Frank Turner took some time out from performing lockdown fundraising live-streams to tell us about what he’s been up to.
Musicians across the globe are taking the current forced lockdown to do a variety of things. Some are using their experience and unexpected free time to write new music, some are performing live-streaming shows where fans can donate or buy “tickets” to their online shows to help supplement lost income from canceled tours.
Frank Turner has been initially using this time to perform live-streams to help raise money for a variety of local UK music venues in the hope that it will help keep them up and running and be able to survive the pandemic shutdown.
Frank chatted with Loud Hailer to discuss his fundraising endeavors, the thought process behind the album No Man’s Land and his new album, Live in Newcastle.
LH: Hope you, your family, and friends are all safe and healthy during all of this.
Frank: Yes, thank you. Thus far I’ve had a few friends who I think have had the virus but everybody is recovered. Fingers crossed people are staying healthy but it’s a strange time to be alive right now, for sure.
LH: What I find interesting about all of this is that we are living through something people are going to read about in history books in the future. When I look around, there’s a lot of doom and gloom generally, but I’m seeing a lot of good human behavior. I hope that part of it goes down in history too, showing that, for some people, the best came out in them. It would be a nice way to be able to look back on all of this.
Frank: Yes, definitely. The strange thing is I think there’s good and bad doing the rounds and it’s a cheesy thing to say, but you end up thinking about “what did you do during the war” kind of thing. I want to be able to look back at all of this once it’s all done and know that I comported myself with intelligence, humility, and generosity, and all of that kind of thing. There’s definitely people who aren’t, it’s easy enough to find a bunch of idiots and dickheads, or whatever. It’s funny, my mother in law was telling me the other day that they’ve got a total nark in their village who just spends their day reporting people for stepping out the house. There’s definitely good and bad but there’s definitely been a lot of people who have stepped up. It’s interesting for me in terms of the UK, the actual strictures of our lockdown aren’t all that extreme in terms of there aren’t any cops on the street like they do in Italy and Spain, but nevertheless I think it’s proven quite effective because I think that people have looked at this and gone yeah, this is the right choice, this is the right thing to do, and people are sort of like choosing to do this which I find really interesting and kind of reassuring.
LH: Me too. Even over here in the US, it’s interesting to see the battle between Trump and Federal government, and then the States. I think here in Illinois we’ve been really lucky, our Governor has really stepped up. Again, it’s not super strict, I can walk the dog, you can go for a run as long as you stay away from people. Most people have abided by it, and I think it’s been nice to see. You’ve been doing a lot of live-streaming and supporting local venues. We go to a lot of shows each week, and when this first happened, I was wondering how many of the venues are going to survive all of this.
Frank: Yes, absolutely. I’ve done a lot of work in the last few years with The Music Venue Trust and the Independent Venue Week which are organizations that are set to help independent grassroots venues at the best of times. These are organizations that are run on small margins, no-one’s going to become a millionaire running a venue. So given that, and obviously the main activity that forms the main part of their, and indeed my, income is now banned for the foreseeable future, and I should add incidentally that I think that lockdown will end a long time before gigs are allowed again. When I was thinking about what I can do, how I can contribute to what’s going on, that’s what sprung to mind. I’m not sure that my role is to save the NHS and indeed I think that is the government’s business. But I’ve been working over the years trying to keep these places open anyway, and now they’re facing this, you know, I’ve done four of the live-streams already, and I’ve got another one tomorrow night, and we’ve been raising at least £10,000 a show so far and that’s been an amazing thing because the guys who run the venues have been telling me that what we’re talking about here is enough money to keep the doors open and keep their head above water until at least September, if not a bit later and that’s an incredible thing. And if I come out of all of this and there are ten music venues that are still operating that would not otherwise have been, that’s a thing I can hold my head up about, and feel very good about that.
LH: That’s what this is all about. We’re not all doctors and nurses, but everyone can bring something to the table here and do something worthwhile, even if it’s just that they are still working and they can give you some money on a live-stream, that’s enough for people to be able to contribute.
Frank: That’s an interesting thing as well in the sense that I and pretty much everybody I know works in the entertainment field in some way or another. That’s my social circle, that’s my professional circle, and occasionally I’m sort of surprised when I talk to other friends of mine who have been furloughed or indeed are still working, and it’s just like oh f*ck, yeah, you’re weird. But then also cool, give us some f*cking money if your working! If you’re still getting your full salary… One of the things I say on the live-streams every week is if you’re drinking a can of beer out of the fridge that cost £1 at the supermarket that would have cost you £4 at the bar, put £3 in the pot. I don’t know about you, there’s nothing to spend money on at the moment. You can’t go out, you can’t go to restaurants, you can’t go to gigs, it’s funny on some levels I am very concerned financially for myself if I’m honest, but at the same time, I really haven’t been spending very much money since this kicked in because there’s nothing to spend it on.
LH: We’re in exactly the same position. I’m really fortunate in that my full-time job, I’m still employed. Who knows what lies ahead. But for these first few months, at least I’m not spending money, so it is giving me the opportunity to save some money for whatever the future may hold, so at least there’s a little bit of a cushion. On the music side of things, we’re watching people live-stream every night, and I like to be able to give some money to those musicians. What I’ve noticed is how quickly musicians have pivoted to stepping into the world of live-streaming. Whenever I interview musicians I like to discuss what technology has done to the music industry, but in this scenario, technology has probably been the savior for a lot of musicians, or at least giving them some form of income stream.
Frank: Yeah, totally. First of all, I think the people in the music industry have learned over the last twenty years that you have to be flexible and you have to be able to change and rise to the occasion and adapt to circumstance and all of that kind of thing. But it’s funny, the live-streaming thing has existed for a while and people have asked me to do live-streaming shows over the last few years and I generally turn them down simply because I like gigs. You can stream records, you can come to a gig, I don’t really see the point doing live streams. Obviously, I now can. And it is so easy, as well. I’m not the most technically well-versed guy in the world but to do a Facebook live stream I literally have to press one button and we’re up and running. It’s so f*cking easy. So you know, it just seems like the least that we can do. And there’s lots of musicians doing lots of different things. And of course, there are some musicians who are fundraising for themselves and I think that’s completely legitimate and it’s possibly something I’m going to have to look at doing at some point as well because my foreseeable income has evaporated. I think we’re lucky this happened now. If this happened twenty years ago, or ten years ago, it’d be very different.
LH: Yeah, I’ve said that to a few people. And the job that I do, it would be impossible without Zoom and things like that to do my job. I think similarly for musicians. I was going to ask if you were going to do some live-streams to supplement your own income because you have to look after that as well. That’s totally understandable. I don’t think this is going to take the place of a live experience, but this has been a great help in the meanwhile.
Frank: Yeah, totally. Just the angle on it is just that I feel reassured by the fact that whilst there is a lot of value in doing a live-stream show with the way that things are right now, and there is that form of community and gathering to it, it’s not the same as going to a gig. I think that everybody’s kind of realizing that and I think that a lot of people once things return to a place where we can gather together in rooms for live music, I think people will be more appreciative of it.
LH: I agree, I think people will appreciate it so much more. I’m currently jonesing for not going to live shows because we go to so many. I’m really struggling with it.
It’s well documented about you that you have a post-hardcore background, and then you moved into more of a folk kind of area. I’m afraid to say I was a little late to the party. My first experience with you was 2017 at The Chicago Theatre when you were supporting Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. You guys came on and you opened with “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous” and it absolutely blew me away! That was it, I was hooked after that.
Frank: [Laughs] Thank you!
LH: With regards to songwriting, and it kind of links to me mentioning your punk background, what really struck me with your last album No Man’s Land is you took a sharp turn from the way that you write songs. You went into this project which was writing about these historical figures which I guess, effectively, puts some guardrails around how you can write. Was it a deliberate decision to challenge yourself like that or to pull yourself out of the norm?
Frank: Yeah, 100%. The thing is, my style as a songwriter over my preceding seven records before that was autobiographical or confessional, however you want to put it. I tended to draw from my own life experiences for songs, and that’s fine and it is what I’m doing on the new material that I’m writing at the moment because I’m writing a lot right now. It’s all well and good but just after seven records in a row, I just felt like it might be an interesting thing to write about experiences that were not my own because that’s a legitimate way of approaching songs as well, you can talk about anything. I mean Springsteen’s the obvious example, the way he writes songs about other people’s lives and experiences. So that combined with the fact that I am like a massive history nerd, history is my passion outside of music and I was wondering whether it was possible to make a history record that wouldn’t be huge pretentious or boring. I was thinking about all of these kinds of things and just sort of decided to give it a go. Again, the history song is a thing in folk music that exists and so many people have done them. So, you know, I went down that road sort of philosophically and started f*cking around with it. The gendered angle on the record came later. I got about five songs into the writing and realized all of the songs I’d written so far are about female protagonists, and that’s stuff is interesting. And obviously, it’s political as well in the sense that I was trying to tell under-told stories, you know, and talk about people who’ve been ignored by popular culture and popular memory. In discovering that so far, five songs in, that all of the people I’ve chosen to write about are women was interesting and I decided to follow that to its logical conclusion. But yeah, the main impetus behind the record was to try my hand at writing about other people’s lives and I found it very…. it was really interesting creatively because sometimes, you mentioned the word guardrail, sometimes a guardrail can be really good for creativity, be quite prompting, you know what I mean, in the sense that I sit down with someone’s life story and I found myself saying things I’d never said before like I have to get to 1953 by verse two you know what I mean. That’s weird but kind of cool as well. But it’s also, the other thing… I didn’t want it to be a bunch of songs that were just a list of facts, you know what I mean. I didn’t want it to be Wikipedia based because its music, you have to find an emotional core in each of the people that you’re writing about and each story that you’re telling, and you have to have a reason you’re telling the story. And again, that was a really interesting challenge for me and not something I’ve done before and I really, really enjoyed it.
LH: I really enjoyed the album. We saw you at the Anthenaeum in Chicago doing the No Man’s Land show. You are a prolific tourer and live performer, but that was a very different live show than your usual live show. Do you still get nerves? I mean, did you get nerves around doing that format when you stepped into it for the first time?
Frank: At the beginning, yes definitely because the whole principle behind that tour was to find a different angle on performance, you know. The music I make exists somewhere between poles of punk rock and folk music, that’s a huge over-simplification. And in terms of the way we present what I do live, we for many years have been leaning on the punk end of that equation and that’s fine. You know I love playing punk rock shows and shows that are about energy and are about dancing and are about thrashing the songs out. But what that meant was that I felt like I was kind of ignoring quite a large chunk of what I’m capable of doing as a performer and as a musician and as a writer, there are a lot of songs that kind of fell off the end of the setlist for a long time period of time because they didn’t fit into a mosh-focussed show. The idea was to step away from the idea that the principle governing measurement of how well the show’s going is how many people are dancing and try something different. We spent a long time rehearsing, and the first week of shows which were in Canada were pretty nerve-wracking, you know. Just the fact that you’re sitting down on stage was weird. I remember we came off after the end of the first show which was in Montreal, and I wasn’t covered in sweat and I wasn’t exhausted and I felt like I wasn’t allowed to finish yet, you know what I mean. It was just like I haven’t done my job yet. Getting used to that took some time. I think by the time we rolled into Chicago I’d started to settle into the vibe of what we were doing a bit better. The end of the tour was in the UK and we recorded all those shows and the live album we’re putting out is from the UK run, it’s from Newcastle. We’d sort of reached a point where we were really in the pocket, and the shows were really clicking. It was such a fun experience and another thing was that’s not what I’m going to do for the rest of my career. And I knew as we were doing it, it wasn’t going to be a permanent change, this is us now. This is the thing we do for one round, and we may never do it again but that’s why we wanted to capture it, so that there was something for prosperity there.
LH: I really enjoyed it. And music is an amazing thing. We saw you at the Aragon Ballroom a couple of years back doing your show as you usually do it. When we came out of the No Man’s Land show, in no way did we feel short-changed. The emotion and the intent of the songs still came across. It was a different kind of performance but it certainly wasn’t any less of an experience.
Frank: I’m glad to hear that. Not so much by the time I got to Chicago but at the beginning I was a bit worried that people were going to say exactly that, come out and be like “what the f*ck was that?” I’m quite glad that people get what we were doing.
LH: Obviously, I threw a beer on the guy next to me during the encore, you know, just for authenticity…. Thanks for taking the time to chat with us and stay safe.
Frank: [Laughs] Thank you for your time, man. I really appreciate it.
Live in Newcastle is out now and available digitally. Be sure to catch Frank’s live streams and donate, if you can, in support of various UK music venues dear to his heart.
Interview By: Phil Walton
Photo By: Kirstine Walton