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Folk-punk troubadour Frank Turner has gained a steady following abroad over the years by playing festivals and small clubs alike. On his latest album, Poetry of Deeds, Turner is prepped to garner the same attention stateside. American Songwriter recently spoke with Turner before he kicked off his tour opening for the Gaslight Anthem.
Congratulations on being the first Writer of the Week from across the pond.
Ok, fantastic. I’m breaking through for my country.
You’re about to head out on the road w/ Gaslight Anthem, correct?
That’s right. Tour starts on Sunday.
Will you be touring solo, or with a band?
Just solo for this one. I’m opening up the shows and it makes it a lot more logistical financially from my end. And it actually works musically as well, since I started doing what I do on my own. It’s kinda important to me that I still do shows just on my own. As much as I used my band recently, I don’t need them for my show.
What did you grow up listening to?
The major event of my youth was punk and hardcore. I kinda got into punk and thrash, and pretty quickly got down to Black Flag and that kinda territory. That was kinda the big thing. Prior to that, there were a couple of things that were significant to what I do now. My oldest sister got me into stuff like the Counting Crows’ first album, and the Levelers. I’ve always been into those bands. It’s just that for a while they were buried under the onslaught of angry white men with a kit and guitar, shouting at each other. And then I got older and rediscovered the art of songwriting.
In reading your bio, it mentions that you were part of a hardcore punk band at one time. With other successful bands like Ryan Adams, The Avett Bros., and Drive-By Truckers coming out of punk to succeed at more folk, country, Americana types of music, it is easy to see a trend. What is the appeal of folk music for someone coming out of punk?
I think the two things are not so directly connected. Five to ten years ago there was the whole post-rock thing kicking off, and it turned out that a lot of people involved in that scene were ex-punk scene kids as well. The thing about it, I think, is that if you’re into punk rock when you’re 14-15 years old, it’s different than being into indie rock, or, I don’t know, metal or stuff like that, because you come away with more than just a taste for music, you come away with more of an ethos. You come away with sort of a set of ideals. I think that it [punk], on the whole, makes people pretty highly motivated musically. There’s that idea of self-reliance, pushing yourself towards self-motivation that comes with punk rock.
How have your punk roots influenced your songwriting?
Punk is a kind of music that has a lot of energy and drive and the music that I make is kinda a bit more in your face than the ‘60s folk revival, which some of it comes from punk rock. I find myself listening to folk songs or pop songs and thinking to myself, ‘Why are you repeating that verse again?’ My personal pet hate is the repeat of the first verse at the end. It’s like, you already said this, and I liked that.
I remember the first time listening to stuff like Husker Du and being totally blown away by how totally concise the songwriting was. You know? Like, there was a verse and chorus, verse and chorus, and that’s the end. I try to keep that kinda stripped-down feel in what I do. And the way that I sing is entirely informed by having spent most of musical upbringing in a practice room running the vocals through a guitar amp, having to scream my nuts off just to be heard. I play guitar pretty heavy because I learned to play guitar along with punk and thrash records.
Both critics and yourself have viewed Poetry of Deed as your most fully-realized album to date. What sets this album apart, in your opinion?
Well, on a practical level was the fact that I decided to take the backing band into the studio this time around, and it was much more consciously like a body of work, in one go-around. These are the songs that I finished writing at the time when the studio date rolled around. I finished writing the songs and we rehearsed as a band. We spent a month in the recording studio, just like jamming around and around and around, ‘til we kinda knocked all the arrangements together and we got really tight. On previous records I played all the instruments myself in sort of a relaxed kinda way. So it was a bit more intense this go-around, and it was more intense in the studio.
This is the first album that I have made where there has been any pressure, any expectation. And I can stand here and pretend that that doesn’t affect me in any way but of course it does. I mean, I’m human, you know? The reaction to that personally is that I have to be extra-critical and make sure that everything on the album was done as creatively as it could be. I felt like there were more people waiting for it to come out this time than on the previous records.
What advice do you have for aspiring songwriters?
The first thing which sounds obvious is to absolutely, passionately love what you do. Because the business of going out and trying to be a full-time musician can be pretty hard. It has its downsides, basically. And if you totally love the music and all, then they’re not downsides at all –they’re nothing. You brush them off. I’ve seen so many people get into music for the wrong reasons and then they end up kinda totally fucking miserable in the back of a van, you know, losing jobs, friends, families, girlfriends and the rest of it and to no end.
Secondly, I would say it’s really important to be your own harshest critic. Something that we did with my old band was we used to write a whole set of songs. We’d write eight songs, and then we’d deliberately scrap all of it, because the next eight songs will be better. You see what I mean? So, it was really about trying to push yourself to make yourself do better and try harder at every aspect of songwriting and all that. So, yeah, be your own harshest critic.