Over the course of his prolific solo career, launched after a memorable stint as lead vocalist for the incendiary act Million Dead, Turner has established himself as a singer-songwriter with rare melodic gifts, an exuberant stage presence and a willingness to speak his mind without trafficking in trendiness or hiding behind a fusillade of snark. These qualities have earned him a growing and enthusiastic following, despite (or perhaps because of) the doubts expressed by reviewers more accustomed to cynicism than sincerity.
Our conversation with the beguiling, frequently intense Brit kicks off with a conversation about a recent performance at Twist & Shout that went into overtime before delving into another Denver tie — the appearance on Positive Songs for Negative People, Turner's latest full-length, of local heroine Esmé Patterson, who portrays the late Christa McAuliffe in a tune about the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.
Turner also discusses a song about a friend who took his own life and the romantic complications at the heart of "Mittens," a track from Positive that's spawned its own EP, a microsite and a hilarious video in which he gets his Elvis on. That's followed by Turner's take on critical brickbats and the temptation, or lack thereof, to take on the Brexit or Donald Trump in song.
Warning: This last topic may involve getting poked with a barge pole.
Westword: I recently saw you perform at an in-store appearance at Twist & Shout in Denver, and you mentioned that when the folks at the store told you that playing twenty minutes would be fine, you asked if you could play longer — and you did, to the great delight of everybody who was there. That's uncommon for performers at a free promotional appearance, but is it pretty common for you?
Frank Turner: Yeah. I'm at pains to say what I'm about to say to not cast aspersions at other musicians, but it does sort of blow my mind the number of people I encounter in my travels who find the actual playing-of-music part of everything we do to be the most trying part — a chore that they have to get through. The reason I'm lucky to do what I do is because I get to play music for a living. All the rest of it — the traveling, the press and all the rest of it — all of that fades away when you actually get to play. So of course I want to play as much as I can.
You had a show later that evening. Does that work into your calculus when it comes to deciding how long you can perform? Are you ever afraid, "I might blow out my voice"? Or is it simply, "I'm here, there's a crowd here, I want to play"?
I do have to take care of my voice. I do have to think about that kind of thing, and certainly, there are days in my schedule that can be a bit much. As I get older, I have try to chill that out a little bit. But more often than not, I can be feeling pretty shitty immediately before, but as soon as I'm up on a stage in front of people, everything changes. A show is an exchange of energy, or at least it should be. And I feel suddenly kind of pumped up.
One of the things you exude in live performance is just how much you're enjoying it. You not only receive energy, but you send a lot of it out — and that's infectious. Does that comes naturally to you, or do you have to think about it and consciously open yourself up to it?
It does come naturally, but there's also a moment where you really psych yourself up before a show, particularly if you're having a bad day. If you're tired, if there's something wrong, you have to get yourself in the right head space. But I love playing shows, and to me, shows become more interesting when they become a conversation instead of a monologue — when there is that exchange between groups of people. The idea of just playing to a room full of heads, or placing a barrier between performance and the audience, that's not very interesting to me. Shows become interesting and exciting and worthwhile when there's a real exchange taking place.
There's another major Denver connection on your album Positive Songs for Negative People. The song "Silent Key" features Esmé Patterson, who's from Denver. How did you first become aware of her? And how did you choose her for that song?
Esmé's manager is a very old friend of mine, and he'd been chatting about this wonderful singer that he'd started working with. And she's working with Xtra Mile Recordings, which is the label I'm with in the U.K. So she was on my radar, if you'd like. I'd listened to her stuff. And the song in question is about Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died in the Challenger space-shuttle disaster. And Esmé, as it were, plays her in the song. When we were picking somebody to do the guest vocal, I was mindful that I wanted someone American; that seemed respectful to me. And we kind of went through a bunch of suggestions. There were some label people who had some sort of outlandish pop suggestions. And at the end of the day, I did a bunch of shows with Esmé and got to know her — in particular, I got to know her incredible voice. And then straight away, it was obvious that she was the right person for the job.
[Here's Turner delivering a live version of "Silent Key."]
You were barely four years old when that tragedy took place, and in the lyrics, you talk about hearing about it on the radio. Do you actually remember that happening, even though you were so young?
No, the song is a flight of fancy. But it features an event that's on the edge of my conscious memory. I remember being aware of it as something that happened. But the whole radio part of the song is very much fiction.
What is it about that incident that has lingered in your mind for so long and still speaks to us today?
There's something classically tragic about it: The primary-school teacher who's sort of broadcast to the world as a beacon of hope and increases interest in the space program and then dies on international television. There's something in it that speaks very deeply to the human condition. There's something intriguing about it. I started thinking about it years ago, and I had a note that I should try to write a song about it for a long time.
I know you took care to make sure her family wouldn't find anything problematic in the song. What were you worried about in terms of their reaction?
I just wanted to make sure the song was respectful — that it wasn't being flippant about the death of a real individual. Obviously, the song uses the facts of her death in order to kind of tell a story, and it's a flight of fancy, as I say. I think it was a legitimate artistic inquiry. But I didn't want to be trashy about it. I wanted it to be classy.
Another really emotional song on the album is "Song for Josh," about Josh Burdette, who worked security for the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. — and who took his own life. How would you describe the Josh that you knew?
Josh was just kind of like everybody's shield. He was physically a very big guy, but he was warm and cuddly with it. And his job was to look after people, keep people safe. And in his social life, he was the guy who everybody, myself included, would go to. He would give you a shoulder to lean on, a shoulder to cry on. He was the guy who supported everyone in that way, which is one of the reasons that it was so heartbreaking when he took his own life. Because nobody really knew that it was coming. No one suspected that it was a thing he was about to do.
[This clip finds Turner performing "Song for Josh" at the 9:30 Club.]
In the song, you talk directly to him, asking why he didn't call you beforehand. Does that haunt you to some degree? Was that one of your motivations for writing the song?
Yeah, very much so. That was the first line that came — the first line of the song.
That line is stated so straightforwardly, without any artifice. Is that something you strive for in a song like that? Instead of tricking up the emotions, to simply say exactly what you felt and what others would have felt in that situation?
I guess so, although I don't really think about it that analytically. I just write what feels good, and that's what felt good in this instance.
I imagine people who've had loved ones die in that way have found the song to be very relatable and very comforting. Have you had a lot of fans come up to you and say, "That's my story, too"?
Yeah, I have. I've had a lot of people talk to me about that kind of thing. And it's not that I have mixed feelings about it, but it's something I don't feel particularly well-equipped to discuss. I don't quite know how to respond when someone says that. I'm very pleased that a song that I made has been of any tangible positive use to anybody else in the world. That's a wonderful thing and something I'm very humbled by and very grateful for. But at the same time, it's a weird kind of line that can be crossed — wanting me to be their therapist. And it's like, 'Well, dude, I have as little knowledge of the situation or coping mechanisms as anybody else. I just happened to write a song about it."
I also wanted to ask about the song "Mittens." You created a microsite that allows users to send virtual postcards to people just to let them know they care about them. I understand that was inspired by a personal experience of yours that didn't end as happily as hoped. Can you expand on that?
A little. One of the things about writing quite personal lyrics is that in my songs, I often go as far as I can quite comfortably go within that context. But I was sort of in a relationship with somebody that didn't really work out, and postcards were exchanged, or not exchanged — and that's about all I can say without being disrespectful to the other person.
[Behold the video for "Mittens."]
Is the idea of sending that kind of a postcard in any way a corollary to how you look at your music? Are your songs like postcards you're sending out to people and you're hoping they respond positively to them?
I guess, in some instances. I wouldn't say for every song. Songwriting is something that's sacrosanct to me. I try not to think about it analytically. It exists in its own space in my head, and I don't want to pull it apart or dissect it too much, partly because it's working currently, and partly because I worry that I would fuck it up some way by looking at it that way. But music is definitely cathartic to me. It definitely helps me in my life.
One of the things that I love about your music, and what a lot of other people love about your music, is how open and naked and emotionally sincere it is. But you've also gotten criticism for those very qualities. Does that seem strange to you — that people would find reasons to question that? And do you think it might be because they're less emotionally open than they'd like to be?
I don't want to make too many assumptions about that. Lots of people make assumptions about my emotional state, so I'm not going to try and return the favor, because I think it's a bad approach to life. But some people in the British press are sort of keen on irony and find sincerity to be distasteful somehow. I find that bizarre, personally. But to be criticized for meaning what you say is something that strikes me as pretty weird.
A lot of your songs are very personal, but at times like these, given events like the Brexit in the U.K. and the rise of Donald Trump in this country, is it hard not to turn your songs into some form of commentary or advocacy?
Absolutely not. I'm interested in what's happening in the world, but I don't think music is the channel. Music and politics are separate in my mind. I'm not disengaged as an individual, but the older I get, the more tired I get about people using music as a means to an end. I want to write songs, but I don't want to write songs that are supposed to achieve this or that. I think songs are capable of creating meaning in and of themselves. I don't want to write songs in order to do something else. I want to write songs to write songs. I have strong political opinions, and these are worrying times to be a human right now, but I don't personally see my music as being related to that in an obvious and direct way.
I came across a thread on the Frank Turner forum, and someone asked you flat-out if you were for or against the Brexit, and the response, which I assume is from you, was, "You're out of your fucking mind if you think I'm touching that with a barge pole."
That was me.
What are some other topics that you wouldn't touch with a fucking barge pole?
(Laughs.) I'm not not going to bring them up, because I don't want to talk about them.
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