Frank Turner arrives at the Union without the fuss one might expect from someone whose shows sell out in seconds. Alone but for his guitar, from the minute he’s ushered in to the packed room to begin his talk he’s relaxed and eloquent, somehow managing to seem at home in the Union’s ostentatious Library.
A common theme emerges as he talks: he constant conflicts of ideas and identities that come with being a performer. There’s a clear tension between his old, anarchist politics and his new libertarianism. He vigorously defends his position as “not-a-protest-singer”. As a teenager, he listened to a lot of punk rock and from there, he claims, it’s a slippery slope to “obtuse and obscure” political opinions. Reflecting now, he remarks that “sitting in squats talking about how agrarian communism would work after the revolution is pointless”. At the end of the day, discussions like that are only for the pleasure of those taking part and “there’s a word for that – masturbation”.
This retreat from anarchist thinking and his shift towards liberal and libertarian ideas has left lots of people disillusioned. Turner says people think their favourite singers are Jesus, as long as they sing what they already think back at them. They get upset when they realise that they don’t believe the exact same things. “There’s just a lot of effort involved in constantly justifying your political position to others. I’m a singer, not a politician, and can’t be bothered with it at the end of the day.”
Instead, Turner often avoids telling people how to live. One of his most contentious songs, ‘Glory Hallelujah’, openly criticises organised religion, but he is quick to say that this is only his opinion. While he doesn’t believe in God himself, he has a religious family and isn’t “one of those ‘I won’t step foot in a church’ people. They need to get over themselves.” He recently played a gig in German church which caused a lot of excitement among fans, debating whether he would sing ‘Glory Hallelujah’ in church. After meeting the vicar and enjoying his hospitality, he decided that it would be a silly and rather meaningless gesture. As he summarises, “I’ve grown out of running around trying to piss people off needlessly. Life is way too short.”
There is another conflict within Turner’s music, between his ‘folk’ label and his punk background. When he chose the genre, he says he did so as a statement of intent. Sick of appealing to angry teenagers in skinny jeans alone, he instead wanting to play music to a broader group of people. Sitting on a stage with an acoustic guitar was the most change possible to make.
Illustration: Sage Goodwin
There’s no doubt it was a successful one. While Million Dead, his former punk band, was successful within its demographic, Turner’s solo music has reached thousands more people. Take my mother, a vicar in her late forties, who sings along to his music in the car on the way back from church. However, the folk community were not overly welcoming to the former metal artist, quickly pointing out that he was mislabelling himself as a folk singer given that he doesn’t sing covers of traditional songs.
Turner disagrees. “Folk”, he argues, ought not to be a label applied to songs like ‘Barbara Allen’, which sit unheard in museums. The point of folk is to bring people together, that people can sing along without any special knowledge and without belonging to a particular demographic. Though it is a contentious example, a song that fits more honestly with the original intentions of folk would be “something like Angels by Robbie Williams, because you can walk into a bar and start singing it and know that people will join in.”
Aside from politics and religion, a common theme of folk music is a love of home and country. This is something that Turner possesses but struggles to balance with his need to keep on the move. “I have, in my life, a real tension between homesickness and wanderlust and I haven’t yet figured out a way of resolving that problem” he admits. However, this is not a bad thing. “I suspect if I did”, he continues, “then life would become less interesting. In a way, art comes from unresolved situations. I think happy, settled, functional people don’t tend to make good art.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”. Frank Turner is a man who wears these contradictions on his sleeve. That being said, I’m not sure he’d thank me for the comparison to Fitzgerald. He admits that he’s wary of writing “proper” literature, especially poetry, although he’s considering having some of his tour diaries published as prose. When pushed on whether he is influenced by literature as well as rock and roll, he is reticent. He happily lists some of the poets he likes –Larkin, Auden, and “stuff like that” – he himself does not consider his work within that genre. Rather, Turner is proud of his affiliation with rock and roll as an art form.
“People have historically been quite rude about rock and roll as serious art,” he says. “To me rock and roll is proper art, but it’s also disposable art, it’s adolescent art. What’s great about rock and roll is that it’s music about being young and pissed on a beach and getting your first kiss and then dancing until dawn. Sometimes people want to make rock and roll into this high art and I love it because it’s low art. It’s almost a sort of Liechtenstien thing. It’s pop art.” He grins wryly, seeming pleased with the pun. “All my influences are rock and roll.”
And with that last declaration, we’re done. As we’ve been talking he’s been putting his coat back on so that he can dash down to catch a train to London and film his tribute to Pete Seeger for Newsnight. For a man who’s on his longest break from touring in seven years, he’s still remarkably busy, and yet he can still spare a few minutes to chat to a student newspaper.
As he runs down the stairs, I realise that this is why he is a true folk singer – he’s open to everyone prepared to engage with his work, and he makes it worth their effort.