The English punk-folk hero speaks to Rock & Roll Globe as he preps for more dates through November
UK pub bard Frank Turner started his career playing electric guitar in punk and post-hardcore bands, namely London’s Million Dead. When his last rock band disintegrated, he switched gears and began playing clubs as a singer / songwriter, backing himself with only his acoustic guitar.
His personal, socially conscious songs struck a chord, and led to his first EP as a solo artist, Campfire Punkrock, released in 2006. Since then, he’s released seven albums that move gracefully between the personal and political. After the American election of 2016, Turner released Be More Kind, his most political album in years. The songs on the record tried to make sense of the dark turn the world was taking. It was warmly received for its combination of outrage and understanding, with songs that contrasted the cooperative world his parents grew up in, with the conflicts of today’s divisive times.
Turner’s latest effort, No Man’s Land, addresses some of the same concerns, but from a longer historical perspective. The tracks are story songs, exploring the lives of 13 remarkable women, including gospel singers, women accused of witchcraft, vaudeville performers, spies and feminist activists. The arrangements are as diverse as the subject matter, with folk ballads next to mellow rockers, all held together by Turner’s exceptional fingerpicking. The album was made with producer Catherine Marks in a studio full of women session players. Turner spoke with the Globe about the album’s genesis and the recording process from his home in Britain.
How long did it take to research the women you sang about? How did you find them all?
I think the story-telling aspect was always paramount. Once I’d realized I had an overarching theme for the songs, I did start looking for subjects actively, but the criteria were first and foremost finding someone I felt I could write a good song about. The research was what my history professor would call ‘secondary.’ I wasn’t in the archives in cotton gloves, reading everything I could find about each person, which often wasn’t a huge amount, given my choice of subject matter.
How long did it take to write the songs for No Man’s Land? Did you write any you didn’t use on the record?
I’ve been working on this collection on and off since about 2015. Some songs come quick; some are slow. I didn’t actually finish any that aren’t on the album, though I had a long list of people I was interested in learning more about who didn’t end up being in a song.
Is this a feminist album?
I guess. I’m cautious; because I don’t want to present myself as trying to lead a parade I don’t have the right to lead. To the extent that it’s a piece of historical re-balancing, I guess it is feminist, in its way. I’d say my best role in that discussion, as far as I can see, is to try to be an ally.
How did you meet producer Catherine Marks? What did she bring to the recording process?
I was looking for a female producer, simply because the optics of me spending a month in a windowless room with another guy recording these songs didn’t sit well with me. She’s a leader in her field, so once we got chatting, it was easy to make the decision to work with her. She’s absolutely brilliant, and she brought a lot to the songs. Most of all, she got me to focus on the story-telling aspect of my delivery, which brought the warmth to the project that was really needed.
How does this project differ from the political songs on your last album, Be More Kind, sonically and conceptually? It’s an odd world we’ve seen manifest in the past three years.
I tend to think of the records I make quite distinctly, particularly in this instance, so I don’t spend too much time comparing across projects. I made this album with a different line-up of musicians, which was a deliberate choice – and which I think worked out really well. I think there is some saliency in releasing this record in the world we currently live in, for sure, though I’d rather show that than tell it, if you see what I mean. The politics are implicit.
Did you tailor the arrangements to the personalities of the women in the songs?
Yes, in some instances. When there was a musical angle to consider, I tried to include that. For Nica Rothschild, for example, writing and arranging a jazz piece was new territory for me.
It may be an obvious question, but why did you record it with an all woman band, rather than your usual group, The Sleeping Souls?
I was keen to try working with a different line-up in the studio. I love the Souls, and plan to keep recording and touring with them in the future, but for one go around I wanted to mix with other talents in the studio. Once that decision was made, I ended up asking all female musicians, for much the same reason that I worked with Catherine.
How was No Man’s Land put together? Live in the studio? Tracks layered?
Mostly layered, as I played the majority of instruments, but there were some cool live moments in there. Working with a jazz brass and woodwind section was very new to me, and arranging the choir was a joy.
What’s a live show going to be like? Are you bringing the women in the band on the road, or playing with The Sleeping Souls?
I’m touring with the Souls for a whole host of reasons – we’re playing other material, they are my full-time band, the players on the record have other gigs, and so on. I’ll be doing a separate solo set of songs from the new album for the next couple of tours, which I’m excited about.
Were these songs approached any differently that songs you write for your other albums?
As ever, it was a mixture of different approaches, I don’t have a strict method as such for my writing. That said, writing about other, historically real people was a new challenge, one I really enjoyed. There was a certain amount of information to get into each piece, but I also had to find the emotional core of the issue as well. It was fun.
Words, music and arrangement – how long do you labor over each part of a song?
How long is a piece of string? You work on them until they’re right, or as close as you can get them.
AUDIO: Frank Turner No Man’s Land (Deluxe Edition) (Full Album)
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