Turner has no truck with nationalism: “Anyone trying to assume any kind of ethical content from the accident of the locale of their birth and upbringing is an idiot as far as I can see. It’s a complete illogicality.” But he believes that patriotism can be inclusive. His assessment of attitudes towards it has echoes of another Old Etonian, George Orwell, who once said: “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.”

ALAMYSister Rosetta Tharpe

“It’s perfectly possible to be patriotic without being exclusionary,” Turner says. “Indeed, almost everywhere in the world succeeds in doing this, and in England and in Britain we tend to admire people who do it. . . Then people get very, very suspicious when people think about doing anything similar.

“There’s an interesting cultural cringe and self-hatred in there, which has some historical basis as legitimate, but I do think there’s this kind of mania: there’s a vogue for hating everything to do with our own history, which, I think, some people think makes them more interesting, and to me makes them sound like a teenager.”

The political writer David Goodhart has suggested that everyone can be divided into two camps: “Somewheres”, deeply attached to place; and “Anywheres”, more cosmopolitan and rootless (Books, 26 May 2017). Which camp would he put himself in?

“I hope it’s possible to straddle both categories, in the sense that I feel instinctively like I do,” he says. “I travel a lot. . . I adore being in Italy, it’s one of my favourite places in the world. I think the United States is the most fascinating country in the world by a country mile.

”But I love coming home. There’s a feeling of being at rest that I get when I am standing on Primrose Hill, or wandering through the South Downs, that I don’t get anywhere else in the world.”

TURNER’s new album, No Man’s Land, takes him beyond Albion to tell the stories of 12 women from history, including Mata Hari, a dancer convicted of being a spy for Germany during the First World War, and the Egyptian activist Huda Sha’arawi. He has already been accused of obscuring the women by placing himself centre-stage — a criticism that he expected.

Previous Twitter storms have produced a degree of defiance rather than hesitancy. The platform is “a cultural disaster”, he suggests. It is “anti-dialogue”: a forum “for the earning of social status and attention”.

“Of course I thought about it, and how to do it intelligently and sensibly,” he says. “I’m not sure that at any point I was swayed by the argument that I’m full-stop not allowed to make this record because of my gender: otherwise I wouldn’t have made it; and I also think that’s sort of laughably tokenistic in its way.”

In a blog, he argues that “these are stories that have not and are not being told right now, and I think they deserve to be. . . Having a platform, why not use it for something more interesting or worth while?”

Accompanying each track is a podcast, in which authoritative female voices — historians, playwrights, archivists — are given prominence. In an episode about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, an American singer-songwriter who was celebrated as “the godmother of rock and roll”, he is educated by a curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Nwaka Onwusa.

He is “fascinated” by this period of popular history, he says. “We’ve all been sort of handed down this biblical story that there was nothing, and then there was Elvis, and it’s not true. . . Sister Rosetta was wildly successful in her own lifetime, for a period of time. Her first single sold millions of copies, dominated the radio. . . She was the first person to headline a stadium show. She headlined a stadium for her second marriage, which, I might add, was booked before she had a groom, which was bold . . .”

GREENBELT is just one in a long string of venues that Turner is touring with his band the Sleeping Souls this summer, in a heavy schedule that will take him from Bexhill-on-Sea to Byron Bay. Is there something in his own music collection that tends to surprise people?

“Some people have raised an eyebrow when I’ve told them that unquestionably Abba are one of the greatest single bands of the 20th century,” he observes. “I happen to believe that if you don’t know that, then you don’t understand songwriting.”

Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls will perform at Greenbelt, Boughton House, Kettering, on Sunday 25 August. No Man’s Land, released on Polydor Records, is out now.

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