Frank Turner: An Open Letter

Thursday 23 November 2017

One word you can use to describe folk singer-songwriter Frank Turner is ‘relentless’.

Turner started his career with post-hardcore band Million Dead in 2000, before embarking on a solo career in 2005, and since then seems to have hardly had time to catch his breath. Over the last decade he has racked up thousands of live shows, including playing Wembley Arena in 2012, and released six studio albums to date – not to mention the compilation albums and EPs, including his Songbook which is set for release on Friday 24th November.

However, this relentless forward motion does not mean never looking back. The Songbook’s tracklist brings together songs from across the last decade, encompassing everything from the experience of watching your peers accelerate into the A-List (“I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous”) to screwing up a relationship for the hundredth time (“Plain Sailing Weather”) to finally having weathered all of it and found contentment (new track “There She Is”), both in original versions and new recordings. It is a brief moment of stillness: an act both of looking back and of looking forward – to Turner’s seventh studio album which is due for release in 2018 and which, he says, marks a turning point in the narrative of his songwriting.

We reached out to Frank to capture more of this moment of retrospection. Read Frank’s full open letter, exclusively for Spindle, below.

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Music hasn’t always been there, but life before it was [there] seems like it happened to someone else. I remember sitting on the living room carpet with my older sister, our faces mere inches from the TV screen, our jaws slack and in our laps, as the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert was screened live from Wembley Stadium. It’s a strange thing, to actually feel your life change in real time, but how else can a 10-year-old react to the simultaneous assault of Metallica, Led Zeppelin, Sabbath and Queen? Thankfully we had remembered to record the event on VHS (there’s a 2 minute gap in my otherwise-perfect recall of that show, when my sister and I were frantically changing the tape). We watched it a hundred times.

Things started moving quickly from then. My best friend lived two doors down from me. In between, there was a slightly reclusive older lady living alone (of course, we thought she was a witch). When she died she randomly left my friend £500, which is about a million quid at pre-adolescent exchange rates. Chris promptly bought a drum kit, and then started badgering me into getting a guitar. Thus it was that at the following Christmas, my parents dutifully (if dubiously) bought me an electric guitar starter pack from a catalogue store – a cheap black-and-white Strat copy and a 30-watt amp (‘Comes with lead and strap!’ screamed the advert). We set up in Chris’s bedroom and started making an unholy racket. Our first song was ‘Highway To Hell’ by AC/DC, followed by ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door’, which, at the time, we thought was a Guns N’ Roses number.

Music hasn’t always been there, but life before it was there seems like it happened to someone else.

Aside from the putative band (which, despite four years of jamming and precisely two gigs, never really acquired a name), there was a parallel thread in my early musical meanderings. I was really into metal and thrash, but found the guitar parts to be far beyond the reach of my skills (they mostly still are). My older sister, meanwhile, had drifted down a slightly softer musical route. August & Everything After by Counting Crows was almost literally glued into her cassette player. Those songs sounded easier, and indeed they were. Using my Bert Wheedon Play In A Day! book as a guide, and stop-starting the tape like an investigator, I managed to work out the chords to most of the album through trial-and-error. In time I added other easy songs to my repertoire – Weezer, Soul Asylum, even Oasis (though I shudder to admit as much now). The purpose of my learning the songs was not performance as such; I wasn’t shaping up to play shows for my friends, I was learning the music so we could all sing the words together.

Fast-forward 24 years. Last night I played a show in a packed club in Kingston-Upon-Thames. The crowd sung along at the top of their lungs, and for a moment I was able to indulge the fantasy, once again, that I was giving a performance, I was leading a congregation, just like I did with my sister and our friends on the beach in Cornwall in the summer holidays.

Of course, that’s a conceit, to some extent, not least because I wrote the songs we were singing together. I have a retrospective collection of songs called Songbook coming out later this month. Most of the chatter about me in the public sphere revolves around the live show, and that’s fine, I love playing live and I like to think that, with my band The Sleeping Souls, we are pretty good at what we do. But there has to be some content to those shows, we’re not a covers band. At Lost Evenings Festival in Camden back in May, I headlined four shows at the Roundhouse. In trying not to repeat songs across the nights, I got through around 85 original compositions, and for the first time, had a real chance to survey my collected works, and it felt good. Playing songs I wrote when I was 23 (and in one case 19) against things I wrote at 35 was intriguing and ultimately very rewarding. Songbook is an attempt to recapture and share that feeling.

At Lost Evenings Festival [I] had a real chance to survey my collected works, and it felt good. Songbook is an attempt to recapture and share that feeling.

There’s one new song on Songbook. I was on holiday with my girlfriend at the end of last year, in Italy. There’s more weight to that statement than first meets the eye. As documented at length on my last two albums, Tape Deck Heart and Positive Songs For Negative People, my ability to screw up a relationship is Olympic-standard. I woke up before her one morning, and decided to try and write something for her before she awoke, to celebrate the shining unlikely fact that I was, at last, peaceful and happy, in that area of my life at least. ‘There She Is’ will also be on the next studio album proper. I’ve spent much of this year in Texas working on it, and once it’s done, it will be released, hopefully in the spring of 2018.

A seventh album, following a retrospective of sorts; there’s a temptation to feel long-in-the-tooth some days, like it’s time for another go round the circuit, one last college try. But that’s not really how it feels. People ask, often, what my ‘career highlight’ is. I imagine they’re expecting me to mention big shows or celebrity endorsements. But the real highlight is this: back when Chris and I were butchering AC/DC songs in his bedroom, or when I was strumming through Counting Crows songs on the beach, I told everyone I was going to write songs and play them to people for a living. Everyone laughed. But here we are. That is a thing I’m immensely proud of.

Watch the live acoustic video for ‘There She Is’ below, and look out for Songbook, set for release Friday 24th November.

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