An outdoor, acoustic set at this past summer's Newport Folk Festival is a far cry from playing the dank clubs of London’s hardcore scene, but it’s an evolution that, at 31 years old, actually came fairly naturally to Frank Turner.
Once a fixture on the punk and hardcore circuit with his band Million Dead — they split rather unceremoniously in 2005 — Turner is now better known as a folk artist. And, as unlikely a leap as it may seem, there’s still an undeniably punk spirit to Turner’s sound.
“Definitely, or at least I hope so,” he says, when asked if he thinks his music still identifies with those roots. “The thing is, if I wanted to completely ditch punk rock I’m not sure I could. Because the way I learned how to play the guitar and sing was kind of all in noisy, screaming punk bands, and that comes across in what I do. I mean, I don’t want to reject my past or disown anything in particular. I love punk rock records and the ethos and ethics part of it is sort of how I go about my business.”
It wasn’t a completely effortless transition, though. “I certainly felt like I had an awful lot of learning to do when I first started playing acoustically and solo,” he says. “Even at the most basic level, if it’s just you on the stage, with one guitar, if you screw up then it’s your problem. You can’t blame it on the drummer or have a screaming war at Noise Fest to cover up your screw-up. It’s very naked. But that’s kind of why I like it so much, is that it feels almost ‘punk’ in a way. It’s totally raw and unguarded and there are no excuses.”
These days, Turner’s music is marked by bare, almost poetic lyricism, which he makes no excuses about. In songs like “Recovery” (off this year’s “Tape Deck Heart") he describes the redemptive journey up from rock bottom that anyone who’s been close to addiction can relate to. There’s a frankness to his lyricism that Turner explains is integral to his relationship with music.
“Broadly, I enjoy honesty in music,” he says. “That’s a quality I look for in the music I listen to. Telling a story, I like to spin a yarn. I come from a large family of spinners.”
That honesty is the hallmark of Turner’s songwriting, through which he spins tales of his own experiences ranging from the aforementioned struggle with substance abuse, to the death of a close friend, the end of more than one relationship and the inexorable pull of home.
“When you’re writing from personal experience, I don’t think it's just reading from right out of your diary,” he says. “You present things in such a way that there is potential for empathy from other people."
Still, he accepts that, in some circles, it’s not that cool to be as unabashedly sincere as he's the first to admit that he is. That said, he doesn’t give a damn.
On “Four Simple Words” he sings, “Is anyone else sick of the music churned out by lackluster scenesters from Shoreditch? / Oh, it's all sex drugs and sins, like they're extras from 'Skins' / But it's OK because they don't really mean it.”
“One of the things that my music has never been in the UK — and I get the impression that it very briefly was, with some hipster punks over here — is cool,” he laughs. “I mean, I don’t want to be in VICE magazine. It’s just not my scene. I was a weird, awkward teenager. I don’t want to play in a band now, that I wouldn’t have known about back then, or playing the shows that I wouldn’t have gone to when I was a kid.”
“It’s that kind of hipster, ironic detachment — it does my head in,” he continues. “There have been times where I’ve been criticized, in the UK, for being unironic. It just seems like a bizarre criticism to me for someone to say, ‘Man, that guy really means what he says.’ I’ve never been popular with those kinds of people and that is fine with me.”
Turner on fan tattoos:
"I’ve gone through a number of different emotions with that. When it first came along, I was a bit weirded out. Then I thought about it and the thing is, you know, I’ve got plenty of band tattoos and lyric tattoos myself, and I understand that motivation, but I guess I just don’t automatically group myself in my head with the kind of bands that I think of in that way. I have a Black Flag tattoo, I don’t think of myself in the same category as Black Flag. There is this fan page on Facebook with 700 pictures of all these tattoos. That was kind of like, ‘Wow, OK, a little weird.' I’m not making anyone get tattoos, and I’m not going to take responsibility for others people’s decisions, so it’s cool. It’s a cool tribute and a nice thing. And I like how there's this sense of community around what I do, and that people are kind of part of something a little bigger than the music."
On weirdest fan ink:
"The portrait tattoos make me feel a little strange. I am not entirely sure how to respond when someone sort of cheerfully comes up to you and shows you picture of my face on their leg. What do I say, ‘Thanks, I mean, cool?’"
On Gene Simmons and groupies:
For me, the point of that song ["Wherefore Art Thou Gene Simmons?"] is that I have [indulged in groupies on the road], but I hope I can recognize it in myself. Basically the song is not about Gene Simmons, he was just the guy that got the target. There have definitely been days that I have taken advantage of stuff that was available. I hate putting it that way because it’s deeply personal and dismissive to human beings, but in a way, that’s what it is. That’s what the process is like. It’s definitely something that I have experienced. It’s not something I indulge in these days. I’ll pass."