Frank Turner: A Punk Poet With A Confessional Streak

Jul 14, 2013
Originally published on July 14, 2013 11:12 am

In a review for his last album, NME magazine described British singer-songwriter Frank Turner as "the people's prince of punk poetry." But Turner's lyrics can be quite personal as well. He's got a new album, released this spring, called Tape Deck Heart — and the lead single, "Recovery," is about as confessional as they come.

"I write autobiographically," Turner says. "I've tried writing fiction in songs and I'm rubbish at it; I find it very difficult to find anything meaningful to say if I'm making it up. ['Recovery' is] a song about being at the bottom of the barrel and trying to kind of get out of there, somehow."

On a visit to NPR's Washington D.C. office that also included an acoustic Tiny Desk Concert, Frank Turner spoke with Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin about his music, performing at the London Olympics and attending the same school as Prince William. Click the audio link to hear more of their conversation.

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When British singer Frank Turner started his career in the early 2000s, he fronted a punk band called Million Dead.


MARTIN: In 2005, though, Frank decided the hard-core band setup wasn't for him, and he went solo. In his own words, he fancied himself a bit of a Woody Guthrie kind of folk artist. So he shed the angry punk persona in exchange for a softer, gentler vibe.

And he welcomes smaller, more intimate kinds of venues - which is how he found himself at NPR's headquarters, playing a Tiny Desk Concert. They call it that because the musicians perform right at the desks of the staff at NPR Music, and they invite all of the other employees in the building to come along and listen.


UNIDENTIFIED NPR EMPLOYEE: Our Tiny Desk Concert with Frank Turner is about to begin, so please head on over to the southwest corner of the fourth floor.

MARTIN: Frank Turner's concert was full of British banter.


FRANK TURNER: Right. This is another song - she got me to sing. Who gets that? I've got a band. You've got that? I've got a band. But this is an old song about ...

MARTIN: Following Frank's performance, we asked him about playing the Tiny Desk.

TURNER: I thought it was a reasonably normal-sized desk, personally, but otherwise, it was a lot of fun.


MARTIN: It's not so tiny, actually.

TURNER: Yeah. It was fun, though. It was good. I like doing stuff like that.

MARTIN: Yeah, those are more intimate kinds of settings.


MARTIN: You seemed pretty comfortable in that space.

TURNER: Yeah. Well, also the other thing about it is, is that, you know, with what I do for a living, you run around, you do lots of - primarily, you do lots of talking. And that's fine, and I'm not - you know, this is fun. We're having a good time. But it's just something that actually just gives you the opportunity to play - because I want to do what I do for a living because I like playing music, and I want to be a musician. And all the rest of it is kind of necessary evil, to a degree. Do you know what I mean?

And the thing I enjoy is playing my guitar and singing. So something like that is really fun because it's just me and Matt, from my band - who was there as well; we get to just play.

MARTIN: One of the songs that you played, that's off your new album, is called "Recovery."


TURNER: (Singing) Blacking in and out in a strange flat in East London, somebody I don't really know just gave me something to help settle me down, and to stop me from always thinking about you. And you know your life is heading in a questionable direction when you're up for days with strangers and you can't remember anything except the way you sounded when you told me you didn't know what I should do. It's a long road up to recovery from here...

MARTIN: That is just a flat-out - kind of a straight confessional.

TURNER: Yeah. I've tried writing fiction and some of it's rubbish. I can't - I find it very difficult to find anything meaningful to say if I'm making it up. It's a song about kind of being at the bottom of the barrel, and trying to get out of there.


MARTIN: It is a skill, though, to be able to write songs that make people feel like they understand some kind of intimate part of you, yet be able to keep something for yourself.

TURNER: Yeah. Well, I mean, to me there are three parts to art - I mean, well, certainly to the art that I make. There's catharsis - which is, you know, dealing with the downsides of life. Then, of course, there's got to be empathy as well 'cause otherwise, it's just me reading out pages of my diary, which is embarrassing. You know, it's got to be presented in a way...

MARTIN: Which could also be interesting.

TURNER: Well, I don't know. But, you know - I mean, you've got to present what you do in a way that other people connect with. And then, of course, the third aspect is entertainment, of course. You know, it's got to be music and art and at same - it is also supposed to be fun, you know?

MARTIN: Speaking of the fun - I mean, one of the songs that you played, which was an older song of yours...


MARTIN: did kind of this fun call and response at the end. And I have to say, it does conjure up kind of a pub feeling, and drinking songs.

TURNER: (Laughing)

MARTIN: You know, I mean that in the best, sophisticated way. But that's fun.

TURNER: I don't consider myself very sophisticated, for the record.



TURNER: One more time. (Singing) I won't sit down, and I won't shut up. And most of all, I will not grow up.


TURNER: TURNER: Thank you very much, and good night - or good afternoon, whatever. (Laughing)

MARTIN: Frank Turner's album is called "Tape Deck Heart." It is out now. And to see his Tiny Desk Concert go to Frank, thanks so much for talking with us.

TURNER: Thanks for having me. It's been fun.


MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.


TURNER: (Singing) ...or it's running up your sleeve, and you're across from your boss. Or you're sitting in your bedroom, on your own, with the lights down low... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.