Frank Turner: Recovery lesson and songwriting interview
23rd Aug 2013 | 15:10
"I really feel like if you're running on pure instinct and gut then you're writing something good"
Frank Turner is the walking, talking embodiment of the punk ideology.
And no, we don't mean that he wanders around London with a Mohawk frightening tourists. Rather that with little more than a battered acoustic, a handful of songs and a tireless DIY ethic, he's turned himself into one of the UK's most popular songwriters.
Since going solo from cult post-hardcore outfit Million Dead in 2005, he's worked his way up from the toilet circuit to a sold out Wembley Arena. The world caught a glimpse of him when he performed at the Olympics opening ceremony at London 2012, and latest album Tape Deck Heart has taken him to the main stage at this year's Reading Festival.
MusicRadar met up with Frank in London to record a lesson for Recovery, the lead track from Tape Deck Heart, and to talk heroes, songwriting, and why ABBA have got more in common with NOFX than you might think…
It's interesting to watch you talk through how you put together Recovery – what was your musical education like? Do you have any music theory behind you at all?
"Not really, no. I didn't really study music. I got a few piano lessons as a kid which I didn't pay much attention to, and then just started teaching myself the guitar.
"I was originally into metal and stuff, but Nirvana kind of turned my head on to punk rock. Counting Crows were a big deal for me when I was a kid as well. I still feel like my academy of songwriting was the first three Counting Crows records. But I mean, I didn't have much in the way of official teaching, but I've always been quite analytical in the way I think about music.
"I have always voraciously learned how to play songs by bands that I like. If I hear a song that I like, I'll immediately pick up a guitar and try and figure out how it goes. I think that there is an art to songwriting that is distinct from the technicalities of playing. It's something I've spent a lot of time thinking about.
"I mean, the greats for me songwriting-wise are Adam Duritz, Rivers Cuomo, Gram Parsons, Townes Van Zandt, Springsteen obviously. Nina Simone I'm really big on as well, and Loudon Wainwright is a big one too."
So all quite emotionally direct stuff?
"Yeah, totally. I think it's kind of interesting, and after a while it's like that bit at the end of The Matrix where the numbers start coming down, and you start seeing songwriting as something detached from style.
"So you start realised that ABBA and NOFX, to pick bands with four letters in their name, have more in common from a songwriting point of view than they do that separates them. It's about melodic structure and the flow of the song, that kind of thing."
Has the way that you write songs changed over the last few years?
"Yeah it has. I'm trying to improve what I do, I'm trying not to repeat myself, and there's lots of types of song. The obvious ones, you've got ballads and upbeat songs, but you can get way more categorical about it. There are shuffles, fast songs, you know what I mean?
"If I hear something that is in a stylistic mode that I haven't tried yet myself, then my first thought is always 'hmm, I wonder if I could jam something into that approach'. It keeps things fresh, and there's an endless permutation of ways of doing that."
So is songwriting as much an intellectual exercise as an emotional one for you? Are you able to separate the two?
"I think that they go hand in hand. There's definitely two sides to it. I mean, there is a technical side, I know what you mean by intellectual but intellectual sounds a little too cold. It is an emotional thing, at the end of the day one creates in order to express yourself. I'm doing this stuff because I have to make music, I have to make sounds to scratch a certain itch in myself that I can't adequately describe.
"There's a technical side to it when you're talking about building blocks and structure, and all the things I was talking about - using simple ascending chord sequences and going from first to fifth or whatever – but then at the same time, that's an intellectual veneer over the fact that it hits you one an emotional level. And actually, the emotional impact of any good song is completely unquantifiable really.
"I remember seeing a great thing of Springsteen talking through Thunder Road. He talked through the whole thing, got to the end and said 'Was I thinking any of that when I wrote it, hell no! Was I feeling it? Hell yes!' And that's it. You've got to trust your gut at the end of the day.
"I don't really have a method for songwriting, sometimes lyrics comes first, sometimes music comes first, sometimes it's slow, sometimes it's fast, whatever, but my favourite moments are when something comes quickly. I really feel like if you're running on pure instinct and gut then you're writing something good. If the song just kind of tumbles out, that's way better than something that you spend six months agonising over chords changes with."
Frank performing live with his backing band The Sleeping Souls (credit: Corbis)
You're quite prolific - does that tie into that preference for getting songs out quickly?
"I have friends in bands who have writing periods in their diary, and that seems bizarre to me. I'm always humming something, and fifty per cent of the time it's a song by someone else and fifty per cent of the time it's a random collection of notes.
"Thus far, songs just keep arriving. There are almost days when I kind of wish they wouldn't, 'cos I want to concentrate on promoting this record for a bit before I get really excited about another ten songs. But they'll probably run out at some point, so I might as well get them down while they keep coming!"
Your last couple of records have been linked by themes as collections of songs. Is that something just comes out, or do you retrospectively think 'they go together, I'll take those ten'?
"I like to follow rather than lead songwriting. I'm sort of intellectually interested in the idea of, I'm not quite talking about a concept album, but the idea of coming up with something to write towards. It's just not something I've really done thus far or feel the need to do.
"The thing it, I write autobiographically and I write chronologically in the sense that each album represents the body of songs from a certain time of my life. Tape Deck Heart is kind of a break up record because that was what was occupying my mental space for a year and a half since the last record. Some of the songs that didn't make it on to the album that are on the extended editions are ones that didn't form part of a contiguous story, so it worked like that."
Obviously what's going on in your life impacts your songwriting, but how about what you're listening to, does new music seep in as an influence?
"I think it does. Although interestingly, I was thinking about this the other day and I think there's a time lag on it. For example, I've been into Weezer for years, and I was listening to a shit ton of Weezer around Tape Deck Heart, and I personally considered it to be an influence on the album.
"Rich Costey, who did the album actually did quite a lot of Weezer records, said to me 'I don't know what the f**k you're talking about, there isn't really any Weezer on this record at all'. But now, the new stuff I have is quite Weezer-ish, but I've started listening to other stuff. So there's a weird time delay going on."
So the next record is going to be Weezer record…
"Well, in that direction! I'm listening to tons of Sam Cooke at the minute as well, that's my major obsession. One Night Stand at Harlem Square is one of the most ridiculous… I want to make an album that sounds like that. I want to make a record that's a cross between that and 1977 by Ash!
"Music's an addiction, and you're always looking for that buzz of that record that makes you excited. My taste in music is pretty traditional, I like pretty classic songwriting type stuff. I'm not really in to jazz, it's more country and pop songwriting, whatever you want to call it.
"My favourite thing is when you feel like you've heard everything anyone's ever going to do with those cowboy chords, G,C, and D, and then suddenly some motherf***er comes along and completely blows you out of the water. I just had that recently with a guy called Jason Isbell, he was the singer in Drive By Truckers and he recently released a solo record that is preposterously brilliant.
"And it's all just chords you know. Literally, you'll listen to it and you'll know how to play every song on the record from the first time he plays it. But he makes it sound like it's the first time you've ever heard those chords again.
"I spend my life rifling through record bins looking for albums that'll do that to me, and I heard his. It gives me a new leap of faith in the potential of the guitar as an instrument and the kind of format I write in."
It's interesting that you mention people Sam Cooke and Townes Van Zandt. A lot of what they did was rooted in the live arena - can you see yourself doing a live record?
"Sort of. We've done two live DVDs and I think you can buy the music from them, but it's not quite the same. It's an interesting idea, and Alive Behind The Green Door by Flogging Molly is an interesting record to me. I like the way that it sounds like shit, basically.
"I think, particularly with the technology, Youtube, the internet, whatever you want to talk about, you have to have quite specific and strong justifications for doing a live record artistically. Which I may come up with!"