Interview: Frank Turner

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Part of what makes Frank Turner’s music so enjoyable is its irrepressible sense of adolescent vigour. So it feels pleasingly on-brand that we’re less than 30 seconds into our interview before the 39-year-old starts telling me he couldn’t give a fuck about something.

“I couldn’t really give a fuck about where anybody was born, or brought up, or anything else – from the point of view of whether or not it makes them a good person,” he says.

We are discussing Turner’s fourth album, England Keep My Bones. It was originally released in 2011, and—back now for its 10th anniversary re-release—is heavily focused on England and Englishness. But it is not a patriotic album. That’s something Turner wants to make clear from the start.

“I don’t consider it to be a patriotic record, let alone a nationalist one,” he says.

“It’s an examination of national identity, but I feel very strongly that that is a facet of existence, of a person’s makeup, that is not imbued with any inherent moral quality.”

And it might not be a bad idea to make the point emphatically this time round.

“Looking back, I could possibly have spent a tiny bit more time around the record explaining that,” Turner says. “There were one or two people who took it in… not the wrong way, but just made assumptions about my politics in a way that I did not enjoy.”

England Keep My Bones, then, is more of an acknowledgement that an English national identity exists at all, rather than an enthused celebration of it. Regardless, we can’t ignore that there has been a seismic political paradigm shift between 2011 and 2021: one that has thrown up gargantuan questions about England and Englishness; one that left our nation scarred and divided; and one that we’re all frankly bored of talking about.

“Would I have written and recorded and released this record last year?” Turner ponders. “Quite possibly not.”

“Not necessarily because I feel any differently,” he adds, “but context matters.”

“These things have become more fraught, more fractious, in the last four, five years.”

“One of the sadnesses of it is that because, beforehand, it was considered slightly déclassé to discuss such a thing as an English national identity, it left the field open to vile shitheads to have to that conversation.”

“Perhaps one could make an argument that if we’d all been a little more comfortable talking about it before 2016, things might have turned out differently. But who fucking knows?”

But Turner’s own conscience, he says, is clean.

“The most stridently nationalist this record gets is talking about how I like English rivers,” he chuckles. “That’s about it, really.”

He is referring, of course, to ‘Rivers,’ a gorgeous folk tune and powerful ode to the beauty of English landscapes. But the most nationalist the record gets? The history nerd in me feels compelled to disagree.

The most nationalistic point on England Keep My Bones, surely, is ‘English Curse,’ an acapella song composed in the style of a medieval folk ballad. It tells the story of how King William II— the son of William the Conqueror—was killed by a stray arrow whilst hunting. “King William came / To Albion fair, King Harold to slay / With greed in his heart and his scurrilous claim / He took the land for his own,” Turner intones, haunting and hypnotic. “But if you steal the land of an Englishman / Then you will know this curse / Your first-born son’s warm blood will run / Upon the English earth.”

But there’s a problem: King Harold of England wasn’t exclusively English. His mother was a member of the Danish aristocracy, the guy’s uncle was King Cnut. The king before him, Edward the Confessor, was half Norman.

1066 is often portrayed as a ground-breaking turning point for England—like we lost some of our inherent ‘Englishness’ once King William was on the scene. But the reality is that with all the Angles, Saxons, Celts, Danes, Normans, Jutes, Picts, and Norwegians knocking about pre-1066, England was barely more multi-cultural after the invasion than it had been for hundreds of years prior. And though I don’t think this was intentional, the way that Englishness is presented in ‘English Curse’—something applied to form a narrative that ignores the actual realities of people’s origins and backgrounds—can lead to some pretty coercive, exclusive, and politically conservative attitudes on nationality. Can’t it?

Well, Turner’s own thought process behind the song answers that particular question swiftly and in the negative. Launching into an impromptu history lesson (Turner is by his own admission quite the history nerd himself), I am told how the story of ‘English Curse’ is based on a local legend from the New Forest, near where he grew up.

“The Normans enclosed the forests when they arrived in 1066, and they basically stole everybody’s land,” he says. “There was a story that a local Blacksmith placed a curse on the King for ruining him, essentially. And then his son died in the forest.

“There’s something pleasantly anti-authoritarian about that.”

It’s anti-authoritarianism at play here—nothing to do with a fictitious idea of England invented by disingenuous nationalists.

“My politics are, if nothing else, anti-authoritarian,” he continues. “I would regard that as my starting point for all of my politics. And there’s a fair amount of that in English history.”

“Colonialism is an appalling, disastrous thing,” he says, “But you know, we also had the Levellers, and the Diggers, and John Lilburne, and we have John Stuart Mill, and we have the Peasant’s Revolt.”

He is, of course, completely right. It’s a fact often overlooked in history lessons; but the now-ubiquitous belief in unimpeachable human rights that influenced the French Revolution, sparked American Independence, and comprise the bedrock of modern democracy, saw some of their first stirrings in the writings of 17th century Englishmen such as John Lilburne (Turner even has Lilburne’s nickname ‘freeborn’ tattooed across his knuckles). Pursuit of these rights led to a bloody civil war, which culminated with the King’s beheading at the hands of commoners in 1649. You might disagree with the act—but that’s about as anti-authoritarian as it gets.

“It’s not actually as interesting as people seem to think it is to just have a blanket negative opinion about English history,” Turner says, getting into his stride. “It’s not very risqué to think that. Do you know what I mean? Everybody fucking thinks that.”

And it’s not just the lyrics to ‘English Curse’ that are subversive.

“There’s something show-stopping about an acapella song,” Turner says. “If you’re playing in a punk rock context, to just kind of get up and bang out an acapella—that’s some bold shit right there.”

But why the sudden interest in acapella in the first place?

“I started using the word ‘folk’ to describe what I was doing pretty early on in my solo career. And quite early on, I encountered a fair amount of push-back against that from people in the actual folk scene. And I kinda took their point,” Turner confesses, “there was a thing called ‘English folk’ that I didn’t really know anything about, and I was just kind of borrowing this word in a slightly haphazard way. And that, actually, I didn’t really know very much about English folk music. So I started going through a process of educating myself.”

Turner proceeds to list a whole range of English folk influences. I get the feeling that his passion for landscapes extends beyond the geographical; there’s the definite feeling of a mental map being drawn out as he charts his journey from Martin Simpson and Eliza Carthy onto Cecil Sharp House, then to field recordings, balladeers, and sheet music.

“There is a vibrant English music tradition which is different from the Scottish folk tradition, and it’s different from the Welsh folk tradition, and it’s very different from the Irish folk tradition.”

“So, if you look at a song like ‘Rivers,’ or a song like ‘English Curse,’ things like that, there was definitely an attempt to inhabit some of those melodic and structural and arrangement realms.”

And that’s not the only factor behind the album’s preoccupation with Englishness.

“In the build-up to this record, my career was going in such a way that I’d started touring the States quite a lot—but, usually, completely on my own.”

“Night after night, I’d find myself being the only English person in the room. And it sort of raises the question: why do I understand the rules of cricket, and nobody else does?” he laughs. “Why do I find Vic and Bob funny and nobody else does?”

“And again, there’s no moral dimension to that. But I just found it interesting.”

Englishness certainly encompasses a huge part the record. But it’s not the only theme. There’s one other major thread that runs through England Keep My Bones, and it’s hard to say with certainty whether it’s more or less taboo than the first one.

“‘Mortality’ would be how I would put the other dominant theme,” says Turner.

Ruminations on death, legacy, and remembrance also occupy a lot of the album’s lyricism. But I wonder how seriously was he taking those musings at the time.

“I was engaged quite hard in some pretty unhealthy life patterns at that point,” he admits, though for anyone familiar with Turner’s deeply autobiographical back catalogue, this is hardly a revelation. Albums both before and after England Keep My Bones are peppered with references to “blacking in and out in a strange flat in East London”, or “retching on a hotel bathroom floor”. Indeed, the first line of the first song on Turner’s debut solo EP tells us: “I woke up on a sofa in an unfamiliar house, surrounded by sleeping folks I didn’t know.”

“I was still quite enamoured of the whole, you know… ‘I’m never gonna make it to 40 anyway, so I might as well have a laugh while I’m here’ sort of thing,” Turner continues. “And it’s bollocks,” he says, “Because you do make it to 40, and then you go, ‘Oh my God! Everything hurts!’”

There’s something mildly shocking about hearing iconic punk legend, the heavy-drinking, hard-partying Frank Turner, dismiss what seems like the foundational philosophy of a good chunk of his solo career as “bollocks.” But in a way, it kind of fits. Times change. Why pretend otherwise? There’s no sentimentality here, and that’s punk as fuck.

“The intimations on mortality of a 29-year-old are quite funny to me, in some ways, now, because it’s like, ‘You fucking kid! You don’t know what you’re talking about!’” he says.

“‘Funny’ might be too strong,” he concedes, “But there’s something slightly cute about being that obsessed with dying when I was 28-years-old.”

“But this is quite important now, in the whole business of talking about a record that came out 10 years ago–yeah, I’d do plenty of things differently if I was making that record now.”

“But I’m not.”

“It represents a time in my life, and I think I did a—if I may now blow my own trumpet for 30 seconds–I think I did a really good job of laying down that set of ideas at that time in my life.

“I’m really fucking proud of it, actually.”

And rightly so. It’s a fantastic album, packed full of complex ideas, authentically expressed. Whether or not its concepts now feel a bit dated—whether Turner himself can still relate to them in the same way–is not really the point. It captures a specific moment in his life, and it does so well. A bit like a time capsule?

“Yeah, totally,” he agrees.

“I can look back at that guy who made that record 10 years ago, and go, ‘Yeah. You did pretty good, kid.’”

England Keep My Bones (10th Anniversary Edition) is out now. Buy or listen here.

Interview conducted by Ed Brown


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