I originally spoke to Frank Turner on April 19th 2013, on the day of his performance at Leeds University Union’s Refectory. This work was originally submitted as a final year project for my Broadcast Journalism course at the University of Leeds. The interview was also featured on an instalment of my radio show Rock Out! on Leeds Student Radio.
Folk-punk rocker Frank Turner opens up ahead of a sold-out gig at Leeds University on his new album, his politics, and the 2012 London Olympic Games.
“My name is Frank Turner, and I am a country or folk singer, or something like that, from Winchester in England.”
Frank Turner, one of Britain’s biggest rising stars in terms of growing popularity, doesn’t sound too sure of himself. Speaking ahead of a sold-out gig at Leeds University’s Refectory and in the wake of one of his busiest ever years, surely he should be sounding a bit more certain about himself?
Perhaps it’s because he stands on the precipice of the release of his highly-anticipated fifth album, Tape Deck Heart. “In the past I’ve kind of had quite sort of calculated and thought out reasons for calling albums certain thing”, Frank says of the album’s strange, almost nostalgic title which conjures similar, though less violent, imagery to fellow punk rock trio Green Day’s hand-grenade heart on American Idiot. Frank says the lyric describes someone whose heart has a love for music above all else. “It’s got the right mood for the record.”
Early reviews peg Turner’s new album as having a more personal edge, which is evident in its lead single currently doing the rounds on specialist radio stations, Recovery. “The record is kind of a break up album, it establishes the central plot elements”, he says as he delves deeper into the story behind the lead single. “It’s a song about realising that you’ve hit the bottom of the barrel, and that there’s nowhere else to go except for up again.”
“I was trying to write as if no one was ever going to hear this record.”
Frank has been rising up so high he’s reached stratospheric levels; it’s almost hard to believe the vulnerability of such a successful artist. I ask him if he intentionally set out to make his music more personal and heart-felt. “Sort of. I do try quite hard not to analyse what I do while I’m doing it from a creative point of view, and sort of think ‘oh I must write in this direction’.” He says he wants to avoid ‘music by committee’. “I think that after a certain point quite a lot of bands stop saying anything interesting because they’re worried about too many people listening to what they do. I was trying to write as if no one was ever going to hear this record.”
Ironically, Tape Deck Heart has just hit No. 2 in the UK album charts, so there’s very little danger of underexposure, particularly following a new wave of popularity and fans after he played at the cinematically epic Olympic Opening Ceremony at the end of July. Estimated to have been watched by around 25 million people in addition to the 200,000 people at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, it’s arguably one of the biggest gigs he’s ever done, and it came about at the request of the 2012 London Olympic Games’ artistic director, Academy Award winner Danny Boyle.
“I went and had a meeting with him, and just off the bat he was like ‘I want you to be a part of this’”, says Frank of his first encounter with the film director responsible for Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. “He’s a really genuine uber-fan, which is quite weird, but cool. His job was to represent the country, and he said he thought I fit into that. And that’s an enormous compliment to receive.” Frank joined the festivities bill alongside rock legends The Who, Paul McCartney, Queen’s Brian May, and Muse, who produced the official Olympic anthem Survival. He says he enjoyed the experience, but considered some of the bureaucracy surrounding the Olympics to be ‘distasteful’. Ever outspoken, the song he performed to warm up the Olympic crowds, I Still Believe, features the lyrics ‘come ye, come ye, to soulless corporate circus tops’.
“I went and had a meeting with [Danny Boyle], and just off the bat he was like ‘I want you to be a part of this’. He’s a really genuine uber-fan, which is quite weird, but cool. His job was to represent the country, and he said he thought I fit into that. And that’s an enormous compliment to receive.”
It was the speed and ferocity with which he was suddenly jettisoned to the very forefront of the public eye that initially worried Frank when accepting the job of representing Great Britain, addressing concerns from some fans that the folk-punk rocker had ‘sold out’. “To date, everything that I’ve done has been gradualist, it’s been little steps, and it’s been people telling their friends”, says Frank, noting his perceived friendly ‘community’ atmosphere at most of his shows. “Part of me was worried there might be a sudden tidal wave of new people that’d change things, but I really don’t feel that that happened. Obviously we sold a whole tonne of records immediately afterwards, which is very nice, but everything just kind of stayed calm.”
However, the globalised nature of the Olympics brought him some more international attention, and Frank’s touring the UK hot on the heels of doing festivals and gigs in the US and Australia. With such quintessentially British music, how well does the former Million Dead frontman’s music, and accent, translate to other audiences? “The first time I played Germany I was sort of sitting there back stage before the show thinking is anyone going to understand what I’m saying in terms of just the words, let alone the social context?” He says there’s a culture of anglophilia in other countries, which started with The Beatles and The Clash, and gives him a universal appeal despite the localisms similar to, he offers an example, Bruce Springsteen ‘yakking on’ about Asbury Park.
Bringing it back home, after another US tour commencing in June, Frank will return to the UK to play the Main Stage on Saturday August 24th at Leeds Festival, where he promises to do a ‘hits set’. “You’ve got people who are going to be watching over ten bands a day for three days in a row, so it’s really not the time to do a ten minute experimental Neu! cover!”