“I really wanted to get out of my comfort zone and to really push my boundaries” - hmv.com talks to Frank Turner
Over the course of his 17 years in music, Frank Turner has tried an awful lot of different styles. From his beginnings as the frontman of powerhouse hardcore band Million Dead through the folky Billy Bragg esque beginnings of his solo career right through to 2015’s Positive Songs For Positive People, his unashamedly rock and roll sixth record. Now though it’s time for something completely different.
For his new album Be More Kind, Turner has embraced electronics and soul, slotting alongside his usual rousing punk and folky rock songs. As the album arrives on shelves (you can purchase it here in hmv’s online store), we spoke to Turner about his sonic departure and why this is a “happy love” album…
How did you want this album to move on from Positive Songs For Negative People?
“Positive Songs For Negative People was a very conscious effort at sonic retrenchment, a return to first principles. I had a bee in my bonnet about the fact we’d never made a record that sounded like the live show I do with The Sleeping Souls. We stripped everything back, we did pretty much everything live and I think we made a great record, which I’m still very proud of. But that, to me, means it’s time to move on and take a left turn and try something different.”
What did you want to do in response?
“I really wanted to get out of my comfort zone and to really push my boundaries. I wanted to write and arrange songs in a way that I wasn’t just thinking about how I’d play them with the band in a live capacity. I wanted different instrumentation and to try different things. I think it’s worked…”
Did that mean you tried a lot of different approach to songwriting? Did much get discarded along the way?
“There were quite a few songs that we recorded more than one version of, but it was a lot of fun. I put a ban on working on new songs at soundcheck, which is how we normally work, I wanted to sit in the studio and work with the melody and words and see where the song wanted to go. I think that’s the reason this album is so diverse if a song wanted to have a dance beat or it wanted to be a punk song, I let it go there. There was no judgement with this album.”
You made the album with Austin Jenkins and Joshua Block, formerly of Texan indie types White Denim, what attracted you to them as producers?
“There was no suggestion with them that they wouldn’t take seriously and I liked that. I started working with them because I initially wanted to make a kind of white soul record and they’d worked with Leon Bridges so I thought they would be good people to talk to. The white soul idea just turned out to be a kind of weird moment in my thinking. But we kept going and every time I had an idea they were always receptive and very calm about making it happen.”
How did you go about picking the producer for the album? You’ve picked a different producer for each of your last four records?
“Explaining exactly what a producer brings to the table and can be quite difficult. They aren’t writing with me or rearranging things, it’s motivating you and amplifying things. I like working with new people, you come in with no expectations and with Josh and Austin, they just brought a great vibe to the sessions. Everything was a blank slate.”
How involved were The Sleeping Souls with this record?
“Extremely. The reason they have a name and the reason I spend a lot of time talking about them is that it’s really important to me that people know that they aren’t just four session players that I’ve just met in the car park. This October it’ll be 10 years of the same line-up and for this record, it pretty much worked in the way it always has. I write the songs and then we approach the arrangements together. We all throw in ideas, but I ultimately have the power of veto.”
“The difference this time was that it all happened in the studio rather than in the rehearsal room. That was good, that gave everybody the opportunity to spread out a bit more as players. When I told them I wanted to try different things with this album, they were all very excited by that and really supportive when it got tough.”
What kind of record is it in lyrical terms? Is there a theme to the album?
“I think there are a couple of overarching themes. I never out to write an album about a theme or concept, but you can definitely find a structure after it. With England Keep My Bones, I didn’t set out to write a record about England, but it presented itself that way. This is a record with some happy love songs, which is new territory for me, I’ve just written two records about being romantically inept, so it’s been nice to leave that behind, both in my personal life and as a writer. It’s given me the opportunity to write different relationship songs and it cleared my head to write about other things.”
It’s been called a political record…
“I’d hesitate to say that. It’s not Rage Against The Machine. It’s not Billy Bragg. It’s a record about how people interact with each other in this day and age.”
With songs like ‘Make America Great Again’ and ‘21st Century Survival Blues’, there is a bit of politics going on…
“These are things that seemed worth writing about to me, it’s me trying to write a non-partisan political record. It’s not because I don’t have any opinions, I do, but it’s more about the trend I’ve noticed of how bad we’ve got at disagreeing with each other. We’ve lost the ability to conduct rational debates and to respect other points of view. Political discourse is supposed to be a way of people’s minds, not insulting them. People have forgotten that and a lot of them seem to take pride and pleasure in insulting each other. I think that’s dangerous and all of us, including me, would benefit from taking a step back and thinking about the humanity of people we disagree with.”
Is that where the title comes from?
“It’s directly borrowed from a Clive James poem. He’s one of my favourite writers and he’s terminally ill and he’s been writing poems about the end of his life. In a poem called ‘Leçons des ténèbres’, he writes ‘I should have been more kind. It is my fate. To find this out, but find it out too late’. For a man of his wisdom can say that I think it’s a lesson worth paying attention to.”
When do album titles arrive? Are they there at the start? Or does the record have to be done?
“It’s different from record to record. With England, Keep My Bones it was the last possible second. With this, I wrote the song and I felt like I’d wandered into the right tone, it always felt like the title track.”
You said earlier on that you wrote songs deliberately not thinking about how you’d recreate them live, but now you have got to recreate them, how’s that going?
“Mostly great. My band and crew have really stepped up. I’ve always been adamant about doing everything live, not playing to a track and nothing pre-recorded. This time we have had to add a bit of pre-recorded stuff, mostly drum machines, but we’re doing almost all of it live and I’m very proud of that. It is challenging, there are a couple of songs where my keyboard player has about 19 things to do, but he’s coping.”
You’ve got seven records now, how easy is it to choose the live set?
“It’s a challenge. Part of that is fun. I know now I could probably do two hour and a half long sets and each would be full of crowd favourites. Keeping everybody happy is difficult and I spent an unhealthy amount of time thinking about setlists, but I think we do alright. Obviously, on this tour, I want to showcase the new songs, but we’ll make sure everybody gets something they enjoy.”
Are there any early songs you’ve retired?
“There are a couple of songs I’m just not that keen on anymore, I won’t name them, because they always turn out to be someone’s favourite song. Last year we actually did my first record in full and I remember how much fun a lot of those songs are. I’ll mix it up as I go along…”