When I shake the hand of Frank Turner I have to crane my neck to look up at him, he’s impossibly tall, draped in a denim jacket and thin t-shirt, tattoos poking out of the neckline. He’s commanded stages, danced in grand venues in front of thousands of people, yet here in the opulent bar of the Camden Roundhouse he seems understated, quiet and friendly.
“I’m a bit hungover,” he admits, rubbing his forehead as we sit down by the window, the bustling Camden high street passing along outside. Instantly I am put at ease by his speech, the eloquence in which Turner delivers his words reflects his intelligence but the sprinkling of profanities amongst the sentences offer a humble authenticity.
Throughout his expansive career, which spans six full length studio albums and over two thousand live shows, Turner has tackled his own emotional well-being unflinchingly, both in his music and through interviews; I wonder how easy it is for him to make songs which offer such an honest glimpse into his own life.
“I’ve always been interested in raw emotional honesty; I love it, that moment when you hear somebody say something unretractable. When I’m writing and recording, the song wins the argument,” he pauses, looking up to make sure I understand what he means. “For me to sing passionately I have to be passionate about what I’m singing. It’s always seemed better to write meaningfully about things that are true.”
Some of Turner’s songs go beyond emotional integrity, reading more like an open diary page. The lyrics of Tell Tale Signs, a track on 2013 album Tape Deck Heart, directly reference his history of self-harm, and having these reflections on his life known by so many people isn’t always easy.
“There have been moments that have been uncomfortable for me, I’ve had people come up to me at signing sessions and try and see scars on my arm.” He notes the shock on my face. “It’s a big ‘fuck you’ when that happens”.
On Turner’s website his first point of contact for fans is his own email address. It’s central to him to be easily reached. “My email address is on my website because I don’t want to be removed from my audience. But I do get quite a lot of…” he pauses for a second, slowing his speech. I can see a careful consideration of how he wants to speak about his fans “…slightly ‘cry for help’ emails and I understand why…but I’m not a therapist.”
Listening to him speak about this, the conflictions that come with the nature of his music become clear. “I have my own shit that’s a very long way away from being figured out. Talk to somebody, get help because I’m not the person who’s going to be able to do that for you directly.” Pulling a gold skeleton shaped ring up and down his finger, Turner’s eyes don’t always meet mine. Talking about these subjects is something he has to do a lot, but clearly it doesn’t make it any less personal.
“I think people lose a sense of the line between a song and a person, I encounter a lot of people who think they know me. It’s not saying my songs are dishonest, but knowing a song is not the same as knowing a person.”
Thoughts seem to rush out of him, the sentences don’t truly close, but trip over one another, as if in considering one question Turner poses to himself another, and answers that too.“There are certain songs which I don’t like playing very much… but at the same time Plain Sailing Weather is a song about my own failings, and to play that and have a room of thousands of people sing it back is a very bizarre form of therapy.”
Turner’s last full length album, Positive Songs For Negative People, closed with Song For Josh; a personal and emotive track about dealing with losing a close friend to suicide. Josh Burdette was the well-known security manager of Washington DC’s 9:30 Club.
“Josh was everybody’s shoulder to cry on, to realise he’d carried that weight without sharing the burden with anyone, it was totally gutting. But anger is definitely a component of loss; I wanted to know why he hadn’t talked to me. I don’t think anybody should be ashamed of feeling angry.” There is assurance in Turner’s tone, but his face softens. “I’m a militant atheist,” he grins, “but we recorded Song For Josh at the 9:30 Club, and it definitely felt like there was a presence in the room that night.”
Turner has also worked with Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) a charity that dedicates itself to male suicide prevention: “There’s statistics you can reel off: suicide is the biggest killer of young men in the UK. Prince Harry has been talking about mental health lately – though I’m not a monarchist, good for him.” Despite the nature of our conversation, Turner accentuates his answers with smiles and laughter. “I think that the stigma about talking about it is heading in the right direction, it’s starting to lift –but that doesn’t mean that anybody should stop talking about it, there’s still lots more to be done.”
As the interview draws to a close, I begin to get a slight glimpse into the way Frank Turner thinks. The way he explained that he writes his music seems reflected within the conversation, it’s almost as if once he’s let something out he has to backtrack to assure a correct interpretation. But in the same nature that his music is laced with optimism, so is the tone of our conversation.
“People talk about me being irrepressibly optimistic and I often try and put that into songs, because I don’t always want to be relenting negative about things.” He considers this for a moment. “I think to me music is empathy, it’s a balm to soothe the problems of this shitty world we all live in.”
For more information on the CALM charity visit their website.
(Article Image Credit Nicole C. Kibert)