Interview with Frank Turner
In fall 2019 likeable british folk-punk-musician Frank Turner, who has been titled „England`s answer to Bruce Springsteen“ by the Stuttgarter Zeitung, released an remarkable album: „No Man`s Land“ is Turner`s eight studio album and it tells the stories of twelve historical women (plus his mother). Each song comes with a podcast episode, in which Frank Turner discusses with an expert on the protagonist of the song. A notable storytelling-concept, and more: A lot of the persons involved with the project are female, bei it producer Catherine Marks or countless musicians, who are on the album with Frank. In Mannheim (before concert number 2446) I had the opportunity to talk to Frank about the album.
Manu: I am glad it worked out with our interview finally, after whe had been E-Mailing in August. Thank you for making it possible
Frank: My pleasure!
Manu: Today I finally heard the last podcast episode, the one with your mum, and it made me realize we have more in common than our passion for music and being history nerds
Frank: Which is?
Manu: Hiding our tattoos from our mums for many years…
Frank: Oh yeah, for many years. I am about to get tattooed in a minute actually. Does your mum know now?
Manu: Yes she eventually found out. She saw something and lifted my shirt and said „Oh well , it`s you who will have to pay for it if you ever want to get rid of it”
Frank: Same thing! – It was a really cool interview mit my mum. She fucked me a little bit, because she told the story about the harp and i was like „Uh don`t, fuck…“ I think if there is one instrument in the world which is the least punk instrument ever, it is the harp [laughs] You know what I mean? That was mean!
Manu: So tell us something about your last album „No Man`s Land“. How did you get the idea, how was the process of it, how long have you been working on it? I think you said somewhere that you have written „Sister Rosetta“ in 2015 already?
Frank: I worked almost all of it, before I wrote „Be More Kind“. But then 2016 happened and the world went crazy everywhere and I felt like I wanted to respond to that immediately, or at least directly. So I put those songs aside for a while and then came back to them. I did not sit down to write anything that had specifically to do with women at the beginning. The very first thing is, as a song writer I usually write auto-biography and I kind of got bored of that. Or at least I thought I didn`t have new songs coming. I thought it would be an interesting technique to write from other people`s perspectives. And I love history and talking about history.
There is a lot of great history in folk music, so I tried to write some of those. And then after like four or five songs they were all about women I though „Ha“. And there is an obvious politics about the idea that you try and tell stories that have not been told enough and I thought „Oh I get it“. So this is a surprising point, but it is true. So I followed it to the end of it. One of the things that was nice was putting the songs aside for a year, or years even. That was really cool, because once we were finished at least writing and recording „Be More Kind“ I went back to those songs, thinking to myself there will probably a lot of work to do to make them better and finish them and everything and I went back to them and was like „Ah! They are pretty good“ [Laughs] Or lets say pretty finished. So I changed a couple of things, including changing the lyrics of „Sister Rosetta“ , cause she had gone to Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in the meantime, which was kind of annoying. Annoying for me, good for her and for the world.
Manu: How much time did you spend on researching, reading , gathering information and the likes?
Frank: You know, I feel it`s really important for me not to try and pretend that I am like a serious historian, because I am fucking not. With everyone on the record I tried to read whatever books that were around. Except Mata Hari has a lot written about her and I did not read every single one, I read like two or maybe three. But then with some of them like Dora Hand, there is no books about. There is a just a piece on a website from the museum in Dodge City and that was pretty much it. I tried to be historically accurate, obviously it is actually not pure history. Songwriting is poetry on some levels and you have to inhabit your characters. So of course there is some artistic licence should we say, but I wanted the factual parts of it to be correct. Which they mostly are, although one of the fun parts of the podcast was discovering a couple of bits where I wasn`t right [laughs] You know when you are speaking to an actual historian who knows their shit. Like I didn`t remember the whole thing about Mata Hari`s children dying and I got the thing wrong about Dora Hand`s funeral. So for me that makes it kind of more fun.
Manu: I am a sociologist and cultural anthropologist and we say that research outcome often reflects a lot about those researching, sometimes it tells us even more about the researcher than about the research object. Or at least it does something to the researcher. Is there anything you have learned about yourself during the process?
Frank: Yes! I mean I don`t want to sound like an idiot when I say this. I am obviously aware that we live in a world that has been historically sexist and not balanced between men and women, however you want to put it. Obviously I knew this, I have always known this, I am not an idiot. But to actually kind of get into each of these stories and to try to see the world through other people`s eyes. I think it is actually a good exercise for everyone to do that as much as you can, but it really kind of reminded me of my own privilege and about how a lot of these peoples stories would have been radically different if they were men or they just hadn`t happened, fullstop, in the way that they did. And there were so many moments where I thought „Come on, that is so unfair“ and I talked a lot to my wife or who back then was my partner, telling her „This is so unfair“ and she looked at me saying „Yeah, okay, welcome“ and jokingly said „you fucking idiot“. So I felt it did something less on an intellectual level, but more on an emotional level. I like to think of it that I came out with more understanding of that kind of stuff. Or hopefully with a bit more of humility about who I am and about how I see the world and try to understand it. But that is not how it is for everybody.
Manu: Obviously there is a lot of sexism in the Rock scene. What I noticed at your shows is that the percentage of women among the audience is much bigger than at other artists gigs. What would you say are you doing right compared to others?
Manu: And let me add, I read you say you don`t call yourself a feminist but you consider yourself to be an ally. So what are you doing in these terms?
Frank: Yeah sure. My resistance with the word feminism is having that guy, standing in the middle of the picture, saying „I`m a feminist, listen to me!“ And I think „you are fucking this up dude!“ I don`t want to stand in front of anybody else and when it comes to actually discussing feminism I think „Get out of the fucking way and listen!“ Someone said something taking offense about the record, and I am like „Look, I am good at writing an album. It could be about this or my own bullshit personal life or it could be about mens` history if you want, … anyway.
There was a thing a few years ago, I don`t know if you saw this, where someone took the Reading Festival poster and got rid of all the bands that were all-guys and there was literally three names left on it. Whoever did that I take my hat off for them, because it was a really effective piece of politics, because it made me go „Ha!“ and rethink. You know there is not much in this world where I have control of, but with picking the bills when I am the headliner. These days I try really hard to have a more gender-balanced bill when we tour.
I have done stuff with this thing in the UK „Safe Gigs For Women“. The thing with that again was a learning moment for me. They started off with a kind of blog about sexual assaults at gigs and one of the stories was about something that happened at one of my shows. My inital reaction was something like „No! That did not happen at my show!“ and then I read it and was like „Fuck!!!“. I am not a policeman when I am on stage, but at the same time I may have realized there is value in me, using the platform that I have to talk about these things and point people to these things that are standing over there. So it is just little things like that. The bill is not 50/50, that is a shame, but…
Manu: You are trying!
Frank: We are trying. It`s not that I can just clip my fingers and book all the bands that I like. For example you know GURR? I really wanted them to play, but they are busy. I think they are fucking great. But we got FORTUNA EHRENFELD on the bill, we got KT TUNSTALL, or the NOVA TWINS who were fucking amazing. I make sure that I at least am thinking about that. And again all of this is second hand because I am a guy, we toured with the band BAD COP BAD COP in the US, they are fucking amazing, and Stacey, the singer I have been friends with for like 20 years, and every night I would watch them play and they were brilliant. There were particularly younger women in the front row and you could see in their eyes „Fuck, I can see me on the stage now!“
Manu: Like a rolemodel…
Frank: Yeah! It breaks down that barrier and opens the possibility. There is a band from the States, WAR ON WOMEN, who are fucking incredible. So my wife doesn`t like punkrock, or well particularly hardcore punk. And we went to see WAR ON WOMEN together, and she turned to me and said „I fucking get it! This is amazing! Ist not a bull angry man shouting at me, it is somebody I can recognize shouting at me about all the things I care about“. And she said „Now I understand why you love hardcore punk“. Because the feeling is the same, ist not just a bunch of fucking dudes…
Manu: … with their testosterone…
Frank: Exactly. But Shawna from WAR ON WOMEN, who is one of the most incredible front people I have ever seen in my fucking life. So yes that was a very interesting moment for me to think about that. But like I said, again I am well aware that quite a lot of women say that makes me sound like an idiot, but I guess it is true on some levels. [laughs]
Manu: I found the episode with your mum, lets say… pretty deep, because like you said the song is quite different from the others, because it is very personal. And it made me think that a lot of guys who commit violence against women take an excuse in having had a difficult childhood and whatever. And there is you on the other hand talking about not so easy times in your life and writing songs like „Be More Kind“ and you also appear to be this really nice and kind guy
Manu: Would you think that these guys I am talking about are just looking for a bad excuse for their behaviour? Do you think there is a choice one can make?
Frank: That`s a deep question you got there. I think ist not my place to dismiss anybodys trauma, I`d like to say that. But at the same time I believe very firmly that ultimate we are responsible for our actions as humans. There may be reasons, there may be explanations, but we are responsible for what we do. And in terms of men being abusive … I mean thats the problem I have with these kind of mechanism explanations, explaining violence through poverty or through someones traumas, it is kind of an insult to everyone who was poor or had a childhood trauma, who did not then become violent to explain or at least justify it that way. At the end of the day we choose what we do.
Well, the things that were bad about my childhood were rather emotional than physical, lets say that. I wasn`t physically abused, but I grew up in an environment, which was fucking insane in some respects. But not on my mum`s part. I am skirting around an obvious thing here, but I will just leave it to you to write that… My mum suffered a lot in a way I did not really recognize when I was a child and that kind of is what the song is about. Me and my sisters we were talking about things when we were getting older, saying „Fuck! That must have been awful“ and it felt like it was kind of time to recognize that. As you get older you suddenly can recognize your parents as people, not just kind of figures
Manu: I think that was a really powerful on the podcast when your mum says that she realized how it was for you as children
Frank: The thing is, when we set up the podcast interview, the reason we did the album review thing is, because I said to my mum „We don`t have to talk about that song“, because I did not think she would want to talk about it at all. I was really surprised when we were recording the episode, when she actually started talking about it. It is a very personal thing to have on podcast, I actually learned things from that moment, you can hear me learning there and then [laughs] My mum is remarkable, I love her very much
Manu: She sounds to be really nice! – Our time is running up, so here is my last question. I really liked that you went to the historical places to play your songs. Did you feel some certain energy while doing that? Was there a powerful moment or anything about doing that?
Frank: We did that as much as we could. Like with the song about Huda Sha-arawi, I was desperately trying to get to Cairo. But my schedule was so tight and one of the main problems is, that you have to get a visa from the UK, which involves leaving your passport at the embassy for a week or whatever and there was just no time when I could be without my passport for a week. So that didn`t work out, which is a shame.
But yeah, definately. The one that stood out for me was being in Dodge City and playing in a room that may or may not have been a place where Dora Hand was… There was definately energy there, they had her portrait on the wall and that felt pretty cool. I mean I tend to be very rationalist, should we say sceptical, however you wanna put it, but there was definately a vibe that day that felt pretty good. The woman from the Boot Hill museum, Lynn Johnson, she was like „Oh yeah, she might be here right now“ and part of me was like „[Sigh], really?“, but then again there was an energy, so just say that: There was an energy!
Manu: Thank you so much!
Frank: Thank you for your time!