Frank Turner heads home to headline Wickham Festival BIG INTERVIEW
Headlining at Wickham Festival may not be the biggest show Frank Turner has ever done (kicking off the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony might just trump that) but it is still one that means a lot to him.
‘I’m very excited about playing what is about as close as it can be to a hometown festival – I grew up in the Meon Valley, in Meonstoke,’ says the folk-punk star.
‘If my mum was feeling particularly excited about going to a bigger shopping centre, we’d go to Fareham,’ he laughs.
‘We’re going to be coming through like marauding warriors to lay waste to Hampshire with our festival set. Or at least that’s the intention,’ he deadpans.
‘It’s going to be really fun to come to, and my mum will be coming too!’
Topping the bill on the festival’s Saturday comes amid a busy summer for the singer-songwriter.
‘I’m in the middle of an incredibly hectic summer. I’ve acquired a bit of a reputation, deserved or not, over the years for working hard, but this is extreme even by my standards – trying to put out an album, do a podcast to go with it, have a busy festival season tour, and arrange my wedding, all at the same time is proving to be quite challenging.’
He’s due to get married at the end of August, but as he says, there’s a fair bit to do before then...
Frank released his seventh album Be More Kind last May, and he is already getting ready to release his eighth, a concept album called No Man’s Land, on August 16.
But No Man’s Land should have been Frank’s last album, not his next.
‘I did actually write this suite of songs before I wrote Be More Kind, but in 2016 the world went comprehensively bonkers, and I felt duty bound to respond to that more directly than by releasing an album of songs about historical female figures.
‘And that was Be More Kind, so now we’re back to Plan A, as it were.
‘The real genesis of this is after I did Tape Deck Heart and then Positive Songs For Negative People – albums five and six for me.
‘I kind of felt that I’d said enough about myself and my own feelings and personal life for a little while – not forever, I will write about that again – but those two records were break-up records and about affairs of the heart, that sort of thing.
‘I was interested in writing songs about other things, more in that storytelling folk tradition, you know? Finding a good story and putting it into a song.
‘The overarching concept of it being about female historical figures only arrived about halfway through when I’d written five or six songs, and I realised that all of the songs were about women and this could perhaps be a unifying theme, but initially it was just trying to tell untold stories.’
The subjects for the 13 songs are a wide-ranging group, historically and geographically. Among them there’s Byzantine princess Kassiani (The Hymn of Kassiani), Egyptian feminist activist Huda Sha'arawi (The Lioness), the jazz-obsessed heiress who fought for the Free French (Nica Rothschild) and the Wild West vaudeville star shot by a smalltown outlaw (Dora Hand). ‘I didn’t it want to be like hipster history,’ he adopts a smug tone: ‘”Ah, no-one will have heard of these people!” But at the same time I didn’t feel driven to write a song about someone like Rosa Parks. As admirable and incredible as she was, everyone’s heard of Rosa Parks and I should imagine there are songs about her already, so it didn’t feel like a necessary contribution.
‘Whereas, I’m not sure many people have heard of Huda Sha'arawi – and neither had I before this! In the beginning it was more keeping a little mental file of interesting stories I could tell at parties to make myself sound cool. But once I had the concept, I did start seeking out stories and people to write about, and that was partly from my own reading,’ Frank has a history degree under his belt, ‘and I did ask around among my smart and well-read friends, if they had any suggestions. Then I was swamped with all of these amazing people to write about.
‘In a way I could have written a double record, although I do feel quite strongly that there’s never been a good double album, but that’s an argument we’d need another interview for...’ he laughs.
One of its tracks, Silent Key, is about Christa McAuliffe, the teacher-turned-astronaut on the ill-fated Challenger space shuttle. The song first appeared on Positive Songs.
‘Once I was knee deep into that conceptual universe it occurred to me I had this song which would fit the theme very comfortably.
‘Then I thought, well, Radiohead released two versions of Morning Bell, record-on-record [on Kid A and Amnesiac] and they were allowed to do that! And then the other thing is that the version on this record is kind of the original – it has the timing and tuning of the original, and working through the song with (his backing band) The Sleeping Souls, that’s how it ended up sounding on the last album.
‘I felt there was room to revisit the song and look at it in a different way, and it feels good to me.’
Given the album’s theme, does he ever worry he’s going to be accused of ‘mansplaining’?
‘Yes of course I do, and of course social media being the cesspit it usually is, is being furious about me in a whole new set of ways.’
Back in 2012 Frank claims to have received 100 death threats a day following a piece in The Guardian which talked about his political views – which he says were taken out of context. And there have, of course, been the accusations of selling out that dog any successful act from the punk/DIY world.
‘I stopped reading social media about a year ago, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. But having said that there are of course important and salient points to be raised here and the onus is on me to address that in an intelligent way, and I don’t wish to be dismissive of this debate.
‘My response as to why I wrote this record, and what “right” I have to tell these stories would be two-fold.
‘Firstly to say these are mostly stories that mostly aren’t being told. It’s not like I was crowding out a whole bunch of other songs about early-20th century Egyptian feminists. If I was then I think that might be a valid point, but I’m not, they’re just not there.
‘Secondly, I am a songwriter and I release albums, this is what I do. I’m going to release another album and it can be about this, or it can be another record about me, or it could be about historic men, but for obvious reasons that doesn’t quite catch the creative imagination in the same way….
‘And to the extent as I have a platform and audience in life, which is middling, at least for just for one go on this album campaign cycle merry-go-round, it’s not a terrible thing to use that to try and broaden the conversation and a big part of this is why we have done the podcasts to go along with it.’
Frank is also putting out a weekly podcast, Tales From No Man’s Land, with each episode dedicated to one of the songs where he talks to experts and other musicians.
‘To write about someone’s life story in three-and-a-half minutes is one thing, but I don’t want to be dismissive and say: “Right I’ve written that and it’s done”, so we’ve gone deep-dive on the podcasts as much as I can. In the process I’ve learned so much more, and in a number of instances that I’ve been wrong about things, which is where I’ve had to plead artistic licence on them!
‘And after I’ve done the podcasts I’ve had people contacting me with more information about them, or suggesting other stories to read, and I’m sharing all of that through the platforms I have in life, and it’s broadening a conversation that isn’t broad enough.
‘I think the most galling part of this is people suggesting that I wouldn’t have thought about this aspect of it before making the record. I’m not saying I’m a polymath or anything, but god dammit, I do think about these things!’
Given his background (before going solo, he was frontman for the cult hardcore-punk act Million Dead), Frank is one of the few acts who can straddle both the folk and metal/punk worlds – and is accepted by both.
‘It’s been quite a surprise for me. There was one summer, I think it was 2010’, Google says 2011, but off the top of his head, he’s close, ‘when I played both (renowned metal fest) Download and Cambridge Folk Festival, and I’m not sure there’s many people who can say they’ve done that, and it’s a nice thing to be able to say.
‘The day before yesterday we headlined Folk By The Oak in Hatfield, which is a proper folk festival, and not only did I do a little crowdsurf at the end of the show, but I also managed to slip in a little (thrash-metal legends) Slayer riff, which I did just so I could tell people I did.
‘I’m not going to claim I did it particularly well because I’m not that great a guitar player, but I wanted to be able to tell my grandkids I did it.’
So will he be slipping in a number by his old band at Wickham?
‘It’s nice to expose people to new things, but I don’t want to actively threaten my audience,’ he says with a laugh.
Frank Turner and The Sleeping Souls headline Saturday at Wickham Festival, which runs from August 1-4, and also stars Kiefer Sutherland, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Judy Collins and many more. Adult weekend tickets £180, day tickets £40-55. Go to wickhamfestival.co.uk.