Frank Turner: carefully applied

The singer-songwriter chooses his words with care, but remains committed to a busy touring schedule – and to backing charities such as The Big Issue North Trust 

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Frank Turner paces the bedroom in the Castlefield Hotel, Manchester. Outside, the crowds are already filling up the arena for the Blink 182 gig, which he’s due to support. We’re an hour away from his soundcheck, but his mind is on other things. He’s spent the morning at Risley Prison in Warrington, seeing the work that Shelter does in helping resettle prisoners due for release. The experience was “fucking intense”, he says, explaining how he met some of the homeless charity’s staff who were themselves former prisoners, and saw the work that they do.

“It’s important to try and understand where the people you disagree with are coming from.”

Shelter’s not the only charity the singer-songwriter supports. A month on from our interview, he’ll be back in Manchester, to play a special fundraising gig for The Big Issue North Trust, the sister charity to this magazine, and the International Network of Street Papers (INSP). “It’s going to be fun,” he says with adolescent-like excitement that makes him seem younger than his 35 years. “There’s not that many venues that I’ve not played in, but I don’t think I’ve played at the O2 Ritz before, so that’s a tick for me.”

But for now, Turner finally sits, well, perches on the edge of a seat, his thumbs wrestling with one another as he talks about why he’s supporting The Big Issue North Trust. “It’s really important, when I talk about any of the charities that I support, to not sound like Bono,” he says, adding: “It’s also important to say that Bono is an infinitely more complex figure than he’s made out to be by popular stereotype.”

Turner’s like this – always polite and always careful to be understood, despite the speed at which he speaks.

“So much of my job can be summed up in three words: ‘Look at me!’ So it’s a refreshing change to do something that’s like: ‘Fine, you are looking at me. Now think about this, which is more important than some arsehole with a guitar.’”

He’s squeezed the trust’s solo gig into the middle of a busy schedule of one-off shows and festivals, and it takes place just a week before he skips over the Atlantic to start a tour of the States. It’s the kind of crazy timetable that Turner is renowned for, although that’s an image that he’s starting to dismantle.

“I have the reputation as some kind of touring Steve Austin and there was definitely a period in my life when I was engaged in an arms race to be the hardest touring musician in the world – a race in which nobody else was competing.”

Now, if he hasn’t topped 200 shows a year it doesn’t upset him, he says, although he has already managed to rack up 82 so far in 2017. The Big Issue North Trust gig will be show number 2,088 since he first started touring as a solo artist back in 2004.

For Turner, this easing off the gas pedal is a big change from a couple of years ago. The recently released film Get Better, which charts a year in the life of the musician, reveals a man who seemed to feed off the love of his dedicated fan base and who found life without touring difficult. “I didn’t really have any reason to go home,” explains Turner. “And a big part of the film covers that moment in my life when I came off the road due to complications during the release of an album, when I discovered that the only activity to keep me busy when I was at home was getting fucked up.”

Frank Turner Big Issue North
Photos: Rebecca Lupton

Now there’s some stability stating to emerge in his life. “I have my own place in London. I have a girlfriend.” He’s even learning to cook, which he never had chance to do while living life on the road.

Born in 1981 and raised in Hampshire by his investment banker father and music teacher mother, Turner’s upbringing was not necessarily one that led naturally to where he is now. “I was not supposed to be this. I was put into a system that produces lawyers and MPs, and I got drunk and got tattoos.”

That system was the public school Eton, to which Turner was “shipped off” on a scholarship. “It was a situation I found extremely… uncomfortable.Traumatic is too strong a word because I was still receiving a first-class education and that’s something to be grateful for, but socially uncomfortable.

“It’s important for me to talk carefully about this because it worked out for me – and it doesn’t work out for everybody and that’s got more to do with luck than anything else – but I feel like I ran away and joined the circus as quickly as I could.”

The discovery of punk rock bands like The Clash, Black Flag and Rancid offered a way out for the “angry, alienated and lonely” teenage Turner. He started visiting the hardcore punk scene in London, but was never able to fully escape the “social implications” of his privileged education.

“It was all roses for a few months until people started to discover where I was coming from. There was a bit of a divide at that point because there were a lot of people who were like ‘fuck off, you’re not welcome here’, which was so depressing because the whole reason I was there was because I needed somewhere that would accept me. But thankfully there were enough people on that scene who stood by the principle that everybody is welcome.”

Turner’s career as a professional musician began in 2001 when he joined the post-hardcore band Million Dead. Following the band’s break-up, Turner made a dramatic musical change of direction in 2005 when he started playing “acoustic country rock or whatever you want to call it”.

Now he’s working on his seventh solo album and is on course for another shift in direction. “Musically I’m messing around with beats and programming, and the kind of dirtier end of the dance scene. I’ve also been on a massive Memphis and Detroit trip. And one of the problems I’m having is that those things don’t necessarily gel all that well. So I’m trying to make a record that doesn’t sound schizophrenic.”

There’s a shift in subject matter too. Many of Turner’s solo records have been focused on personal subjects such as heartbreaks, touring and the meaning of home, but he’s planning for the new album to be more “outward looking”, something backed up by the 2017 single The Sand in the Gears, a sort of call to arms in the wake of Trump America.

But Turner is careful – that word again – to stress that the new album will hardly be a “Rage Against the Machine-type album”.

“My politics are – in a way that seems to disappoint some people – militantly centrist. The world is going fucking nuts – we can all appreciate that – but it’s really important to try and understand where the people you disagree with are coming from. The people who voted for Trump didn’t go: ‘Aha! I’m going to fuck people lower down the social scale and destroy Western civilisation.’ That might be the result of what they’re doing, but I seriously doubt that was the reason they formulated their thoughts.”

Dialogue and understanding are key factors in avoiding extremism, he feels. “If dialogue becomes impossible, it gets replaced by other forms of interaction, namely violence.”

But he admits that his point of view has implications for the next album. “It’s quite hard to write a rabble-rousing, fist-pumping anthem about the idea that we need dialogue.”

Still, despite his anxiety about the new record, Turner is excited about getting the project off the ground. “It’s refreshing and surprising to me that whilst we’re now in the middle of working on album seven, I’m as driven and passionate about getting it right as I’ve ever been. I’ve made a lot of music in my life but I feel like I’m 19 right now.”

And after all those years on the road, six solo albums and numerous side projects, an autobiography, a film and a win of Celebrity Mastermind (which he says is one of his proudest achievements), Turner’s starting to care a little bit less about what people think.

“I feel like I’m relaxing a little bit about other people’s perceptions of me, which is refreshing, and I can direct some of that nervous energy somewhere else. When we did the Lost Evening festival back in May I played about 90 songs over four nights. That’s a lot of songs and I didn’t play one that I didn’t like. And it was nice to look at that body of work and think I have done this and that is OK.”

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