For over 10 years, British alt-folk songwriter Frank Turner has blended deft, intelligent songwriting with overtly personal lyricism for a varied back catalogue which is both buoyant and deeply challenging. As he faces his Lost Evenings – a weekend festival which sees him revisiting his career, including performing 2007’s Sleep Is For The Week in full to mark its 10th birthday – he continues to cement his place as one of Britain’s most important modern songwriters. We caught up with Turner to look back over his recorded history.
Sleep Is For The Week
“In 2005, Million Dead broke up, leaving me musically stranded. I was kind of bored of hardcore punk, and I didn’t want to be in a band situation, relying on other people; plus I’d started listening to a lot of folk and country stuff, which was new to me. So I started playing solo shows, and it felt good. By the end of 2006 I had an EP under my belt and had started to think about making an album. I had a neat set-up for recording with my friend Ben Lloyd in Oxford - he and the rest of his band (Dive Dive) had their own studio set-up, and could lend their musical skills if needed. So we got to it.
I remember the sessions being really quite relaxed. I was brimming with ideas, given that I was in new territory, though arguably I was also a little clumsy with them; things like vocal harmonies were hard for me to work out initially, we never really did that before. There wasn’t much pressure, it was just a few friends recording in a house and enjoying ourselves, I’m not sure how many people I expected would ever hear it. In a way it was an experiment.
Musically, I’d been mainlining a lot of stuff like Ryan Adams, Josh Rouse, the Johnny Cash American Recordings series, Nada Surf and so on. Indie rock and alt.folk stuff, mainly. It was the first time I really thought about songwriting in and of itself. The songs had been gathered in those early, hectic solo shows around the UK (for the most part), when I was hopping trains and playing to no-one in bars and squats. I was pretty fucked up generally around then, so there’s quite a lot of songs about being wrecked and being lonely. The title came from a saying of my friend Lex - “eating’s cheating and sleep is for the week”. We had us some wild weekends.
Listening back to it now – which I’ve been doing a fair bit, as we are playing it in full at Lost Evenings – there are parts of it that make me cringe, and parts of it that surprise me by being better developed than I remember. Overall it feels naive to me, in both a positive and negative sense. It’s funny to think that it’s still being discussed right now, ten years on – that certainly wasn’t an expectation when it was being made.”
Love Ire & Song
“This record very much felt like a development of the first. I had spent more time on the road, I’d honed both my songwriting and my arrangement ideas, and I could see some of the things I’d done wrong first time around, and had ideas about how to make them work. Sleep… had done okay, but it hadn’t quite set the world on fire. I definitely had a feeling when I was working on Love Ire & Song that I had to get it right this time, otherwise I was probably done as a recording artist. That was a little more pressure than previously, but it was mostly self-inflicted, as I say.
Ben and I hired some better equipment and decamped to a farmhouse in Hampshire to make this one. The sessions were more focussed and more creative as a result. We had different people coming in every few days to lay down parts, but it was mostly just the two of us. I was very driven, I had a very cogent idea in my head of how the songs needed to be.
In terms of influences and themes, I feel like this record was a straight linear development from my debut. I hadn’t really tried to strike out into new territory, so much as to make a better claim to where I already was. I’d been listening to quite a lot more Neil Young and Leonard Cohen (the title and the cover art, incidentally, are a nod to Songs Of Love & Hate). I wanted to make some kind of definitive statement. I was excited about the material, in particular the first song, I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous. Feeling that song come together, not least the arrangement I’d had in my head, was a wonderful thing.
As a result this was the first record of mine that really started taking off. When it came out, things were much as they’d been before, but after a year of touring it, and a word-of-mouth thing, my career was in a very different place. This record still has a special place in a lot of people’s hearts, not least mine. It sounds like a man in his mid-20s making a place for himself in the world, to me.”
Poetry Of The Deed
“After two records and a lot of shows, I had myself a live band together, finally with a stable line-up. I also had me a record deal with Epitaph (outside the UK) which was both exciting and enabling – the budgets being discussed were larger. Importantly, I also wanted to change up what I was doing, I think change is vital for an artist, so I was thinking of trying something new. After much discussion, I settled on working with Alex Newport, mainly because he made records with Two Gallants. We worked up arrangements for the material in a rehearsal room we built in Oxford (which we still use), then set out to cut the record.
Musically, I’d been listening to a lot of Springsteen, and Hold Steady, and also revisiting The Levellers. I was thinking much more in terms of a band sound at this time. I remember being hungry to the point of impatience, slamming out arrangements and takes and moving on quickly. Lyrically I was moving on as well, looking for new subjects, often falling into the predictable trap of writing about touring, now that it was firmly confirmed as my life. One of the central ideas for me was that my earlier pessimism about the potential longevity of this career had gone, it seemed to me now that it was something that could be sustained over a longer time. So Live Fast Die Old is kind of a riposte to The Ballad Of Me & My Friends.
In retrospect, this is a record I have quite a lot of issues with. I feel like I rushed the arrangements, and wasn’t completely in control of playing with a band in the studio. There are quite a few songs on here which have found their feet in the live set with a different approach. The mix also isn’t really to my taste, listening back. Having said all that, it kept the momentum of my career going forward, and it has some absolute staples of my live set to this day – The Road, Try This At Home, Dan’s Song – so it’s a mixed bag for me.”
England Keep My Bones
“After Poetry Of The Deed, I took a moment to take stock of my recording career. The live shows had continued to grow, but I was not overly satisfied with the last record, either sonically or lyrically. I wanted to make sure the next thing I did was as good as it could be, a statement, an advance on everything I’d done before, that would take me somewhere new.
I’d been listening to a lot of traditional English music around this time, and I’d started getting interested in English history and national identity. It’s generally a dirty word in England, associated with unsavoury politics, so it’s almost a taboo thing, but I wanted to find a way of at least discussing the issue. I’d spent a lot of time being the only English person in a crowded room (on tour outside the UK) and that was intriguing to me. It’s not celebratory, as such, just curious.
Musically, I’d been obsessed with a record called It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright by mewithoutyou. It really reopened my ears to the possibilities of arrangement. The songs were written around the world on tour – I remember finishing I Am Disappeared in a dressing room in Helsinki, and writing the whole of Eulogy in a shower in Minneapolis. When it came to recording, we again had more time and budget, and I went in much better prepared. The band and I were more comfortable playing with each other by this point as well. I remember working out arrangement ideas with each band member individually, rather than all in a room at the same time, which gave everyone more time to focus. We also demo’d the whole record properly, in El Paso TX, which was a first for me, and a very useful process.
We made the album in North London with my old friend Tristan Ivemy (who mixed Love Ire & Song) in a church in less than two weeks. It felt hyper-creative, once again I knew exactly what I was doing and why. I think I knew it was going to be a big record even before it came out. In the event, it was very much my breakthrough album; by the end of the cycle I was playing Wembley Arena. I think some people – the Scots in particular – were a little put off by the title, but it was bold and new and definitive for me, personally.”
Tape Deck Heart
“By the time we came to record this album, things had changed a lot. I was playing arena shows, I had a license deal to a major label (and thus a much bigger budget), and I knew a lot more people were paying attention to me and what I do. At the same time, my personal life was in free fall collapse (partly as a result of the success I was enjoying). I also thought it would be counterintuitively interesting to take a moment to turn inward, to focus on the small rather than the bombastic, as my career took off. And I’d been listening to a lot of Arab Strap. All that came together for Tape Deck Heart.
I wrote a huge pile of songs for the album, in a slightly incoherent fashion. The material was coming thick and fast but it didn’t seem, initially, to have any central direction to it. We demo’d a few times, I remember having more than 20 songs on a list for the record at some point – way more than I usually do. I settled on Rich Costey as a producer and we flew to California to make the record. It was a new and gruelling experience. Rich’s attention to detail, sonically, was like nothing I’d seen before, and he drove me and (more so) the band very hard in the studio. It was pretty late in the day before I could actually envisage any final shape for the record, but I remember finishing the words for Tell Tale Signs and getting the title for the album and things crystalised somewhat.
I wanted to make an album that was sonically huge and shiny, but which then contained a dark lyrical heart. I think I succeeded there, but there are some retrospective issues for me with the album. At times it’s too clean. I’m not altogether sure the tracklisting was right, there are songs that should have been on the album that were left off. But maybe I just have issues with it because I tried, and succeeded, to rip myself apart in the songs, and I’m not sure I fully got around to putting myself back together again before we were done.
It’s gone on to be my most successful record by far, and Recovery and The Way I Tend To Be remain my best known songs. After it was done I spent some time viscerally hating the album, but as time has passed I have more than made my peace with it. I think it’s a strange and original piece, myself, and certainly unlike anything I’d done before.”
Positive Songs For Negative People
“With all the hype, pressure, expectation and success around Tape Deck Heart, I was feeling quite defensive as a writer when it came to the follow-up. I wanted to correct what I saw as the mistakes made, and to answer some of the questions left hanging. I wanted to make something raw, visceral, rough-around-the-edges musically. And I wanted to talk about something more positive in the words, about the rebound from the crash that had been at the heart of the previous record.
I wrote the songs pretty quickly, but then spent a long, long time arranging them. The Souls and I had by this time built a stage set-up that was self-contained, which meant that we could work through arrangement ideas for new material for a couple of hours every day while we were on tour. This we did for 18 months or so, demoing regularly as well. This meant that by the time we got to the studio, the material was heavily played in, which was the idea; I wanted it to feel more like the live show, like energetic renditions of songs we knew inside out, rather than tentative new compositions.
It took me a long time to convince the label that this approach made sense, and we had a couple of false starts with different producers. I was not in the mood for taking any advice and relations weren’t great between me and my A&R guy at various points. In the end my stubbornness won the day, with the help of Butch Walker, who did a fantastic job of capturing the lightning of me and the band playing the songs live in a room. We did the whole record in 9 days in Nashville. I was angry, defiant, driven, pissed off, and ultimately satisfied with how it came out.
Every time I make a record, I’m usually pretty down on it as I work on the follow-up, so I don’t want to make too much comment right now about how I feel about PSFNP. I’m in the middle, as ever, of learning the lessons from the process, and using it as a way of moving forward into new territory. Right now I’m working on a new album that both lyrically and musically is going to be a pretty radical departure. I’m taking some risks and trying some new things. I can’t really say more about it right now, but I’m excited for the next chapter.”
Frank Turner’s Lost Evenings is a festival celebrating Frank’s career, taking place at London’s Roundhouse from 12-15th May.
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